By Christina Haas
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy
From the outset of these chapters on observational and empirical
research, Haas goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not out to
necessarily criticize enthusiasm about the potential benefits of
technology. However, she believes that "common sense alone would suggest
that no technology is wholly or exclusively beneficial" and calls for us
to conduct systematic research into computers and writing to test these
reigning beliefs. For Haas, such work as Gail Hawisher's 1986 and 1989
meta-analyses of computers and composition research suggest "a much more
complicated picture" than is normally seen in "visionary" discourse
about literacy and technology (p .52).
Haas begins this chapter with results of interviews she conducting with
30 computer users over nearly a decade. From these interviews, Haas
identified four areas in which users reported reading difficulties while
writing on the computer:
From here, she goes on to report procedures and results of three
separate empirical studies she conducted into on-screen reading and
writing tasks -- spatial location recall, information retrieval, and
reading to revise. Additionally, she provides a framework of four
computer features, published in an earlier article (Hansen & Haas,
1988), that she believes help account for problems with on-line reading
reported in these three studies:
- Formatting - problems with formatting across computer
conditions (plain text vs. WYSIWYG screens) in a variety of textual
situations. To overcome these problems, writers often printed hard
copies to check for formatting.
- Proofreading - many users, including
those using high-resolution screens, reported problems with detecting
errors on-screen, and again used hard copies to proofread.
- Reorganizing - users also had problems reading their work when
conducting global revision in which they reorganized their texts. This
problem was directly tied to text length, with writers of longer
documents often using paper printouts for this task.
- Reading for a
Sense of Text - this problem relates to users' difficulties in assessing
the quality of their own writing when reading on-screen, particularly
for those writers working on conceptually difficult texts.
Haas argues that these results demonstrate that "[a]ny changes in
literate behavior that computers facilitate or mandate are neither
inevitable nor invisible. Rather, they are the result of actual
features -- in this case, visual and tactile -- of the technology" (p.
72). Such detailed analyses of system features is necessary, Haas
believes, for those of us in the humanities and social sciences to argue
persuasively about how such systems should be designed so as to better
support online processes of reading and writing.
- Screen/Page Size - the amount of text that is visually
available at one time.
- Legibility - includes such variables as spacing, antialiasing,
contrast, and flicker.
- Responsiveness - how quickly the writing/reading system responds to
actions taken by the writer/reader.
- Tangibility - a complex of both visual and tactile
aspects of interacting with texts. A computer system or other technology
has high tangibility when users feel that they are in direct contact
with the text.
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