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Computers in the Composition Classroom (Great Debate) at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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(This begins another of the Great Debates on WRT.)
Previous debates: Frustration, Hamlet, Intelligent Design.

What is the place of digital character art (and computers in general) in the composition classroom?

Many of us who research new media and games also end up in in the composition classroom, teaching English 101. Our temptation is to go straight to the computer lab so that we can break out the toys and visual aids. Often, the students are happy to mouse and click around rather than having to listen to us or their peers talk, just as they’re happy when we turn on the video or hold class outside. But are we helping them or indulging our own interests? Looming over this question is the shadow of that mechanical menace, the all-online composition course.

What is the place of digital character art in the composition classroom? Or more importantly, how crucial are computers to the development of composition? Beyond media-literacy, how can technology help the process of teaching writing, particularly the academic writing we teach in 101? (For the moment, I will largely put aside video games, covered in Christy’s Games and Pedagogy resources.)

Perhaps I’ll take the role of the nonbeliever in the church choir here, since this whole site is predicated on the value of writing technologies. Assuming you can separate the process of writing from these technologies and that the focus of a composition classroom is to teach students to write essays separate from the medium of composition (largely untenable assumptions), how can interactive writing technologies, art objects, writing software, and games help students? Let’s turn a sober eye to this question: What evidence do we have that the technology helps the composition process?

What do computers add? Pictures? Links? Sound? Animation? Does any of this help someone to write a paragraph more than, say, reading? Do projects that ask students to build web pages help them to write research papers, or does they just produce research papers with pictures and links. I seem to remember writing reports in elementary school. They always had a lot of pictures and cover pages.

Again, I’m not talking about helping students become media literate (although some of the resources below address that). I’m talking about fashioning old-fashioned words into sentences.

The students I know struggle with coherence. They struggle with development. The advanced ones struggle to develop a voice, to develop a sticky or compelling structure. Do computers help teaching any of these things?

Computers are multimedia engines, and good teaching involves engaging the senses of students, particularly to address different learning styles. But what evidence does anyone have of their students learning better using computers (in or out of the classroom) than they would with pens, paper, and print books?

For today’s debate, let me argue that they don’t help, that computers are distractions from the process of writing, that Jonathan Swift never used a computer and my students have read “A Modest Proposal” six and seven times in the past four years.

I’m interested in arguments to the contrary, but in the meantime let me add a few resources below. Please contribute your own and we can develop this a permanent resource page.

First, we should sort out the issue

Online Discussions:
(at the risk of reproducing are blogroll)
This conversation is happening all over the web, but particularly at the following locations. Let us know of others.
Alliance for Computers and Writing
Chorus: Composition in networked environments (journal)
Computers and Composition online journal (Bowling Green State U)
C&C bibliography
7Cs Computers and Composition conference (blogged by D.G. Jerz)
The Computers and Writing online conference (topics):

The Institute for the Future of the Book
Kairos: online journal exploring the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy.
Voice of the Shuttle Technologies of Writing Page
Writing and the Digital Life

Technologies and Tools:
First, there are tools. In addition to word processing software, other programs, both free and for-pay, can aid in the process, or can they? Do these contribute to the writing experience or detract and distract? If anyone has had success implementing the following, chime in:

  1. Node Maps and Semantic Webs?(Prewriting)
  2. PowerPoint (prewriting)
  3. Course Management Software (Blackboard, Chalk, Wire Moodle, XOOPS, ATutor)?
  4. Wikis (Class collaborations)
  5. Hypertext/Hypermedia Writing Systems (Sophie, Tinderbox)
  6. Blogs (Online Discussions)
  7. Online Bibliography Service (EasyBib, NoodleBib)
  8. Other Social Software (Myspace, Friendster for research or Creative Nonfiction)
  9. Online Survey Software (SurveyMonkey)
  10. Web dictionaries. Online translaters. Online Encyclopedias

Uses of technology:
Or maybe students need help using the technology they have available to them to work on their process. Here are some brief suggestions:

  • GREP Grammar: Students search for repeated mistakes (such as they’re/there or for semicolons).
  • PowerPoint Prewriting: Students use PowerPoint to create visual brainstorming.
  • TrackbackFeedback: Commenting on manuscripts using “track changes”
  • Discussion Boards: Students hold workshops online
  • Searching Sherpas: Getting info fast.

Send links to other assignments online.

New skills for the Computer Comp student:
Most composition instructors teach some form of of the writing process (Prewriting, Outlining, Drafting, Revising, Proofreading) along with critical reading. But perhaps the composition classroom needs to also address new skills on computers, rather than assuming that students will learn these on their own.

  • How to use the grammar checker
  • How to cite online formats
  • How to write for the web
  • How to write a good post
  • How to collaborate on a Wiki
  • How to collaborate on versioned documents
  • How to write email (in business or academic settings)
  • How to compose for high search-engine ratings

Or could could the students teach us these lessons? Is it ridiculous to try to control these forms?

Particular WRT apps:
Most interesting to WRT contributors and readers would be questions of how to integrate particular WRT technologies into the composition classroom. We have already covered this in posts (noted below), but this may be a good time to develop the list with respect to essay-writing in particular. How could our particular objects of study help students with the process and problems of composition?

  • IF (Verbs and Objects; Description, 2nd Person)
  • Chatbots (characterization, discourse, voice, representation)
  • ARGs (ubiquitous composition?)
  • Facade: Language skills, dialogue development.
  • Eliterature at large (critical reading)

There are many avenues of discussion here. Primarily, I would like to see us develop a list of resources, assignments, and communities. First, however, I would be interested in arguments on whether or not computers in general, and digital character art in particular, can help composition.



8 Responses to “Computers in the Composition Classroom (Great Debate)”

  1. 1 David Brake

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    I am not an educator but I wonder whether the main benefit of computers for composition is not their use in the classroom but their unsupervised ‘non-work’ use. Thanks to sites like Myspace and LiveJournal students have a space in which they are encouraged to write regularly. Of course what they write is somewhat limited but it seems you might be able to engage students by getting them to discuss and work on their own weblogs/profile pages in class or if that’s too personal perhaps to critique the sites they find.

  2. 2 Mark Marino

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    David,

    That’s a good use. Also, it helps with the argument that writing (textual self representation) is and will be a valuable skill to them.

    As assignments, they can also develop personal or fictional Myspace / LiveJournal / Friendster pages as a context for developing the skills they will need in print contexts.

    Of course, there are forceful arguments against personal writing in the composition classroom.

    These sites do raise new media-specific questions:
    What happens to personal writing in the public network of social software? What happens to audience when there is a combination of friends, acquaintances, and voyeurs.
    What are the effects of the additional profile elements (favorite books, favorite movies, friends) on the way readers interpret the daily posts? Can these items be used as rhetorical gestures?

  3. 3 David Brake

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    Could you point me to literature about the dangers of personal writing in the classroom? It might be useful to me in my research.

    I would have to say that kids seem to be doing this stuff outside the classroom so it should at least be discussed and its merits and dangers explored inside the classroom…

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

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    I wonder whether the issue, as comprehensively framed here, isn’t a bit too big to argue a for or against position on, and thus it is hard to find entry into it as a “debate.” The computer - as Turing machine, executor, operation, algorithm, etc. - can easily help, hurt, or leave untouched the acquisition of composition skills, based on its configuration.

    Your more limited claim, that computers do little to aid sentence level editing and voice development, seems reasonable - but overstated. I believe there is some good data that running spelling and grammar checkers “inline” (immediate visual feedback, no auto-correction) can affect not just on the final product but on future behavior.

    I’d also make a counterclaim for the importance of computers, not to improve composition general, but to be understood as part of the composition act for most students. While some rhetorical skills learnned in composition are context-free, many are surprisingly context-embedded. Thus, if you teach the mental composition of oral arguments in a Socratic classroom, or require typewriter manuscripts, or allow the use of any word processor or text editor, you get a very different basic model of what the act of “composition” means. I feel that I am a fairly solid writer, however I fear that a keystroke logger would reveal me to be pretty poor at being a linear typist.

    Can you teach composition without computers and expect your students to easily understand composition on computers? In some ways, absolutely, in others, certainly not. I’ve tutored “first computer” users before, both age ~13 and age ~60, and it boggles the mind watching someone hold down the “delete” key for a whole sentence so that they can change a letter, then retype the sentence. This is all mechanics - but mechanics have profound implications for the development of voice and argument structure.

  5. 5 Mark Marino

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    David, you can find many articles about the dangers and problems of using personal writing in the composition writing in College Composition and Communication.

    In the States, the issue breaks down into a Constructivist / Expressivist debate where Constrivists (and here I simplify), who travel with Donald Bartholomae, lean towards the application of learned rhetorical skills while Expressivists, who hold court with Peter Elbow, lean towards personal testimony and innate writing skills.

    You might be interested in this conversation between the major players.
    Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow
    David Bartholomae
    College Composition and Communication > Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 62-71

    The Debate is continues here:
    Responses to Bartholomae and Elbow
    David Bartholomae; Peter Elbow
    College Composition and Communication > Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 84-92

    In related matters, here’s an interesting debate on the role of First-Year Writing in general.
    Reframing the Great Debate on First-Year Writing
    Marjorie Roemer; Lucille M. Schultz; Russel K. Durst
    College Composition and Communication > Vol. 50, No. 3, A Usable Past: CCC at 50: Part 1

  6. 6 Mark Marino

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    Additional resources here through The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

  7. 7 John Salamon

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    I don’t think it’s the computers as such, but how they are used.

    Adelaide Computer

  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Computers and Comp. Excercise 1.

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