In Composition 101 at the University of Tennessee, students learn the basic elements of rhetoric and about how it applies to writing they see in the “real world.” U.T.’s textbook, Rhetorical Choices, goes over concepts such as ethos, pathos, and logos and covers the different levels of stases at which writers may or may or not be arguing about a topic (or arguing past each other). These levels include conjecture (does it exist?), definition (how do we define it?), quality (is it good or bad?), and policy (what should be done about it?). "Without an agreement on the first three levels," we tell our students, "nothing can be done about anything."
Based on these lessons, students learn to insert themselves into an "ongoing conversation" (in my class, we discuss empathy) and craft their own arguments aimed at different target audiences. To do this, they must consider things like tone, genre, and how to create their own credibility—not an easy thing for some of the poorer writers to do.
It's a good class that covers important material, but, frustratingly, the heavy focus on rhetoric leaves little time to work on writing itself. (After all, teaching the students to write is—fairly or unfairly—what the rest of the university [and the world] expects us to do.)
For this reason, for the past several years, I have incorporated additional readings from Stephen King and William Zinsser into my class. We read about simplicity and the importance of cutting clutter in our writing, and about avoiding adverbs and using the active voice. This past week, we looked at King's edits to "The Hotel Story," which the students found fascinating. (Apparently, they thought King was kidding when he said he revises his work.)
To hold them accountable, I've been giving the students quizzes. It's not my favorite thing to do (it's extra work for me, for one), but they need the incentive, and quizzes help me get to know them better, too. Take this kid, for example. In response to, "Whose fault is it if the reader gets lost or bored?" he said, "I'm pretty sure it's the reader's because it doesn't matter how good the writer is or what the topic is, I hate reading." The correct answer was actually "It's the writer's fault," but I laughed out loud when I read his response, anyway.
I laughed out loud, and then I sighed.
Increasingly, fewer and fewer of my students say they enjoy reading and writing. It's not surprising, I suppose. With the rise of social media and apps like TikTok, research has shown our attention spans are shrinking. Even a place as magical as Tolkien's Middle Earth doesn't stand a chance against 30-second TikTok clips or the dopamine rushes from "likes" on, say, one's Instagram account. (Facebook is for old people, by the way.)
What concerns me, though, is the connection between reading and writing (the more we read, the better we write) and their combined centrality to the development of our critical thinking skills. In an article published in The New York Times in 1976, Joan Didion said:
"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what it means."
Her thoughts are echoed by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird (1994):
"Writing . . . is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can't—and, in fact, you're not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing."
Lamott is talking about fiction, but her premise applies to essays like the one I'm writing now, too. Writing forces you to connect "a" to "b" to "c," but also to consider "d," which maybe you hadn't thought about before. It is unlike any other exercise because of its ability to bring both your certainties and your insecurities to the table. Even now as I'm writing this, I wonder if I've bitten off more than I can chew. (Additionally, I wasn't sure where I was going with this post when I started.)
This also ties to Zinsser's thoughts in On Writing Well (1976):
"Clear thinking equals clear writing; one cannot exist without the other."
To tie this back to social media: For all their entertainment value, *social media platforms rarely provide the opportunity for deep dives into complex issues. If they do, they break them up into millions of mini-clips that make it difficult to connect one dot in a larger picture to another. The damage this does becomes obvious when college students struggle to articulate even a simple argument—such as analyzing a writer's rhetorical effectiveness in a given situation—in my class.
Of course, I would never argue that all technology or social media is bad—they offer many benefits that are beyond the scope of this post. As a teacher, I simply wonder what we as a society can do to highlight the continued importance of reading and writing alongside social media, and to discourage the current trend of treating them like relics from the past.
*I don't deny that there are social media platforms that do promote critical thinking. YouTube creators, for example, often take deep dives into issues. I have also heard it said that TikTok is simply the new YouTube, and I know there is good content on it, too—just in tiny clips. ;)
**Additionally, I do not argue that social media alone is responsible for a declining interest and reading and writing, or that all students feel this way. There are many possible contributors.