Nancy Herther

By Nancy K. Herther, Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota (

In Part 2 of this series, Nancy interviews five of the top experts whose work is helping understand and define the new 21st century world of writing. The interviews focus on the major issues and perspectives raised by the questions/concerns found in part 1 of the series: “Social Media: The 21st Century Communication Standard?” 
Part 3 features answers to individual questions posed to each interviewee and will be posted next week.

(Click here to read Part 1 & Part 3)

NKH: As a mother of a 23-year-old son, it’s always been surprising to me that he was never required/taught cursive. Certainly it has come due to technology-availability rather than some accepted shifts in cultural/educational pedagogy. How ‘radical’ a change do you see this? Is this permanent? Can we expect more rapid cultural shifts in the future due to globalization/technology?

Mark Warshauer: Now we are going through another major societal shift through the fourth great development in the human communication and knowledge production (following language itself, writing, and print), with digital media. Only this time the kinds of changes that earlier took centuries (such as with the diffusion of the printing press) are now taking decades.

The first change–due not only to the diffusion of digital media, but also to the underlying economic shifts that accompany that diffusion–is the democratization of writing itself.  A hundred years ago, writing was viewed as a frill for the few rather than an essential skill for the many. The transition to a post-industrial knowledge economy and information society has created the first context in history in which the majority of young people are expected to go to college and learn how to write well. If we are not succeeding at that, that is partly due to the widescale democratization of academic literacy. It was probably easier to teach academic writing to 10% of the population than the majority.

Also, as you point out, writing is now being fully separate from penmanship, which is probably also a democratizing thing, given the challenges learners with special needs and others have to master cursive. This is not without some pushback (e.g.,, of course.

But yes, I do believe that changes are rapid and likely permanent (see my attached introductory chapter to one of my earlier books) and I expect they will continue to accelerate.

Kathy Mills: Educational practices are certainly changing, at least in part as a response to the increased circulation of digital texts, technologies, and practices. It’s a world in which young people, like your son, are now required to use changed technological and material resources for communication for most aspects of life – education, work, social networking and so on. Changes in digital practices for reading and writing have actually been going on for over three decades now since the advent of home computers and then the internet, but there are transformations still to come in what I sometimes refer to as the “digitalisation” of print. For example, how many things did you write with a non-digital tool today? I wrote a 5-item list to take to the shops – resisting the urge to download an app for that!

Ruth Page: In the UK, my experience has been that students are still taught cursive handwriting at school and still hand in all their work in handwritten forms, but this sits alongside being taught a range of IT skills so that students know and are able to develop skills in other kinds of digital literacy (e.g. creating typed texts, PPT, publisher etc etc). So I don’t see the changes in what is being taught in pedagogic contexts as a ‘radical’ break but more as a ‘both/and’ scenario where new skills are taught alongside old.  Also there is much more to writing than the digital/handwritten forms – knowing how to write for a particular audience and in a range of styles is also important. I don’t know what kinds of cultural shifts we will see in the future, but technology will only be part of this (e.g. changes in communication styles are also related to broader socio-economic changes too).

Leonardo Flores: Cursive is a writing technique developed for manuscript and its writing technologies (particularly quills and fountain pens) and was designed not only to speed up writing, but to avoid ink drips on paper because it made writing a smooth, continuous motion that minimized lifting the pen’s nib from the surface of the paper. The invention of the ballpoint pen, typewriter, and shorthand pretty much rendered it obsolete as a technique, though it lasted for a few more generations, in part because people tend to pass on what they learned. Of course we still write by hand, but there are other more efficient ways of writing speedily, such as typing. So it is more relevant for students to learn to type without looking at the keyboard than to write in cursive. Interestingly enough, even that is becoming obsolete as a technique the more people write using touchscreen devices, software that predicts the words you’ve started typing so you don’t have to write the whole thing, and speech recognition software. Even more interesting is the recent development of precise stylus technologies (like the Apple Pencil), which can be used to write on an iPad as if it was on paper, because it brings back a kind of writing, doodling, drawing, and annotation that we lost with the shift to digital and its early input technologies (keyboard, mouse, trackpad). So while the page – now virtual – continues to inform our use of digital media, we are not likely to go back to cursive writing. I think the next steps are going to be about writing/painting/annotating the world through Augmented Reality, as well as in Virtual Reality spaces.

Nicole Wallack

Nicole Wallack: Every day we hear more about studies such as Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer’s work on the relative merits of note-taking by hand or on computer (handwritten notes won); we can dive deep into the work of colleagues from Composition and Writing Studies, with Cynthia Selfe, leading the way all along, on the new kinds of thinking, responding, composing, and communities that are possible when we take these processes into digital environments.  And yet, I heard Debbie Millman, the graphic designer/teacher/industry leader (and the host of the popular “Design Matters” podcast), say recently that the Apple pencil is a favorite recent innovation because it brings the hand back to the work of design. New means of making words and ideas and experiences appear before our eyes in any media are radical and feel that way. What’s permanent is likely to be the speed with which we cycle through new possibilities for producing those words and ideas. If we cannot write by hand or prefer not to, perhaps we speak our words; if we cannot speak, perhaps we glance. I hope only that we retain both the capacity and strategies that slow us down some in the presence of the words we produce so we and others can test them, rigorously.

James Gee: The change from cursive writing is trivial.  Every new technology renders some earlier skills less relevant.  For example, writing and then print destroyed a great many of the memory practices and skills prevalent before print and this was, indeed, a loss.  I am 70 years old and used to write my articles and books by handwriting.  Like everyone of my generation, I could write and read block print and cursive.  I have written by hand so little for the last few decades that I cannot write legibility at all and I rarely ever write by hand.  We can certainly expect further changes, but with outcomes far more consequential than the loss of cursive writing.

NKH: I think your work has made it clear that these shifts (and those to come) are not a minor, temporary ‘fad’ but the beginnings of a very different future. As an academic, how is this influencing your own teaching? Expectations of your students? Your view of future writing and communication?

Leonardo Flores: As an academic that likes to teach student-centered classes, it is important to be able to understand their language and ways of communicating. I therefore study memes, online trends, and new apps and social networks to unpack some of their communication strategies and weave them back into my courses. For example, I have designed and taught lessons such as the Hamlet Memes, Wasteland Memes, and have taught graduate students to teach critical memes, and have offered workshops on bot making. I also design and teach courses that train students to learn to be effective communicators in digital media, such as Digital Media Criticism, Digital Creative Writing, Digital Writing for the Media, and Digital Humanities Internship. I think its essential to prepare students for the kinds of writing that will prevail in the near future as digital media continues to take over as the primary communication channel.

Nicole Wallack: My work does not posit, in fact, that changes in technology are radical in terms of how students think, and what we can do to help them become more effective readers and writers. Perhaps the biggest difference in my teaching is to remember not to be afraid of what learning looks like now, and how different that can seem (and be) to someone like me, who came to literacy in a different age. I do that by making sure there is room in my own classes and work with students and teachers for writing to work across modalities. I also want writing to serve as many purposes as I can imagine for it, and then ask for help with others. That is, all writing is not “content.” So in my classes we write by hand sometimes to sustain that practice, and to play with the stakes of writing in our community. We write in shared online spaces our drafts, particularly, to develop strong capacities to respond to one another at formative phases of writing. The future of writing is expansive and multimodal and inclusive.

James Gee

James Gee: There are too many changes to list here.  Remember these tech changes are happening at the same time that a number of complex systems are interacting to portend disaster (e.g., global warming, global flows of money, casino capitalism, environmental degradation, and massive flows of weather and violence refugees).  So business as usual in schools, society, and government will no longer work, though we are reacting to our problems way too slowly.  Our biggest need is to quickly develop people and institutions focused on true problem solving and a renewed sense of civic space and participation.  Today, the U.S. and the world has record levels of inequality.  Much research shows that large levels of inequality are very bad for the health of everyone in a society (not just the poor) and ultimately bad for the economy. The changes going on in teaching are a double-edged sword right now.  On the one hand there is great interest in creating deeper learning, problem solving, and collective intelligence.  On the other hand there is a rush to make college easier, to inflate grades, and to cater to students who want warm bodies and cold beer more than knowledge from their college days,  This is happening because of the intense competition for students among colleges (including elite colleges competing  for people who can pay the full tuition).  My “newish” book Teaching, Learning, Literacy in Our High-Risk High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human deals in depth with these issues.

Kathy Mills: My students use digital platforms for their learning, both informally and formally, and expect to be able to freely access such resources for their assessments. The largest part of my work time is spent online. Educators, such as myself, are continually broadening their repertoires of digital skills, and looking for ways to keep pace with digital change in their classrooms and communication with students and education stakeholders. I use online digital platforms and social media, like Twitter, WordPress and Facebook, to promote my research projects. I’ve recently bought my own Virtual Reality system because I want to explore the potentials for new kinds of literacy learning in education contexts. I’m also very interested in the potentials of augmented reality for literacy learning.

Ruth Page: I always expect to learn a great deal from my students about how they use technologies, especially services and apps that I don’t use myself and that vary according to international contexts (e.g. how students from China use technology there). My observation is that communication online is increasingly multimodal, and that image and sound are increasingly important as ways that people send messages to each other (e.g. via SnapChat).

NKH: I think one reason I was asked to write this article is the fear that many have about the ‘loss’ involved – especially since this is very generational. What would you tell other academics/publishers who are grappling with these changes, new perspectives by students and the nature concern/interest in what bodes in the future.

Leonardo Flores: I think generational shifts are inevitable, but our generation(s) have the additional challenge of facing a rapid and enormous paradigm shift in writing technologies, more radical that the invention of the printing press. We grew up in a world that had different and separate communication media that was controlled by large companies: arcade and console videogames, print, television, radio, film, and audio recording and playback technologies (vinyl, tapes, CDs). Digital media and the Internet erased and brought together all those technologies and has developed a few new features, and did so in a way that was (and still is) open to the ordinary user. And the education and skills that were taught in school– mostly paper writing based– are no longer enough for a world that uses digital media for communication. This is partly why the Obama Administration launched the Computer Science for All initiative in early 2016. We can expect to see a growth in the digital programming and communication skills of new generations, especially as jobs with this set of skills grow and diversify.

I would advise academics and publishers to learn about what electronic literature has to offer by exploring the Electronic Literature Collection and resources like I Love E-Poetry to get a sense of the possibilities and literary experimentation that has been going on for the past few decades. Publishers in particular need to think carefully about their digital publication strategy, because it has been very slow and print-based in its development and implementation and they really need to begin producing work that explores what digital media can do. I recently created a meme about this. Academics need to keep an open mind when they encounter all kinds of viral phenomena on the Internet, because they show innovative ways in which people will communicate in the future, and shouldn’t be dismissed without taking a closer look. A recent example of note is this cat story on Facebook that has received over 63 million views. This is an example of what I call Third Generation Electronic Literature, a topic I recently gave a public lecture on. In the end, the question is not whether we should tell funny cat stories on the web, but to think about how we can produce lessons, outreach, and other serious work in formats that can reach wider audiences. 

Nicole Wallack: Let us not distract ourselves with too much hand-wringing about loss. In fact, let’s work on distraction, full stop. For me, this means that I want us to continue to rely on practices for teaching, learning, composing, reading, responding that require us to keep improving our powers of observation, analysis, intellectual compassion, and fact-checking. We have so many opportunities in every class, to give people space to see what they think, to engage with the ideas of other thinkers’ and others’ words, to practice what Wayne Booth called, “listening rhetoric,” which is about understanding someone else’s warrants for their beliefs and determining if there are any we share, and to sustain what the poet John Keats called our “negative capability”—so that we don’t make up our minds about what we’re reading and writing impetuously, or without room to reconsider and revise.  We don’t have to mourn our pencils, we just have to wield them.

Kathy Mills

Kathy Mills: We don’t need to be worried about the potential failure of students to acquire skills that were important in the past – we need to look to the skills that students, and all of us, really need now, and in the future. What will digital practices look like in 2030 when children who are starting elementary school will graduate? What role will artificial intelligence play in these workforce change? And what kinds of creativity, social and teamwork skills will they need to succeed in their careers? At the same time, I wonder if parents will still ask their children to sign cardboard greeting cards with conventional pens, all the while bemoaning the lack of proper handwriting!

Ruth Page: I don’t think that ‘loss’ is the main issue at stake, but rather that the styles of communication which can differ in all kinds of contexts (not just technological) mean we need to listen to others more carefully and try to understand their perspectives on what they are saying rather than dismissing what appears to be ‘different’ as ‘wrong’ or ‘incomprehensible’.

James Gee: The Jesuit Walter Ong wrote a class book decades ago –  Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002)—that details the serious losses and gains that literacy give rise to—and the concomitant anxieties to which the losses gave rise.  We face the same issues today, with new losses and new gains.  Ong argued that in the big picture, the gains outweighed the losses in the case of literacy.  It is too early to tell with today’s technology because the humans and human stupidity is much closer to putting an end to civilization and the world today than there were in the age of the growth of literacy.  As to cross-generational, there are plenty of examples of young people working well with adults, but not when the adults are ignorant of their skills, their fears, the world they live in, and the greatly changed nature of life since the baby-boomers were born.

To keep things in perspective, however, keep in mind that so far the washing machine gave rise to more significant social change than has the Internet (by freeing half the population—namely, women—to work) and that books have given rise to infinitely more violence (thanks to how some people have read books like the Bible, the Koran, and the Turner Diaries) than have video games.  Furthermore, lots of people firmly believe God wrote (or dictated) a book—they just disagree on which book he wrote—but no one thinks He designed a game or an app.  We still live in the age of print.

Mark Warshauer: Let me mention two changes that I address in my own teaching. One, this is the first generation that has free and easy tools to produce multimedia, in other words, to compose not only with words but with images, video, and audio. In some of my courses, I leverage this by assigning not only traditional essays but also video essays, or digital stories.

Mark Warshauer

Secondly, while collaborative writing has become predominate in industry and academia for decades, this is the first generation that can collaboratively write in a real-time or synchronous manner, using tools such as Google Docs, and I provide opportunities for my students to do so and hopefully to learn to do so well. I feel these changes are incredibly empowering, giving your people tools for communication previously unheard of.

Leonardo Flores (end comment): New generations entering the workplace, your son’s generation in particular, will face an interesting challenge of innovating how things work. But don’t worry: the skills they bring to the table are needed and they know more about digital media than they think, just on the virtue of growing up with the Web, videogames, and social media networks. They’ll be okay. And my 8 and 10 year old kids–who have already learned coding (thanks to their dad and Kano computers), can do simple programming, create animations, and are well versed in Minecraft and iOS devices– will blend in even better when they enter the workplace, in part because the Millenials initiated the transition. The ones I’m concerned about is the ones whose parents don’t expose to television, videogames, and digital media. They will have the deep focusing skills that books and print media offer, but will have to catch up on everything else and will be at a disadvantage.

(Part 3 features answers to individual questions posed to each interviewee and will be posted next week.) 


Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. Her email is [email protected]