Sunday, August 30, 2009

Plato and Saussure

In the August 24, 2009 edition of Wired magazine, writer Clive Thompson shares some not-so-surprising news on some theorists belief that technology has killed people's ability to write and that "texting has dehydrated language into 'bleak, bald, sad shorthand' (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned)."

Turns out, Thompson writes, that many of those theorists are completely off-track, particularly when one takes into account the findings of Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University who has organized a project called the Stanford Study of Writing to analyze and study college students' prose. Dr. Lunsford collected close to 15,000 student writing samples between 2001 and 2006; finding that "technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions."

Dr. Lunsford's study revealed not only that today's students write more than in any time in recent history but that they're "remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago." (as told to Wired)

She added:
"For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it's over something as quotidian as what movie to go see."
This article seemed particularly relevant to me after coming across this passage in Plato's Phaedrus:
"Oratory is the art of enchanting the soul, the therefore he who would be an orator has to learn the differences of human souls - they are so many and of such a nature, and from them come the differences between man and man. .. he who knows all this, and knows also when he should speak and when he should refrain, and when he should use pithy sayings, pathetic appeals, sensational effects, and all the other modes of speech which he has learned; ... but if he fail in any of these points, whether in speaking or teaching or writing them...he who says 'I don't believe you' has the better of him (448)."
Or this one:
"with them the point is all-important (449)."
After reading both Plato's Phaedrus and the article referencing Dr. Lunsford's work, I would argue that Dr. Lunsford is on to something when she states, "I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization."

As her research shows, today's students write more than ever before - just in different formats. Gone are the long, drawn-out writings of our parents' and more likely, grandparents' generations. They've been replaced by 14o-character tweets, facebook postings and instant messages. What I - and many of my generation- like about much so-called modern writing is that today's writers get to the point. They don't fill their prose with unnecessary fluff and/or jargon. Every word, sometimes every single letter - is carefully thought out to deliver the maximum amount of content in the shortest time frame.

I would like to think that my writing is more like my peers than my parents' or grandparents'. If so, it has more to do with my training and experience in daily newspapers, wire services and TV stations than the more academic-style of writing I learned in elementary, middle and high school. As oft-maligned as it is, news writing is very similar to that which both Plato and Dr. Lansford speak. Journalists have one basic command: keep it short and to the point. News audiences have little tolerance - and even less time - for unnecessary details, so writers/anchors have to drill down to the most basic information for their stories. You know the saying, 'It bleeds, it leads." Well, that's about as basic as it gets. With relatively little effort, a reporter can find and share the answers to these almost primal questions - who did what; to whom; where; when; and if lucky, why they did it. The why matters less to the audience than the where (did it happen in my neighborhood) and the who (do I know him/her) but bonus points are awarded to the reporter who can get the criminal to say why he/she did something in a single soundbite. Exactly how someone did something is another question that always sparks interest- was the person killed with a gun/ax/refrigerator?? Who doesn't dawdle by accident scenes hoping- but not seriously (at least I don't)- to catch a glimpse of a bloody corpse...or go home after passing a wreck to see if news crews had any more luck? It's human nature to want to know what's happening around us and reporters do an admirable job of finding and reporting the facts about issues people care about quickly and succinctly - something Plato seems to consider crucial to good rhetoric/writing.