Acquaintance: So you've been teaching college students for a while, huh?
Me: Sure have. (Checks math in head.) Almost ... twenty years. That can't be right! (Checks math again on fingers, feels old.) Yeah, almost twenty.
Acquaintance: I have a question for you.
Me: I bet I know what it is.
Acquaintance: Have you noticed—(dramatic pause)—over the time that you've been teaching—(dramatic pause)—that students are getting worse and worse at writing?
Me: No, not really.
Acquaintance: Really? I mean—(dramatic pause)—have you noticed lately that—(dramatic pause)—they are using text speak in their papers?The acquaintance might use different terms, such as "textspeak" or "text talk" or "SMS language," or perhaps concrete examples (such as "l8r" instead of "later"). In any case, the fear is the same: That our incoming students are becoming more illiterate, communicating through bastardized language, while losing the far superior art of—take your pick—letter writing, journaling, poetry.
Let's untangle this question a bit, because it touches on a lot of different issues.
Writing isn't a unitary phenomenon. Writing is perhaps our most useful and flexible tool, making its way into nearly every aspect of our lives—saturating our lives to a degree that it has never done before. Nearly universal literacy means that the overwhelming majority of elementary school students learn a basic level of reading, writing, and textual problem solving.
Let that sink in. In 1870, 20% of people at or above the age of 14 were illiterate—unable to read or write in any language. By 1979, that number dropped to only 0.6%.
Furthermore, in 1870, the degree ratio for high school was 0.02%—only 2 of every 100 students graduated from high school. In 1970, the degree ratio was 77%. (By 2000 it was a relatively anemic 70%.)
That's something that we often forget. We sometimes look at schoolbooks from the mid-1800s and are tempted to marvel at how much more proficient children were at reading back then. Yes, of the 80% who were not completely illiterate, a substantial percentage learned how to write at remarkable levels. But many of them did not aspire to high levels of competence in writing. Nor did they need to. Even those with high literacy levels mastered a relatively small number of genres (text types) that were useful to social engagements and the lifelong employment they obtained after school.
Even so, writing, which (as you may remember) began as a hacked-together accounting system, developed many more uses as the population became more literate. The dropping costs of writing technology—including pencils, pens, and paper—made writing easier to spread, as did the burgeoning postal system. Writing became incorporated into more and more trades, fields, and disciplines.
And as information and communication technologies (ICTs) came online, and as work changed, the number of genres multiplied. For instance, the business memo evolved from business letters which were deployed within an organization. Email evolved from business memos (and you can still see the traces of the older genre in email headers: to, from, date, subject). And so on.
Here's the thing. Each of these genres is deployed in different situations. Each has carved out its own niche in a larger set of genres. Increasingly, each has to cross borders, as work becomes more intertwined. And since people no longer expect lifelong employment, they often must learn new genres throughout their lives—and they bring some genres from one job to another, piling on even more texts.
But that's not just happening in our work lives. Social networking is growing and diversifying. Last December there were 6.7 billion active mobile subscriptions; these reach 4.3 billion unique human beings, 61% of the planet's population; and 5.6 billion of these subscriptions use texting—more than use voice calls.
Social media and texting are both dominated by writing. When you see a college student walking across campus while staring at her iPhone, rather than wondering why she doesn't look up, think: she, like the rest of her generation, is reading and writing constantly. As she goes through school, graduates, gets a job, then switches careers throughout her life, she is going to constantly learn, use, invent, and convey an enormous number of genres. Rather than writing less, and being less competent in writing, she's writing more, in more venues, in more situations, and in situations that involve more varied audience analysis.
So much for the quantity of writing. But, my acquaintance might ask, how about the quality? Do my students write in text speak?
They don't. To understand why, take a look at a study that Christina Haas and her collaborators published in 2011. The research team analyzed a 32000-word corpus of instant messaging exchanges among 103 college students. Along the way, they noted plenty of inventive spelling and other unusual conventions. Their conclusion?
The understanding that emerged for us was one of young people who have a true mastery of written language: the IM transcripts we studied were funny, clever, innovative, sometimes moving, and almost always delightful. We believe this picture emerged partly because of our inductive approach—to the best of our abilities, we let the language of participants speak to us and speak it did. Our study has revealed that literacy—at once innovative and playful, systematic and purposeful—is alive and well on the Internet and in the lives of the young people who use it. (p.399)Moreover, the invented spelling and other features of IM didn't bleed into the school writing that students did. Their compositions didn't, for instance, tell professors that they would do something "l8r" or justify something "cuz" or evaluate something as "saweeet." They kept the register of IM separate from the register they use for schoolwork. As do my students. When they use texting, they aren't ruining the language, they're just adapting it to fit the space limitations of 160 characters and the time limitations of near-immediate communication.
If you want to understand how this works, here's a simple experiment you can try. Next time you go to a restaurant, right after you place your order, ask the server if you can see what he or she wrote on the pad. I can almost guarantee you it won't be the item on the menu ("Brick Chicken with Garlic Mashed Potatoes"). Instead, it will probably be an abbreviation that the waitstaff and kitchen staff both understand ("bchx").
And it's not because your waiter can't spell "chicken."
So, no, in my experience students are not writing more badly than they did in 1993. They are, however, writing more frequently, in more situations, involving more audiences, in connection with more additional genres, in anticipation of learning and adapting even more genres during a lifetime of learning. They're preparing for near-constant textual contact, including an increasing number of social layers on top of their work, leisure, and family genres. My students, I admit, don't write and are usually not prepared to write essays similar to those in the McGuffey Readers. But they do write in a mind-boggling range of genres and situations that didn't exist back in the 1800s. That's the challenge for which they're preparing.