Who Computes Now?

So we’re supposed to have our first frost tonight and I brought the plants in and within two minutes the girls were chewing on them. Well, it’s not like I didn’t expect it.

Had a decent albeit long teaching day today. My lesson plan was a bit innovative, trying something new with peer response oriented towards structural revision on early drafts, and as such, it was also a bit of a failure. Still, despite its failure, students wrote, and I learned. I’ll know how to do it better next time, and it’s a nice new exercise that seems simple and powerful enough to try again.

Anyway: I’m asking for help here. What follows is a really rough, early attempt at a draft of a 300- to 500-word conference presentation proposal; said presentation being something I’m also hoping to work into an essay for publication. I’d be most grateful for any ruthless critical feedback on the proposal, particularly suggestions about what to do with the really unfocused latter section, as well as suggestions about how to make the language less dense while still trying to maintain whatever analytical rigor it might possess. So here goes.

Who Computes Now? Class and the Wired Writing Classroom in the Global Information Economy

This paper will begin by considering the ways in which the discipline of computers and composition has traditionally constructed the functions of technology in the wired writing classroom, as fostering either efficiency (making writing circulate more easily) or equity (making the classroom a more democratic space). Both efficiency and equity are concerns associated with class; the former with relations of production, and the latter with relations of privilege. Yet the attention to class in literature of computers and composition has been so slight as to be practically nonexistent. Aside from the associations of class with access in the writing of Moran and several others, the field’s only significant engagements with the topic have been in C. Paul Olson’s landmark 1987 essay “Who Computes?” and in Cynthia Selfe’s Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century.

This paper will build upon Selfe’s detailing of the ways in which economic justifications given for public policy decisions about computer literacy practices have privileged a vocationalized conception of education over a humanistic conception of education and Olson’s analysis of how the computer has profoundly affected the processes of economic and cultural production and consumption and our understandings of those processes in order to assert that what teachers and students do with words and computers has effects beyond the merely instrumental: computers are not, despite the common construction, “just tools”. Such a construction, one that separates technology from its context, owes much to the economic discourses — both neoclassical and Marxian — that understand technology as an instrument separate from their economic systems that itself has the transcendent ability to produce changes to and within those economic systems, and an understanding of these discourses may help to explain why scholars in computers and composition avoid engaging the topic of class: the assumption is that computers themselves will do all the work of providing upward class mobility.

Such assumptions contribute to the vocationalization and concomitant marginalization of composition instruction in the wired writing classroom. This paper will critique the instrumentalist economic justification of writing instruction with computers from a poststructural Marxian perspective in an attempt to offer an understanding of computers as acting in and being affected by the cultural, social, and material economies within and around the wired writing classroom, and that classroom’s shifting valuations and markers of class.

Who Computes Now?

One thought on “Who Computes Now?

  • October 3, 2003 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks for the comment on my discussion board about Mr. Musings. As best I can tell, he’s always been a midwesterner and probably has no clue of the kind of environment I live and work in.

    Anyway, responding to your proposal. I always get lost in paragraphs like the last one because I find it very hard to find an objective correlative to that particular kind of language. I’ve been teaching in wired classrooms at De Anza since about 1987. Early on, I could easily see the “digital divide” that Cindy Selfe has had so much concern about, but it’s a lot harder for me to see it now. Let me give you some specific features of our campus and then you can see how your analysis might or might not apply.

    We have 26,000 students in the heart of Silicon Valley. We were called the “most wired community college” by some tech magazine about 4 years ago. We have one 3 story building committed to computer labs for writing,ESL, foreign langage, animation, film, television, music, business, accounting, computer science, office systems, CAD, math, and some other stuff. Beyond that, the learning center has an open lab with about 100 student stations, all with internet access. Our distance learning classes use local cable channels as well as our own TV broadcast studio with both uplink and downlink. My students who don’t have cable can get all the telecourse materials on campus in either VHS or DVD formats. They can view them here or check them out over night. Students who need email accounts get them free from hotmail or yahoo if they don’t have their own service. We have the De Anza Commission that includes a project by local retired executives to collect and rehab older computers and give them free to students with financial need. Similarly, we have several book funds and scholarship funds for students to pay for books (an old technology).

    I’m sure we don’t succeed with everyone, but we draw lots of students from East San Jose, which is generally low income and mostly Latino and Vietnamese.

    Are we a classless community? Hardly. While we have some faculty here who use Marxian perspectives to assess college issues (and a very active Students for Justice group that addresses questions of low-paid employees), I’m still struggling to see how a “postructural Marxian perspective” would be a good vehicle for improving the material conditons of our composition courses.

    Some of this comes down to the policy/practice cycle. Does one best affect public policy through philosophically grounded argument? Or does one best affect it by empirically documented successes connected to specific practices?

    Don’t know if this is helpful, but if you could write your last paragraph so I could see its application here, I think it would work better.

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