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Academic Writing in the Age of Tweets

--Doug Hesse

In the preface to his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson declared, "May the lexicographer be derided who . . . shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay." Thus Johnson affirmed that dictionaries should describe, not prescribe, should explain language as their makers find it, not dictate how they wish it were.

Gregg Kvistad and I recently discussed a related current version of this controversy. Scholars in rhetoric and composition studies now debate the merits of teaching "legacy" forms of writing v. "emergent" ones. After all, there's a vast gap between the traditions of academic writing–especially as we'd idealize them–and the discourse that actually happens beyond campus. One needs look no further than current political campaigns to see what's at stake, when "what works" is not necessarily "what's best." While professors understandably prefer rational deliberations based on assertions, reasoning, and evidence, we actually experience slogans and bon mots, what David Denby characterized a couple years ago as snark (Snark, Simon and Schuster, 2010). Our current political discourse (which likely never had some bygone golden age, anyway) is but one plot in a communicative landscape that ever less resembles the well kept textual lawns of DU, seeded with extended prose, ideas triangulated against other ideas, cited and nuanced.

Lilypads in front of Mary Reed

That's not to say essayistic literacy (to choose the shorthand term of art) is dead. Harpers and The New Yorker persist, whatever their circulations, and all those Kindles and I-Pads are filled with books. Still, there's no doubt that people read and write today differently than we did twenty years ago. We search, link, publish, redirect, and comment, often in multiple channels at once. Memes about binders appear even before a speaker sits down. Texts can be endlessly revised, supplemented, referenced, and remixed. Digital literacy prizes multimodality: the ability to compose in image and sound as well as text. It can convey enormous amounts of information through these exciting channels: writing a piece about Picasso's Guernica? Put in a picture. Contrasting the Lydian and Dorian modes? Insert a sound clip. These new modes increasingly matter not only in the entertainment, civic, and social realms, but also in the workplace—and even in the academy, though we're slower than most, and although slow isn't necessarily bad.

A university writing program that sought only to maximize pragmatic skills for digitized discourse might put relatively little stock in ten page double-spaced Times New Roman. Sure, traditionalists could invoke that whole "liberal arts" business, the sort of thing that has accountants taking history and graphic designers taking physics. But invoking the liberal arts strikes ever more folks this days as a little quaint. Greek, anyone? So the field of composition studies is wrestling with how much new media (of course hardly new at all by now) to teach. What kinds of reading, writing, and production skills should we feature in required courses?

Now, the extended essay is hardly dead, nor should we desire its demise. There are writing situations and purposes that require explicit connected prose. An October 19, 2012 New York Times article by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach ("I'm Right! (For Some Reason)") shows that when politically strident individuals are asked to explain how policy ideas like "cap and trade" or "sanctions on Iran" would actually work, their views moderate. Why? Unpacking complex systems forces people "to confront their lack of understanding." Arguing or justifying one's position doesn't. Essayistic reasoning has a place, then—even an ethical place—in writing.

Just how big should that place be, though? This question ought to concern faculty across campus, not just those who teach first year writing. For example, what should be the ratio of essays to videos that history faculty would have their students produce? The ratio for psychology of blogs to papers? For marketing of highly visual brochures to standard reports?

It's not just a question about old media v. new. There's the matter of genre and audience. Even sticking to purely conventional texts of words and paragraphs, should students write for disciplinary audiences or should they write for broader educated publics? In other words, should they be writing for Science, Scientific American, The New York Times, or The Huffington Post? I think most of us haven't satisfactorily answered that question for ourselves, often defaulting to a kind of bastardized discourse that has some trappings of journal articles in our fields (marked by fussiness over MLA or APA citation conventions, for example). We subconsciously treat our sophomores and juniors as graduate students even as we know they aren't—and likely will never be. We might see disciplinary writing as writing calisthenics for other types, but research on whether and how writing skills transfer to new or different situations is pretty cautionary; success depends at least in part on students having some conceptual scaffolding.

If you twisted my arm, I'd come down on the side of students writing for different kinds of readers in the same course, for expert disciplinary audiences, certainly, but also for smart lay audiences. And if you twisted my arm really hard, I'd argue for more "public" or "popular" writing, especially in general education courses. I'd argue for more traditional prose than for new media, but I'd want a place for both. Most vitally, I'd argue that students need to learn about differences in types of communication; for example, they might contrast different types of texts, for different readerships, in the same course. Students should grasp the virtues and limits of different genres and modes of communication—their affordances and constraints, to use the current fancier terminology. Professors should help them value and connect the different kinds of writing they'll encounter in the academy, the workplace, the polis, and their interpersonal lives.

The academy should, finally, be a place where "what should be" matters, including when it comes to writing. We need to temper "what's popular and works" with the best visions of our individual and social potential. At the same time, we can't be so wedded to tradition that we totally dismiss new forms of discourse. After all, 257 years ago, Dr. Johnson defined the essay itself as "a loose sally of the mind; an irregular and undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition." (It's hard not to think of this as slightly prescriptive, despite Johnson's avowal in the Preface; after all, he famously defined "oats" as "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.") To the credit and benefit of writing, we seem to made pretty fair use of this undigested genre over the past couple centuries.