Latest Pew Research Report

In mid-July, the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the National Writing Project, published its latest report, The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools.  (You can read the full report at www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files//Reports/2013/PIP_NWP%20Writing%20and%20Tech.pdf)

And I do recommend reading this report, which follows from several other recent reports, “Search Engine Use 2012,” “Smartphone Ownership 2013,” “Teens, Social Media and Privacy,” “Teens, Smartphones and Texting,” “See How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” and “Teachers are Using Technology at Home and in their Classrooms.”  Teachers of writing are clearly indebted to the Pew Research Center for their consistent and persistent surveys related to student writing and use of technology.

This particular survey targeted nearly 2500 AP and NWP teachers of middle and high school (weighted toward high school and toward English, though teachers came from across all disciplines), and the finding that first leapt out at me was that these teachers “see today’s digital tools having tangible, beneficial impacts on student writing.”  Since that’s what I’ve been arguing based on my own research for about five years now, I was very happy to see this result.  More specifically, the report finds that the Internet and digital technologies (such as texting, smart phones, and social media sites) facilitate “teens’ personal expression and creativity, broadening the audience for their written material, and encouraging teens to write more often in more formats than may have been the case in prior generations.”  Almost all (96%) of those surveyed agreed that digital technologies let students share their work with a broader audience, while 79% agreed that such tools aid an encourage collaboration and 78% agreed that they encouraged “student creativity and personal expression.”  These are remarkable findings that stand in contrast to those who have been arguing, vociferously, that digital tools and the Internet are producing a nation of dummies. So good work, Pew and NWP!

The surveyed teachers are not sanguine, however, about everything.  They are resolute in valuing research-based writing, longer sustained writing, and formal discourse and worry that they see a “creep” of informal language and style into formal school writing along with favoring shorter pieces of writing.  When they were asked to rank student ability on specific writing skills, they gave highest marks to effective organization and to understanding multiple perspectives, medium ratings for synthesizing material into a coherent argument, and using appropriate style, and lowest ratings to “navigating issues of fair use and copyright” and “reading and digesting long or complicated texts.”

These teachers reflect the tension I’ve been seeing among college teachers of writing as well:  a desire to hold on to what they perceive to be the best of the old literacy (such as synthesizing difficult material and reading and producing lengthy sustained texts) while at the same time engaging students in the best of the new literacies (such as collaborative projects and using technology to publish their work and take on the agency of authorship).  I don’t think we’ll resolve this tension any time soon, though I’m encouraged at the number of teachers who are bringing new literacies into their classrooms (78% assigned students multimedia writing to their students).

Most troubling to me in this new report is how teachers and students define “writing.”  A 2008 Pew Internet Survey revealed that teenagers think that only formal school writing is actual
writing.”  The new survey confirms that this view still prevails, and not only among students but also among teachers, the majority of whom said “formal writing” and “creative writing” counted as writing, with fewer classifying blogging as actual writing and “very few” saying that texting was writing.  This finding surprised me because it seemed, at least implicitly, in tension with what teachers said about digital tools enhancing student writing and their ability to teach writing.  I hope that future surveys will dig deeper into this issue, since it seems to me that there’s a connection between learning to attend carefully and effectively to an audience in social networking and learning to do the same in school writing. 

In the meantime, I have sent out a request for teachers of college writing to answer a few key questions about how they use multimedia writing in their classes and how their students respond to such assignments.  In addition, I’ve asked teachers to send me examples of such assignments.  I’d very much appreciate your taking a moment to respond to this brief survey, which you can find at http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/1287161/Multiodal-Survey

Many thanks!

 

On Cognitive Surplus

When I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2009), I practically did handstands of delight.  After thirty plus years of arguing for the power (and necessity, and ubiquity) of collaboration, Shirky’s book seemed to me to—at long last—tip the balance or create a critical mass that would create a Kuhnian paradigm shift.  And indeed, “collaboration” seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, as corporations embrace crowd-sourcing, social media users band together for action, and fans produce prequels, sequels, and even substitutes for their favorite fictions or films. 

While colleges and universities—and the classes within them—are still slow to change, by nature and definition, I do see pockets of resistance to the traditional valorization of individually-created messages and texts:  the joint or group project, the collaboratively researched and written assignment, even the occasional collaboratively produced thesis. 

Such change is supported by a host of research, including Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  I recommend this book—and you can also take a look at a good review in The Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/27/cognitive-surplus-clay-shirky-book-review.

Shirky’s argument is ingenious:  with the help of some fancy number crunching, he calculates that as a human species we are losing trillions of hours of productive time to television watching: apparently, Americans alone watch something over 200 billion hours of television—every single year.  What would happen, Shirky asks, if we used some of those billions of hours spent in relatively passive absorption to engage, collaboratively, in knowledge production, problem solving, etc.  Figuring that Wikipedia is the product of some 100 million human work hours, Shirky answers his own question:  if we devoted the time spent passively watching TV to productive collaboration, we could create the equivalent of 2000 wikipedias a year, and just in the USA.

Reading about the collaborative projects Shirky profiles in this book was great fun, and inspirational as well.  I particularly liked the chapter on how South Korean fans of boyband DBSK created a hugely successful protest against American beef imports, but each of the ten chapters is chock-a-block full of fascinating examples that support Shirky’s main contention.  Most impressive is the fact that what he is calling for may indeed be possible.  By several measures, people, and especially young people, are beginning to turn off the TV in favor of more interactive, productive pursuits:  and even when they do watch television, they do so socially, with others. 
I have charted similar trends in students’ resistance to traditional modes of learning (via the lecture, e.g.) and their distinct preference to make things happen themselves through research and action.  So I am cautiously hopeful that we are on the cusp of a new way of looking at learning in general, and reading and writing and viewing in particular.  I think it would be tremendously exciting to be a student today!  And I think it’s equally exciting to be a teacher of communicative abilities as well:  we have a chance to introduce our students to concepts like Shirky’s cognitive surplus and to engage them in trying their hands at collaborations large and small.

So thank you Clay Shirky! 

 

On writing with others

As I visit colleges and universities around the country and talk with teachers and students, I am heartened to find that more of them seem to be engaging in collaboration and in group projects.  I say “more” without any really hard evidence; but my sense is that students are being assigned to work on projects together.  A month or two ago when I was visiting the DePaul writing program’s celebration of student writing, perhaps ten percent of the projects being displayed had been done collaboratively.  Still, that’s ninety percent that were still individual presentations.  But because I’m a “half full cup” kind of person, I’m optimistic that things are changing in our classes, at least, if not in our institutions themselves, which continue to rest on supposed “individual” achievement.

Resistance to collaboration has been strongest in the humanities.  In a recent dissertation at the University of Manitoba, Anita Ens did a series of interviews with faculty members about the extent to which they used collaborative assignments in their classes and about their own collaboration.  To my surprise and delight, the English faculty member featured in the dissertation was open to collaboration and to collaborative projects in her classes; indeed, she was actively assigning such projects, though she said she would never move to a totally collaborative pedagogy. The history professor, however, was much less inclined to consider collaboration, saying that history is and must be an individual endeavor.

           Ens did not interview philosophers, but that discipline has traditionally shunned collaboration.  Thus I was interested to read John Kaag’s opinion piece in The New York Times recently, titled “On Writing with Others.”  (See http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/john-kaag/ to read the entire essay.)  In this piece, Kaag talks of the “loneliness of being a professional philosopher” and says that he became “a co-author because I can’t stand writing by myself.”  Kaag goes on to say argue that all writing is in response to other writing (think Mikhail Bakhtin and Kenneth Burke here):  “We write for communities, if only imagines ones,” he says; “Sometimes we acknowledge this communal work and call it collaboration.  But in the discipline of philosophy, we call it professional suicide.”  That has been the case in English, in history, and in other humanities disciplines—until recently, which is why I was so happy to read of the Canadian English professor who seemed ready to embrace collaboration.  (And I could point to some other examples of scholars in the U.S. who are now advocating for collaboration, another cause for optimism.)

But what Kaag did is precisely what many others in the humanities have done: he waited until he turned in his tenure file, which he calls a “six-inch monument to unknown genius,” and then started doing what he’d wanted to do all along, writing with others.  In the rest of the essay, Kaag talks about the difficulties of finding an appropriate collaborator as well as of what a co-author can bring to the partnership, which is, first and foremost, an opportunity to share and debate your ideas and sometimes, to come up with the “creation of something completely new, something that neither of you could have come up with on your own.”  That’s a magic, exhilarating moment in a collaboration, and if you’ve experienced it then you know how satisfying it is to have come up with that something new—with another person.  Students respond with tremendous excitement when this happens to them, and they are sold on collaboration from then on.

When I talk about collaboration and collaborative writing, and when I assign collaborative projects in my classes, I always focus on this excitement and the potentiality of collaboration to create new ideas.  And I’m careful, especially in my classes, not simply to assign collaboration but to explain it, to provide students with an understanding of the theoretical and pedagogical and logistical support for and benefits of engaging in collaboration.  So I introduce Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism and Burke’s concept of identification, and I share some of my research, done collaboratively with Lisa Ede, about the benefits of collaboration.  I also like to provide examples from different academic fields of productive and successful collaborations—as well as examples of some failures, since collaborating effectively is not always easy to do.  Slowly, but slowly (as my grandmother used to say), I am finding that students in the humanities are more accepting of such assignments and their theoretical underpinnings, and they are persuaded as much by the testimony of students from the social sciences and the sciences and engineering as they are by the examples I provide. 

It seems more and more important to me that teachers of writing stay on the front lines in advocating for and using collaboration and collaborative writing in our classes.  The problems we face today—from how to promote both transparency and privacy in a digital age, to how to keep institutions of higher education afloat, to what to do in response to climate change—these problems call for the ability to think through and beyond them by working effectively together, by collaborating.  So when I meet with my students in their collaborative groups to figure out how to overcome an obstacle they have encountered, I ask them to think beyond the solution they come to together, to extrapolate from that experience to how they could use the same strategies in other situations.  I ask them to engage in a bit of metadiscursive thinking about their collaboration in the hopes that such reflection will help them in the future.

So to me, the stakes of “writing with others” are high indeed.  I hope that John Kaag will encourage others in philosophy to work and write together, and I hope that he is engaging his students in collaborative projects.  I hope you are too.

The more things change . . . .

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” is an epigram associated with French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890)—and it’s surprising how often it has come to mind during my teaching career.  I think, first of all, about the periodic outcries over a “literacy crisis” that have appeared with mind-numbing regularity for at least 150 years.

 More recently, we’ve seen a variation on this outcry:  reading is a dying art, people don’t write anymore unless they do so in 140-character tweets, life is moving way too fast, and literacy in short is going to hell in a handbasket.

 So when Nick Carbone sent out a link a few days ago to xkcd: a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language (http://xkcd.com/1227/), I clicked through to it and wasn’t surprised to find – the more things change, the more they stay the same!  Check out this site and you’ll find, under “The Pace of Modern Life,” a series of insights from over a hundred years ago, that sound very, very familiar:

 The art of letter writing is fast dying out. . . .[and] we think we are too busy for such old-fashioned correspondence.  We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes. . . .                                     The Sunday Magazine, 1871

 There never was an age in which so many people were able to write badly.

                                                                        Israel Zangwall, 1891

 Ephemeral literature is driving out the great classics. . . . Hurried reading can never be good reading.                                      G. J. Goschen, 1894

 The art of conversation is almost a lost one. . . . What has been generally understood as cultured society is rapidly deteriorating into baseness and voluntary ignorance.                                   Marie Corelli, 1905

I couldn’t help laughing out loud as I read these complaints, especially those saying that the frenzied pace of life at the time (well over one hundred years go) was responsible for so many ills.  As Louis John Rettger argued in 1898, “We act on the apparent belief that all of our business is so pressing that we must jump on the quickest car home, eat our dinner in the most hurried way, make the closeet connection”—he might as well be writing a Times editorial.  So when we hear these same charges brought today, are they any more credible? 

 I think not.  What I do think is that “modern” times are always perceived as “different” and almost always inferior to the “good old days,” and that we perhaps always have seen our selves as too busy, going too fast and hence losing out on some salutary qualties that we had in the golden days of yore. 

 That’s not to say that times haven’t changed:  indeed, as I’ve written about a great deal during the last few years, literacy itself has changed dramatically, so much so that it’s now everyday knowledge that we are in the midst of a “literacy revolution.”  But our perceptions about these changes tend to fall back on old received knowledge that change in itself is bad, or at least threatening.  So as we contemplate the changes taking place all around us, and especially in our classrooms and in the lives of our students, it’s good to step back from time to time and ask whether or not the old saying (“the more things change, the more they stay the same”) doesn’t have a lot of truth to it.