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.
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.