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“Old Literacy” v. “New Literacy:” A Five Paragraph Essay

This morning my husband pointed me towards a story in The New York Times. The article focused on Duke English professor Cathy N. Davidson, who advocates for the replacement of term papers with blogging. Speaking of the term paper concept, Professor Davison says that “[a]s a writer, it offends me deeply.” On the other side of the argument is Douglas B. Reeves, who asserts that the rigorous structure of “old literacy” research papers and essays is a fundamental part of learning to think and to advance an argument in a coherent manner. According to Reeves, blogs might be inherently more “interesting” than term papers, but “nobody would conflate interesting writing with premise, evidence, argument and conclusion.” Another academic type says that students are “more impassioned by the new literacy,” finding more motivation and reward in writing personal blogs with immediate feedback and no formal, structural requirements. As a product of the “old literacy” currently enmeshed in the “new literacy” of blogging, I fail to see why the two sides of this pedagogical argument can’t be harmonized.

My background is totally “old literacy.” Beginning in seventh grade, we wrote research papers with a set of rubber band-wrapped notecards. We learned to write a “cogent” five paragraph essay about pretty much anything, and to produce one in 50-minute exam settings. We were learning how to marshal arguments, make a point, and drive it home. By the time I was an English major at Oberlin I was writing at least a paper a week, some very brief and some final papers over 15 pages. I wrote about logogenic and pathogenic music, the quality of ingegno inSir Gawain and the Green Knight, humor in Byron’s Don Juan, and the controversies surrounding Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation.” I did not love it, and it did not teach me to be a better writer. (Reading taught me to be a better writer). What all of those essays, term papers and other formal, academic writings taught me was how to be an organized thinker and a persuasive advocate.

During the years of writing in a rigid format, I always understood myself to be relying on literary training wheels. The rules made sense to me – if I wrote a paper in which my thesis statement was “I believe in capital punishment,” I was simply expressing my own, personal opinion. Unless I was an authority on the subject, no one cared much what a sixteen-year old girl thought unless she was asked, specifically, to write a paper about her feelings on the subject. I also knew that, although it was a clumsy form, the standard issue thesis + support was a recognized academic semaphore, and that if I executed properly, my message would be understood and (usually) well-received. There was a comfort in learning with the training wheels on; I knew perfectly well that I could write creatively, or express my own opinion, but that I tended to be all over the place logically without a little structural support. I am grateful, as a thinker and a writer, that I was given that support so that I could later break free and do my own thing.

Although I see value in learning to write a formal persuasive essay or research paper, there is much to be said for using the available tools to cultivate a love of writing. Blogging is fun, and writing without any rules is a great way to encourage creativity without bringing down the hammer of judgment. A blog might provide just the right opening for a contemporary student bursting with emotions, arguments and ideas that have no place in formal academic writing. As a writer, as a parent and as a proponent of civilized discourse, I see no problem with integrating “new literacy” into the classroom. However, and this is a major “however,” what I see in my son’s education is a trend towards reading very little, and writing even less. At times, the approach to literature pedagogy seems to be much like getting honey from angry bees – tiptoe, keep the creatures happy and comfortable, blind them with a dense fog of popular movies and personal journaling and then expect in high school and college that you will pull out combs full of the honey that is logical, cohesive writing. If todays’ students don’t read, and are never expected to produce a rational argument based on what they read, “fun blogging” becomes not a creative tool, but a default based on the inability to think critically and write persuasively.

In the end, I see enough value in both “old” and “new” literacy that it’s difficult for me to fathom why it would be necessary to choose one over the other. No one ever flunked life because they used “I” in an objective essay, or failed to use three compound and three simple sentences in every paragraph. There is great value, and empowerment in writing freely, unencumbered by rules imposed by dead white guys. A person might, however, be unable to find success in life if she is not able to read, assimilate and explain material on a variety of subjects. The material may be digital, it may come from Wikipedia, but the rules of analysis and explication are not magically suspended in such a way that one’s personal, fluid ramblings provide a feasible substitute for formal argument. It seems entirely possible to develop pedagogy that combines the personal disclosure and freedom of blogging with the rigorous requirements of traditional academic writing. It might take mad skills, and great flexibility on the part of instructors, but it might produce a generation of writers able to express themselves in a range of styles depending on the situation.

And just to show that I was not scarred by my early training, I am ending this five-paragraph essay with a sixth paragraph. It begins with a conjunction, and so far I have not been struck dead. It is worth the risk in order to say this one, last, thing: a person can learn a lot of things in the writing process, be it blogging or the construction of a formal paper, but a person learns how to write well from reading. Accept no substitutes.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

2 responses »

  1. I came here simply because this weblog was tweeted by a young lady I had been following and i am excited I made it here.

    Reply

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