Tag Archives: composition

We are all twitterers now: revisiting John McWhorter on Tweeting

Angus Grieve Smith over at the MLA group on Linked In pointed me toward John McWhorter’s take on Twitter a couple of years back. [I admit to some embarrassment in referencing an article that’s TWO YEARS OLD!! But the presentism of the writing for the web is a story for another time]. McWhorter’s basic case is that Twitter is not really writing at all, but a form of graphic speech. My term, not McWhorter’s. He points out that most people even after knowing how to read and write speak in bursts of 7 to 10 words, and writing at its origins reflected these kinds of patterns. In other words, as speakers we are all twitterers. Of Twitter, McWhorter says:

 

The only other problem we might see in something both democratic and useful is that it will exterminate actual writing. However, there are no signs of this thus far. In 2009, the National Assessment of Education Performance found a third of American eighth graders – the ones texting madly right now — reading at or above basic proficiency, but crucially, this figure has changed little since 1992, except to rise somewhat. Just as humans can function in multiple languages, they can also function in multiple kinds of language. An analogy would be the vibrant foodie culture that has thrived and even flowered despite the spread of fast food.

Who among us really fears that future editions of this newspaper will be written in emoticons? Rather, a space has reopened in public language for the chunky, transparent, WYSIWYG quality of the earliest forms of writing, produced by people who had not yet internalized a sense that the flavor of casual language was best held back from the printed page.

This speech on paper is vibrant, creative and “real” in exactly the way that we celebrate in popular forms of music, art, dance and dress style. Few among us yearn for a world in which the only music is classical, the only dance is ballet and daily clothing requires corsets and waistcoats. As such, we might all embrace a brave new world where we can both write and talk with our fingers.

via Talking With Your Fingers – NYTimes.com.

 

I mostly agree with this idea, that we are all code shifters. I’m less sanguine than, McWhorter, however. His eighth grade sample takes students before they’ve entered a period of schooling where they’d be expected to take on more serious reading and longer and more complex forms of writing. Twitter may not be to blame, but it’s not clear to me the state of writing and reading comprehension at higher levels is doing all that well. There’s some pretty good evidence that it isn’t. So just as a foodie culture may thrive in the midst of a lot of fast food, it’s not clear that we ought to be complacent in the face of an obesity epidemic. In the same way, just because tweeting may not signal the demise of fine writing, it’s not clear that it’s helping the average writer become more facile and sophisticated in language use.

Writing and rites of manhood at Hampden Sydney College

It’s pedagogically incorrect to say so, but I have to say the grammar and test intensive writing curriculum at Hampden Sydney College really works. I taught there for a year right out of grad school at Duke, was skeptical of the whole idea of a sophomore year grammar and writing test when I came, and have never tried to implement it anywhere else I’ve been. But I will say it worked. For Hampden Sydney College, it worked. Hampden Sydney College produces competent writers across the board, its share of truly skilled writers, and a campus culture that is deeply committed to writing, all through the musty and most unlikely aegis of that thing called grammar.

Success there is bred, I think, partly through the usual ways: small intense classes and several of them. Learning to write is labor intensive, so mostly as a nation we get the kinds of writers we pay for. But I also think the grammar and writing exam plays a crucial cultural role at the all male school. It is a rite of passage that every student anticipates from the moment of matriculation, that every first year prepares for throughout the year, and that every sophomore endures more or less at the same time. At the end of the sophomore year it marks the passageway to upperclass status. Who would have thought that grammar and rhetoric could become an initiation into manhood.

An excerpt from the recent Inside Higher Ed story on hsc and Old Dominiom. (Side note: I got to hear an address from Hampden Sydney’s President, Chris Howard, at the Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest. Impressive.)

But at Hampden-Sydney, qualifying to take the test is the culmination of a yearlong (or more) process. The 1,100 men there must first pass two rhetoric classes (or three if they test poorly as incoming freshmen) before sitting for the test. The classes, which are capped at 14 students, stress grammar and essay composition. If a student fails the test, generally taken late in his sophomore year, he has two opportunities to pass it again as a junior and to seek help from writing instructors.

If a student still hasn’t passed by the start of his senior year – something faculty say rarely happens – he places into a writing-intensive course in which he is tutored and then asked to write three essays but isn’t held to a time limit. Lowell Frye and Elizabeth Deis, both professors in the rhetoric department since 1983, said they can’t remember a student not graduating solely because of the writing assessment.

But, they said, the test provides accountability and encourages a collegewide emphasis on writing. “It creates a climate in which writing is important for faculty and for students,” Deis said. “The students, and especially the alumni, are absolutely committed to the idea of this test.”

(via Instapaper)

Crime and Punishment, The Soundtrack

This article from Julie Bosman at the New York Times convinces me again that the future of books will be as multi-media, multi-layered artifacts rather than script-exclusive texts. Says Bosman:

In the film versions of “Pride and Prejudice” the music jumps and swells at all the right moments, heightening the tension and romance of that classic Jane Austen novel.

Will it do the same in the e-book edition?

Booktrack, a start-up in New York, is planning to release e-books with soundtracks that play throughout the books, an experimental technology that its founders hope will change the way many novels are read.

Its first book featuring a soundtrack is “The Power of Six,” a young-adult novel published by HarperCollins, soon to be followed by “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Jane Eyre,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Three Musketeers.”

In September and October, Booktrack will release editions of the short stories “In the South,” by Salman Rushdie, and “Solace,” by Jay McInerney.

“It makes a new and engaging way to read and really enhances the experience and enhances your imagination and keeps you in the story longer,” Paul Cameron, Booktrack’s 35-year-old co-founder and chief executive, said in an interview. “And it makes it fun to read again. If you’re not reading all the time, it might help you rediscover reading.”

Elsewhere in the article Bosman points out that this is an extension of the increasingly common expectation that e-books will have embedded images and even videos, and perhaps come with addition documentary footage like DVDs. The linking of text and image and sound is ancient, of course. Think illuminated manuscripts and chanted psalms. To say nothing of the fact that the Homeric odes were probably originally sung. Still, I find myself wondering about our cultures inability to tolerate silence. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as Eliot said a hundred years ago. I think he may have imagined poetry as a cure. He could not have known that someone somewhere was going to enhance our experience Burnt Norton with mood music.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that my colleagues and I at Messiah College and elsewhere who teach students to write had better get used to the fact that we will have to train not only their linguistic sensibilities, but their aural and visual sensibilities as well.

Now, what sound track should we put to Burnt Norton?