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To Tweet or Not to Tweet

posted: 3.24.11 by Andrea Lunsford

Today I got a question from a colleague, asking about the decline in student writing ability. “Let’s face it,” my colleague said, “students abbreviate their language and limit their attention to basic appeal strategies when they express their opinions on the electronic interface. How do we teachers elevate the quality of their writing in this digital space?” This strikes me as an important and highly relevant question, and certainly one that we teachers should engage. But it also assumes that the quality of student writing in digital spaces is somehow “lower” and needs to be elevated, and it may also assume that quality of writing can be defined once and for all.

When we stop to think rhetorically, however, we see that what counts as good writing varies enormously according to situation, occasion, purpose, audience, and so on. A brilliant piece of advertising, for example, would make a lousy editorial or college essay.  That’s one reason teachers of writing and rhetoric stress the concept of kairos—that is, knowing what is opportune, appropriate, and timely in a given situation.  In ancient iconography, Kairos is depicted as a young man with a prominent forelock on his forehead.  Seize the forelock and you captured the moment; let Kairos run by, however, and you found that the back of his head was completely bald, with not a strand of hair to grasp at.  I think we need to remember Kairos and the importance of context when we think about the many different venues students write for today.  In informal emails, texts, or tweets, it may be perfectly opportune, timely, and appropriate to “abbreviate language” and “limit attention to basic appeals,” while in a college essay very different strategies are appropriate. It all depends, as rhetors across the centuries have reminded us, on your purpose, your audience, and your rhetorical situation.

And writing quality depends on these elements as well. The student tweet that manages to identify and evaluate a new Korean film in a few words—and then provide a link so readers can draw their own conclusions—would seem to me to be of high quality indeed. In an op-ed in this week’s New York Times, Andy Selsberg of John Jay discussed an unorthodox list of very short writing assignments for his freshman composition course, including tweets, YouTube comments, and Amazon reviews—and sparked a great deal of discussion on the WPA list.

In fact, I am increasingly interested in Twitter because it offers such a dramatic and timely comparison to the concept of copia that was important during the middle ages and the renaissance. Erasmus taught students how to say essentially the same thing in many different ways and in many different styles; with practice, students could learn to produce an “abundance of words and expressions.”  Twitter works in the opposite direction, toward sparseness and simplicity—and toward furthering communication in a very, very busy world. But there’s no reason that these two principles have to be in opposition to one another; rather, they exist on a continuum—from the most spare, succinct statement to the most highly elaborated. The challenge is to engage students in learning when to move to one side of the continuum and when to move to the other. But that’s also the fun of it.

Categories: Rhetorical Situation
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One Response to “To Tweet or Not to Tweet”

  1. Tristan Saldana (Contra Costa College Says:

    @GNS129 is our twitter course page for my English 129 (Grammar and Style) course at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, CA. Thank your for this insightful blog on Twitter. Students have to tweet 20 different sentence patterns for Anne Longknife’s _The Art of Styling Sentences_ by the end of the semester! Let me know what you think.