Stanford English Professor Andrea Lunsford says today’s writing instruction should teach students how to become better writers for social media and other interactive online environments.
BY ANGELA BECERRA VIDERGAR
Between LOLs, emoticons and 140-character rants, it may seem like digital communication has only served to stunt young people’s writing abilities.
But according to Stanford English professor and rhetorician Andrea Lunsford, students today are writing more than ever before – just in forms unseen or unacknowledged in writing instruction.
The former director of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, Lunsford said that in today’s world of instant online publication, anyone can potentially have their written work distributed to a wide audience.
“Turn on your computer, write a blog post – and you’re an author,” said Lunsford, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Emerita.
The co-author of the digital-age writing guide Everyone’s an Author, Lunsford said that students are “writing more today than they ever have in the history of the world, and it’s because of social media.” Students themselves “may think it’s not writing, but it is writing, and it’s important writing,” said Lunsford.
Everyone’s an Author includes samples and instruction on how to write online reviews, project proposals, articles on health policy and even Wikipedia articles. Lunsford wants to teach students about writing that makes things happen and is “growing and living.”
Lunsford has authored several widely used writing guides. But with Everyone’s an Author, Lunsford and her co-authors Lisa Ede, Beverly J. Moss, Carole Clark Papper and Keith Walters wanted to provide an alternative to typical writing instruction that “seemed to assume an audience of middle-class, white students that are monolingual and who were writing still on paper.”
The co-authors, English, writing and linguistics professors, developed a textbook that assumed “multilingual, multimodal, multimedia discourse and students of extraordinarily varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds.”
In addition to the more traditional writing forms addressed in other writing texts, such as the academic research essay, the co-authors placed emphasis on areas often overlooked in writing instruction. Their text shows students how to write effectively on media-sharing and crowd-sourcing platforms by integrating words and images and other types of multimedia communication.
For example, a chapter on “Designing What You Write” helps students think about their genre, audience, context, medium and other concerns before making stylistic choices like color schemes, infographics and video and other such narrative tools that are not typically discussed in a writing class.
Lunsford wants today’s writing instruction to challenge assumptions about who is authorized to communicate and in what ways.
“With web 2.0 came participatory experiences by the billions. Young people today are not content to sit back and just consume – swallow – what’s been thought and written in the past 2,500 years. They want to produce things themselves,” said Lunsford.
Teaching the hybrid medium
Lunsford, who has taught writing and rhetoric courses for four decades, became increasingly intrigued by the many forms in which students write while examining the results of the Stanford Study of Writing. The study centered on over 15,000 pieces of writing from 2001 to 2005, produced by a random sampling of undergraduates for assignments in and outside of class and which showed that students were writing across a wide variety of genres.
According to Lunsford, the students preferred to talk about the writing they were doing outside of class.
“They would wax eloquent about a newsletter they were putting out for temporary workers at Stanford, for instance,” Lunsford said, “but only spend a couple of minutes talking about their IHUM [Introduction to the Humanities] assignments,” which were formal academic papers.
Lunsford saw some of this enthusiastic, socially engaged student writing when she recently taught in a Semester at Sea. In the study abroad program sponsored by the University of Virginia, more than 600 students from all over the world sailed around the world while studying college-level courses.
Lunsford said her students got excited about writing for purposes they initiated, like using web-based programs to address issues in countries they visited: One group of students built a website to raise funds for an inexpensive homemade water-purifying device, while another group started a Kickstarter campaign that within a month raised enough money for a young man in Ghana to attend college for a year.
“He’s now in his junior year at the university funded by this group of kids who just got online and started writing,” Lunsford said. “So that’s what I mean when I say there are profound ways in which authorship is happening on the web through social media and other things like Kickstarter campaigns.”
The authors give students examples of how to represent themselves or their causes on platforms like Facebook or Twitter. They suggest amplifying a status update with a “rhetorically arranged” photo, or with special attention to audience and tone – elements that can carry over to academic writing. The authors explain how a convincing Yelp review reflects research skills like how one observes and collects evidence.
Students are now more adept at using different media.
“Students today are capable of producing those forms,” Lunsford said. “Students want to make little films for an assignment. They want to draw a comic.”
Lunsford advocates including graphic narratives in pedagogy and is fascinated by their innovative combinations of image and text. Comics are represented in Everyone’s an Author, as well as in Lunsford’s courses. She finds the hybrid medium works to “engage with our brains in different ways.”
The often collaborative nature of multimedia texts and the digital writing environment reinforces Lunsford’s belief that no writing is truly solitary. The rhetorician points out that even the comments we write in response to online articles are miniature, interactive, published compositions.
The authors point out that students today “write and research not just to report or analyze but to join conversations. With the click of a mouse they can respond to a Washington Post blog, publishing their views alongside those of the Post writer.”
One might question where quality control and ethical responsibility come into play. Internet “trolling” and various form of aggressive, hateful speech are all too common these days.
Lunsford explains that in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, the instructors define rhetoric as “the art, theory and practice of ethical communication,” with emphasis on the word ethical. “We are responsible for what we write and say,” Lunsford said.
She added that when it comes to quality, “the buck stops with you in some ways. If you’re not trying to control your own quality, you’re expecting other people to do it for you. I think that’s a big cop-out.”
That shift in editorial control is part of the contemporary reality of writing.
“Young people today,” she said, “want not just their voices to be heard. They want some control and some authority – some authorship.”
Angela Becerra Vidergar, who received her doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford in 2013, writes about the Humanities at Stanford.
Taking a philosophical approach to the assumptions that surround the study of human behavior, Stanford philosophy Professor Helen Longino suggests that no single research method is capable of answering the question of nature vs. nurture.
By Barbara Wilcox
Studies of the origins of human sexuality and aggression are typically in the domain of the sciences, where researchers examine genetic, neurobiological, social and environmental factors.
Behavioral research findings draw intense interest from other researchers, policymakers and the general public. But Stanford’s Helen E. Longino, the Clarence Irving Lewis Professor of Philosophy, says there’s more to the story.
Longino, who specializes in the philosophy of science, asserts in her latest book that the limitations of behavioral research are not clearly communicated in academic or popular discourse. As a result, this lack of communication distorts the scope of current behavioral research.
In her book Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality, Longino examines five common scientific approaches to the study of behavior – quantitative behavioral genetics, molecular behavioral genetics, developmental psychology, neurophysiology and anatomy, and social/environmental methods.
Applying the analytical tools of philosophy, Longino defines what is – and is not – measured by each of these approaches. She also reflects on how this research is depicted in academic and popular media.
In her analysis of citations of behavioral research, Longino found that the demands of journalism and of the culture at large favor science with a very simple storyline. Research that looks for a single “warrior gene” or a “gay gene,” for example, receives more attention in both popular and scholarly media than research that takes an integrative approach across scientific approaches or disciplines.
Longino spoke with the Stanford News Service about why it is important for scientists and the public to understand the parameters of behavioral research:
Your research suggests that social-science researchers are not adequately considering the limitations of their processes and findings. To what do you attribute this phenomenon?
The sciences have become hyper-specialized. Scientists rarely have the opportunity or support to step back from their research and ask how it connects with other work on similar topics. I see one role of philosophers of science as the provision of that larger, interpretive picture. This is not to say that there is one correct interpretation, rather that as philosophers we can show that the interpretive questions are askable.
Why study behavioral research through a philosophic lens?
Philosophy deals, in part, with the study of how things are known. A philosopher can ask, “What are the grounds for believing any of the claims here? What are the relationships between these approaches? The differences? What can we learn? What can this way of thinking not tell us?”
These are the questions I asked of each article I read. I developed a grid system for analyzing and recording the way the behavior under study was defined and measured, the correlational or observational data – including size and character of sample population – developed, the hypotheses evaluated.
What about your findings do you think would surprise people most?
I went into the project thinking that what would differentiate each approach was its definition of behavior. As the patterns emerged, I saw that. What differentiated each approach was how it characterized the range of possible causal factors.
Because each approach characterized this range differently, the measurements of different research approaches were not congruent. Thus, their results could not be combined or integrated or treated as empirical competitors. But this is what is required if the nature vs. nurture – or nature and nurture – question is to be meaningful.
I also investigated the representation of this research in public media. I found that research that locates the roots of behavior in the individual is cited far more often than population-based studies, and that research that cites genetic or neurobiological factors is cited more frequently than research into social or environmental influences on behavior. Interestingly, science journalists fairly consistently described biological studies as being more fruitful and promising than studies into social factors of behavior.
Social research was always treated as “terminally inconclusive,” using terms that amount to “we’ll never get an answer.” Biological research was always treated as being a step “on the road to knowledge.”
What prompted you to begin the research that became Studying Human Behavior?
In 1992, an East Coast conference on “genetic factors and crime” was derailed under pressure from activists and the Congressional Black Caucus, which feared that the findings being presented might be misused to find a racial basis for crime or links between race and intelligence. I became interested in the conceptual and theoretical foundations of the conference – the voiced and unvoiced assumptions made by both the conference participants and by the activists, policymakers and other users of the research.
Why did you pair human aggression and sexuality as a subject for a book?
While I started with the research on aggression, research on sexual orientation started popping up in the news and I wanted to include research on at least two behaviors or families of behavior in order to avoid being misled by potential sample bias. Of course, these behaviors are central to social life, so how we try to understand them is intrinsically interesting.
What could science writers be doing better?
Articles in the popular media, such as the science sections of newspapers, rarely discuss the methodology of studies that they cover as news. Yet methodology and the disciplinary approach of the scientists doing the research are critical because they frame the question.
For example, quantitative behavioral genetics research will consider a putatively shared genome against social factors such as birth order, parental environment and socioeconomic status. Molecular genetics research seeks to associate specific traits with specific alleles or combinations within the genome, but the social factors examined by quantitative behavioral genetics lie outside its purview. Neurobiological research might occupy a middle ground. But no single approach or even a combination of approaches can measure all the factors that bear on a behavior.
It’s also important to know that often, behavior is not what’s being studied. It’s a tool, not the subject. The process of serotonin re-uptake, for example, may be of primary interest to the researcher, not the behavior that it yields. Yet behavior is what’s being reported.
What advice do you have for people who might be concerned about potential political ramifications of research into sexuality or aggression?
I see political ramifications in what is not studied.
In studying sexual orientation, the 7-point Kinsey scale was an improvement over a previous binary measure of orientation. Researchers employing the Kinsey scale still tend to find greater concentrations at the extremes. Middle points still get dropped out of the analysis. In addition to more attention to intermediates on the scale, there could be focus on other dimensions of erotic orientation in addition to, or instead of, the sex of the individual to which one is attracted.
Similarly, there are a number of standard ways to measure aggressive response, but they are all focused on the individual. Collective action is not incorporated. If the interest in studying aggression is to shed light on crime, there’s a whole lot of behavior that falls outside that intersection, including white-collar crime and state- or military-sponsored crime.
What other fields of inquiry could benefit from your findings?
Climate study is as complex as behavioral study. We’d have a much better debate about climate change if we were not looking for a single answer or silver bullet. The public should understand the complexities that the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] must cope with in producing its findings.