English teachers don’t get much positive press these days. That’s partly because teachers in general don’t get much positive press, and also because there is widespread agreement that reading and writing skills have slipped considerably over the past few decades — which is largely a matter of scapegoating teachers for a set of social trends that would be hard for anyone to try to slow — but also because everybody knows that these days STEM is where it’s at.
So it’s interesting to note that the new Pew Survey on student writing shows that English in particular teachers are leading the way in adoption of digital technologies, social media in particular, in support of developing writing skills. As I noted earlier this week, teachers are learning that writing performance improves significantly when students have an audience, which social technologies inherently provide.
But apparently it isn’t all good news. With the greater enthusiasm for writing that an audience creates, teachers are also observing a drop-off in some of the fundamentals. Or rather, they are seeing the introduction of some new standards and conventions that evolved in the social space but that don’t seem a good fit for the classroom, or for formal writing generally:
Teachers also expressed concerns that lax grammar and abbreviations like ‘BTW’ (by the way), commonly used on social networking sites, were appearing in school work.
While this seems like a big deal to English teachers (and having a BA in English myself and having worked as an editor for many years, I understand their perspective) I think there’s a real baby / bathwater dichotomy that we want to be aware of here. If kids are producing writing that otherwise reflects both genuine interest and enthusiasm for their subject and the kind of effort behind constructing a clear argument that such factors encourage, maybe we son’t want to totally lose it over the fact that they are writing “BTW” and “IDK” and even (shudder) “ur.”
Yes, we should correct those things, and insist that they not be part of formal writing. Just to support my own personal favorite lost cause for a moment, we should also insist that an objective pronoun be used when the meaning of the sentence calls for it, even if that pronoun comes at the end of a sentence or after the word “and.” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then between you and me, you’re part of the problem. And if you think there was something grammatically wrong with the previous sentence, you are simply proving my point. (Read this if you are interested in starting down the road to redemption.)
Unfortunately, “between you and I” probably is a lost cause because the basic rules of grammar and the logic that make right-thinking people (like me) cringe when they hear those words, rules that I was taught in the fifth grade and that have stuck with me ever since, are simply no longer taught. You can get a degree in English without ever having learned that writing “between you and I” is an abomination. Many of the teachers upset by kids using “BTW” and “ur” probably use this construction, and all its related abominations, all the time.
In a few years, the kids who are developing their composition skills via social media will be the English teachers, the editors, and even the authors of style guides. They will probably be a lot more lax about Web-speak than some of us would like for them to be. I can dare to hope that at least the authors of the style guides will still be on my side about pronouns, but by then most of us civilians will have given up.
Yes, this is the old “Language evolves over time — get used to it” argument, but I want to add a twist that we tend not to think about, and that I don’t see covered in the Pew results or any of the articles about them. In the same way that they are more comfortable with smartphones and social apps than their elders, these kids are developing modes of communication that are native to the digital world and that will serve that world better. Here I don’t mean things like “WTF” and “LMAO” — those were old news when these kids were born, anyway — but rather methods of approaching subjects and structuring arguments that are well-suited to these new environments.
A decade ago, when I started blogging, I noticed that some of my fellow bloggers would occasionally send me a draft of a blog post for comments. These people were good writers and I understood why they did it — it’s part of the composition process. Or at least, it used to be. I learned early on that very few blog posts go through the rough draft / review /cleaned up draft / more review /final copy process that was always part of publishing anything.
A blog post is both a draft and a finished work. That was a new kind of critter, requiring its own conventions, and these have developed over time. Likewise, conventions have emerged around what constitutes an effective Tweet or Facebook status update. And it goes further than that. There are effective and less-effective approaches to sending out messages on Tumblr and Pinterest and Youtube, things that “writers” didn’t have to worry about back in the day, back when multimedia was for specialists.
In the past, when we said that language is changing we meant that annoying new words were being introduced and that rules we thought were important were being ignored. And that’s still happening. (see above.) But now something else is going on. Language is really changing. It is being chopped and processed and extruded in ways never imagined even a few years ago. It is no longer just living alongside visual information; it is embedded within it; it has become hybridized with it.
And, no, it will never be the same. These kids using social media in their English classes are on the cutting edge of developing a whole new literacy, different in kind from what has come before. Somehow, we’ll have to get used to it.
[Photo: Deutsche Fotothek]
Cross-posted from Transparency Revolution.