My proposed unbound project for the Master of Arts in Teaching Writing (MATW) at Humboldt State University (HSU) is the introduction of computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a genre in First-Year Composition (FYC) classes. While this project is only in the beginning stages, it addresses theoretical and political issues associated with students’ current literacies and identities as they assist in or resist against academic language acquisition. The foundational undercurrents of my thesis project are New Literacy Studies (NLS) and Genre theory; NLS is useful in the understanding of extra-scholastic literacies, and genre theory enables writers to recognize the power of genre as an “essential component of making meaning” (Devitt 584).
I initially became interested in the effects of CMC on students’ academic discourse when speaking with an avid gamer (one who plays multi-player online games such as World of Warcraft or Half Life 2). He explained that many gamers communicate in altered forms of English slang. For example, one who is new to a game is called a “newbie,” but this term changed when gamers started saving time by leaving off the “ie” thus creating the altered term “newb.” Slowly, some of these terms make it into mainstream vernacular. In order for the gaming subculture to remain “sub” culture, however, they must change their slang terms thereby determining who is in the know, and who is a newb. When researching video games, I came across James Paul Gee’s Games + Learning +Society, which led me to New Literacy Studies. While the linguistics of the gaming world are interesting, it does not exactly pertain to FYC, so I took one step to the side and began to study the effects of computer-mediated communication (e.g., email and instant messaging) on students’ academic discourse.
Recently, students’ formal academic writing have reflected electronic communication conventions such as acronyms (“gf” or “bf” for “girlfriend” or “boyfriend”), truncated words and phrases (“b/c” for “because” and “b4” for “before” and “u” for “you”), speech-like style and diction, and decreased or incorrect use of punctuation. While such informal language in a college composition classroom seems wholly unbelievable, it does occur, and many professors find it disconcerting. Furthermore, because students readily display many negative effects of electronic communications, some educators tend to deny that there may be positive attributes as well. For example, students who use CMC routinely practice traditional methods of literacy such as reading and writing; I want to argue that students also learn skills that can, if properly exploited, enhance their academic literacy. Instead of ignoring the extra-scholastic literacy that many students engage in, educators can explicitly teach electronic communication as a genre in Freshmen Composition classes. My claim is that direct attention toward CMC as a genre among other genres will improve students’ academic language acquisition.
Furthermore, according to Amy Devitt’s essay “Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept,” genre is not merely rules of form and context; genre enables the writer to “consider the power of differing generic demands to influence results” (583). Devitt urges educators to “acknowledge genre as more than a formal constraint on writers…rather [as] an essential component of making meaning” (584). In order to successfully teach writing, we must recognize, acknowledge, and sometimes exploit the literacies that our students bring to the classroom. In teaching electronic communications, teachers can help students recognize the conventions of social communication and the conventions of academic discourse.
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