Can students write? Yes they can. Rants, raves and digital literacy

On August 10th, 2017, The Telegraph, a London daily, published an article with the eye-catching headline, “My fellow lecturers won’t say it in public, but students today are moaning, illiterate snowflakes.1The author of the piece, Tibor Fischer, was lauded in a 1993 Granta list as one of the 20 best young British writers. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for fiction. The article has a particular bias against students who claim “reasonable” accommodation for special needs, and Fischer beleives that some students use accommodation requests as a free pass. He recalls an experience at Christ Church University, in Canterbury, where he asked a lecture hall of 120 students “What is a sentence?” (Pardon for the long quote, but this piece is astounding in its building unpleasantness):

Only six came up with the formula: subject, verb, object (and two of them were foreign students). They hadn’t heard of this grammar stuff. Some were even shaky on what an adjective is. And these weren’t physicists or business studies students, this was the literature class.

Students are paying too much for too little – that’s why reform in the university sector is vital Everyone is guilty. The Labour Party for comprehensive education (I went to a comprehensive. It was indeed egalitarian, in that everyone got a mediocre education). Margaret Thatcher for the turn your shed-into-a-university policy. Tony Blair for abolishing the requirement for foreign languages.

And then of course the Equality Act, which requires Universities to make “reasonable adjustment” for those less able. What a gloriously flexible, litigious word “reasonable” is. Again, I doubt many academics will go on record with this, but I had experiences with students who had some “disorder” who were extraordinarily able in using their disability to their advantage.

It’s the job of a university to strive for excellence (although that’s tricky to define in the arts). This idea that a university is in some way in loco parentis or a carer obliged to wipe bottoms is misguided.

It’s wonderful if universities can provide that sort of extra-curricular support. But that’s not their purpose. It’s their job to set a high standard, and it’s the students’ to reach it, whatever their difficulties.

The article went somewhat viral, with another article in The Telegraph, written by Harry Howard, a recent graduate of Sussex University, titled “Tibor Fischer is right – my generation of university students are a bunch of snowflakes.” Howard was  himself a special-needs student, who needed extra time in exams owing to  what he describes as “serious illness.” He also questions the idea that higher education should be universal, and describes his own knowledge of history and literature as “pretty sketchy.”

A Tweet by @carolinepennock protested these generalizations of “snow-flakiness” referencing Fischer in her plea: “Dear students, Please let me reassure you that real lecturers care about supporting you, unlike this egomaniacal, anecdotalist bully.

 Academic discourse? Not exactly. To be clear: Fischer’s views are not supported on these pages.

JSTOR Daily rebuts the “oh, kids these days” complaints about how short are attention spans and how social media sends student writing into those “pretty sketchy” zones, in the article “Student writing in the Digital Age.” To the question ” is student writing worse than it was 100 years ago?”– this reply:

In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Students in first-year composition classes are, on average, writing longer essays (from an average of 162 words in 1917, to 422 words in 1986, to 1,038 words in 2006), using more complex rhetorical techniques, and making no more errors than those committed by freshman in 1917. That’s according to a longitudinal study of student writing by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, “Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.
So, students are writing longer essays, and making about the same number of mistakes as their peers 100 years past. However, the mistakes are different. Spelling errors topped the list for many years; today they are the fifth most common mistake. “The new number one error is ‘wrong word,'” mostly homonyms that spell-check either would not catch, or those caused by auto-correction to an unintended word. The second most common error? “Incomplete or missing documentation,” as students switch from more personal forms of writing and learn how to do research. Among other errors common in past decades, students today are better at punctuation and apostrophes.
The study found no evidence for claims that kids are increasingly using “text speak” or emojis in their papers. Lunsford and Lunsford did not find a single such instance of this digital-era error. Ironically, they did find such text speak and emoticons in teachers’ comments to students. (Teachers these days?)
There were jumps in length of student papers with advances in technologies: students with typewriters wrote more than students with pens: students with computers write more than students with typewriters. In fact, the “digital revolution” that is so often condemned with eroding language seems to have actually increased proficiency.
The digital revolution has been largely text-based. Over the course of an average day, Americans in 2006 wrote more than they did in 1986 (and in 2015 they wrote more than in 2006). New forms of written communication—texting, social media, and email—are often used instead of spoken ones—phone calls, meetings, and face-to-face discussions. With each text and Facebook update, students become more familiar with and adept at written expression. Today’s students have more experience with writing, and they practice it more than any group of college students in history.
In fact, verbosity might be a more appropriate lament about “kids these days” — students are comfortable writing long texts, and know how to “code-switch,” meaning they adapt their writing style for the situation. So cryptic text-talk is quite useful when texting. Long form writing can be –well, long— wordy, verbose and rambling. The authors conclude that writing clearly is not the problem in the digital age — editing and deleting may be a better focus for improvement in academic writing of all types. Snowflakes (every single one of us) need to use snow shovels on occasion.
 Need advice on how to help your students succeed? The McGraw Center is always happy to help.



  1. A Princeton-only link to the full text version can be found through the Library.
Date posted: December 12, 2018 | Author: | Comments Off on Can students write? Yes they can. Rants, raves and digital literacy