Facebook, The Third ‘R’?: new post on cac.ophony.org

[Originally published here on March 31, 2011.]

How much writing did you do as a first semester undergraduate? 15 pages? 30? 22? 2?

How much should a first semester undergraduate write?

I’ve been thinking about the answer to that second question since I met with a student— I’ll call her Jane—in the midst of a routine day of individual appointments with Introduction to Theatre students. Immediately after I had made an introduction in her class in the early days of the semester, Jane emailed me seeking general feedback on her writing– she is a transfer student from another CUNY college, and is eager to take advantage of Baruch’s resources now that she’s here. Unlike the majority of students who utilize the services we offer when supporting THE1041C, Jane wasn’t panicked about a soon-to-be-due assignment, but wanted a kind of general consultation on her academic writing skills. I asked Jane to send me some samples of her written work, and she told me that so far, she only had blog assignments.

When we met, we spoke about her approach to these blog entries; it was clear that she had given them some thought, but her sentence structure was often confusing, and it took me repeated readings to fully grasp her meaning. In most of her blog entries, she was beating around the bush of her argument or main idea. This isn’t an uncommon problem; I face it all of the time in my own writing, and it is among the biggest issues that our students face.

Jane’s eagerness to write more was what was uncommon. As we talked, she peppered me with questions. How could she improve her writing? What should she be doing differently? What kinds of exercises would help her improve her writing on her own? I had never before had a student actively seeking additional written work, so I asked her about the assignments she had coming up in the semester. I discovered that Jane was not being asked to write very much at all. Out of four classes, her longest assignment was a four-page paper. After talking with her a bit more, a few questions kept popping up:

How do we negotiate the balance between boldly experimenting with new technology and maintaining certain (old) standards of rigor? This question comes out of the sheer lack of quantity (yes, not always quality, but important nonetheless) of writing that I saw this student being challenged with, thanks to word-capped Facebook and blog assignments. Often, adventurous faculty members are juggling many different assessment elements at once– course blogs, maybe a course wiki, too, and then oral presentations, low-stakes writing in class, plus quizzes and finals. Your syllabus is busting out before you’ve even gotten to factor in class participation. So it’s not hard to imagine that having students write  extended essays might be what gets lost in the shuffle.

How do we make the assignment diversity feel relevant, not random? Jane was a little self-conscious about her blog posts, confessing that she wasn’t sure of the expectations in terms of formality. But, as I gave her feedback on them, she also defended herself; these weren’t really evaluated, she explained, they were just graded on the basis of whether she had done them or not. She felt they were an after-thought, and so, that’s how she thought of them: after. (Click here for my own reflections on the challenges and triumphs of course blogging, here for a course blogger superstar story, and here for much more about the phenomenal Blogs@Baruch and profs who are using it to thrilling ends.)

Can we teach code-switching within online social networks? Jane was not assigned any papers in her Sociology course, either. The class has a Facebook wall, where they post pertinent links and have lively conversation about readings and class discussions—even the organizing logic of the course is debated on the Facebook page, which looked to me to be a healthy and vibrant online commons. Still, the Facebook page comments are either 250-300 words or 420 characters. Since Jane is likely using Facebook to communicate with her friends and contacts, too, how will this Sociology professor go about making the distinction between one mode of commenting and another?

Could Jane’s lack of high-stakes writing assignments have to do with work-avoidance on the part of her Instructors (and so what if it does)? Are Jane’s assignments—blog posts about 18th century acting techniques and Facebook comments in response to Sociology theory– examples of radical teaching, or just radical avoidance of the time-consuming task of reading through an 8-10 page (or 10-15 page) academic paper? None of her classes culminated with one of those. (In her Math class, Jane had no writing. In her Great Works class, the bulk of assignments were short—very short, 150 word assignments identifying a certain theme in the literature they were reading.) As is the norm within CUNY, half of Jane’s faculty is adjunct; adjuncts are generally only getting paid for one hour of work outside of their time in the classroom. A Facebook page can easily be monitored in one hour of work, so having students compose 420 characters at a pop could seem like a good way to minimize faculty labor while shaking up the tired old models, too. But there is a vast qualitative difference between infusing your syllabus with a diversity of learning objectives through multiple learning styles and creatively trying to avoid grading 10-page papers from 30+ students.

Are Jane’s assignments  preparing her for future employment challenges? The ability to communicate short, coherent messages is a fundamental expectation of many, many jobs. Just this year, at my “side gig,” I found myself parsing copy for a website, brochure, and even the 140 characters allotted for a web advertising button. These kinds of tasks will await Jane in every one of the fields she expressed interest in pursuing.

Still, these jobs will also expect the ability to sustain an argument (or inquiry into a topic or question)—exactly what is exercised in writing the long essay. Indeed, my friend who does just the kind of work Jane is interested in—communications for a policy organization—is called upon to write everything from one-page letters to the Mexican parliament to lengthy research reports on human rights abuses in Cuba. He is generally not the one tapped to write the blog posts or tweets for his organization, but someone else there is. So if we are giving students Facebook comments and blog posts as assignments, what kind of an evaluative standard should we use to ensure that they’re not just throw-away writings, but reach the kind of level that may one day be expected of them professionally?

I’m not advocating that we willy-nilly unleash a bevy of high-stakes writing assignments on our students, or mandate a standard number of pages of “academic writing” expected of each student. This post is appropriately full of questions, not answers. (And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Write-to-Learn strategies can and should be employed with incredible effectiveness.) And yet, it seems fairly clear that I saw something else happening in Jane’s coursework, and that something seems to be connected to a very worthy kind of experimentation on the part of her instructors. We can’t draw hard and fast conclusions from any one student’s anecdotal experience– and it is important also to mention that Jane was absolutely inspired by many of her classes and professors, and she was motivated to master their individual challenges. And yet, the question nags– what could explain this?– that an undergraduate could be writing so little? And what would you recommend to Jane?