Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Harnessing Communication

Looking around my classrooms this fall before the official hour, I’m struck by how many more students than ever before are peering down at their desks, reading—screens, to be sure, but reading, and reading diligently. Some are staring Sidekicks, using their thumbs to respond to what they are reading, typing even more quickly than the stereotyped two-finger-typing reporter in a 1940s movie. Some have laptops—one holds an even smaller computer running the Linux she has fallen in love with.

In my Advanced Technical Writing class in a computer lab, the students—the very first day—slid before their screens and started communicating (and no, they weren’t playing games). Many of them had set up their blogs (the first assignment) and posted on them by the end of that first class. Even in my Developmental Writing class, computers show up unbidden. One student does the in-class writings on his and emails them to me during class (I keep a laptop with me, too).

“Something is happening here,” as Dylan long ago wrote, “and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Students are writing. And on their own.

And many of us supposed teachers of writing aren’t even paying attention. We’re stuck in the 1980s and early 1990s and with the assignments and methodologies of that time. Just as Dylan’s Mr. Jones was facing a world he could not negotiate, we are failing to negotiate a universe of the written word that is fast shifting away from the one we were raised in.

Some of us even justify our inaction in the face of a changing technological world of writing by pointing to a “digital divide,” saying that only the lucky students, the ones with money and from good high schools, are able to take advantage of the new possibilities. They ought to visit my campus, no elite university, where even the kids from the worst inner-city neighborhoods are comfortable with technology in a way their older siblings cannot grasp (let alone the teacher whose cell phone is simply that—a phone). Text messaging, instant messaging, and email are facts of life to almost every college student entering this fall, no matter their backgrounds.

This resurgence of writing on the users’ own terms (certainly not on those of writing teachers) is not an example of ‘technodeterminism,’ however, with the technology responsible for a cultural change by itself. No. What we are seeing is a result of the human desire to communicate, and to do so through any avenue that is both available and effective.

And in that lies a rebuke to all of us who teach writing.

Students would have been writing with enthusiasm all along, if they had seen it as a real means of engaging with the people they want to ‘talk’ to. They always chatted—the teenager on the phone has been a cliché since the 1950s, at least. Now they are finding they can chat as easily through the written word, something we writing teachers never managed to show them.

Too many writing teachers dismiss the writings their students compose through the new technologies, holding firmly to their old ideas of what writing should be, refusing to explore means of using what the students are doing in order to turn them into enthusiastic writers in the classroom as well as on the Sidekick. They use the shorthand of the net as an excuse rather than as an opening.

Worried that the students will write “u go grl” in a paper? Don’t dismiss it. Turn it into a discussion of code switching, making sure they understand the reasons for shifting from one mode into another (something they can and will do).

The possibilities for enhancing college writing through use of what the students are now doing on their own are myriad. It only takes a little imagination on the part of the teacher to begin bringing them to reality. IM and email exchanges can morph into competent college papers, give a little encouragement.

If students can be led to see the connection between the types of writing they use to communicate with each other and the types of writing they have to do in college classes, they may learn to stop dreading the college assignments so. Many of us have been teaching students to write to sheets of paper for decades, boring our students half to death (for they are managing only half a conversation—pieces of paper don’t write back). It’s time more of us starting teaching our students to write to communicate.

No, that’s not right: they are already writing to communicate on their own. They don’t need us for that. It’s time more of us started harnessing our students’ abilities in communication to the carts of college success.

1 comment:

Tom Hilton said...

This is a really interesting and heartening piece. I confess to being a snob about text-messaging, but you're absolutely right: one way or another, kids are communicating using the written word...and that's a wonderful thing in itself, and an opportunity for something even better.