Deborah Brandt’s essay, “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century” (1) explores the autobiographical and societal shifts that complicate the development of literacy at the individual level. While the essay was published in 1995, we can use it as a basis for thinking about the kinds of literacy students bring to First Year Composition. Students today are surrounded by literate culture, both print and electronic. From a young age, these students (Millenials) have access to world through social media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. They bring a certain sophistication to the classroom that is accumulated through constant access to texts. However, there is a burgeoning issue of conflating different media. We witness informal text-speak in the classroom because this is often the comfort level at which students write. They bring many complicated, brilliant ideas to the table but have yet to learn the process of discerning the rhetorical situation.
Social media conflates written text with speech and such text is treated as the informal conversation. The dangerous implication for many young students is that written text is the spoken, and therefore the Victorian novel (or any earlier written text) is simply a reflection of antiquated spoken language. Brandt writes in her conclusion, “as changes in literacy have speeded up in the twentieth century, literate ability has become more and more defined as the ability to position and reposition oneself amidst literacy’s recessive and emergent forms.” (666) Our students are uniquely capable of identifying a rhetorical situation and positioning themselves within that situation when it comes to social media. They simply struggle to do the same in the context of older printed texts.
Katherine Hayles  suggests that the electronic hypertext is a dynamic written space whereas the printed page is traditionally a flatter medium. She writes, “The electronic author who types the same sentence then goes on to consider what behaviors and animations should attach to the words, in what font and color they should appear, on what background and over (or under) what layers, to what other texts or structures they should be linked, and so forth.” (81) Hayles’s essay, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis” was published prior to the major movements of Web 2.0, yet it anticipates such dynamic uses of coded language. Our students are visually oriented and I think there is evidence that their thought patterns — at least on the page — are influenced by the interlinked nature of the hypertext mode. Many of these students tend to jump from idea to idea without conventional transitional phrases to signify the move, leading to a sort of circularity to their writing. Brevity and linking define the habits of these students. To engage in their mode, I have included ‘reaction gifs’ in this post that convey with simple visuals abbreviated meanings with the minimum of words.
Further, I think it can be argued that this 24 hour access to internet culture and constant consumption of ideas in brief has shifted the concepts of editing and publishing as part of the composition process. Being able to immediately delete and change text at the sentence level before publishing to the internet seems to have established a perception of the draft as a static, final product rather than an ongoing work in process. These students are used to engaging with social media in which they compose and then immediately publish. My own students struggled with the concept of multiple revisions — both global and local.
[1.] Brandt, Deborah. “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century.” CE 57 (1995): 649-668.
[2.] Hayles, N. Katherine. “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media Specific Analysis.” Poetics Today 25.1 (2004): 67-90.