A History

A Reading


Hawisher, LeBlanc, Moran, & Selfe's
Computers and the
Teaching of Writing
American Higher Education,
A History


Ted Nellen

Lisa Gerrard states in her Preface to Gail Hawisher, Paul LeBlanc, Charles Moran, and Cynthia Selfe's Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History (CTW): "It was the first time I seriously thought about computers and composition as having a history." In this relatively new discipline, we have already garnered a history, a folk history, an oral history, but a history nonetheless. It is a history of many people on parallel tracks and it is the subject of this book.

The book is a good representation of the environment it reflects and documents. Sidebars are a pseudo hypertext, personal accounts end each chapter, the text is littered with names and places of cyberspace. Although the book is linear by nature, it does present a taste of hypertext as the reader can wander within the covers of the book in a mock web experience. It was once said: "we are what we eat." Well, this book is analogous to this in that it is a facsimile of what it reports.

I found this book to be a celebration of what many do. It is a magic carpet ride with the innovators of the teaching of writing. It is a who's who in the teaching of writing. Jubilation seeps from every quote and of self discovery. Charting new paths for the English teacher were recounted in detail and with excitement. As I read this book I, too, was uplifted and rejoiced in my own awareness of self. While these events were happening to so many in isolation or in tandem, I was experiencing similar successes and failures. Identifying with the participants in this book is one of the charms of it.

This book documents the evolution of the computer in the writing class is one of sharing, experimenting, accepting and rejecting. We see the transition from a traditional teacher dominated classroom to the student centered class and it shows the growth away from the back to basics group as new methods of teaching emerged via hypertext and online conferences. Perhaps the one greatest elements I found about this book was the communal feeling in the world of academia. Knowing that academicians are very private and guard their work very closely, this new world was refreshing in their sharing. It is this feeling of comraderie which impressed me so much while reading this book. The comraderie was seen on listservs, at conferences, and moo sessions. The Internet was transforming the classroom as well as a profession not wont to share ideas.

An intriguing and an important historical point made by this book was that we were no longer evaluating a profession on its textbooks or even on articles in print journals, but on the conferences and the exchange of ideas on the Internet. Teachers of writing were now writing grants, using and learning about new writing tools, and challenging the old regimes. This last happened in Gutenberg's days.

The book documents the Ah-ha effect we so often hope for from our students which was happening to us, the teacher of writing. The computer had provided us with more ah-has than we can count. Along with the computer came software. And of course we know of upgrades which brought more power and more ah-has. Teachers of writing were discovering new and better ways of teaching writing. The countless accounts by those working with computers in their writing classes attest to a renewed excitement in the teaching of writing.

From the many personal accounts we learn that the use of the computer in the writing class was not as obvious then as it is today. To sustain the movement and to gain respect the next step had to be research to substantiate further monies and continuation. We learn that it was at the 4C's and NCTE conferences where computers began to emerge in all aspects of these conferences. Writing across the curriculum became a means to foster better education and to lure more money. Forces were joined as conference attendees and presenters cross pollinated. However, it took a whole new conference, the Computers and Writing conferences to bring the computer to the forefront in the discussion of the teaching of writing.

Trying to prove the necessity and success of the computer in the writing class, Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) became all the rage as word processors fought for their place atop the writing teachers' tool of choice. And while the teachers who chose to use computers continued to discover, the traditional print journals still did not recognize the use of computers in the writing classes in their articles on writing. The emergence of serious computer study came from the newly emerging print publication, Computers and Composition.

I guess the reason I loved this book so much was because it was about me and my work. As I read it I kept nodding my head and recognizing articles and names. I had been doing my Masters work in the mid 80's on computers in the high school writing class. Working on my thesis was difficult since very little existed on this idea except for these few articles. I spent many hours in the library at Teachers College trying to find these articles which were far and few between. Not knowing of the conferences or lists, I felt alone and was relieved when I discovered a lone article on computers and writing in educational journals. Other research was impossible to locate. In reading this book, I discovered that I was not alone. Others had been doing the same things as I had been doing, but they were sharing with others. I was ecstatic when I discovered listservs that had other teachers like me on them. For so many years I had thought myself crazy when I would discuss enthusiastically what I was doing in my high school English class with computers. No one understood me. But when I began reading this book, I found kindred spirits, recognized names, shared experiences, and found I wasn't alone. I didn't know my past and this book showed it to me. CTW introduced me to my colleagues. This book is more than a history, it is "This is your Life."

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The author of this review, Ted Nellen, can be reached at tnellen@mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us.

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