College Guide


October 05, 2009 2:48 PM lol k u convinced me!!!!

By Daniel Fromson

According to Wired’s Clive Thompson, our Facebook- and instant-message-saturated landscape isn’t turning college students into text-talking, LOL-spouting automatons. In fact, his recent article in the magazine’s September issue argues that modern technology is actually helping them become better writers.

It sounds too good to be true. Unfortunately, it probably is.

Thompson’s article highlights some preliminary results from the Stanford Study of Writing, an ambitious, multi-year research project spearheaded by Stanford University English professor Andrea Lunsford. The study analyzed 14,672 writing samples from 189 Stanford undergraduates—everything from in-class assignments and essays to emails and blog posts—and concluded that we’re in the midst of an unprecedented “literary revolution.” Lunsford notes that while writing was once confined to the classroom, the rise of text-based socialization online and via mobile phones means that students are now writing more than ever before—a finding that is hard to dispute. But her more controversial claim is that this shift is giving birth to a generation of persuasive writers.

Lunsford argues that today’s students are especially adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and altering their tone and style to be as effective as possible. She points out that writing produced for friends or the Internet—the Facebook wall post, the Internet forum message, the tweet—is meant to be public and convincing in a way that much academic writing is not. This tendency, she claims, has given rise to the Mark Zuckerberg era’s latter-day Ciceros.

Lunsford’s conclusions are seductive, but we should view them with a healthy dose of skepticism. Lunsford is no social scientist. She is an expert on rhetoric with a Ph.D. in English, and, consistent with her knack for oratory, she seems unwilling to concede that we can draw few conclusions about American college students at large from a study of undergraduates attending one of our country’s most prestigious universities. 97 percent of her participants had a high school GPA of at least 3.8. On average, they were smarter than most members of the Stanford Class of 2005 to which they belonged. Is it at all surprising that they wrote persuasively and didn’t festoon their honors theses with emoticons?

The problem with Lunsford’s having stumbled into a thicket of garden-variety selection bias is that her results obscure what is in all likelihood a fairly serious issue. A 2008 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 64 percent of teens incorporate informal styles from their text-based communications into their writing at school, and 38 percent say they have used text shortcuts like “LOL” in schoolwork. Admitting that texting and IMs are weakening writing skills nationwide may not be trendy, counterintuitive, or good fodder for an article in Wired. But most indicators suggest that this is exactly what is happening.

Daniel Fromson is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly. He previously interned at Harper's Magazine, and he has written for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.


  • Disputo on October 05, 2009 9:03 PM:

    she seems unwilling to concede that we can draw few conclusions about American college students at large from a study of undergraduates attending one of our country’s most prestigious universities.

    What an ugly, unsupportable statement! What makes you think that Professor Lunsford is referencing in her comments anyone beyond the students at Stanford?

    You apparently didn't even bother checking out the Stanford Study of Writing website, or you might have found this excerpt hidden in plain sight on the "About" page:

    "The Study has several major goals: to provide an overview of student writing at Stanford; to trace student development in writing across a five-year period; and to use findings to inform the work of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, the Stanford Writing Center, and, if appropriate, our Writing in the Majors courses. In addition, the Study seeks to make useful contributions to the increasingly relevant literature in longitudinal research of writing development and toward improving writing instruction across disciplines in the undergraduate years."

    Quite clearly the study is aimed at assessing changes in the writing ability of Stanford students.

    I'll make a guess here -- that you didn't bother reading anything at the SSS website at all -- much less asked Lunsford to comment -- and instead just drew all your conclusions based upon her comments as filtered through the _Wired_ article. One might call that "selection bias."

    It appears that you have violated the cardinal rule ofn writing -- check your sources. Ah, but who will intern for the interns? Who will fact check the fact checkers?

    You owe Professor Lunsford an apology.

  • MNPundit on October 05, 2009 11:50 PM:

    Disputo has a pretty solid critique, but there's another problem in the article. The statistics.

    Is this actually a symptom of declining writing ability? Did these students previously use formal language 64% more -- or informal language that was not from texting?

    If there's an actual loss in terms of the skill of writing, let's here it. I fail to see why in and of itself, using text based language actually means writing ability is reduced. Moreover there is one point in the article that is iron clad, once done with highschool or maybe college, how often are the skills used?

    Instead you dressed up the phrase "She knows persuasive language, she is lying to you all!"

    So you see, I can do perform just as well as you can in department of insinuations. Thanks for reminding me why Political Animal is the only part of the site I visit regularly.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 06, 2009 1:08 AM:

    But most indicators suggest that this is exactly what is happening.

    Pray, what indicators are these and how do they suggest this? This seems like an unusually important assertion to make in this context yet leave unsubstantiated.

    Perhaps the Pew study you mention supports this. However, the statistics you quote from it do not. The fact that students are inappropriately using the informal Internet/texting register for formal writing alone doesn't tell us that, prior to this, their writing was correctly formal.