Academic Exercises

Clive Thompson writes in Wired about what he calls “the New Literacy.” He describes a vast survey of student writing by researcher Andrea Lunsford.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it.

He goes on to highlight how unusual this is when compared with the previous generation, who rarely had the need or opportunity to write outside of school assignments.

What intrigued me, though, wasn’t the amount of extracurricular writing, but how students’ perception of writing has changed in a culture where most of their work is widely shared.

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.

This struck a chord with me. I left my university after two years. Originally, I intended to go back after a year or two, but I never did. There were a lot of reasons why I left, but a big one was that, like these students, I had a lack of enthusiasm about my course work. School assignments seemed pointless to me. Most of them didn’t really benefit anyone, maybe not even myself. Sure, sometimes the process of completing an assignment helped me learn the material, but a lot of the time the purpose felt more like I was just proving that I had already learned it. Not putting my knowledge into practice, not creating something, just going through a literally academic exercise.

This was especially true because by the time I was halfway through my freshman year, I scored a part-time job as a Java developer, thanks to some good luck and the help of my roommate. I had the freedom to work remotely from my dorm room for as many or as few hours as I could manage each week. This made it hard to feel motivated to spend a lot of time writing trivial programs that demonstrated some principle or data structure without actually accomplishing anything useful, when I could spend the same time writing software meant to be used by real people, while learning skills I knew were applicable to real-world work, and get paid for it.

(As an aside, none of that software I worked on in my college job actually was used by real people, as far as I know. Frankly, it was pretty pointless too, and I quickly realized that I would never want to actually use the software myself, and wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, either. Despite that, I learned more skills while working there that I still find useful now than I ever did writing map coloring programs and merge sorts in my CS courses.)

So I find it really interesting to learn that a whole generation of students shares my disdain for purely academic exercises. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement, but I think the article does point out a need for change in the way school work is assigned. Students who are used to creating and sharing their creations as a part of their daily life won’t be motivated to work on projects that they’re expressly forbidden to collaborate with their peers on, and which effectively die on the day they’re handed in for grading.

Maybe schools need to learn how to engage students in work that is essentially open and collaborative, not just with their classmates, but with the world at large. Work that helps build their reputations, and provides real value to a broader community. Work that feels meaningful to both the students themselves and the people they involve as their audience and co-participants.

Maybe schools need to learn how to recognize the creative work that students are already doing, on their own initiative, and nurture it into something that also has academic value.

Maybe schools need to realize that it is increasingly important for people in all sorts of careers to take an active role in shaping the world, and that working through scripted assignments for evaluation by an academic authority is teaching students skills for twentieth-century jobs, instead of helping them master the creativity and boldness that they will need for the future that they’ve already started building.

6 comments

  1. David Chui

    I can relate to this… although I’m not sure if I should be happy about it. Afterall, it is not such a good thing.

    Maybe crowdsourcing can help here. But like anything that is given out to be taken back, it’s a huge undertaking assembling all the completed work.

    Where I am now, we are facing a national (almost) problem where it’s difficult to find good candidates to fill technical positions. The number of graduates isn’t that great and it’s natural to only find a small percentage of that suitable for the positions… and then there are other companies.

    I think it’s important for students to stay connected to the “working world”. Maybe the crowdsourcing pain is worth it. Afterall, they are the new generation that will drive the industry. Somewhat like logging, I don’t think we can just keep taking without giving something back.

  2. Jonathan Nolen

    Great post. I both agree and disagree with you: I _loved_ my college experience. That said, I was an English major, and all of my programming/technical education came outside of the classroom, through self-education, extracurricular activities and summer jobs. But the primary skills I learned in my English curriculum were how to read deeply and how to communicate well in writing — both of which are incredibly valuable even now. I don’t feel like my education suffered because it didn’t engage the “real world.”

    However, I thought this quote was key: “For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see.” You see, I did high school debate, where you wrote for and spoke to an audience, and that class taught me more about writing than any language class ever did.

    The key was to understand that good writing was about persuasion — to choose a line of argument and pursue it to its conclusion, to stake out some ground and defend it. Most high-school writers never learn this. Instead, they write endless five-paragraph book-reports rehearsing what they’ve read, or get lost in pointless introspection about how it makes them feel.

    If growing up with online communication allows more kids to understand writing to persuade, they might find writing an essay for a professor a more interesting challenge. Or at the very least they might become better writers by the time they drop out to start a software company.

  3. Sharon

    I know we discussed this at length the other night and the conclusion I’ve come to is that there are schools that work more in this vain, but unfortunately yours wasn’t one of them, despite it being considered a top university.

    One of the issues is that I don’t think high school students necessarily know the right things to look for in a college. I certainly didn’t. Nobody ever talked to me about my learning style. It was all about getting into the “best” school according to some publication.

    That’s one thing I’ll always give New College credit for is that I could often find ways that my classes applied to my real life, and often they would interweave with each other. But perhaps that is rare is higher ed.

  4. Sarah Maddox

    Great post! From a technical writer’s point of view (that’s what I am) this particular finding is very interesting: “…that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see.”

    Adapting our language and style for each audience is a tech writer’s bread and butter. With the different outlets available today for your online writings (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, other social sites, even straight-laced email) I guess it’s not surprising that people are automatically tailoring their language for their audience, subject and purpose. People are using other communication forms too, such as online videos, hand-crafted Flash movies and other visual forms.

    I totally agree that educational institutions should recognise the work done by students outside the formal curriculum, and give students the chance to integrate it into their studies and share it with other students. At my son’s school, luckily, this does happen. The teachers are interested and involved in work that students publish on the web or elsewhere, and give them the chance to demo it and merge it into their classwork too.

    Moving beyond schools, it benefits employers to do the same. An individual employee and their team can get a lot of benefit from the ‘extra-curricular’ but related work that people do for fun and interest outside core working hours. The most forward-looking companies and managers are recognising this sort of contribution too.

    Cheers
    Sarah

  5. Pingback: A New Literacy « Celeripedean

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