When television first began to exert its magnetic force on American culture, Marshall McLuhan responded with the idea of the post-literate society, a world where families would sit around their cathode ray tube and happily satiate their newfound passivity. With the emotional pull of television drawing people in, the interest, the necessity, and therefore the ability to read and write would naturally wane.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to post-literacy — digital media, and digital media’s favorite format — text. Back in the (merely) literate society, text appeared in books, newspapers, mail, signs, and we even wrote or typed on paper as well. In the digital age, however, we have all the old formats, but we can also send and receive text on our televisions, on our cell phones, and of course, on the web.
Since text is the least data-intensive content to distribute, text is everywhere. Text is not only easy to manipulate, it’s easy to generate and distribute. Anyone online can create a web page any other person on the planet can see. More recently, the blog has appeared, which enables users to easily publish much longer pieces on the web — something much more like nineteenth-century letter writing. The blog phenomenon is much more widespread than you’d (or at least, I’d) imagined: According to the Perseus Development Corp., in 2003, over five million blogs were created on the web — and that number will double next year, according to The Growing Blogosphere (http://cyberatlas.internet.com/big_picture/applications/article/0,,1301_3088661,00.html#table2).
Although many of these sites are quickly abandoned, those numbers still boggle the mind. The staggering ubiquity of text has become a critical component to the social lives of our students. Students write in electronic media to maintain friendships, flirt, and arrange dates — all the social minutia so critical to their lives. It behooves us, as educators, to exploit this trend for all it’s worth.
Here’s a simple idea: give each class a blog and have them write three substantial (at least a paragraph or two) comments per week. The comments could be original points or responses to other students’ comments. The subject matter should be left wide open, but within the bounds of good taste.
Most importantly, although what they write might be discussed in class, as long as they participate, there would be no grades involved. Without the stick of grades, the kids will write better, and their blog will become an opportunity to explore a process than a chore that might include punishment. Students can then be introduced to other blogs, which include some of the best current writing. Since they will be using exactly the same technology to create and distribute their writing as the pros, the students can start thinking of themselves as real writers, creating content for a real readership, personally responsible for what they write. And the best part is that the students will never ask why learning to write on the web is relevant to their lives.