By Anonymous, June 12, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
As a new "twitterer" I am often asked whether Internet culture has finally and disastrously reduced discourse to 140 character blurbs. The question is fixed on Twitter's effect on the writer, not the existential questions raised by projecting oneself into the impersonal Web (blogging, which often seems to be little more than a version of talking to oneself in a mirror, has exposed that concern already). As a professor who daily confronts the tragedy of today's student's writing, I however, find something hopeful in the craft of twittering.
The most glaring fault of my students' writing these days is its self-indulgent character. Our campus newspapers (college-sponsored and independent, left and right all share this characteristic) reveal the extent of the problem; articles are thrice as long as anything printed in the New York Times, awkwardly self-reflexive, and fragmentary in structure. Student writers drone on for columns, unconcerned about whether the reader is following. Bland exposition is interspersed with—I suppose they think this is engaging—asides about the act of writing the article itself. Assertions and observations abound; coherent arguments are lacking.
The same qualities appear in students' assigned work. They resist—resent—any insistence on a thesis as an arbitrary standard imposed on the act of free expression. Papers are rambling thoughts, undisciplined by structure. More troubling, they lack any concern for signaling to the reader exactly what it is that the paper is about.
It could be argued that this form of public writing grows out of the culture of Web 2.0. Blogs reverse the order of printed texts by putting one's most recent thoughts first; there is no expectation that posts follow on one another. What came before threads backwards into oblivion. Facebook, for instance, is an engagement with writing that does not demand an explanation of itself; whether you are writing something of value is decidedly not the point, the only point is to express (advertise? project?) your self. That others might find your writing important, interesting, truthful, or valuable is simply not relevant to the form. Material is provided for the reader's perusal, it is presented rather than elucidated.
Twittering shares much of the same flaws. Tweets (the 140-character installments on one's Twitter feed) scroll downward as time passes. Older comments of those you follow (the Twitter identities one subscribes to) flow out of sight, drawing your attention to the immediate. The more people you follow, the faster the scroll. Because tweets are limited to 140 characters, they are by nature a limited form of expression. There is little follow-up, little direct engagement, and no way of knowing whether anyone reads what you write.
That said, constructing a tweet requires some artfulness. With no room for digression, every word must count, every sentence contain a complete thought. It has the powerful effect of focusing your thoughts and your words. It forces experimentation with grammar and punctuation, and more important it forces the writer to consider how the sentence will be read. Wit (twit?) as well as clarity are valued, and it is not considered appropriate to complete a thought in multiple sequential tweets. Words are pitted against one another for relevance, tone is sacrificed for lucidity.
Journalist John Dickerson recently captured something of this quality of twittering. (He observed that Republicans have been making effective use of Twitter. Hereís Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, in an incredibly cogent 140 characters:
Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said 'time to delivr on healthcare' When you are a 'hammer' u think evrything is NAIL I'm no NAIL.)
Misspellings and shortenings aside, that's a substantive 140 characters. Dickerson comments: "Twitter isn't going to stop politicians from sprinkling banalities across the land, but it exposes their banalities for what they are." Further, "if a politician is unpleasant, small, and conniving, it'll be hard to hide for very long on Twitter." Twitter, it seems, can help distinguish some (limited) forms of good rhetoric from the bad. Writing good sentences divides good twitterers from bad, as does composing oneís complex thoughts enough to put them into a sentence. That kind of awareness of language, audience, and content, canít be bad for public discourse. And it can't be bad for my students.