My students this semester are again using technology to read and write about technology and its impacts on commerce and the creative arts, communication and warfare, education and the environment. Pretty wide swath of subject matter, designed to appeal to all comers and delivered via the mode these Gen Ex, Why, Zee-ers—whatever they’re being called these days--eat, sleep, and breathe. Only it’s not working out so well. My community college students have problems setting file formats and attaching files to emails, remembering the passwords needed to get into their blogs, adjusting browser settings. Their printers don’t work. They don’t know how to save files to portable storage devices. A few don’t know how to find the word processor on their desktop and open a blank file. One fresh-from-high-school student snorts that I should be a science teacher. Another older student says that when she was in high school only the girls who wanted to be secretaries learned how to type, she thought this was an English course, they told her she wouldn’t need to know anything about computers, why does she have to learn how to use a computer when she would so much rather sink into a good book.
I have felt on the defensive, sputtering my justifications, my tone veering dangerously close to the inappropriate:
- A typed manuscript is a standard expectation even in middle school these days and has been for decades, to save the teacher’s tired eyes and to eliminate the prejudgments that attach to handwriting (you wouldn’t want me to be judging an essay based on those bubble letters of yours, that careless scrawl, those curves careful as a second-grade teacher that scream cliché).
- Let me tell you all about White-Out, those glops that take forever to dry, and the miseries of retyping that last page three times because it’s 3 a.m. and you keep leaving out some vital part of your conclusion. Or suppose you decide that Martin doesn’t really suit yr debonair protagonist; how wonderful to be able to do a global search-and-replace!
- One word: spell-check.
- Won’t it be convenient to be able to access the course syllabus come week six or seven, when you’re starting to calculate just how many classes you can afford to miss or the grade you’ll get if you really nail those last two essays?
- And don’t forget the emails you can send me explaining yr absence from class and yr avowed intent to turn in that late essay by tomorrow night.
- By using (instead of a textbook) articles available electronically, either online or through the library’s e-reserve system, I’m saving you at least $64.99 plus tax. You’re welcome.
- Finally, wait till you get to the research paper. You wouldn’t believe what we used to have to do (my version of the walk five miles to school in the snow): a special trip to the library to go through shelves full of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature; guess from the titles which articles seemed relevant to our Quest, in periodicals the library was likely to have; trot upstairs with knotted stomach, hoping the hoped-for bound periodicals were on the shelf (the New York Times we accessed on microfilm, our heads under the hood of the microfilm reader, wincing with each squeal of tape unnaturally loud in the dim room); take notes on the spot, careful to write down all the information we’d need for our bibliographies. Wait till you see what information you can get now, from the comfort of yr home-(computer), full-text articles to yr heart’s content for printing and annotating.
That said, I have my own doubts, my own concerns about where computing intersects composing.
Invention and drafting. Except for brief emails, I compose with pen and paper. I like the look of my own handwriting, with a vanity that some women save for the peculiar green cast of their eyes or the curve of their lips or whatever else keeps them in rapt admiration of their own image in the mirror. It evolved out of trauma, then adjustment: the seven months my family spent in England the year I turned twelve, when I was forced to adopt British penmanship, with its upright printed letters discretely joined and absent the sentimental loops favored by those too-obvious Americans; the British style softening, some fraction of loops returning with my own return to seventh grade (the year the popular girls learned sign language so they could talk across a classroom and passed around slam books for anonymous written critiques of each other). I like the feel of pen gliding across the resistant molecules of paper. In graduate school I wrote on long yellow legal pads, narrow ruled, with fountain pens that stained my fingers black. My handwritten beginnings-of-notes are easier to push off with, fluid and tentative, mere doodled words; the blinking cursor, in contrast, is impatient, prodding, inviting simplification, hardening ideas too soon into someone else’s font. (And my students’ ideas harden far too quickly as it is; you’re not writing in cement, I tell them, but most don’t seem to understand.)
Revision. I usually get a little thrill (mingled to various degrees with anxiety and dread) when manuscript becomes typescript and I send my words out into the world all decked out in their formalwear. But I can reel them back in by printing out a file, starting again to doodle around its edges with my pen, adding, subtracting, changing, moving. My students, for the most part, don’t come naturally to this process. I made the corrections you marked, I hear over and over again (despite my attempts to keep grammatical corrections minimal, just enough to alert them to issues to be careful of in proofreading). I decided not to add the information you suggested because I thought that would make my essay too wordy, another says. All I can say is that’s your decision as a writer, thinking to myself and my decision will come when I grade yr essay's development. Although word processing software makes revision much quicker, it seems that very ease may make students less likely to do it. I consider asking students to bring drafts to class and handing out scissors: cut apart these paragraphs, move them around, take this lead and throw it away, burn it, like the fires across the prairies that stimulate something new and different to grow, maybe something better.
Responding. On the organizational level, first, I’m having difficulties, with some students turning in hard copies during class and others emailing me papers, or, too often, forgetting to attach files or save non-Word docs in rtf. I try to do a sweep before I sit down and grade an essay set, to make sure I’ve printed out everything that’s come in over the e-transom, but some slip by. In a time crunch, I try to respond via email, but that gets cumbersome without using the comment function on Word, which I’m hesitant to do because so many students either don’t have Word or don’t really know too well how to use it. I’ve tried a few semesters using publishers’ websites for posting, exchanging, and commenting on drafts (cleverly named Comment and Exchange); though I liked their clear interface, the ability to attach comments to selected portions of text, the convenience of having, in theory, all essays posted in one central place, many students had difficulties. And I found that I like to write on paper drafts (see above for my affection for my own handwriting, but it’s also that the essays look different to me on a screen—I’m not quite sure how to describe the difference, but I feel it distinctly).
Research. In the research paper assignment students are often hobbled by poor topic choice, insufficiently focused questions, and, most especially, downright lousy source material (whether the search is via google and company or the research databases). The abundance of material available overwhelms students, and success in the assignment depends too much on success in finding good source material, deflecting from the rightful emphasis on composing an argument and integrating source material. At last week’s TYCA-Northeast conference, in a very stimulating presentation, Steve Straight of Manchester Community College described his (relatively) technology-free way of structuring the assignment. He limits research questions with a theme-based course (his current theme is consumerism: isolate a problem related to consumerism and pose a solution). More importantly, he restricts the sources students can use. Several related nonfiction books serve as course texts, and he puts a shelf-full of twenty or thirty books on reserve in the library (each student is assigned one, or a portion of one, from which to select and organize three pages of quotes that he/she then Xeroxes for use by others in the class—a very interesting strategy, I thought; I might have been tempted to have students post notes electronically, but that may well encourage the copy-and-paste strategies he wants to avoid). He also brings in articles himself and has one “database day” for students to get experience searching for database articles (which he must approve before use); students are also encouraged to submit websites for his approval. I love the philosophy behind his course design and the care with which he has worked things out.
Networking. So, as the party line seems to go, knowledge-making is a communal enterprise. I may have my questions about exactly how this works, but I grant that hearing the interpretations of others enriches one’s own reading and hearing the questions of others stimulates one’s own curiosity. So I set up group blogs for my students to share responses and brainstorm questions. But I haven’t yet figured out how to make it work the way I hope it can (a topic for another day/month/semester). And in my more cynical moments I wonder what its potential is when it’s so hard even to engage colleagues in any electronic bantering.
Technology and creativity. A final few pessimistic words from an interview with Sven Birkerts in the summer 2006 issue of the Missouri Review: