Talking to Yourself: Online Writing, Restricted Code & Social Fragmentation

Why is online communication so toxic?  Why does it often feel like different groups are talking past each other?  One reason might be the type of writing digital spaces encourage.  Simply put, much digital discourse—on blogs, news platforms, social media, etc.—is marked by the use of restricted (rather than elaborated) codes centered around emotionally laden, community-specific keywords.  As we’ll see, digital space incentivizes this sort of writing.  Indeed, restricted codes are often an efficient means of communication.  But (and this is important) they are not well-suited for communication between groups.  Therefore, the use of restricted codes may contribute to the sense of disconnection we often experience online.

The distinction between restricted and elaborated codes comes from sociolinguistics.  In a restricted code, certain words act as a form of shorthand—pointing to an entire complex of ideas.  This allows meaning to be conveyed with fewer words.  Such writing can be used when the communicating parties share a set of assumptions or experiences.  Elaborated codes, on the other hand, are more explicit.  Terms are defined and the connections between ideas articulated.  The text, in other words, provides more direction as to how it should be interpreted, thus allowing similar meanings to be made by people with different sets of assumptions.

Digital writing is often highly restricted.  This makes sense for a number of reasons.  First, reading on a screen is hard.  It’s physically taxing (compared to print) and within the digital environment, there’s a lot of other stuff vying for our attention.  The writer, therefore, to get read, needs to condense meaning.  It also takes time and energy to make a text more elaborated.  Digital texts are often produced quickly; both tech platforms and the current media environment push writers to emphasize quantity over quality.  Once again, this equals more restricted texts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that in the digital world, venue increasingly helps determine meaning.  As noted, restricted codes work when the writer and reader share a set of assumptions.  In a world where each reader controls her information flow, the mere selection of a venue should equate, roughly, to a defined set of assumptions.  If I’m an urban liberal, for example, I’m probably not going to read Brietbart.  A Brietbart writer, in turn, because he doesn’t need to “speak to the other,” can use a more restricted code.  A sort of feedback loop develops.  As the Brietbart code becomes more restricted, it becomes less likely that liberals will choose to read the Brietbart text.  The Brietbart writer is thus free to make his code even more restricted, and so on and so on.

From the above analysis, we can see why, when trying to communicate online, different groups might seem to be talking past each other.  As noted, an elaborated code can “stand on its own”—it contains all the information a reader needs to make meaning.  To understand a restricted code, on the other hand, a reader needs to hold a certain set of assumptions.  If she doesn’t, the text can only be read with great cognitive effort and/or is more likely to be misinterpreted.

Let’s take a look at how the above ideas play out in practice.  Twitter missives are perhaps the ultimate example of a restricted code.  Consider the text of a recent tweet:

It’s so sad to see toxic masculinity destroy relationships between dads and their children. on the contrary: kindness, love, and tenderness are foundational to being a good man and father.

This tweet received over 800 likes, indicating it successfully conveyed meaning to its audience.  The nature of this meaning, though, is not apparent on the face of the text.  This is because apart from the seemingly illogical “on the contrary,” no direct guidance is given as to how to connect the tweet’s two sentences.  A shared definition of the term “toxic masculinity” is needed to establish this connection and make the message coherent.  The tweet’s intended audience, or many of them anyway, can access such a definition.  For them, the tweet reads something like:

It’s so sad to see [a societal demand that men not show emotion] destroy relationships between dads and their children. on the contrary: [displays of emotion such as] kindness, love, and tenderness are foundational to being a good man and father.

Understood in this way, the tweet makes a coherent claim.  Integrally, though, if a reader doesn’t have access to the shared definition—if they are operating with another set of assumptions towards the emotionally charged keyword “toxic masculinity”—they will not have access to this claim.  The message will likely appear illogical or as a cliched “attack on men.”  In other words, because of the highly restricted nature of the code, only readers who already basically agree with the writer can grasp her meaning.  As such, this sort of writing acts as a barrier to communication between groups.

Interestingly, the same keywords often circulate among different communities, where they have different, but equally implicit definitions.  Consider a recent Fox News article entitled “This Father’s Day let’s call toxic masculinity what it is.”  Though longer than the above tweet, this piece is also written in restricted code.  And again, it is almost incomprehensible to an outsider.  The author’s primary claim is/seems to be that the conventional ideal of manliness is good, needed and under attack.  The discussion turns around the term “toxic masculinity.”  The academic left accuses manly men of having “toxic masculinity.” They insinuate that manliness is to blame for the actions of sexist workplace monsters.  Apart from this “they insinuate” there is no further attempt to define what “toxic masculinity” might mean to the writer or his opponents.  Again, I’d argue, an explicit definition is unnecessary.  The article’s intended readers, by virtue of having chosen to read a Fox News op-ed about toxic masculinity, can be assumed to share an implicit definition of the term.  A simple reference to it invokes an entire complex of ideas, emotions and identities (undoubtedly negative), which the writer can then work against.

The tribal nature of behavior online has long been noted.  The above analysis indicates that the very language we use might be fueling this tribalism.  As noted, the use of highly restricted codes is driven by structural incentives.  That means that for people (like me) interested in curbing social conflict, there is no easy solution.  It does seem, though, that a general recognition that certain types of language are more likely to be ignored or misinterpreted by those different than us is an important first step.  Perhaps our best option is to learn to read our own texts better—to recognize the implicit definitions and missing connections—and start to take pride in being (more widely) understood.

Notes Towards a Production-Based Assessment Model For First-Year Composition

I’m currently reading Asao Inoue’s award-winning Antiracist Assessment Ecologies (which happens to be available for free from the WAC Clearinghouse).  There’s a lot to this book, some of which I challenge.  On one point, though, Inoue has me totally sold: the importance of evaluating student writing based on energy expended rather than adherence to some standard of quality.  Inoue frames his argument in terms of “labor,” and lays out an elaborate system by which, via grading contracts, students cooperate to set the conditions of their labor.  Though, as noted, I don’t agree with Inoue on every point, his argument got me thinking about how I would go about transitioning from a quality-based to a labor-based assessment system in my own writing class.  Here are some notes towards that end.

Let’s say we have a typical required freshman writing class in the University of Pittsburgh format (Pitt is where I got my PhD and the system with which I am most familiar).  In such a class, I would probably assign four essays (plus drafts and revisions), 10 or so short writings or blog posts, and a presentation or multimedia project.  Pitt encourages portfolio grading, so rather than grades for each assignment, students get a preliminary grade mid-term and another, final grade, at the end of the course.  Grades are to be based on the student’s progress towards the English department’s course goals for FYC.  These goals are:

  1. Engage in writing as a creative, disciplined form of critical inquiry.
  2. Compose thoughtfully crafted essays that position your ideas among other views.
  3. Write with precision, nuance, and awareness of textual conventions.
  4. Revise writing by rethinking the assumptions, aims, and effects of prior drafts.

I think these are pretty progressive grading criteria.  They stress revision and writing-to-learn, and don’t place undue emphasis on formal correctness.  Inoue’s claim, though, is that even enlightened grading criteria like these disadvantage users of non-dominant discourses and in general cause lots of problems.  As noted, he wants to assign grades (his model assumes we can’t escape grading altogether), based on the amount of time a student spends laboring for the class.  He proposes to keep track of this labor through journals, self-reflective writings and other modes of self-reporting.  For him, whether the product of the student’s labors shows traces of “engaging in writing as a creative, disciplined form of critical inquiry” simply doesn’t matter.  It’s the process he cares about, not the product.

I too care about process.  I should note, though, that unlike Inoue, I don’t see all discourses as equal, value-wise.  While I won’t go into detail about it here, I do think some types of writing and thinking are better than others, in that they help their users engage with the world in more generous and flexible ways.  Simply put, I have ideas (undoubtedly culturally inflected) about what makes for good writing.  I use these ideas to guide my teaching activities.  And I don’t want to stop doing this.

That said, I agree with Inoue that it might not be particularly fair or effective to grade students based on how well they emulate my ideal discourse.  My goal, above and beyond any sort of specific product, is to help students increase their meaning-making abilities.  Increase in meaning-making ability, I’ve found, comes about primarily through practice.  Students need to read, write, revise, and in general, engage with the ideas of others.  I want my grading system to incentivize these activities.  It seems that Inoue’s labor-based grading methods might excel in this regard.

So how would I go about applying a labor-based assessment program within the Pitt system?  Following Inoue, I think a good place to start is to assume that if a certain amount of work is completed a certain grade is to be assigned.  If all 10 blogs posts and four essays are completed, for example, the student receives a B.  In Inoue’s model, students can achieve an A by writing longer papers.  In my model, I would take a similar approach; students can “level up” by completing a fifth essay after the required four.

Though I want to adopt Inoue’s principal of labor in a general way, I feel the need to make some changes.  One of his key insights, I think, is the importance of conceiving of the writing assessment environment as an ecology.  This means that all the parts of a writing course—and how texts are judged within that course—should be seen as mutually sustaining.  Assigning grades based on labor expended works in his classroom because of the intricate groundwork he lays for such a program (discussions of what “labor” might mean, activities to keep track of that labor, etc.).  Because I have different students and different scholarly interests, I need to allot my resources differently.  I therefore can’t lay the groundwork necessary to sustain a pure labor-based model.

In light of the above, I propose that I assign grades based on assignments completed rather than “labor” in the sense of hours worked.  This gets rid of one potential problem (students being deceptive about how much they actually worked), but adds a new problem: students who complete assignments only in the most perfunctory way.  What if a student spends only minutes on an essay and hands in nonsensical drivel?  Is it fair that he gets a B like everyone else?  It does not seem fair.  To guard against this, in my production model there would have to be explicit guidelines for what each product must contain.  The trick, of course, would be to establish guidelines without going too far and forcing adherence to a dominant standard.  This is difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible.  I think we can ask that student writing contain certain features while still being true to the spirit of Inoue’s argument.

How might we do this?  Let’s consider the types of activities required in an FYC class at Pitt.  First, for drafts there’s really not much of an issue: any student who submits a set amount of words on a set date receives full credit.  Likewise, blog posts or other informal writings can be judged by a similar standard.  Essays are a more complicated matter.  To see how we might set non-oppressive guidelines, let’s consider the four essay sequence I teach at Pitt.  It typically looks something like this:

  1. Personal narrative regarding the student’s experience with a conflict of their choosing (with “conflict” described as any situation where there’s no easy answer);
  2. Application of a course reading to the conflict;
  3. Outside research regarding the conflict and application of these ideas to the personal experience of the student;
  4. Synthesis which combines and expands on the ideas in the previous three essays.

As noted, in a typical quality-based assessment environment grades are assigned based on the degree to which student writing aligns with an ideal standard (at Pitt, the standard is captured in the course goals).  In my adapted labor environment, production is key.  If the student does the work, she gets full credit.  But how do we judge if one “did the work” rather than just filled up the page with gibberish?  It seems to me that the answer is to establish, for each document, a clear set of required formal features.  These features should be “objective” enough that there can be little debate as to whether they are present.  Obviously, this requires a radical simplification of our assessment criteria.  Let’s take the first essay in the above sequence as an example. To get full credit for this assignment, we could ask that an essay contain:

  1. A certain number of words;
  2. Some description of events presented in chronological order (this feature marks a narrative);
  3. Use of the pronoun “I” (this feature marks a personal narrative);
  4. Some description of two or more options or choices for some person or group of people (this feature marks a conflict).

If a piece of student writing can be arguably said to possess these four features, the student receives full credit for the first essay, no questions asked.  Formal features relevant to the second essay might include reference to a course reading and at least two quotations.  For the third essay, we might increase the number of sources referenced to three and the number of quotations to five.  The key point is that whatever features we demand, the criteria must be explicit.  The student must be able to judge for himself (and know for certain) whether the assignment will receive full credit.  In this way, I’d argue, the power to “give” grades is largely taken out of the teacher’s hands.  At the same time, though, because they must adhere to basic standards, students are held to account.

So what’s the point of all this?  What might we gain by moving from a system in which the teacher’s subjective interpretation of quality is paramount, to a production-based system in which assessment criteria are equally available to both teacher and student?  What might we lose?  Let’s take the latter question first.  What we obviously lose is the ability to use grades as a motivational tool.  Let’s me be clear: I will still comment on my students’ essays and those comments will still be designed to move my students towards the type of writing and thinking I like and value.  The only difference is that now, my words won’t be backed by the force of a grade book.  I honestly don’t know what the results of this might be.  Even without grades, it seems, the teacher-student relationship will still be marked by an uneven power dynamic: my students may still try to suss out and emulate what they think I want.  It does seem, though, that without the pressure to please the teacher for a grade, students may be more likely to take chances, to engage in the type of writing they like and value.  This, in turn, might increase their investment in the writing process.

In particular, I can think of two types of students who might benefit from my production-based model. The first group consists of users of non-dominant discourses (these are the students that Inoue is primarily concerned with).  Because matters of usage, language, etc. are no longer part of the grading framework, students formerly penalized for such matters might be newly empowered.  Any student willing to produce the pages, no matter their facility with the dominant discourse, after all, can get an A.  The other group that stands to benefit, it seems to me, are highly motivated, slightly neurotic students.  These are the ones who approach you on the first day of class and announce that they must absolutely get an A.  In pursuit of top scores, they spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to do exactly what the teacher wants (and worrying that they have failed).  It seems that with their grades assured, this type of student can direct their mental resources towards more productive and self-determined ends.  They might be able to relax a bit, which very well might lead to better, more sophisticated writing.

As noted in my first paragraph, this post represents merely notes towards a labor-based assessment paradigm.  My thoughts at this point are undoubtedly fragmentary.  I am excited, though, to apply some of Professor Inoue’s labor-based principles in my classroom.  Ultimately, practice will reveal the best path to take.

ESL Manifesto

As someone who has taught writing to both native English speakers and second-language learners, I’ve noticed something of a “two cultures” situation between these ventures.  The former is dominated by English departments, generally, while the latter is dominated by linguistics.  These two groups have different ideas about how writing should be taught.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about where my own views fit in.  To help figure this out, I’ve drafted a short statement of how I teach writing, a “this I believe” statement, you could say.  Here it is:

  • A writer improves by writing.  The job of the writing teacher is to create an environment in which the writer has to write.
  • To write is to create meanings (interpretations of our shared world) and make those meanings understood.  As such, the student writer must receive constant feedback as to how her meanings are received.
  • Increased linguistic sophistication is achieved when a writer is forced to create meanings beyond the forms on which she normally relies.  The learning environment should be structured to encourage such movement.
  • Conscious knowledge of the writing act (grammatical rules, names for textual features or stages of the writing process) is useful to a limited extent.  The introduction of such knowledge should always be subordinate to active meaning-making.

Reviewing my claims, a number of things stick out.  First, as is perhaps apparent, I make no distinction, on a theoretical level, between teaching native and non-native speakers.  In all cases, I’d argue, teaching writing is a matter of triggering the innate human tendency towards meaning-making.  We learn a second language, I’d say, the same way we learn a first language: by doing it.

Second, my sidelining of the conscious elements of the learning process might surprise some.  Now, I admit that some knowledge of basic textual forms is beneficial.  For example, the idea that it often improves uptake to say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said (introduction-body-conclusion) is something everyone should know.  In my experience, though, by the time they get to me (a university writing instructor), most students already know such rules, at least in the abstract.  If there’s a problem, it’s that they can’t actualize this knowledge.  This means that presenting ideas about how writing is or should be is usually not an efficient use of class time.  Instead, the students should be the ones producing the content.  They should be doing the writing and thinking, not the teacher.

Third, the ecological nature of writing should be respected.  Smaller units of discourse are inevitably shaped by the larger units of which they are a part: a word gets its meaning from a sentence, a sentence from a paragraph, etc.  This means that you should be very careful about decontextualizing language units.  Consider the sentence.  If you want better (richer, more technically correct) sentences, you can’t focus solely on individual sentences.  Instead, each sentence must be engaged within a larger discursive structure.  This is what I’m trying to get at when I speak of students creating “meanings.”  Meaning, as used here, is a complete idea, projected into the world for a purpose.  This purpose, in turn, shapes each sentence, paragraph, etc.  By focusing on meanings (instead of decontextualized units) students learn to engage in the dialectic between part and whole which is inherent in the writing act.  This helps them become better writers.

Finally, the value of difficulty should be acknowledged.  Students must write, but to grow, they must do more than just write: they need to move beyond the forms they typically rely on.  This implicates content.  Students need to be forced to write about things they haven’t written about before.  And these topics should be complex (relevant to the student’s current level).  Even if students are writing every day, I’d argue, their growth will be limited if the topics they are writing about are too simplistic or too familiar.  In such cases, they’re just displaying their abilities, rather than expanding those abilities.

That’s it.  The above ideas are largely draw from (American, English-department based) composition theory.  I honestly don’t know how they would be received in ESL circles.  But I welcome any discussion the above might spark.

Is Literacy Inherently Liberal?

Yesterday I wandered into a dark corner of the web: the comments section of some obscure right-wing clickbait purveyor. As a writing teacher and student of rhetoric and composition, I find such spots fascinating.   Some thoughts.

First, what is up with all the misspellings and crazy grammatical constructions? I ask this question in all seriousness. Let’s be clear– I am in no way a SNOOT. In fact, in my writing classes I make an exaggerated show of not caring about grammar. But still, on this particular website, almost every comment contains non-standard language. Why?

The easiest explanation is that the people attracted to right-wing clickbait (stories about hero police dogs, etc.) are simply not very “literate.” They are older, perhaps didn’t go to college. This lack of linguistic sophistication is reflected in both consumption (what they choose to read) and production (their commentary).

Let’s unpack this further. In this case, sophistication = socialization. Proper bourgeois subjects like myself (and most likely my reader) have been trained in certain habits of thought and action. These include linguistic norms and rules relating to evidence, logic and narrative coherence. We write in Standard Written English (SWE), understand the world via Standard Bourgeois Logic (SBL). Our click-baited friends, for whatever reason, have internalized different standards. To us, therefore, both their choice of reading material (“libtard teacher stomps on flag”) and language use (no distinction between your and you’re, seemingly random capitalization) seems alien.

The above is pretty basic stuff. A more interesting question is whether discursive practices and social/cultural/political values are linked. Does the internalization of SWE and SBL push learners towards a certain political alignment? Or in other words, if one can write a coherent paragraph is he or she less likely to be attracted to the ideas underlying “Obummer” clickbait?

This is a difficult question. Of course there are both left-wing and right-wing clickbait websites. And of course, one can be discursively sophisticated and hold right-wing views. It does seem though, at least from my admittedly bias perspective, that the least “literate” discourses lean conservative. Hence my titular question.

How to Write the Internet

Let’s talk about writing. Specifically, how to write for a broad audience about complicated, rather esoteric topics in a public, online forum (such as this blog). I’m a writing teacher, but at the moment, I will admit, I don’t really know what such a space requires. One of my goals in starting this blog is to find out.

Stylistically, I want to keep it simple: short paragraphs, as little jargon as possible. I want to talk about big issues in rhetoric, philosophy and education in a way that’s interesting and accessible to people both inside and outside of academia. So in a way, this project involves translation. It also involves practical application. In short, I hope to show how abstract scholarly concepts can help everyone, not just scholars, better understand the world. We’ll see how that plays out!

I may not know what I’m doing, but I do know what I like. In that regard, I’d like to present two recent articles, both from, which I think well represent “how to write the internet.” The first is “The Myth of the Hero Cop.”  Here, David Feige shows, quite persuasively, I think, how the US public’s adulation of police officers is both ill-founded and socially destructive. It’s more dangerous to be a black man in Baltimore than to be a cop—that’s a powerful claim. And it makes this article a powerful (and important) piece of public rhetoric.

The second is about little league sports. Here, Justin Peters draws upon personal experience and scholarly sources to make what I feel is a rather counter-intuitive argument about how organized youth sports basically suck. The perspective (as with the previous article) is fundamentally pragmatist, I.E. concerned with real-world thinking and being and its effect on lived experience. This is what I respect and what this blog will try to emulate.

Until next time.