Old literacy, new literacy

High school and college term papers are “old literacy,”  while blog posts are “new literacy,” writes Matt Richtel in the New York Times.

“This mechanistic writing is a real disincentive to creative but untrained writers,” says Cathy Davidson, a Duke English professor and author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Instead, her students “publish 500- to 1,500-word entries on an internal class blog about the issues and readings they are studying in class, along with essays for public consumption.”

Across the country, blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses. On its face, who could disagree with the transformation? Why not replace a staid writing exercise with a medium that gives the writer the immediacy of an audience, a feeling of relevancy, instant feedback from classmates or readers, and a practical connection to contemporary communications? Pointedly, why punish with a paper when a blog is, relatively, fun?

Because, say defenders of rigorous writing, the brief, sometimes personally expressive blog post fails sorely to teach key aspects of thinking and writing. They argue that the old format was less about how Sherman got to the sea and more about how the writer organized the points, fashioned an argument, showed grasp of substance and proof of its origin.

In 2011, 82 percent of first-year college students and a majority of seniors weren’t asked to write a single paper of 20 pages or more, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement. In 2002, 80 percent of high school students weren’t asked to write a history paper of more than 15 pages, reports Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review.

“We’re at a crux right now of where we have to figure out as teachers what part of the old literacy is worth preserving,” says Andrea A. Lunsford, a professor of English at Stanford. “We’re trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”

Students love writing for an audience, she’s concluded. Instead of spending a term writing a research paper, her sophomore students turn out a 15-page paper in the first few weeks.

Once that’s done, they use the ideas in it to build blogs, Web sites, and PowerPoint and audio and oral presentations. The students often find their ideas much more crystallized after expressing them with new media, she says, and then, most startling, they plead to revise their essays.

So, it takes time to develop ideas? Who knew?

I’m an old-literacy gal who’s been blogging for 11 years now. I started in mid-January, 2001. There’s a big difference in organization, argumentation and content between a set of PowerPoint slides, a blog post, an essay and an academic paper.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ah, this topic again. It seems like every time we turn around someone is saying that the world has fundamentally changed, and that there will be fundamental changes to how things are done, how people will think, and what sort of things we do in our lives.

    Bottom line: the main difference between old literacy and new literacy is that the old literates, those who can work quickly and easily through the production of a 40-page term paper, have little difficulty “gearing down” to work in the new literacy media — it just takes a day or so’s acquaintance with the style and convention.

    Gearing up from new to old literacy is next to impossible — because the thinking demanded is so much greater.

    (Shameless plug!) For a more nuanced presentation of my views on this very topic, please see:


  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Ann Althouse had some well-written thoughts on this on her blog.


  3. For the last several decades, we’ve been producing “graduates” , both at HS and at college levels, who really don’t know the difference between “I think” and “I feel”; they’ve been allowed (even encouraged) to treat their feelings about something (everything) as facts. They’ve been writing endless personal narratives, as if the intensity of their feelings made their opinions worth something. It’s important to be able to write in the third person, to take a position and support it with real evidence. Being able to do this will never be a disadvantage in the real world.

  4. Mark Bauerlein also responded to this topic: http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/blogs-and-term-papers/43368.

  5. What’s to say they can’t learn both? Use the new literacies as a way to get students interested and invested in finding out more about a topic, with the ultimate final product being something in research paper form? I find students today find the whole process difficult because they don’t have much experience with research papers. While that’s a problem, you have to take students as you get them. When you give them a chance to blog, get critical feedback about their thoughts from fellow students and instructors, you help them to learn the kind of thinking you want them to do. Lamenting the fact that they don’t know how to write a 20-page paper and then forcing them to do it with no supports isn’t going to make for a fun batch of papers to grade, and they won’t learn much. Isn’t learning the point?

    I would also make the point that it’s important for students to get some experience with traditional research papers. If any of them choose an academic career, they will need that experience. Academia is not quick to change its requirements in writing papers, even if you can submit them electronically these days.

    That whole, write-about-your-feelings thing is so irritating, but that’s my personal bias. Having watched elementary kids struggle with sharing their opinions (because they’re too young to have formed opinions from personal experience alone), I’ve come to believe those feelings essays don’t teach them a thing or encourage them to write. It’s easier to look up facts and write about those, and at least you learn some content in the process and you actually get some writing on paper that they can begin to improve upon. Just my two cents, there. I know other teachers find better luck with that sort of writing and kids than I do.

  6. Does it have to be one or the other? That’s as myopic as criticizing the schools for holding on to the traditional forms. The standard, conventional, and “old” forms of literacy have great value in terms of critical thinking. For one, they do not come naturally. Thus, they require a higher level of thinking that rattling off a blog post.

    Certainly, writing is evolving and expanding. But Matt’s point is a bit silly.

  7. J. Remarque says:

    The prof who advocates this is at Stanford…so her students are paying $37,000 a year not to learn how to think slowly and deeply, but to write blog posts, make YouTube videos, and fiddle around with Powerpoint. In other words, they’re paying tons of money to get a credential that shows they can do things they already know how to do…things they’ve probably been doing on their home computers, for free, for years.

    Really, if you’re paying for a once-in-a-lifetime education at a top university and you’re spending hours blogging and making Powerpoints, you’re being cheated, especially since you’ll never know how much you don’t know.

  8. Cranberry says:

    Duke’s enrolled students’ median SAT scores range from 660 to 750 (critical reading), and 660 to 760 (writing). (25th and 75th percentile for each range)

    These students are supposed to be “creative but untrained?”

  9. I don’t think there’s a future where these kids’ future bosses are telling them: “write me up a competitive analysis of our product versus the product from company X – and remember, I mostly care about how you FEEL about it.”

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    There ought to be a font or an emoticon for extreme, hyper, over-the-top exasperation.
    Lacking those, I’ll say, this crap again. Among other things, many of the new programs seem to have the inadvertent effect of reducing the amount of work the teacher brings home. Surprise.
    Said it before. Got a fraternity brother who’s made a living as a bassoonist, runs his own chamber group, plays in a pretty good symphony, teaches at an advanced level. Been at it forty years. In college, he spent endless hours in the furnace room doing scales and other exercises. You want a spooky sound, listen to bassoon scales coming out of the heat duct at two in the morning. His view was you need to know how to blow when the ideas start to flow. Something like that. His scanned better.
    Oh, lord. Those poor kids.
    They’re too young to blame for taking the easy way out believing it will do them some good. Nobody’s told them any different.
    I had a writing prof who made us stick to a single paragraph for our assignments. Boy, is that some kind of mental wringing-out.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      My Jesuit high school frshman English teacher had us write a *one* paragraph essay each week – 125 to 150 words. By the end of the year, we were fairly good at writing paragraphs. This was useful starting sophomore year.

  11. Richard aubrey,

    This line “You want a spooky sound, listen to bassoon scales coming out of the heat duct at two in the morning” made me laugh so hard that I nearly hurt myself! Just that visual brought years of college back. I miss college…