E-COMP: A Few Words About Teaching Writing with Computers

While many college teachers feel that the ever-expanding reach of costly computer networks represents a dubious "bells and whistles" distraction from basic education, E-COMP, a group of graduate student instructors and faculty at the University of Michigan, felt otherwise. We decided to share and test our common belief in the potential of electronic media to serve as powerful new learning tools (as well as some common uncertainties about how to use those tools effectively). Over a period of two years we have pursued an experiment that has produced both student success and a set of observations that we believe will apply wherever courses make use of computer-mediated writing.

Electronic media can serve some contemporary ideas about writing instruction quite well. The workshop- or peer-editing process, for instance, is especially facilitated by electronic media.

Although we emphasized collaboration in varying degrees, we shared a belief in collaborative evaluation and writing as potent means of improving any writerís crucial sense of audience. All of our courses required students to engage with one another through several forms of (often collaborative) writing. And our experiences with new writing media, such as e-mail and Web publishing, had convinced us that the technology would encourage the future development of collaborative writing processes. We designed our courses as thoughtful and rigorous preparations for these new writing challenges. Electronic media also tend to reconfigure authority relationships in the classroom, moving toward an active student-centered course where the teacher serves as an expert guide rather than dominant instructor.

Over the course of two years, we met on a weekly basis and discussed how our original ideas were or were not working in practice. Though we experienced difficulties, we found, to our delight, that students were developing into much better and more flexible writers, and this has encouraged us to continue using computers in our writing instruction.

10 Observations

We therefore offer the results of our collective work in the following ten observations to other teachers of writing who may be interested in the benefits (and limitations) of computer-aided instruction:

  • Observation #1 Instructional use of electronic media creates an intermittent distance in communication between the instructor and the students that can reconfigure authority relationships in the classroom.
  • Observation #2 Both mailgroups and conferencing software encourage a sense of group effort beyond the felt privacy of e-mail.
  • Observation #3 Computer-mediated discussions of peer writing tend to decrease students' reticence.
  • Observation #4 Working with text through electronic mediation encourages attention to sentence-level writing issues.
  • Observation #5 In electronic collaboration, the immediate classroom audience may overshadow a distant audience as the readership for which one writes. Observation #6 Instructors asking students to use electronic media for writing and research may want to thematize general rhetorical issues that are transformed by the employment of these media.
  • Observation #7 Electronic collaboration can reinforce the tendency of group writing to produce arguments that are more homogeneous and less controversial in both form and content.
  • Observation #8 Assignments that allow the use of electronic sources of information must also require that those sources be used thoughtfully.
  • Observation #9 Students can legitimately expect that instructors who require using electronic resources in their courses be able to justify their particular choices of requirements and have a certain minimum competency in guiding students' use of those resources.
  • Observation #10 As any given semester proceeds, the meanings and uses of the technologies may change, and instructors should be prepared to take advantage of evolving pedagogical opportunities.

How We Integrated Computers Into Content

How did computers figure into the content of our writing courses? We found that our pedagogical goals were aided, rather than hindered, by the judicious use of electronic media (including e-mail and institutional file sharing that allow on-line peer editing and evaluation, and Internet access that vastly augments local resources). As one example, traditionally invisible rhetorical practices became highly visible to students when they considered the different ways language is used to persuade and communicate in different media. Students also learned that every discourse has its own set of practices.

This led them to ask the kind of questions we as teachers of composition wanted them to ask: What makes an effective style? Who is my audience? What discourse persuades them, what figures are appropriate to that discourse, and what will my audience likely ignore or fail to be impressed by?

We also found that, in comparison to our experiences teaching without computers, students were better able to comment constructively at the local level in peer papers. They offered specific revisions and gave articulate reasons for their suggestions, instead of the more familiar general editorial comment ("sounds really good!").

In any writing course, both instructors and students must continually examine their underlying assumptions, which usually involves exposing the course to a variety of writing tasks and perspectives. Since electronic media are currently opening up possibilities for new writing venues, careful instructional use of these media can introduce students to new (but increasingly important) perspectives on rhetoric and writing even while teaching them the full panoply of traditional skills.

It is true that none of this can occur without new thought and training on our part as instructors. Initially, some of us resisted the extra preparation and flexibility demanded by electronic media as daunting. Or we worried that the potential loss of our own authority might lead to diffuse and ineffective teaching. On the contrary, we have found that electronic media made visible and extended the strategies we were already using. And our own excitement as instructors was renewed by seeing our students develop in critical thinking and autonomy as they found the ability to work effectively with others was as crucial to learning as solitary work.

While most of the strategies we touch on here are not dependent on electronic media, we offer our collective experience as indicating that electronic resources, used thoughtfully, can create new kinds of writing while illuminating structures already in place.

For more information, send e-mail to:  [email protected]

Bryan Alexander is a recent Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan. His interests include 18th-century and Romantic literature, critical theory, and computers and pedagogy. E-mail: [email protected]

James Crowley is writing a dissertation on late medieval literature and its appropriations in medieval manuscript and later print cultures. His current research includes an examination of theoretical and practical implications of editing literary works in electronic media. He has taught several courses in introductory and advanced college writing at the University of Michigan. E-mail: [email protected]

Deanne Lundin is a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing (UM) and is writing a dissertation on American women p'ets and their use of mystical discourse (UCLA). Current computer-based projects include the creation of an instructional Web site using the p'etry archives at the Bentley Historical Library as an introduction to research in Special Collections. E-mail: [email protected]

Vicki Mudry is a writing instructor and graduate student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. E-mail: [email protected]

Stephanie Palmer is writing a dissertation on tropes of travel accidents in late 19th-century American literature and culture in the English Department at the University of Michigan. She has taught several courses in fiction, college writing, and a course in argumentative writing that incorporated the use of electronic networks. E-mail: [email protected]

Eric Rabkin, Professor of English, has taught at the University of Michigan since 1970. Author or editor of 29 books (primarily in science fiction and fantasy, literary theory, and pedagogy), he has been involved in computer-assisted education since 1981. His current activities include faculty training in computer applications and a senior/graduate-level course called "Research and Technology in the Humanities." E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.