Thursday, August 24, 2006

Writing too Much?

It is a deceptive question: does producing more writing result in better writing?

The instinctive answer from most of us would be "yes" because we assume more practice is always better. But the truth is, more is not always better. Sometimes it is simply more, and in the worst of cases, more reinforces bad habits. Any serious athlete knows that if you practice without a mentor, you can damage muscles. More exercise even has a point of negative return, when your body not only fails to heal but consumes muscle tissue. Hours and hours of practice are not ideal.

But a much closer example to writing is speaking.

We know there is a socially adopted "proper" way to speak. We also know that we seldom speak in this proper vernacular. I admit that I speak in what some might consider a "low-class" Southern or rural dialect. My family is from Arkansas and I was raised in a rural town in the West where "Country is King" and rodeos are reason enough for a school holiday. Suffice it to say, I do not speak properly after talking to my relatives.

The more time I spend with family, the harder it is to speak "academic" English. I pick up double negatives, incorrect verb usages, and some habits I'd rather not list. In academic terms, my ability to "code switch" decreases with the length of exposure to my friends and relatives. After talking to one uncle on the phone for an hour, I need another three hours to remember "anyways ain't no" is not proper English.

When I hear teachers say that the Internet, e-mail, and text messaging is bringing more writing into students' lives, I have to wonder what the benefits are. These students have a lot of "spoken English" in their lives, too. If more speaking made for better English, then I have a number of students who should be better orators than Tony Blair. Clearly, speaking non-stop is not the path towards better spoken English.

Is writing any different?

The moment I saw a "smiley" in a paper, that wonderful smiling face of e-mail fame, I knew that students were developing habits online. These are not "bad" habits, but they certainly are not proper academic English. Yes, young writers have written hearts and smiles in notes for generations, but somehow the frequency of using symbols in place of words is leading to the naturalization of the process. Acronyms, missing words, and a lack of punctuation are further symptoms of modern online composition.

I would argue that quantity and frequency of "online dialect" are having an effect on student writing. When we then allow these approaches in online academic forums and discussions, we are reinforcing the validity of these habits. Maybe that is acceptable, but I doubt it is to most employers or university instructors.

Yes, it is great that students participate in online communities and collaborative projects. I am glad that students want to share ideas and insights. Still, we should enforce whatever rules we would apply to the printed page in these online spaces. Yes, I know it is a pain to constantly correct students, and correcting students goes against some teaching theories, but we need to remind students that "good" habits will benefit them in future careers.

Before congratulating students on how much they write, ask yourself how they are writing.