Is e-mailing more like “writing” or more like “talking”?

The Pew Internet in American Life Project released a fascinating report last month on "Teens, Technology & Writing" that concluded, "Teens write a lot, but they do not think of their e-mails, instant and text messages as writing." As a writing instructor, I wonder about the implications of this — especially whether I'm fighting an uphill battle trying to get students to hold e-mail messages to the same standard as formal writing.

My argument for formal e-mails is that students need to learn to express themselves in many modes, in order to meet the expectations of various audiences. You don't communicate with your friends in the same mode that you use with your family members or bosses or teachers. Writing to people such as the latter — who are in a position to evaluate you (e.g. fire you, give you a bad grade, deny you an interview) — in an informal mode seems immature and irresponsible.

Sure, sometimes e-mails are sent from handheld devices and feel more
like a text message than a letter. And instant messaging happens in the same
place as e-mailing (say, in Gmail) so I can see how people could
equivocate the two. But it seems better that students err on the side
of being too formal than being too informal, especially with people
upon whom they're trying to make a professional impression.

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Celebrate National Handwriting Day

How's your penmanship these days? With the development of more affordable and
sophisticated writing gadgets, American Educator magazine
notes, "It seems the death of handwriting
draws closer every year." According to the article, dozens of studies have found that handwriting instruction improves writing — in terms of not only its legibility but also its quality and quantity.

In honor of National Handwriting Day this week, enjoy this classic essay by Lance Morrow that ran in Time magazine in 1986. He imagines the Toad character from The Wind in the Willows giving up pen and pencil for a typewriter, and then ditching that machine in favor of a word processor. One day, Toad decides to pick up the handwriting habit again and "finds himself seduced, in love, scribbling away in the transports of a new passion."

So why not celebrate handwriting by scribbling a postcard or letter to a friend or relative, who will value it more than an e-mail or text message?  That's what I'm going to do right now…

“The weirdest three hours I ever spent,” student says

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that students in my Mass Media & Culture class were ambivalent toward my critique of digital communication and my nostalgia for analog alternatives. After all, they're members of the "Millennial Generation" (which doesn't even consider e-mailing or texting to be "writing," according to this Pew survey) and I'm just a digital immigrant.

So color me surprised when many of them got sentimental in their reports on the Slow Media Experiment! In this assignment, students spent three hours engaged with analog media or other non-digital entertainments of their choice — such as watching VHS tapes, keeping written journals, playing musical instruments, listening to vinyl records and audio-cassettes, painting, sketching, making ceramics, etc.

As  it happens, many of these college students missed middle-school-era activities that had been pushed aside as their lives got busier (in part due to increasing digital communication). Here's a small sampling of their responses to the experiment:

  • I chose to write in my journal because it is something that
    I used to do every night when I was growing up and haven’t done since middle
    school. I’ve always felt too busy or tired to sit down and write out my
    thoughts after a full day at school or whatever it was that filled up my day.
    Eventually I forgot about doing it all together. This assignment gave me a
    reason to do it again after four years. When I was a kid, writing in my journal
    was a special, almost sacred part of my day. It was a chance to be alone with
    my thoughts. It felt so easy and relaxing. Writing in a diary is something
    truly unique, and there is no digital alternative that can fully capture the
    experience. There is something to be said for sitting down in a comfortable,
    quiet place and writing out slowly and deliberately your every thought and

  • First I practiced calligraphy, an art class that I am taking
    in school. It's non-Western calligraphy, so we
    have been practicing Arabic calligraphic work, which is very interesting. I
    used a pen and ink to practice Arabic letters such as the S, L, J and B. The
    advantage of doing these activities was that it caused me to be really engrossed
    in what I was doing and I wasn’t really concerned with my cellphone or who
    might be trying to reach me at the moment. Doing art was very therapeutic. I don’t
    believe that you can recreate art with digital media tools.

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