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Do Students Have the 'Write' Stuff?

Web 2.0 tools and texting are changing how students write. As long as they express themselves well, maybe it's a good thing.

This story appears in the November 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

When I was in graduate school for creative writing in the mid-'80s, the English department had one Wang word processor that we (more than a hundred graduate students and faculty) could all share. One lone professor and I were the only people game enough to use it.

Meanwhile, the director of the creative writing program counseled us against using word processors. The typewriter encouraged rewriting, he said. "Every time you have to make a correction to one page, it forces you to retype the story," he explained. "And every time you retype is an opportunity for rewriting." The word processor, he feared, would enable laserlike corrections and discourage a more comprehensive approach to editing the text.

Little did he, or we, suspect that the word processor would turn out to be the greatest boon to rewriting. After two decades, we all know how easily the word processor allows us to work, rework, and then work again sentences, paragraphs, entire essays. (To wit: I rewrote this opening about five times.)

I tell this story because I want to caution myself and others who would jump too quickly down the throats of the writing technologies that students use today--Twitter, blogs, wikis--as somehow discouraging good writing. The fact is, we don't know where these new writing tools will take us over the next two decades, and we should be open to the journey and the destination. (To read more on this topic, see "Is Tech Changing the Way Students Write?")

Indeed, even as the word processor facilitates rewriting, it also can ease the way for hasty, sloppy, careless prose. In other words, the writing tool does not matter as much as the standards that we attach to the written product. Even as tools come and go, the standards that constitute effective writing--which is clear, concise, and compelling--change very little. But we need to set and hold students to these standards.

I'm not a prescriptivist. I believe that language changes with times and culture. But a fluid language does not obviate the benchmarks of clear communication. As an editor who sees all manner of writing come across her desk, I can tell you that fewer and fewer people pay attention to those principles.

I fear the ideological battles that can happen in academia, where some would condemn texting as the root of all intellectual evil, and others would deem English writing standards elitist and out of touch. Neither position is true. Higher education can and must remain the standard bearer for effective written communication, regardless of how that writing takes place.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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