Q: As an expert in language, what do you think of Twitter?
A: I was pressured into becoming a Twitterer when I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times saying that Google is not making us stupid, that electronic media are not ruining the language. And my literary agent said, “OK, you’ve gone on record saying that these are not bad things. You better start tweeting yourself.” And so I set up a Twitter feed, which turns out to suit me because it doesn’t require taking out hours of the day to write a blog. The majority of my tweets are links to interesting articles, which takes advantage of the breadth of articles that come my way — everything from controversies over correct grammar to trends in genocide.
Having once been a young person myself, I remember the vilification that was hurled at us baby boomers by the older generation. This reminds me that it is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it. So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism. I have no patience for the idea that because texting and tweeting force one to be brief, we’re going to lose the ability to express ourselves in full sentences and paragraphs. This simply misunderstands the way that human language works. All of us command a variety of registers and speech styles, which we narrowcast to different forums. We speak differently to our loved ones than we do when we are lecturing, and still differently when we are approaching a stranger. And so, too, we have a style that is appropriate for texting and instant messaging that does not necessarily infect the way we communicate in other forums. In the heyday of telegraphy, when people paid by the word, they left out the prepositions and articles. It didn’t mean that the English language lost its prepositions and articles; it just meant that people used them in some media and not in others. And likewise, the prevalence of texting and tweeting does not mean that people magically lose the ability to communicate in every other conceivable way…
Q: How do students differ today from when you were a student?
A: What a dangerous question! The most tempting and common answer is the thoughtless one: “The kids today are worse.” It’s tempting because people often confuse changes in themselves with changes in the times, and changes in the times with moral and intellectual decline. This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon. Every generation thinks that the younger generation is dissolute, lazy, ignorant, and illiterate. There is a paper trail of professors complaining about the declining quality of their students that goes back at least 100 years. All this means that your question is one that people should think twice before answering. I know a lot more now than I did when I was a student, and thanks to the curse of knowledge, I may not realize that I have acquired most of it during the decades that have elapsed since I was a student. So it’s tempting to look at students and think, “What a bunch of inarticulate ignoramuses! It was better when I was at that age, a time when I and other teenagers spoke in fluent paragraphs, and we effortlessly held forth on the foundations of Western civilization.” Yeah, right.
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Here is a famous experiment. A 3-year-old comes into the lab. You give him a box of M&Ms. He opens up the box and instead of finding candy he finds a tangle of ribbons. He is surprised, and now you say to him, “OK, now your friend Jason is going to come into the room. What will Jason think is in the box?” The child says, “ribbons,” even though Jason could have no way of knowing that. And, if you ask the child, “Before you opened the box, what did you think was in it?” They say, “ribbons.” That is, they backdate their own knowledge. Now we laugh at the 3-year-old, but we do the same thing. We backdate our own knowledge and sophistication, so we always think that the kids today are more slovenly than we were at that age.
Q: What are some of the greatest things your students have taught you?
A: Many things. The most obvious is the changes in technology for which we adults are late adopters. I had never heard of Reddit, let alone knowing that it was a major social phenomenon, until two of my students asked if I would do a Reddit AMA [Ask Me Anything]. I did the session in my office with two of my students guiding me, kind of the way I taught my grandmother how to use this newfangled thing called an answering machine. That evening I got an email from my editor in New York saying: “The sales of your book just mysteriously spiked. Any explanation?” It was all thanks to Reddit, which I barely knew existed. Another is a kind of innocence — though that’s a condescending way to put it. It’s a curiosity about the world untainted by familiarity with an academic field. It works as an effective challenge to my own curse of knowledge. So if you want to know what it’s like not to know something that you know, the answer is not to try harder, because that doesn’t work very well. The answer is to interact with someone who doesn’t know what you know, but who is intelligent, curious, and open.