It may seem an odd question to address on a blog, to a blog readership, but it came up today, during the last session of our conference. Amanda gave a fantastic presentation about establishing an online presence, and brought up the issue of text conventions in online communication.
One of the participants asked whether acculturation in the world of online texts -- with their overt cues, like smilies and bracketed meta-comments *to show what I'm thinking* -- will dull students' senses such that they won't be able to handle the ambiguity and multiple levels of literature.
My boss, as he's so good at doing, reframed the question to show that it assumed a hierarchy of literacies. Being able to read literary prose is the highest and best literacy, and that's what we should therefore aspire to. Other literacies, including the composition and consumption of online text, are lesser or even transient; too much attention paid to them will tend to hamper students' acquisition of the most valuable skills, and worse, legitimize the flashy, cheap, and easy skills by treating them as relatively equal, to the detriment of the truly worthwhile skills.
My immediate thought was for the bloggers I read with the most interest and pleasure. Would they like to be lumped in with the smiley-laced, ungrammatical and indifferently-punctuated Xangas maintained by a certain demographic? Those people aren't even using the right text conventions for the medium they're in -- not e-mail or txting, but writing prose. The fact that he prose happens to be on a blog rather than in their journal or in a newspaper or magazine is immaterial. The lazy, poor bloggers aren't representative of blog text conventions, as anyone who has spent time with the form knows. We don't give students bad novels and tell them that learning to read and interpret them is essential to literacy; we give them the best. I don't teach students to write bad blogs; I send them to read the best and try to get them to emulate what they see.
Like any medium, blog writing can be rich or poor, deep or shallow, mature or infantile, advanced or rudimentary. I have no doubt that blogging every day -- along with reading more and better blogs, more regularly and with more interest -- has made me a better writer and has led me to think more creatively about texts in general. I agree with Amanda that online writing and reading must be thought of as a new form, rather than as a poor cousin or mutated monster sprung from real writing (whatever that is).
My boss, who's been in higher education since the 1980's, tells the story of the consternation caused among the professoriate by the advent of word processing. Long, bitter debates took place about whether students should be writing their papers on computers -- whether that even counted as real writing at all. Only pen across paper, with its enforced languid pace, or at most typing, should count. Because instant correction and cut-and-pasting while you write, it was assumed, were terrible things. They would destroy the system of drafts and laborious revisions which constituted the labor that created the only possibility of truly creative, reflective writing.
This debate mistook the characteristics of a method for the virtues of its product. Word processing did change the way students wrote, and it changed the kinds of prose they turned out, I have no doubt. I would write much differently without the opportunity for continuous rethinking. But how does that disqualify or devalue the writing produced by that process? Does it mean that I have lost something essential to prose literacy? I have lost something, but I have gained something I consider far more valuable: the ability to write more, because the writing process is less taxing and more intuitive. The change from oral culture to written culture meant a loss in the ability to create aphorisms and engage in feats of memorization that helped store and recall information. That's a loss. But I will take in trade, 10 times out of 10, what we gained in the evolution into written culture.
And similarly, while I might mourn the loss of the hegemony of literature over our reading habits, I will gladly take in trade the explosion of writing my students do without even realizing it, and the widely diverse high-quality sources of prose they can read every day, for months or years on end, becoming part of those writers' communities and responding in kind.