Millennials and Writing

This article from last week’s NYTimes about digital punctuation and text-message style writing has generated a lot of buzz among secondary school teachers. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished grading forty-four short stories written by my ninth graders, so the stylistic hallmarks of people born in the year 2000 are fresh in my mind.

Nearly every student in this cohort spells the word “okay” without the “ay.” They just render it as a lowercase “ok.” I diligently write each of them a note in the margin telling them that they can either use “O.K.” or “okay,” but never “ok.” I have no doubt that this habit comes from growing up in an SMS/Twitter environment. Whether or not this is a stylistic fight worth dying for is an open question. After all, “okay” isn’t really a word with a long and dignified etymology in the first place. It is relatively recent slang, so why should English teachers defend officially “correct” versions of it anyway? (I fight hard to keep them from spelling “judgment” with an extra E, however.)

Another interesting quirk of these true-Millennials is that they virtually never indent the first line of a paragraph. It’s like they think everything they are writing is a business letter. Ironically, I am composing this blog post inside WordPress’ blogging platform, and the theme I chose for my blog defaults to no paragraph indents. Still, this seems like a change in students’ writing habits that has just occurred in the last few years. I never used to need to remind students to indent each new paragraph.

My own role in all of this is a little ambiguous. I led a school-wide blogging effort, and I am the only teacher at my school who requires students to use Twitter for class. If I am pushing students to work in new media that have their own formatting quirks or character restrictions, am I to blame for the collapse of stylish writing? I don’t believe that to be the case. Students should be able to communicate effectively and with situationally appropriate style in a variety of media. Being able to “code switch” from a formal essay to a blog post to a tweet to a job application is a skill that well-educated people will need in order to find success in our multi-platform, media-rich, first-world environment. In this case, I think more is more. And by the way, many of my ninth graders’ short stories are literary masterpieces. Just because they text a lot doesn’t mean they can’t write like young Salingers or Atwoods when the assignment calls for it,

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