Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Writing Ain’t What It Used to Be

These are exciting times for writers and writing teachers—that is, if you’re open to change. Remarkably, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has published a report urging writing instructors to develop new strategies in harmony with web-based technologies. The NCTE, a leading authority on effective communication, traditionally has served as the guardian of the “five-paragraph essay”; however, its recent publication, Writing in the 21st Century, concludes with a clarion call to create new models of writing and to design curricula and teaching strategies that address those models.

Adding to the credibility of the study is the status of its author, Kathleen Blake Yancey, who is a past president of the NCTE and a distinguished professor English and Director of the graduate program in rhetoric and composition at Florida State University. Yancey is a renowned speaker on composition theory, an award-winning author or 12 books and 65 articles and book chapters on writing, and the co-founder and co-editor of the journal Assessing Writing.

Writing in the 21st Century traces the history of writing and writing instruction in America, beginning with a description of how science and progressivism influenced rhetorical theory. By the end of the twentieth century, the greatest movers of writing instruction were the introduction of the writing process and the personal computer in the classroom. Thus ended what Yancey calls the “Age of Composition.”

Today, digital technologies, assembled under the term “Web 2.0,” have created the next great wave. Web 2.0, whose definition remains arguable, refers to the pervasiveness of websites like Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, which have inarguably and irrevocably altered communication in at least four vital ways:
  • Everyone is an author. To count the number of blogs, or online journals, in the world is to state an instantly outdated statistic. At least 113 million blogs have popped up in a matter of a few years, and that number increases with every word you read in this article. Blogs on any topic are available: world leaders broadcasting weekly messages to constituents, couples proclaiming their love for each other, self-appointed consumer experts pushing for more synthetic fabrics, wannabe health authorities countering the best advice of the medical establishment, bikers relating adventures from their most recent cross-country trip, terrorists exhorting comrades to arms, parent groups extolling the virtues of homeschooling, elementary school children ranting about their teachers, and aimless writers advancing pointless arguments. Indeed, Web 2.0 has given the world an attitude that screams “I don’t need anyone’s approval to write the way I see fit.” In turn, this attitude has fashioned new approaches to written expression.
  • Everyone can evaluate. Anyone can stake a claim to immortality by adding a review of a book or CD on Amazon.com, praising or condemning a teacher on RateMyTeacher.com, rebutting postings on any of these websites, or posting their poetry on a number of amateur literary websites. Limited controls at these electronic community bulletin boards ensure that anyone can assert their anonymous opinions about anything they like or don’t. These assessments seem to matter even more than the A’s or F’s that teachers bestow on student papers.
  • Information is easily accessible. A natural extension of the billion-writer planet is the abundance of information on any imaginable topic. Faster than I can type “cut and paste,” students can cut and paste relevant content for their essays. This practice renders obsolete the instructional materials and assessment tools of even the most proactive teachers.
  • Words are not enough. Videos, PowerPoint decks, photos, animation, icons, hyperlinks, and a whole host of other visually stimulating gimmicks accompany most web-based writing. People now tend to read in smaller chunks, clicking on links that depart from the original story they’d been reading. On the surface, this exercise may appear to be the ultimate manifestation of the Attention Deficit Disorder Age. Upon closer examination, however, one would find that readers are not always looking for transitions in stories—by clicking on those hyperlinks, they’re creating their own transitions.

Anyone challenging the assumption that reading habits have changed as a result of Web 2.0 had better take note of the bad news hitting the newspaper industry: The Denver Rocky Mountain News closed, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has stopped printing only to maintain a scaled-down web presence, the Tucson Citizen may soon fold, and many others are facing their demise. People don’t need it on paper if they’ve can get it on the BlackBerry.

How will Web 2.0 affect writing instruction? Who knows for sure, since we’re still trying to define what it means to write these days. But one thing is for sure: the word and the image have become inextricably linked, so we communicators have to deal with this new reality.