Lunsford’s Study

I’ve read a bit about A. Lunsford’s Stanford Study of Writing and I have to say I’m a bit troubled how commentators like Thompson are quick to extend her findings about the writing habits of 189 self-selecting students at Stanford University to “young people today.”  Even Lunsford herself seems guilty of what might nicely be called problematic extrapolation.

To explan…. Lunsford’s claimed the principle goal of her study was to paint a picture of the writing young people are doing in the 21st century.  If this was the case, why Lunsford (apart from the fact that you have a roomy office there) would you chose to study students enrolled at Stanford, hardly a normal pool of young writers?

One could break down the numbers: the average G.P.A. (3.91) and SAT scores (2265) of a “typical” Stanford student; the impressive literacy skills of the 25,000 students who bothered to apply to the university, let alone the presumably higher skills of the 2,400 who were actually accepted.  Now, to this already non-standard pool of young people, remember that Lunsford only studied the habits of the students who “wanted” to participate in her research.  In other words, her participants were self-selecting.  Guess what types of students are likely to participate in a study which requires you to submit everything you write to a celebrated Stanford professor for analysis?  The super-literate.  Actually… scratch that… super-literate students who want someone, a professor no less, to read everything they type, pen, text, blog, post, and scribble.  In other words, the super-literate with an ego… a group hungry for an audience.  Exactly the type of students, one might imagine, who do a great deal of writing outside of class and post all sorts of things to the internet.

I have been impressed by Lunsford’s academic work and I’m sure I will enjoy the findings from her Stanford study.  However, that said, extrapolating the results of study to encompass “students today” seems like back-bending at best and methodological dishonesty at worst.  This is not necessarily Lunsford’s fault, but Thompson, cheering on the digital revolution in WIRED, should not be beginning sentences with the generic noun “students.”  He should start sentences with “a self-selecting group of highly-literate students enrolled at Stanford”

If Lunsford wanted to study the writing habits of typical young people, she should have left stucco roofs of Stanford and driven down to the florescent-lit rooms of San Mateo High School or San Jose State University.

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5 comments on “Lunsford’s Study

  1. This is an excellent point; Stanford definitely doesn’t represent the “average” student. Apart from the elite status and education on Stanford’s campus, I’d argue there is also an education/class division between different mediums of social networking. Although I don’t have any research to support this hypothesis, I’d imagine more Stanford students use twitter, facebook, wikis, and blogs than the average student. Of my friends and family, the only people I know who twitter or write blogs are college-educated. That is perhaps another divide that wasn’t addressed in this specific-sample study.

  2. Mark, I think you have rightly illuminated the issue of authority and expertise that working on Web 2.0 generates. A writer can comment on someone else’s work and disseminate these comments without limits. An unsavvy reader reads these comments and walks away with the possibly erroneous impression of understanding the original source. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in the print world. (How often do we read secondary sources as students?) But in the world of Web 2.0, it’s an issue, I think, of the magnitude of dissemination without editorial oversight.

  3. Very astute critique of her study and her extrapolations! Still, people are writing more and reading more than ever before. It may not be academic writing, but people are becoming more literate, in the simplest sense, of knowing how to read and write.

  4. I would agree that Lunsford’s students certainly don’t represent average young people today, but what about texting? Certainly this is a practice that students from all walks of life incorporate into their daily lives.

  5. I think you have a point about how studies like this are taken up in the popular press (though I’m sure that Lunsford herself is much more careful about generalizing — it is the “Stanford Study of Writing,” after all). Thompson is perhaps too eager to refute the techno-naysayers.

    But then again, he’s not an academic, and isn’t as prone as we are to hedge and qualify everything. Some might say that it’s precisely our tendency to qualify that makes academic discourse relatively impotent in the public sphere.

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