A Distant View of English Journal, 1912-2012

Jason Palmeri & Ben McCorkle



Computer: Production vs. Reception Over Time
Instructions: Click legend below to turn lines on and off. Double click or pinch graph to zoom in. Drag graph to move through time. Hover over the dots to make info about the articles appear; hover over a new dot to make info boxes go away. Click link below to reset the graph.

When we zoom in on the computer, a different story of English studies' relationship to media begins to emerge. We first see a small burst of interest in computers in the 1960s era of the mainframe. These articles were all coded as "reception," because none featured student use of computers to compose, which is not surprising given how expensive and difficult access to computing was in this period. Furthermore, the mainframe computer was not culturally positioned as a writing device in the ways that personal computers later were. Still, English teachers' early speculations about the computer as a tool for grading (Daigon, 1966) or as a tool for text analysis (Ellis, 1964) sound strangely contemporary. After the initial blip of interest in the 1960s, the computer vanished from the pages of English Journal until the arrival of mass-produced personal computers in the early 1980s. When the field turned back to computing in the early 1980s, the vast majority of articles emphasized student production with computers; in particular, teachers conceptualized the personal computer as a tool enabling students' alphabetic writing. As you hover of the dots to peruse the authors and titles in each year, you'll note numerous articles by prominent founding members of the computers and writing community (Hawisher, 1989; Moran, 1983; Selfe, 1988).

The persistent focus on personal computers as tools of alphabetic production makes sense as they were marketed in this period as writing devices and the teaching of alphabetic writing was already a commonly accepted goal of the English teaching profession. This emphasis on computer-based writing pedagogy also likely reflected the highly active writing process movement in the field, which sought to place student writing at the center of the English class (Hawisher, LeBlanc, Moran, & Selfe, 1996). On the one hand, process pedagogy and research likely pushed English teachers to consider ways that computers could be used to engage students in textual invention, revision, and publishing; on the other hand, the computer's unique affordances for revising writing likely helped bolster process pedagogies by connecting them to an ideologically-powerful, technological progress narrative.

Alphabetic versus Multimodal Learning Outcomes
Instructions: Click legend below to turn lines on and off. Double click graph to zoom in. Drag graph to move through time. Click link below to reset.

We coded computer articles based on whether they focused on teaching alphabetic literacy, multimodal literacy, or both. (In other words, these were not mutually exclusive categories; one article might be coded both alphabetic and multimodal; see our Methodology section for more information on how we defined these categories). While the computer has been strongly associated with media production pedagogy since the early 1980s, the emphasis was placed almost entirely on the production of alphabetic text, without explicit pedagogical attention to typography, layout, and other visual features of text design. This narrow alphabetic focus only began to change in the late 1990s as the proliferation of the graphical web and improved multimedia production software started to turn English teachers towards explicit attention to the use of the computer for visual, audio, and multimodal forms of composing. (While the large spike in articles in 2000 partly reflects the proliferation of the graphical web in this period, it also can be explained by the presence of a large special issue dedicated to "Technology and the English Class" during the year 2000.) In addition to the influence of technological developments, we'd also note the New London Group's (1996) foundational manifesto as another likely influence pushing English teachers to consider modalities of communication beyond the alphabetic. When we zoom in just on the computer, the common notion that multimodal production is relatively new in English studies makes good sense (indeed it is empirically true that early computer pedagogies were not robustly multimodal, at least as they are described in English Journal).

Commonplaces for Teaching With Computers

When we break down the commonplaces about computing that appear in our corpus, the claim that the computer "enhances the teaching of alphabetic literacy" was the most prominent—even edging out the ever-popular commonplace of new media as increasing "student engagement." In some ways, the computer's strong staying power in English Journal can be explained based on the fact that it has been and (to some extent) continues to be framed first and foremost as a device for enhancing process-based, alphabetic writing instruction. We also note with interest that the computer has been framed as a device that can enable students to compose for audiences beyond the teacher—whether by printing multiple copies of a text for peer review, exchanging work via email listervs, or publishing websites. Of course, here too we can speculate about the mutually animating influences of pedagogical theories and technological affordances; in some ways, computer technologies made the sharing of writing with peers and public audiences easier, but it's also true that growth of networked computing in the late 1980s and the arrival of the graphical web in the 1990s coincide with the rise of the social constructivist pedagogies in both composition and English education. Once again, we see pedagogical theories and technological developments interacting in complex ways that these graphs cannot fully explain.

As we turn to the 21st century on the timeline, we find the computer demonstrating strong staying power in K-12 English education, especially as an alphabetic writing tool. Although we tracked an increase in articles emphasizing the multimodal affordances of computer-based composing in the 21st century, we still recorded a large number of articles focused primarily on how computers can support traditional alphabetic writing and reading instruction. In this sense, the field's uptake of the computer has followed somewhat similar patterns as earlier media; however, there is one critical difference: the computer has been positioned primarily as a tool for student production since the early 1980s, never experiencing the drift towards reception pedagogies that we have seen with other media. (There was a moment of declining interest in computer production pedagogies in the early 1990s, but interest quickly picked up again with the arrival of the graphical web.) In this way, we can come to recognize that the computer has been a disruptive force in English classrooms, and we believe that this will likely continue to be the case as new technologies of computing emerge.