Saturday, April 21, 2007

Dave Winer gets it.

Dave Winer, the self-proclaimed creator of RSS, podcasting, etc., has an interesting piece in his blog which is tangentially related to the ongoing struggle of mainstream media, newspapers, et. al. to compete with online media outlets. In Trouble at the Chronicle, Dave makes the case that the ivory tower of journalism is crumbling, and perhaps the best thing for journalism is to make everyone into a qualified journalist:
[R]eform journalism school. It's too late to be training new journalists in the classic mode. Instead, journalism should become a required course, one or two semesters for every graduate. Why? Because journalism like everything else that used to be centralized is in the process of being distributed. In the future, every educated person will be a journalist, as today we are all travel agents and stock brokers.
Yes. Fantastic idea, but we need a name for it. Hmm, people are composing ideas, and, of course, we want them to take this class as soon as possible to immediately contribute to society... freshman year should be right. I know! We could call it Freshman Composition!

Don't take my sarcasm as a criticism of Mr. Winer. He is absolutely correct. He has a fantastic vision for the populous press. Hell, he kind of invented it. If blogging, podcasting, The Writable Web, WikiEverything, and all of the other Web-2.0-ish things are going to succeed in enriching people's lives instead of reducing us to a crumbling mass of idiots, then we had better make sure that folks produce a good product.

The problem is that even college-level composition is not taken seriously. My degree is in Engineering. I, and many of my peers, complained about having to take Liberal Arts classes, also called the "General Education" requirement for our degree. This can be taken one of two ways: either we didn't think those subjects were important, or we didn't think the classes were worth the time. One of those points indicates a problem with the students, one indicates a problem with the school, and there are definitely people in both camps.

I am not a particularly gifted writer (you have probably figured that out if you made it this far), but I still did not feel like I enriched my writing ability in college. Granted, when teaching a large and diverse crowd, it is better to go slowly and make material accessible to most people than to go quickly and leave some students behind. But seriously, there were issues. If students complained, the teachers are too afraid of a bad teaching review to stand up to the students in a real way. Writing assignments were large and infrequent, meaning they were a temporary burden to be alleviated as quickly as possible. "Calorie-free" is the term I use to describe such things devoid of substance (see also: 300, xXx, and just about anything on Cable TV right now). It leaves a flavor behind, but doesn't ultimately affect you.

(I should note that the last paragraph is not entirely true. I took a senior-level Technical Writing composition class, and while we did have the infrequent, monolithic, completely-possible-to-do-the-night-before-so-why-even-try-type assignments, but we also had to compose one blog entry per class. Our teacher, Cat, was well-focused on making us into better writers and probably did so with a majority of the class. But even she was unable to overcome the aforementioned shortcomings which are very carefully tended to and grown by modern academia.)

At any rate, school, even college, has been relegated to a minor inconvenience on students. The same for high school. If we want to build a smart population of bloggers, of if we want people in general to contribute on the Web, we need to teach better writing and, more importantly, better critical thinking. I've blogged before about the need for critical thinking in reading blogs, but it is equally needed in writing.

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