College of LAS « Illinois

Writing Studies

The Writing Project

Writing is on the rise, thanks to new technology.

writing lab

Every generation it seems that someone in the older population looks around at the new crop of students and announces that we are in the midst of a writing crisis. But Gail Hawisher, director of U of I’s Center for Writing Studies, takes issue with this common notion.

“More people in the world are writing today than at any other time,” Hawisher says. “To represent it as a crisis when you see the remarkable work that students are doing in multimedia venues, which is at the heart of being literate today, is to sell this generation short.”

According to Hawisher, there has been a move to broaden the definition of literacy to include composing for multimedia. And in multimedia work, ironically, it’s the younger generation shaking their heads at their less tech-savvy elders, such as a professor who picked up a mouse and tried to use it like a TV remote.

“Writing has always been shaped by technology,” adds Patrick Berry, a graduate student in the writing center. “Early on, if you were not able to type on a typewriter, you would have had a hard time functioning. I think you see this continuing as people find new methods of expression, like blogging or putting together sophisticated multimedia presentations.”

David Stone, a science teacher at University Laboratory High School in Urbana for 27 years, has not seen a writing crisis either. With all of the forms of communication today, from Twitter and texting to online videos, he too believes students are writing and reading more than ever. Despite the occasional horror story of “textspeak” seeping into traditional papers (U C it on occsn), he says his students move easily from one writing form to the next.

“Students today are more versatile and flexible in their writing, hopping from style to style, from texting to blogging to formal papers,” Stone points out. He sees this flexibility firsthand through the ExploraVision Awards, the largest international science and technology competition in the world, which his teams have won in the high school category four times out of the past 15 years. Although a science competition, ExploraVision incorporates a heavy dose of traditional writing as well as writing and producing for a website and video.

Stone’s work in ExploraVision was what first inspired him to check out the U of I Writing Project, which reaches teachers of all grade levels. After seeing what teachers in the program were doing in writing for new technology, he became the first of two science teachers to ever take the workshop in Urbana.

As a funded site of the National Writing Project, the U of I Writing Project is an intensive, four-week program during the summer, and it exploded Stone’s preconceived notions. He dabbled with writing poetry for the first time and has become a self-described “zealot” for the National Writing Project, which taught him that writing is much more than just putting words on paper. He says it’s about thinking, organizing, producing, and presenting, and it’s about using all kinds of new media and technology.

However, the Writing Project is only one of many initiatives of the U of I Center for Writing Studies, which was established in 1990 to work with both students and faculty.

“We also show faculty how they can use writing to increase the learning of their students,” says Hawisher. “Research has shown that active writing encourages you to think differently, and you begin to remember things you’ve read that you wouldn’t otherwise.”

Berry cites the case of a horticulture professor whose students began each class by writing about what they learned during the previous class. When a different professor later dropped the class’s writing exercise, comprehension and grades plunged dramatically.

“Translating ideas into your own words contributes so much to your learning,” Berry says.

Winter 2011