Guest Column

The English Problem in the Digital Age

by MARK BAUERLEIN

English teachers have a special problem with students. Other fields ask them to study unusual and distant things, cells, cube roots and world wars.

English teachers ask them to study the most nearby and commonplace things, words and sentences. “Why bother?” many kids wonder. What’s the point of analyzing a speech by Romeo and parsing a lyric by Emily Dickinson? Words are words, and if we get the point, let’s move on.

The attitude makes for a double duty. Not only must teachers acquaint students to The Scarlet Letter and Hamlet, but they also must show why and how Hawthorne’s and Shakespeare’s words and sentences are different from, and better than, everybody else’s. Students don’t like the second step. It resembles the difference between telling a joke and explaining a joke. One’s funny, the other isn’t.

Speed Rules
With the digital age, the English teacher’s task has turned into Mount Everest. Kids see and say more words than ever before, but their texts and posts and e-mails have only made them less disposed to study the medium. They read, write and respond at lightning pace. Last January, Nielsen Media counted 2,272 texts messages per month for the average cell-phone-wielding teenager. Nine months later, Nielsen raised the tally to 2,900. According to Harris Interactive, half of kids 8-12 years old own one, and four out of five teens do, too. Pew Research Center reports 60 percent of teens have a social networking profile, and the National School Boards Association clocks them at nine hours of networking per week.

The rehearsals add up to an acculturation. By the time they reach senior year of high school, students have internalized a sense of expression that teachers must labor mightily to dislodge. It can be summed up in the epithet “Instant Messaging.” The message matters most, and speed of delivery is essential. The teacher’s slowdown of textual analysis hits them as a contrary experience. Their verbal intelligence has been formed in a crucible of keyboards and “send” buttons, where language is all about communication, not craft. And the kids love it. After winning the $50,000 first prize in the 2009 LG U.S. National Texting Championship, 15-year-old Kate Moore declared, “Let your kid text during dinner! Let your kid text during school! It pays off.” She herself runs up 14,000 texts each month.

Many educators don’t see any problem with digital genres. They address them with a ready tactic: Bring more tools into English class. More wikis, blogs and chat rooms should go on the syllabus. A fair example appears as a report from the National Council of Teachers of English titled “Writing in the 21st Century,” a laudatory rendition of digital composing that hails it as “the beginning of a new era in literacy”.

Educators particularly like Web 2.0 because it empowers the users, making them more participatory and creative with words. For teachers not to encourage and facilitate it is to impose the old and tired model of “I teach, you listen.”

Flawed Outcomes
For all of their enthusiasm and for all the obvious miracles digital technology has brought about, a giant question sits smack in the center of every discussion of adequate yearly performance. Teenagers read and write more than ever before, and digital technology has enabled each one of them to become an amateur composer, but why haven’t academic outcomes followed? Where is the evidence that Tweeting and texting improve their skills?

Here is recent evidence to the contrary:

•  NAEP reading scores for 12th graders are down since the early 1990s and flat since 2002. Whereas 80 percent of them scored “basic” or higher in 1992, 73 percent of them did in 2005.

•  On the SAT, critical reading scores have fallen four points since 1999, and writing scores have fallen four points since 2006 (when they started issuing that section).

•  On the ACT exam, from 2006 to 2009, the percentage of test-takers who met college-readiness benchmarks in English dropped two percentage points, while those meeting benchmarks in reading were flat. Only two-thirds of them were ready for college work in English and barely one-half (53 percent) in reading.

In a survey of college professors, The Chronicle of Higher Education found only 6 percent saying students enter their classes “very well prepared” in writing, 10 percent of them “very well prepared” in reading. When asked to compare students today to students 10 years ago, professors rated today’s cohort “not as well prepared” over “better prepared” by 2-1 (45 percent to 22 percent).

A Resistance Zone
These dismaying results set the optimism of digital advocates in critical relief. Against the urge to digitalize more and more student reading and writing, they pose the troubling prospect that tools and devices that have descended like an avalanche into young people’s lives bear elements and foster practices that hinder their English class achievement.

Before we go any further in digitalizing every square foot of the schoolhouse, educators should examine what we might call the “relevance assumption”— that is, the belief that the best way to prepare students for the real world is to bring as much of the real world, including students’ out-of-class activities, into the classroom.

This time, in English, perhaps the opposite is the case. A better way may be to make the English classroom a resistance zone, a place where reading and writing slow down, where verbal craft is revered, and where, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is, indeed, acknowledged as the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta and author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, or Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30. E-mail: engmb@emory.edu