Today, I am reposting a commentary I wrote while I was the Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois. At the time I taught classes in journalism and shared this with my students. It still resonates with me even though I wrote it about ten years ago. Please enjoy and feel free to comment.
Recently a professor (I won’t say who) created an outline for a new course called: “Writing for Nonreaders in the Post-Print Era.”
The course carried the following description:
“As print takes its place alongside smoke signals, cuneiform, and hollering, there has emerged a new literary age, one in which writers no longer need to feel encumbered by the paper cuts, reading, and excessive use of words traditionally associated with the writing trade. Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era focuses on the creation of short-form prose that is not intended to be reproduced on pulp fibers.
“Instant messaging. Tweeting. Blogging. Facebook & Google+ updates. Pinning. These 21st-century literary genres are defining a new “Lost Generation” of minimalists who would much rather watch Modern Family on their iPhones than toil over long-winded articles and short stories.
Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets glimmer with a complete lack of forethought, their Facebook updates ring with self-importance, and their blog entries shimmer with literary pithiness. All without the restraints of writing in complete sentences. w00t! w00t!
Throughout the course, a further paring down of the Hemingway/Stein school of minimalism will be emphasized, limiting the superfluous use of nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, gerunds, and other literary pitfalls.”
Students must have completed at least two of the following.:
ENG: 232WR—Advanced Tweeting: The Elements of Droll
LIT: 223—Early-21st-Century Literature: 140 Characters or Less
ENG: 102—Staring Blankly at Handheld Devices While Others Are Talking
ENG: 301—Advanced Blog and Book Skimming
ENG: 231WR—Facebook Wall Alliteration and Assonance
LIT: 202—The Literary Merits of LoLcats
LIT: 209—Internet-Age Surrealistic Narcissism and Self-Absorption
There is obviously some truth at work here. When one talks to editors in the world of book publishing it is apparent that we are definitely entering the post-print era. Few students I talk with tell me they actually read a book for pleasure. It is always for a class.
When I ask students about John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker—even Earnest Hemmingway, only a few can tell me much about these authors and what they wrote. If they have read these writers at all it is because some American Literature teacher in high school assigned them to read one of their books or essays.
Take some time over a weekend to read a good book—one that tells a story, not some self-absorbed treatise on how to find your spiritual center or why you are so important, I tell students. You might actually enjoy it—and without a doubt, you will learn something.
When I discuss writing with journalism students, who should have a keen interest in writing well, I tell them that the best way to learn to write well is to read good writing. They should then learn to imitate that writing—not copy or plagiarize it—but imitate it. Eventually, they will develop their own style of writing, but most important, they will become better writers simply because they have developed a life-long romance with and respect for the English language.
So while Facebook, Google+ and My Yahoo may be places to chat and hook up; while the blogosphere is a place where tedious pontificators can congregate with little if any accountability for truth; and while twittering is the latest e-rage, they are all poor substitutes for substantive literature, fine journalism or intelligent conversation.
The university is the place where an appreciation for good literature, fine journalism, and intelligent conversation should be cultivated and enjoyed. It is, after all, one of the few times when students will actually have the time to take pleasure in these things.
Once they enter the world of gainful employment, their focus will shift to one of survival, meeting deadlines and accumulating “stuff.”
Reading well will be considerably more challenging. And one can only hope that they will not find themselves “Writing for Nonreaders in the Post-Print Era.”