Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Its dem dadbrn fonez

The grad students were reeling and stumbling looking for some way to keep moaning about how horrible the schools have gotten and how their cruel English teacher with the leather mask and gag-ball was the best thing that ever happened to them and that's what schools should be again in order for students to be able to write.

A professor here at Purdue (one that Buffy holds in the highest regard, calling him a sharp reader, and a very diligent stylist) had mentioned to a group of his graduate students that every year he samples submitted undergraduate papers and he quantifies the quality of the work on mechanics and style. Before he had revealed what he has found, all the grad students at the table closed their eyes and nodded dejectedly, jumping in with some form of the seemingly obvious observation: It's just gotten worse and worse. They weren't asking. Not even guessing. Everyone was sure. Students are worse. The professor shook his head. 'No. It's never really changed. It goes up and down. The lowest point was actually about 15 years ago.' That relative stability is what we would expect.

It takes numbers to convince some people. When you're lucky.

Ben Zimmer was on Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins Monday morning, talking about language change in the electronic age. Fellow guests on the show were Cynthia Lewis, Professor of English at Davidson College, and Pam Kelley, reporter at the Charlotte Observer. When Zimmer's phone connection was cut, in the middle of the interview, I actually wondered if he had just decided bail, and let the party spin its mad little tales without him. I wouldn't have blamed him.

In his intro to the hour, Collins mixes in a bit of the should-we-be-worried? panic with a dash of the but-language-has-always-changed sobriety. He leans towards worry, but as the hour goes on he sounds willing to learn. Right as things get started he questions Strunk & White's proscription regarding less, calling it a silly rule. But he rolls over too easily when Kelley and Lewis stand firm insisting that it's just plain wrong. They choose to believe that less doesn't go with countable quantities. Ignoring the fact that— it does. And they both agree that they themselves use it with countable quantities. And neither can come up with a good reason that it shouldn't be used that way other than a capricious and unnecessary rule that does absolutely nothing to improve writing or speaking. It's a rule for the sake of a rule.

Here's a bit from later in the show right after Zimmer was introduced. He comments on the supposed worsening of literacy:

Zimmer: Studies that have been done on the effects of text messaging, for instance, among students [inaudible] have shown that in fact it has not led to a decline in the ability to spell or a decline in literacy rates. In fact it may very well have the opposite effect. There's been some work done in the United Kingdom where text messaging has kind of taken off 5 years before it took off in the US. And according to those studies, in fact texting may have a positive [effect] on student literacy because they're being exposed to so much more reading and writing just through the act of texting.

Collins: Cynthia Lewis? Are you certain he's right about that? You're the college professor.

Lewis: Well I can't say for sure why, but I do know that spelling ability has declined considerably in the 29 years I've been teaching undergraduates.

Collins: Why do you suppose that is? It can't just be spell check— depending on spell check.

Lewis: Well I think students don't read as much as they used to. And they are exposed to—you know, as Ben was saying—a variety of texts some of which are much less accurate than others.

These claims about declines in literacy and writing skill are so easily thrown around as if they represent attested measurements. The professor I mentioned earlier has probably chosen several standards and marks of writing quality that I wouldn't choose. But a few of the things he mentioned were the familiar crumbling pillars. From his work with Buffy I know that he also pays attention to substantial and fundamental matters of organization, clarity, development and style. If he says a word doesn't work, it probably doesn't. The important point in all of this is that his quantification has shown overall stability. And recent improvement.

In the exchange above, Zimmer mentions research that has produced similar results, (he later specifically mentions David Crystal's book on the topic) and offers a simple, believable suggestion, based on the numbers. No. It's not proof. And the study shows a correlation, not cause and effect.* But it's certainly a more convincing argument than anecdotal evidence. And even a correlation problematizes the claim that texting is harmful.

Lewis responds by holding even tighter to her observation. And what of the suggestion that all reading helps develop literacy? She turns it around and suggests that spelling is simply declining, and it must be due the small and sloppy portions of reading that kids are doing. What's her evidence? How does she know they're not reading? Not reading what? What does she mean by worse spelling? Is it there/their/they're confusion? Does she regard that the same as there/thare confusion? Those/doze? Has the writing gone down only since the online boom? Are the students at Davidson the only ones that are getting confused by all these less accurate texts? I don't doubt that she believes the trend exists. And I'm absolutely sure that she can mention a student's paper in the last few years that was horrible horrible. Most Horrible. But that's not much of a case against the state of literacy today. Nor does it make the more specific case for texting as the cause of spelling woes amongst these digital whippersnappers.

Lewis' assurance that the best writers have never been better at her school is probably true at every school in the country. And there might even be some truth to her claim that there's more mediocre (or even bad) writing coming across her desk than there used to be.

But let's separate slight changes in higher education from changes in society. The make-up of the student population has changed. The percentage of males aged 18-24 enrolled in school was pretty much unchanged from 1965 to 1984. In 1965, 38% of females aged 18-19 were enrolled. In 1984 that number rose to 48%. For females aged 20-21 the number rose from 19.5% to 31.7%. And from 22-24 years of age it rose from 6.5% to 14.6%. The weighting of several groups has shifted, as has enrollment in types of programs. How many students are in the classroom that would never have made it past high school years ago? How many students with strengths in specific areas are now given the chance to attend university because of skills other than composition? And how many of those students would have dropped out of high school in the system of 50 years ago, and would have chosen training from a more limited set of options? These are important variables.

But I'm most curious about Lewis' analysis of spelling ability. Is it in fact increased inability that she laments? Or is it increased apathy? Perhaps even increased antagonism. Rogues and rebels armed with wanton pens.

It's unfortunate that with this attitude critics are often unwilling to even see much value in texting conventions as creative problem-solving. When one caller suggests that the limitations imposed by the technology require pragmatic editing, and whittling in combination with time saving techniques, one of the studio guests simply responds That's why I don't text. I just pick up the phone and call. I guess that's one way to avoid bad spelling.

* I'm assuming that Zimmer is speaking of Plester, Wood and Joshi "Exploring the relationship between children's knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes." British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (1), 145-161. But that's just a guess.


  1. I lay it at the feet of the schools, who for years now have refused to correct spelling because it stifles creativity.

    You notice: I don't argue its existence. Those of us in the Real World know students today are just Awful compared to ...

    I can't finish that sentence. When was the Golden Age of Scholastic Perfection again? I forget.

  2. I read a short story once where the narrator, who incidentally was very similar to the author, argued convincingly that the feminist movement of the sixties was responsible for the decline in education. The argument went that before the sixties, women who had degrees from places like Vassar could either teach, be secretaries, or stay at home. After the sixties, those smart women could do something more lucrative, which left only state school dummies to do the teaching.


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