On November 18, the Georgia Tech Writing and Communication Program hosted the Fall Communication Colloquium in which two Brittain Fellows presented on work their students have been doing in class this semester. The presenters did such a wonderful job generating discussion during the sessions (a link to an archive of the Twitter backchannel is here) that we asked them to share their work on TECHStyle in order to continue the conversation. Diane Jackacki’s previous post, Teaching in Real Time, offers insight on how to integrate texts that unfold as we work with them. In this post, Jesse Stommel discusses why and how he uses Twitter in the classroom.
From all the jails the Boys and Girls
Beloved only Afternoon
That Prison doesn’t keep
They storm the Earth and stun the Air,
A Mob of solid Bliss—
Alas—that Frowns should lie in wait
For such a Foe as this—
The student 2.0 is an altogether different animal than the student 1.0. And our classrooms are ecosystems, an environment all their own, where we each must decide how to engage this new species of student. We teeter at a slowly decaying threshold, one foot in a physical world and the other in a virtual one. Our students are no longer just bodies in desks; they are no longer vessels. They have become compilations, amalgams, a concatenation of web sites. They are the people in front of us, but also their avatars in Second Life and the World of Warcraft and the profiles they create on FaceBook and MySpace. They speak with mouths, but also with fingers tapping briskly at the keys of their smart phones. When they want to “reach out and touch someone,” they use VOIP, AIM, and Twitter. They have become more than just ears and eyes and brains to feed. Now, they feed us, and themselves, and each other, with an endless parade of texted and tweeted characters. Shouldn’t we, as teachers 2.0, work with not against the flow of these seemingly errant 1s and 0s?
Consider, for example, the tangible violence technology has wrought upon grammar. We rely on automated grammar and spell-check tools in our word-processing programs (so much that they’re quickly becoming a crutch). E-mail shorthand fails to live up to the grammatical standards of typed and even handwritten letters. And many believe our language is being perverted by the shortcuts (and concision nearly to the point of indifference) we’ve become accustomed to writing and reading in text messages and IMs. Emily Dickinson is an extremely dense writer, using language as though it were a tackle box of subtle tricks, and poems like the one I’ve included as an epigraph already challenge and upset the conventions of grammar and punctuation. But, if she were writing today, her poem might have been stripped of punctuation altogether and reduced to something like, “frm jail bfs and gfs leap and luv l8r to prty 🙁 w8 ttyl E,” or some such seeming nonsense.
For many teachers and writing pedagogues, this is a travesty, a torturous fact of modern life that we all must contend with and defend against in our classrooms. However, I would argue that we are at a moment in the history of the English language where the capacity for something wondrous is upon us. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been other wondrous moments in the evolution of human language, but there has not (and may never be again) a moment just like this one, a moment where the very fabric of how we speak and how we express ourselves through language has become so tenuous that every new textual utterance threatens to either devolve into gibberish or reinvent the very way we speak and write. The evolution of written language is speeding up at an exponential rate, and this necessitates that we, as writing teachers, reconsider the way we work with language in our classrooms. We can no longer be the staid old-school grammarians that taught so many of us to write, nor can we simply dismiss or overlook the teaching of grammar entirely. Rather, we must think consciously (and practically) about how our students’ conceptions of (and contexts for) writing are changing, and we must approach the teaching of grammar in new and innovative ways.
Toward this end, my work here examines the various ways that grammar is taught, pushing upon and interrogating the different conventions and approaches frequently employed. While I would agree that technology has wrought a certain violence upon grammar, I would argue that writing instructors frequently exact an even more punishing and permanent sort of violence. Students aren’t terrified to send text messages or post status updates to Twitter, but they are often terrified to write academic papers.
Text-messaging and the Poetics of Grammar
David Crystal writes, in his book txtng: the gr8 db8, “The popular belief is that texting has evolved as a twenty-first-century phenomenon–as a highly distinctive graphic style, full of abbreviations and deviant uses of language, used by a young generation that doesn’t care about standards. There is a widely voiced concern that the practice is fostering a decline in literacy. And some even think it is harming language as a whole” (7). His use of the word “deviant” here is telling, suggesting that, in the eyes of detractors, text-messaging as a medium threatens not just grammatical errors, but moral infractions. It isn’t just that technology, and text-messaging in particular, threatens to undermine language, but in so doing, it threatens to undermine the very culture upon which literacy is so precariously perched. Crystal goes on to refute this belief a few pages later, writing, “All the popular beliefs about texting are wrong, or at least debatable. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a totally new phenomenon. Nor is its use restricted to the young generation. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy” (9). He points out that the average texter is aware when they are breaking the rules. He or she is aware of the ways that text-message-speak distorts Standard English–aware, in fact, to the point of revelry.
Certainly, one of the primary goals of abbreviations in text or Twitter-speak is to condense an utterance so that it fits the 160 character limit of a text-message or the 140 character limit of a Twitter post (or Tweet). However, there is also a certain charm, a certain playfulness, involved. There is pleasure in the act of composing with these constraints, an intentional and curious engagement with how sentences, words, and letters make meaning. Composing a text-message is most certainly a literate (and sometimes even literary) act. And, interestingly, the average text-message distorts grammar much less than the naysayers would have us believe. In fact, more often, text-messages rely on very conventional sentence structures and word order to create clear contexts for the various abridgments. However, like a poem, a text-message has the ability to condense what might otherwise be inexpressible into a very small and self-consciously constrained linguistic space. And, like a poem, a clever text-message unravels, offering layers of meaning and interpretability for the reader. For example, neologisms are quite common in the world of texting. In a recent exchange I had via text, “hiyah” came to mean both a greeting (as in “hi ya”) and the sound-effect accompanying a karate-chop, a calculated portmanteau, a “hello” that feels like an assault. Granted, this sort of inventiveness may not be rampant in the wild, but the medium certainly offers and encourages this potential.
All things considered, a poet like Emily Dickinson would have probably been delighted to have her work translated into text-message-speak. She writes, in a “A Word dropped careless on a Page” (1261), “Infection in the sentence breeds” (5). The tendency in reading this line might be to turn in disgust–to recoil from the messy juxtaposition of the words “infection” and “breeds”–to read Dickinson’s vision as a morbidly pessimistic one (as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar do in Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship). And yet there is something exultant here–something glorious in the sticky movement from disease to childbearing, a movement that highlights for Dickinson the shift from thinking about a thing to putting words to it. Interestingly enough, the line is itself an infected sentence, a failed sentence, one that does not come to conclusion–one that is aborted just before the expected direct object of the word “breeds.” Breeds what? I can’t help but think of Ouroborus, the snake that perpetually eats its own tail. However, Dickinson’s image seems less exhausting–less a study in futility–and more about inheritance, about a necessary mystery, about evasion, about secretion, about breathing.
Dickinson distorts language, not to hide, but to subvert–not because she is anxious as Gilbert and Gubar argue, but because she sees things around her in new and unusual ways and wants a language, a grammar, that can be brought fully to bear on the complexity of this world she sees. The perversion of language has both use value and intrinsic value for Dickinson, just as I have argued about text-messaging. There is both the end result of concision and the fun to be had in attaining it. There is both the undoing of language for the purpose of making meaning and the undoing of language for its own sake, calling attention to the fundamental oddity of its rules and structure.
Re-Approaching a Pedagogy of Grammar
The challenge, then, becomes how do we teach the conventions of grammar, while encouraging our students to engage with grammar in a truly second order way. Joseph M. Williams, in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, offers a take on the subjects of grammar and style that I find useful in juggling these seemingly disparate tasks. Williams argues that “nothing is more important than choice” (9). It is one thing to make a choice to conform to a writing standard, another thing entirely to be obedient to an inflexible and uncompromising rule. The same is equally true about composition pedagogy. As teachers, our approach to the teaching of grammar should be flexible, maybe even disobedient, deviant, compromising, but certainly conscious.
Williams continues, “if you mindlessly obey all the rules all the time, you risk becoming so obsessed with the rules that you tie yourself in knots.” Always following the rules might lead to a grammatically “perfect” composition, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a good piece of writing that is pleasurable to write and engaging to read. The best writers don’t “obey” rules at all; they exploit them. They understand that rules serve a function, that they’re neither arbitrary nor imperative. The best writers know when to follow a rule and when to ignore it. They know the rules but also know when to break them in the service of good writing.
Many instructors draw a hard and fast line here, demanding that students must know the rules before they can break them. As a student myself, though, I’ve discovered that academic writing often becomes a mere exercise in proving a knowledge of the rules and conventions (rather than an opportunity to create an intrinsically sound composition), an exercise that continues through each course, with each instructor, in each new writing task. The when in which we can begin experimenting with rule-breakage keeps getting put off, again and again, ad nauseam. It isn’t that I would suggest foregoing an attention to grammar and convention from the outset. Instead, I argue that the best way to approach the teaching of grammar is to teach the rules and how to break them simultaneously. It certainly seems sensible to keep these two teaching moments as close to one another as possible. It’s easier to consciously break a rule if the rule is clear in your mind, and playing with and breaking rules is an excellent way to come to a fuller understanding of the purpose and function of those rules.
Ultimately, I would argue that the best way to learn grammar is not by studying a list of rules in a textbook. The best way to learn grammar is through the practice of writing—through the willful and conscious application of the specific rules that fit the specific situation, what I would call a grammar as toolbox approach. Here, I wander back to Twitter and the phenomenon of the text-message. As I’ve observed, instructors are terrified by the presumed devolving of language in the wake of e-mail and text-messaging, and students are terrified by the preemptive strikes loosed upon them by their terrified instructors. I, myself, was terrified to encounter the statistic (in the viral video, “A Vision of Students Today”) that a college student produces an average of 42 pages of academic writing in a semester and over 500 pages of e-mail. In the wake of rapid transformations at work in the technological age, it seems sensible to turn facts like this to our advantage. It seems sensible to embrace the various alternate modes of communication in which students (and we) are proving so prolific.
I’ve recently experimented in my composition classes with an assignment I call a Twitter-essay, in which students condense an argument with evidential support into 140 characters, which they unleash upon a hashtag (or trending topic) in the Twitter-verse. Tweets often attempt to convey as much information in as few words as possible. A tweet could be seen, then, not as a paragon of the many potential horrors of student writing, but as a model of writerly concision. In composing their Twitter-essay, I have students proceed through all the steps I would have them do in writing a traditional academic essay, including brainstorming, composing, workshopping, and revising. I also have them consider and research their audience, the Twitter members engaged in discussion around a particular hashtag. Finally, I have them work dynamically with the Tweets of their peers, responding to them on Twitter and close-analyzing them at length in class. I ask the students to consider their word-choice, use of abbreviation, punctuation, etc. To model the activity for them and to give them a sense for the shape of a Twitter-essay, I compose my instructions for the assignment in exactly 140 characters and post them to Twitter.
For example, in my upper-division writing course, “Queer Rhetorics,” I instructed the students to, “Write an essay about #queer in 140 characters that does real work in the world, not wasting one character. Make something happen with words.” The most interesting response I got to this particular prompt was from a student that had never used Twitter previously: “#queer #kwear #qu’eer #ckwewr #QuEeR #kwier #cawe’re #cwear #q-u-e-e-r #qwere #chweir #kuere #CWEER #qawear #ckuere #qr.” Without even fully understanding the function of hashtags, the student managed to disrupt (or queer) the primary organizational structure of discussions on Twitter. The essay was about #queer in both its content and its form, while also savvily disrupting how we tag ideas within a discourse.
I assigned a similar activity to my current group of composition students working with the concept of “The Posthuman,” another topic that lends itself particularly well to experiments with modality and the disruption of discourse. I asked these students, again in exactly 140 characters, “What is the posthuman? Write a Twitter essay on #posthuman in 140 characters that explores or complicates the term. Don’t waste a character.” More interesting than the responses I got for that particular assignment are the ways my students have taken to using Twitter since doing the activity. It has become a space for investigating and troubling language. Outside of any required class activity, one student recently tweeted, “#Rhetoric is a means by which humans imbue each other with their ideas. Through the use of ideas, authority, emotions, and logic.” My students also decided to send @replies (or messages tagged for a particular Twitter user) to one of the authors we were studying in class, Steven Shaviro, asking questions about and responding to his work in an attempt to bring him into the conversation we were having in class. This particular author, though himself an avid Tweeter, didn’t respond; however, for me, the success of the activity was measured by the hum in the room as the students realized they could use Twitter to communicate directly (and in real-time) with the author of the essay we were discussing that day.
Gary Small writes, in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains . . . Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now — at a speed like never before” (1). David Crystal concludes his book on texting in a similar way, “Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. Some love it. I am fascinated by it, for it is the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. In texting we are seeing, in a small way, language in evolution” (175). Small and Crystal locate the evolution they each describe in different places. For Small, it is our brains themselves that are evolving, whereas for Crystal, it is language doing the evolving, as though words are somehow distinct from the people uttering them. Both identify learning and language as defiantly dynamic processes.
To conclude, I will return to the aforementioned lines from Emily Dickinson, utilizing Dickinson’s approach to writing as a model for contemporary writing pedagogy. She begins, “From all the jails the Boys and Girls / Ecstatically leap—”. For me, the subjects of these lines, the “Boys and Girls,” are Dickinson’s poems. She alludes to this almost explicitly by ending with the phrase “such a Foe as this,” with the word “this” referring, reflexively, to the poem itself. For Dickinson, good writing ought to “leap” and “storm” and “stun.” It is a “Mob,” a “Foe.” Good writing “lie[s] in wait” and “doesn’t keep.” The “jail,” “Prison,” or “keep” is grammar, or convention more generally, from which Dickinson’s lines emancipate themselves. The poem describes students in school, all the more ecstatic for being also unruly…
Anson, Chris M. “Distant Voices: Teaching and Writing in a Culture of Technology.” College English 61.3 (1999): 261-280.
Crystal, David. txtng: the gr8 db8. Oxford: New York, 2008.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1960.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” The Portable Emerson. Ed. Carl Bode and Malcolm Cowley. Penguin: New York, 1981.
Small, Gary. iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Collins Living: New York, 2008.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33 (1982): 148-156.
Williams, Joseph M. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Longman: New York, 2006.
Certain sections of this work were revised from a previously published essay:
Stommel, Jesse. “‘Infection in the Sentence Breeds’: Grammar and the Student 2.0.” The Image of Technology in Literature, the Media, and Society: Selected Papers Presented at the Conference of the Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery. Eds. Will Wright and Steven Kaplan. 2009.