Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Student Writing in the Time of Wiki

When I was in high school and college in the late 60's and early 70's, ads in the back pages of comic books advertised "research services" which were actually mail-order stores which would sell a struggling student a term paper on any particular topic. You filled in the coupon, mailed it in with the appropriate fee, and received in return a paper prepared by ... someone. It was cheating, and it helped many poor students achieve academic credentials they would never have been able to earn on their own.

Today's version of the coupon in the back of the comic book is a dizzying array of online services offering the same "research assistance," and millions of websites offering information on any conceivable topic. You can easily download a paper on any topic - frequently for free - or lift blocks of text from documents or websites and plug them directly into your own academic work. As an article by Jason Johnson in last Sunday's Washington Post says with tongue in cheek, "Cut and Paste Is a Skill, Too" (read the article at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/23/AR2007032301612.html).

When all the information you need is available online, able to be instantly Googled, cut, pasted, formatted, and turned in hours (even minutes) into the paper previous generations of students labored for weeks to research and write, what's the problem? Doesn't it produce the same paper while saving lots of time that can be used for other things?

Well, yes and no. Using Google or other search engines to find information online doesn't contribute to the ability to do proper research, sift and evaluate information, and properly cite sources. You never know for sure who created the website you pulled your information from, what that site's original source of information is, and how accurate it might be.

And cutting, pasting and reformatting blocks of text from other documents to kludge together a new document of your own doesn't help you learn to write clearly and convincingly. Every day in my job I see example after example of awful writing done by people who supposedly have college educations: sentences that don't make sense, paragraphs that wander without focus, egregious spelling errors (the spelling checker doesn't help you if you use "too" instead of "to" or "two"), subjects and verbs that don't agree, and so on. People you've never met will make judgments about you on the basis of what you've written (especially if it's a resume). If all you know to do is cut and paste, you won't sell yourself very well.

If you're a parent, one of the best gifts you can give your child is the ability to write well...not just grammatically, but clearly and convincingly, buttressed with solid and well-documented research. They'll hate you now, but they'll thank you later. And when I have to read and act on what they've written, I'll thank you, too.

Have a good day. Write something. More thoughts tomorrow.


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