Whenever you read the words “for the 21st century” in connection with some educational topic, you know it’s time to run for cover. That’s because “21st century” is edu-speak for “letting your students mess around on computers instead of teaching them something substantive.” The latest manifestation of this seems to be a report released at the March 11-14 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in San Francisco that called on English teachers, including those who teach freshman comp, to quit emphasizing the essays and formal papers that are the traditional mainstays of academic writing in favor of whatever’s au courant online. Five years ago, that meant blogging, e-mailing, and maybe setting up your own personal website. Nowadays it means texting, twittering, and Facebook. As the posted announcement of the report by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) stated, “students don’t recognize their self-directed, often online, out-of-school writing as writing that counts as much as the writing they do in school.”
As Emory University English professor and frequent Minding the Campus contributor Mark Bauerlein wrote on March 9 in his blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “NCTE…aims to ennoble leisure writing, to set it on the same level of academic writing,” even though, as Bauerlein points out, the text-messages and twitters “aren’t graded, they don’t require research, they don’t observe grammar and punctuation and spelling, and they address peers, not adults.” Bauerlein is especially critical of the report’s recommendation “that teachers bring 21st-century writing habits (texting etc.) into the classroom.”
Bauerlein’s blog-post elicited a riposte from Kathleen Yancey, an English professor at Florida State Univesity who had written the previous NCTE report, titled “Writing in the 21st Century,” in which she outlined a “call to action” that would have English teachers “support all forms of 21st century literacies, inside schools and outside of schools.” In her response to Bauerlein, Yancey asserted that “all texts”—including the texts that texting produces—“observe grammar by definition” (she might have been referring to this Lolcats posting), and she scolded Bauerlein for daring to “privilege…writing to adults” as “more valuable than writing to peers.” After all, Yancey said, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t write his famously eloquent “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” as a classroom assignment that he hoped might win him an “A” in freshman English. Yancey suggested that schools create “new pedagogies” that would accommodate the latest in texting and Facebook page-updating.
Leaving aside one obvious response to Yancey’s argument—that King’s letter, like, say, the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was a masterly display of classical rhetorical techniques that could have been learned only in a classroom setting or by imitating formal models—Yancey did not bother to make a case for the proposition that the most effective way to teach writing (or anything else) to young people is to descend to their level. What’s wrong with letting young people be young people, in their own world of young people “outside of schools,” while at the same time expecting college students “inside of schools” to learn the intricacies of an adult world of formal learning whose mode of communication does not include spelling “your” as “ur”? Furthermore, 18-year-olds who text already know how to text. They don’t need slightly-behind-the-curve 40-year-olds purporting to instruct them in a technology, culture, and literary style with which they are already more familiar than their teachers. I’ve taught college classes myself, and one of the things I learned from my students was that the last thing they wanted from me was for me to fancy myself as one of them, whether in how I dressed, how I talked, or what I expected them to learn.
Sadly, however, freshman writing instructors, who have only 30 weeks on average—and often just 15, a single semester– to teach their students how to organize and express their thoughts, formulate an effective argument, and use the library for research, plus get those students through the grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules that they never learned in K-12, get little encouragement, from the writing-pedagogy establishment that Yancey represents. A perusal of the panel presentations and workshops featured at the 2008 CCCC, for example, reveals that the world of freshman English professionals is a world where the word “Ebonics” can still be uttered with a straight face (“Toward a Pedagogy of Ebonics for Composition Classrooms”), where it’s deemed appropriate to turn writing classes into indoctrination sessions in feminism, anti-colonialism, and “sustainability,” where “survivance” is a word and there’s such a thing as “queer composition strategies,” where proper grammar is considered a form of class-based oppression, and where 18-year-olds whose command of standard English is shaky are urged to write their papers in Spanish, Chinese, rapper slang, or whatever their “home language” might be.
What all of this indicates is the freshman-composition establishment’s failure to take seriously the subject it is supposed be teaching, turning a basic writing course that first-year college students desperately need into slushy sessions of self-esteem-building, therapeutic journaling, and identity politics. The irony is that these advocates of “writing to peers” are actually fostering “writing to adults” at its worst: turning in misspelled, self-indulgent, poorly organized gobbledygook that can be appreciated only by an indulgent teacher. College freshmen need to learn how to write to their peers, all right—the peers they will soon encounter in the grown-up world of scholarly papers, corporate reports, legal briefs, and even personal letters and e-mails to those outside their immediate circle of friends. They already know “cheezburger,” but even in the 21st century they need someone to explain to them that it’s often more appropriate to write “cheeseburger.”