First-Year Writing: Narcissism or New Literacies

With the emergence of a new academic year–we’re already a week in at Fayetteville State–we are greeted with another round of the annual rite of passage: the lament that Kids Today can no longer write effectively.  Perhaps the highest-profile version of this annual genre appeared in the (web) pages of The New York Times in a curmudgeonly blog post written by Stanley Fish that opens with a complaint about his graduate students’ prose before evolving into a complaint about what is being taught in first-year composition classes.  Fish’s comments echo concerns by John Sutherland about the encroachment of text-speak and Facebook-inspired narcissism into academic writing and are not that remote from a widely-discussed lament by Roger Ebert about a “gathering dark age.”  A new generation of writers and thinkers are paying attention to the wrong things, and their writing and critical thinking skills are diminished as a result.

It’s easy enough to refute some of the generational claims.  As Glenn Kenny observes, after offering ample evidence: “The kids of today didn’t invent dumb. They inherited it.”  Perhaps more vexing for those of us who teach first-year writing courses, is the question about whether Johnny and Jane can write.  Fish, after a brief review of his grad students’ prose, concludes that something is getting lost in writing instruction, an analysis that is reinforced for him by a review of an American Council of Trustees and Alumni white paper and a survey of his university’s composition syllabi, few of which seemed to offer explicit training in the craft of writing.  Although I am sympathetic with Fish’s concerns about the need to focus on writing, I cannot share his “conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.”   Nor do I believe that it makes sense “to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.” Many of the approaches that Fish rejects–courses that focus on the politics of culture–succeed as sites for the teaching of writing precisely because they are so attentive to how texts make meaning and to the importance of a rhetorical context (kairos, in classical rhetoric) in which these texts are produced.

In that context, I found Clive Thompson’s recent Wired column on “The New Literacy” to be a compelling read.  Thompson cites research conducted by Andrea Lunsford as part of the Stanford Study of Writing, a massive research project that examined thousands of pages student writing–from papers to short assignments–before coming to a much different conclusion: today’s students can write, and in fact, they write far more often than past generations, in part thanks to the massive amounts of socializing that take place online, whether in Facebook or Twitter status updates or in blog entries.  Much of this writing is text-based, and crucially, it is written for an audience.  I’ve done a number of activities, including my virginity auction activity last fall, in which students are asked to think about audience, and because of their online writing practices, I think it’s a concept that many students grasp intuitively.

I do have some reservations about Lunsford’s research.  The writing that she studied consisted of a longitudinal study of work produced by Stanford students, so I’d be curious to know if similar improvement could be measured in other university contexts; however, Lunsford’s conclusions (and Thompson’s synthesis of them) are a nice corrective against the claims that Kids Today don’t know how to write.

Update: Just to follow up a little further, as usual, I’ve been teaching my composition with a general focus on media or information literacy, and as I was doing some blog surfing (I prefer to call it “research”) this afternoon, I came across this MediaShift post about the evolution of media literacy.  One of my concerns about media literacy as its often constructed is the idea that students are unable or unprepared to “read” the media.  Toward the end of the post, there is a video of a public service announcement tutoring kids on the dangers of revealing too much information online.  Although there are notable cases of cyber-bullying (and other problems), these announcements often seem to underestimate the ability of teenagers to negotiate their online reputations.  Worth noting, though, is the article’s discussion of a bill sponsored by Senators John Kerry, Olympia Snowe and others, “21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act,” that would encourage schools to promote media literacy education.


  1. Nels Said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    Andrea is one of my former profs, so since she is one of those who trained me to teach writing, I’m biased. Of course, Stanley’s wife was on my dissertation committee, so maybe it’s not bias. Whatever. I’m at least willing to ride along with Andrea’s conclusions and see how they play out in diverse contexts.

  2. G Said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

    Roger Ebert can’t write, so I don’t see why he’s complaining.

  3. Chuck Said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    Nels, I tend to agree, of course. I do think that it would be worthwhile to look at how writing is evaluated in different university contexts. Also worth pointing out, a commenter on Facebook raised the point that it likely overstates things to suggest we’re writing that much more than in the past, especially given the relatively common practice of writing letters, etc. The fact that more of this writing is public is probably worth thinking about.

    G, to be fair to Ebert, his main complaint is that Kids Today watch the wrong movies, but he seems to be part of a general trend this month complaining about a new, uninformed, unenlightened generation.

  4. Oli Said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    I think the point about ‘writing for an audience’ is quite an important one. Can you recommend any texts about the narcissism of writing?

    Perhaps all this web-based self-presentation has some sort of therapeutic benefit, or perhaps it’s just a different distraction to bad television, with no real pros or cons when weighed against this.

  5. Chuck Said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    To answer your latter question, in some sense, web-based self-presentation echoes and updates earlier forms. It may be different than television in that there is a more explicit and visible form of interactivity than with TV. After all, isn’t fashion–something we have typically learned from TV and the movies–a form of self-presentation (or self-authorship) akin to the web-based, Facebook-quizzed, blogged, and MySpace forms of self-authorship we see and archive online?

    I happened to come back to your comment while watching the opening scenes of Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens, which is temporarily available online, and the punk and post-punk versions of self-expression are striking here (and presumably learned through observing, emulating, altering, and “poaching”). So I like your point that what is happening now isn’t fully new.

    In terms of your question about narcissism, one place to start would be Mark Bauerlein’s work on online writing, most famously discussed in The Dumbest Generation but anthologized in bits and pieces all over the web. I disagree with most of Bauerlein’s conclusions, as you might imagine, but he raises some useful questions that will, at the very least, stir debate.

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