Effective Online Writing

n this week’s blog I’m supposed to write about teaching writing online. I could regale you with student success stories from my online course. I could point to the ever popular Turn It In, a must-have for the savvy college comp professor on the vigilant trail of plagiarism. Nope. Not gonna do it.

Instead I want to share with you some insightful tips for using social media effectively and watching what you write. Social media is writing online, among a few other things both savory and salacious, but we’re not going there. No no, gentle reader. We’re going to the heart of the pithy post, the terrific Tweet, and the sensational status update: respect for and knowledge of the audience. That, and a bit of fun, after the break.

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These kids today–an opportunity for transformation of consciousness

In his 2009 Wired article on the “New Literacy” Clive Thomson warns us that “As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame.” Indeed, this perennial lament was echoed on January 18th of this year as AP educational writer Eric Gorski wrote that “A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.” The blame for this performance, however, is not lain at the feet of technology. One reason the article cites is that students simply aren’t required to write or read enough.

According to a January 7th The New York Times article, William H. Fitzhugh has published a print journal of selected high school essays for over two decades. He makes the claim that “Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” Further, he says that “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.” According to a survey cited by Mr. Fitzhugh, 95 percent of the teachers surveyed “said assigning long research papers was important, but 8 out of 10 said they never did because they had too little time to read and grade them.” Though Mr. Fitzhugh was forced take his journal online this year, while discontinuing the print version, he apparently saw no increased opportunity in this, beyond saving money, such as reaching a wider networked and involved audience.

In his article, Thompson highlights the work of Andrea Lundsford, who in her Stanford Study of Writing found that “Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom…” With web media students have found purpose and audience for their writing that classrooms have not been able to provide. However, as Will Richardson says in his book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, “as is often the case, education has been slow to adapt to these new tools and potentials.”

In his article, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Walter J. Ong writes that “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” As well as making interior transformations, networked media is forging transformations of social conceptions of how students learn and build knowledge. If we accept that writing elevates consciousness by holding a mirror to thought process, we can also understand that this close examination of one’s thoughts is often met with anxiety and resistance. But just as the printing press provided a greatly expanded audience for those with a purpose for communicating, students now inhabit a world where increased sense of purpose and audience bring greater enjoyment to writing. And there is an immediacy that brings language back to the realm of conversation and community. This presents great opportunity for teachers to expand upon.

In order to learn, we must think, and we don’t know what we think until we try to express it. We end up having to ask ourselves a lot of questions. This is essentially the aim of educational writing. It is also what transpires in the networked community among its members. In group discussions, blogs, and wikis, others can comment on, or even edit our writing. A little collaborative learning might even take some of the load off the amount of written response that traditionally fell solely to the teacher, and who knows, perhaps a few more “pages” of writing could get assigned.

Memes and New Literacy Education

While reading about memes in the context of “cultural production” I realized I first needed to wrap my head around what actually constitutes a proper meme.  I had only encountered the word once before when a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video called “The Google Verb Meme Thing” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcKk_HK-FP4).  She sent the link with a message that said, “You will love this, it totally made me think of you” but, while I was watching, I couldn’t understand what I was watching and why.  I didn’t know what a meme was, let alone what The Google Verb Meme Thing was, and by the end of the one minute and forty-seven second video I felt as though I must be a complete cultural illiterate.  After reading chapter 9 in the New Literacies Sampler, “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production,” I feel a little bit better.  In the formal discourse of memetics, The Google Verb Meme Thing is nothing more than a mildly infectious phenomenon, as it doesn’t meet the criteria necessary to be classified as a bona-fide meme.

Knobel and Lankshear view memes as “recognizable, bounded phenomena that have material effects in the world and that can be scrutinized.”  Examples of memes, outside of web-spread instances of pop-cultural reference are things such as viral marketing campaigns, fashion trends, catch-phrases, specific production methodology, universally recognizable melodies, etc.  Richard Dawkins (1976) suggested that a meme, in order to be successful needed to meet three basic criteria: fidelity (the characteristics of the meme allow it to be passed along more or less in its original form), fecundity (how widely and quickly spread a meme may be) and longevity (self-explanitory)  Knoble and Lankshear point out that it is more important for a meme to be memorable than it is for it to be important or useful.  How then can a simple, and seemingly unimportant cultural phenomenon benefit literacy education?

Knoble and Lankshear use Freire and Street’s definition of Literacy, with a “big L” as “making meaning in ways that are tied directly to life and to being in the world.”  Memes, as cultural commentary, social activism, and even as a overstated and humorous celebration of the mundanity of daily life, tie very much into the social, meaning-making aspects of New Literacy.

Teaching students to identify and analyze online memes engages them in critical thinking skills that will allow them to identify phenomena that are influencing not only our culture and the world, but also the memes that are pervasive in their own minds.  Equipped with both a micro and macro capacity for recognizing and understanding the function of memes, students may have a better understanding of how small actions can translate into great ones.