"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Of Declining Literacy Rates and Technological Natives

June 27th, 2017 by

Many of my students have heard from the elders in their communities that they have short attention spans. And their grammar is bad. These problems have resulted, they have been informed, from their uncritical use of too much social media. Or, as it is sometimes said, social media has caused a decline in the literacy rate, and they, my students, are the living evidence of this decline.

Most of my students will simply take this. They will nod and accept this assessment during class, even add what they consider evidence to the claim. I try to seize on this as a moment to introduce the purposes of doing research, or, at the very least, reading widely. I ask them to challenge what they’ve been told about themselves.

Since this notion is not based on research but on people’s experiences of other people, I suggest that I can refute it by telling them about the many people I know over 50 who cannot think or write and have short attention spans. Then I tell them about what I’ve read, that technology has long been blamed for what are always perceived as declining literacy rates—for this, I remind them of what was once written about TV, radio crooners of the 1930s, and even Plato’s hatred of writing, which he held would destroy memory. I tell them that this is a bit of research I’ve actually done. But I ask them to consider what evidence would be needed to support the idea that their generation is responsible for a declining literacy rate. How is literacy mapped? Does it mean the same thing to us today that it meant in the 1950s?

I explain that the research for such claims in either direction will need to be conducted along many different lines. For example, most of us don’t remember the 1950s. But that doesn’t mean that we can assume they represented a better time. We will need to find out what people thought about literacy at the time—especially the Soviet scare with Sputnik and the sudden need to raise test scores in the sciences. It is my hope that in discussing just this one issue that I will have drawn a continuous line for them from their own writing and reflecting on personal experience to thinking about the nature of knowledge that is found in other forms of research and discovery.

This is, of course, one way to begin to reflect on the nature of knowledge behind the writing my students will do. Valuable research, I want to demonstrate to them, is discursive and tied to their concerns, both personal and professional. Research is not something trivial, something outside of themselves, something simply dumped into a paper that doesn’t extend our thinking. I will sometimes have them freewrite on the questions we raise.

The point in all of this is to begin to provide a scaffold for research. Nearly every opinion they’ve been given on every subject has come from their community. In research, we look for ways to understand the ways that an opinion, which seems obvious and given, is really covering over complexities.

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