A Distant View of English Journal, 1912-2012

Jason Palmeri & Ben McCorkle



Our work builds on a rich tradition of historical scholarship within the field of computers and writing that has demonstrated the importance of situating contemporary digital writing pedagogies in relation to past teachers' experiments with diverse analog, mechanical, and electronic composing technologies. In their foundational history of computers and writing, Gail Hawisher, Paul LeBlanc, Charles Moran, and Cynthia Selfe (1996) paid substantial attention to how the field was formed through dialogue among composition and rhetoric specialists and K-12 English educators; yet, because they focused their attention on pedagogies of the personal computer, they began their history in 1979 and thus didn't attend to the longer history of English teachers' engagement with diverse media technologies throughout the twentieth century. Recognizing the importance of recovering the pre-history of computers in writing, a few scholars in the field have begun the work of recovering pre-digital approaches to English pedagogy—engaging such diverse technologies as the pencil (Baron, 2009), the typewriter (Kalmbach, 1996), the chalkboard (Krause, 2000), and the instructional film (Ritter, 2015). We remix this body of work with footage from The Prelinger Archives in the video below:

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In addition to the histories we discuss in the above video, a few other scholars have begun to look specifically to the English Journal archive to historicize contemporary digital writing pedagogies. In "'Making the Devil Useful': Audio-Visual Aids in the Teaching of Writing," Joseph Jones (2012) offered a look back at discussions of multimedia tools in English Journal from 1912 to around World War II—highlighting such diverse technologies as film projectors, stereopticons, phonographs, and radios. Engaging a relatively small number of articles, Jones argued that "secondary school English teachers often claimed audio-visual equipment to indicate a new professionalism, yet descriptions of its uses reveal that innovative technology was often used in retrograde ways" (p. 95). Providing a similar historical critique of how English teachers have approached new technologies, Troy Hicks, Carl Young, Sara Kajder, and Bud Hunt (2012) offered a selective review of English Journal articles about media technology over the past century, which ultimately concluded that "despite all the cultural and technological changes in the types of texts we are able to produce and consume, and the revolutionary predictions we have made, not much has really changed in the teaching of English over the past 100 years" (p. 68). Although we concur in part with the critiques of Jones and Hicks et al. regarding the limiting ways English teachers have sometimes employed media technologies over the years, we seek to complicate their case study approaches by systematically coding and visualizing a much larger collection of media-related English Journal articles—seeking to offer a more complex and multivalent vision of both innovative and "retrograde" uses of technology in English studies over a longer period of observation.