Sunday, August 2, 2009

Why Joe College can't write. Or can he?

Incoming freshmen. The bane of college professors, especially English instructors, who discover to their dismay that most students are unable to write their way out of a paper bag.

The writing skills of these students, according to Purdue University English Prof. Mark Mabrito, who offers both a composition program and a writing major, has declined in the last 20 years or so. But why?

"The reasons, I think,? says Mabrito, "are up for debate and more complex than most would believe it's not as simple as saying that they don't read enough and watch too much TV."

Mabrito supports the idea that there is a combination of factors at work. He believes that while college students today are less literate in the eyes of faculty, they actually may be more literate than most faculty, only "in different ways."

Common terms used to describe today's college student are either "Net Generation" or "Digital Natives," which typically refers to students born after 1982. Those terms are significant, according to Mabrito, because they reflect how students have acquired literacy primarily in a digital world, where text is not created and thought of in the same ways as it is in the academy. Although Mabrito argues it ought to be.

Current studies show that students of this generation have spent, on average, 600 percent more of their time watching television, playing online games, and on the Web than they have spent reading traditional literature, such as books, articles, and the like.

"Most faculty would point to that statistic and say that's the problem: students need to put away the Xbox, close the laptop, and pick up a book," Mabrito explains. "I, on the other hand, would argue that faculty need to get an Xbox, spend more time on the Web, and understand better how this generation processes information."

For example, Mabrito says, this generation of student is digitally wired, seeks social interaction on line, can easily multitask, and expects interaction to be part of the learning process. "Most faculty, on the other hand," Mabrito suggests, "still view learning as a largely linear, individual activity based heavily around traditional printed text." Therefore, in most cases, Mabrito reports, faculty and students may be working at cross purposes.

So while it may be true that today's college student cannot, for example, write a longer, traditional essay as well as students of previous generation, they can and do write quite a bit. "That is if we expand our notion of writing to include blogging, IMing, MySpacing, and the like," Mabrito notes.

This generation also has access to more information "and are probably more adept at navigating that information" than previous generations.

"So, yes, there is a literary crisis on campus, but I would argue it's on both sides of the fence, among faculty as well as students," Mabrito states emphatically.

Change is happening, however, Mabrito is happy to report. In the last few years, there has been a growing movement in composition toward "multimodal" texts. In other words, expanding our definition of text beyond printed words, more research being conducted in the connections between "game theory" and literacy, using Wikis, blogs and more in the writing classroom.

The question remains will students today ever be as adept at writing the traditional essay as the generation before them, even with more writing classes and extra instruction?

Probably not, theorizes Mabrito. But, he would argue, that's OK "because our concept of text is changing, so faculty need to focus more on teaching to the future rather than focusing on a genre that is quickly becoming an artifact."

Clearly, writing instructors like Mabrito have their hands full.

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