Left Behind

Collin’s post a while back, and the discussion that followed, got me thinking; it troubled me some in ways I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s not that I don’t think Collin makes good points in his post — he does, many of them, foremost of which being that the Hochman/Dean piece to which he responds is rather dated in its perspectives on technology and doesn’t represent the cutting edge — or even the blunt edge — of research in computers and writing.

And it’s not that I’m one of those people he blasts as being “behind” and orders to catch up: at age 12, I was installing additional RAM in my Atari 800 to kick it up from 8K to a whopping 48K, programming in BASIC, and — as Collin puts it — “futzing around with sound.” By 1987, I was on Usenet, and passing an 800K disk with a copy of Michael Joyce’s seminal hypertext “afternoon, a story” from friend to friend. 1988, I had a good grasp of basic Unix commands and was writing Turing machines in Philosophy class (it was Carnegie Mellon, which should explain a lot). 1989, I was learning how to program in LISP (which I’ve since completely forgotten) and making my own hypertexts (Apple called them “stacks”) with Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard. And so on. These days, I’m good with CSS and HTML, having been one of the first in my writing program to tinker with visual Web editors and the first to get sick of them; I know some ActionScript, a little PHP, a tiny smidgen of Perl, and I’ve forgotten lots of javascript; I can write a good regex without struggling too much; I have a part-time gig maintaining a godawful database cobbled together out of Oracle, ColdFusion, and a crawler that nobody supports; I’ve installed and tweaked and tinkered with various versions of Movable Type, WordPress, and Drupal (and completely fouled up installing two different types of wiki); and I can make various pixel-pushing digital-imaging applications stand up on their hind legs and bark in three-part harmony. (Yes, I’ve got that last one as a line item on my CV.) And, to borrow Collin’s words again, I even “know how to put together a QuickTime movie.” So no, I’m not behind.

But upon seeing Sharon’s response, I realized that it was the “behind” part of Collin’s post that bothered me some, and — thanks to Sharon — I also realized why it bothered me.


“Behind” implies that these (relatively) new digital tools are good and necessary things for the writing classroom. Like Steve Krause, I’m not entirely convinced. There has yet to be any study in Computers and Composition that conclusively demonstrates that computers improve student writing. There has yet to be any study that conclusively demonstrates that computers improve the pedagogical practices of writing teachers. (And, in fact, I can think of numerous examples in our journals and conferences of seriously misguided and inadequately theorized pedagogical practices that regard digital technologies — like, say, Boolean operators in search engines — as some sort of magic bullet for the classroom.) There has yet to be any study that conclusively demonstrates that computers even make the intellectual labor of writing easier. (See Carolyn Dowling’s 1994 “Word Processing and the Ongoing Difficulty of Writing” for what many, following Charles Moran, regard as the last word on this issue.) So why do we insist on deploying these technologies in our classrooms? Well, Cynthia Selfe has some excellent answers. So does Jeff Rice, who remarks that “It’s not a question of the tools. It’s a question of how the tools shape the ways we communicate, whether or not we use those tools.” Absolutely, and I couldn’t agree more. Literacy is changing in ways that incorporate new media and new modes of communication — but despite Collin’s indictment of “the narrowness of print literacy,” Frollo’s declaration that ceci tuera cela is simply untrue. (And if you don’t know that, you’re behind.) I’m excited to see classes in New Media Journalism, in Web design, in information architecture, but none of these render obsolete print literacy. There are still billions of books on shelves and in hands across the world, and there are still billions of essays being written across the world, and I’d wager the Holy Virgin on a grilled cheese sandwich that ain’t neither of them goin nowhere for the next couple hundred years. I’m a writing teacher, and I teach writing. The fact that many writing teachers don’t deploy digital technologies in their classrooms does nothing to render their theories or their pedagogies obsolete or backward.

Having offered above a list of the things that digital technologies do not do in or for the writing classroom, I’ll describe here two things that I see them doing very well in or for the writing classroom.

First: digital technologies radically increase the efficiency of the distribution of information. This increase in the efficiency of distribution is what has led to our disciplinary excitement over intellectual property issues (since, as Lawrence Lessig points out, said efficiency relies on making digital copies), over the audience-oriented possibilities of weblogging in the classroom, over the collaborative possibilities of wikis, over sharing writing via e-mail, over incorporating new media into Web-based projects, and over too many more pedagogical aspects of the technological frontier to count. Digital technologies achieve this increase in efficiency of distribution of information by substituting capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes.

Which leads me to thing two.

Second: digital technologies radically increase the visibility of the distribution of wealth. In other words, as Sharon points out, they’re very good at making economic inequality visible. When I was briefly at Carnegie Mellon as an undergrad, we had — as one might guess — top-of-the line equipment. Mac labs everywhere, super-fast Sun terminals with massive monitors — hell, there was even a NeXT lab, and you know how much those cost when they were new. I bounced to Montgomery County Community College for a semester, where the computing resources were abysmal (and where the student population was far less rich and far less white), and from there to the University of Maryland, where the computing resources were OK and only a few years behind if you didn’t mind waiting in line for a machine. The same holds true where I am now: I can look at the only semi-obsolescent stuff in the labs here at UMass, where students are often willing to wait half an hour or longer in line to use a machine, or I can go up the road to $40K-per-year Amherst College and check out the brand-new machines sitting idle in Frost Library because the rich kids already have their own in their dorm rooms. And the wonderful thing is that digital technologies achieve this radical increase in the visibility of the distribution of wealth via precisely the same means described above: by substituting capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes.

They’re two sides of the same coin. You don’t get one without the other. And as the recent Pew, UCLA, and Department of Commerce studies all show, the lower your income, the less access to digital technologies you’re likely to have.

Which is what makes me so uncomfortable about accusations of being “behind” and about the expectation that we must all know these things and embrace these things. It seems to me that Collin’s rhetorical position offers Sharon little room to stand, and so I might ask those out there who (like me, like Collin, like Sharon) want to enthusiastically embrace these technologies for the possibilities they offer: what do we make of Charles Moran’s assertion that “if as writing teachers we believe that writers are in any sense advantaged by technology, then access is the issue that drives all others before it” (A Guide 220), and what do we do to act on such an assertion? Because to leave behind those who one declares behind is economic gatekeeping.

Left Behind

8 thoughts on “Left Behind

  • April 12, 2005 at 11:25 pm
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    Sigh. It’s almost like you intentionally make it too difficult to follow all these links and the links to their links and respond intelligently. I followed it about halfway through, enough to say:

    Wikis are not accurate. I admire the concept of wikipedia but it’s not resourceful in my field. The notion that wikis challenge traditional schooling is ridiculous in light of its deficiencies. If you want some examples of woefully inaccurate wikis, let me know. I can supply them.

    I agree with catching up on “computers.” The very idea of using that term to encompass all mass media via databases and the internet is arcane. “Yeah. computers are cool.” I’ve had professors who didn’t know didly about research via the MLA bibliography and in fact, gave out misinformation in research class. I won’t disagree with catching up.

    How are computers helping students? improving resources with a quickness through ILLs, source research, and access. Access to articles in journals in PDF format, access to primary texts.

    I don’t know what Boolean operators has to do with any of it. I think that’s the easy way out and that’s exactly what’s giving “computers” a bad name. Googling is not internet research.

    Sorry I didn’t read the entire thing but really, it was SO long and I know I won’t get to it anytime in the next 24 hours and by that time, plenty of really smart people will have made fascinating points and that would mean I’d have even more to read before commenting.

  • April 12, 2005 at 11:33 pm
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    PS I forgot to say that the search parameters may come into play in searching databases but I didn’t catch that in your original post and if that was a point, it should be specified particularly considering that part of your post’s purpose was to exonerate the ignorance in computer-usage.

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  • April 13, 2005 at 8:58 am
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    Michelle, I think the first two links give a context for the discussion and show what’s at issue, and also indicate why I brought up Boolean operators. As far as the “inaccurate” issue goes re wikis, I — like Collin — think it misses the point of what they do: they’re a community knowledge-building tool. You might check here and here for counters to your claim about wikis. I won’t argue that computers facilitate access to research resources — that was my “thing one” about what digital technologies do well — but I will argue, as a writing teacher, that such access does not in and of itself make better writers. Many student writers, surrounded by a superabundance of resources to examine, will simply throw their hands up and say, “I don’t know where to start!” My point was that it’s important to focus on the writing first, because the technologies by themselves won’t teach anything — and not everybody has them.

  • April 13, 2005 at 4:23 pm
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    Okay, just so you know, I did follow and read all the links last night (even though I complained about them and I know that at some level, you’re the kettle and I’m the pot on that) and I did understand the context of your argument. I tend to agree with Collins’ post, particularly about the research. I understand your point about this being used as “gate-keeping” and concern about whether the responsibility to catch up is contributing to that. I understood all of that last night but I disagree on a few issues. (And that’s OK, right?)

    Regardless, you make valid points and open things for peering into which is why I’m always compelled to respond even if I disagree. It’s just all your fault because your seamless writing draws me in. 🙂

  • April 13, 2005 at 4:36 pm
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    Gee, we’re discussing this all over the place. In the words of the great Jeff Rice, “Cool!”

    One point of agreement I’ve seen is that the whole point is the writing–how to help students see themselves as writers and to use writing to good effect.

    Because I typed my high school term papers on a Smith-Corona portable in the 1950s, I’ll claim that word processors make a significant improvement in writing. I now compose easily on a keyboard, something I never did all the way through graduate school. That ease translates into letting the ideas flow, knowing I can easily make edits later. In my basic writing course last quarter, only one student’s keyboarding skills were so weak that she wrote her in-class essays in longhand.

    I will agree that we haven’t developed many good tools for helping students re-enter their word-processed drafts. Or, perhaps more accurately, Microsoft has not incorporated the kinds of tools that writing teachers might recommend. There’s an interesting question: why hasn’t our profession (and groups like CCCC and WPA) found a way to challenge Microsoft to incorporate useful teaching tools into Word?

    OK–that’s enough for now. I have more comments on my blog from yesterday.

  • April 13, 2005 at 6:03 pm
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    Michelle, feel free to keep up the flattery. 🙂

    John, one of the points that Carolyn Dowling’s essay excellent, thoughtful essay makes is that the “ease” you describe does not necessarily produce or indicate better writing. Again: substitution of capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes does not indicate any change in the quality of the result of those processes. Are today’s student essays qualitatively better than those of 100 years ago?

    As Mariolina Salvatori has often and insightfully demonstrated: difficulty can be a good thing. Still, I will offer the wish: if only it were easier to view and leave comments at John’s weblog. . .

  • April 14, 2005 at 5:58 am
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    I agree with you, Mike, about a certain writing teacher’s blog and leaving comments.

    I don’t think that computers, per se, make for better writers. I teach writing in a lab, and I find that what makes better writers is having a willingness to take risks and a willingness to apply oneself to learning. That confidence grows over the semester (for some) and leads to better writing.

    The computer offers legible papers, which makes grading easier. I have more to say, but I have to get to work.

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