Presentation Abstract

The Specter of the Machine: Creating Ethical Research Relationships in a Computer-Supported Writing Program

In our proposed presentation, we will explore the connections among research, writing program administration, and computer-supported pedagogy by examining how administrators of a computer-supported teaching program at the Ohio State University balance their roles as colleagues, mentors, trainers, evaluators, and technological gurus while establishing ethical personae as researchers. We will argue that these administrators’ knowledge of computer hardware and software creates distances that complicate researcher-participant relationships when studying computer-supported pedagogy, and we will suggest ways the computer-supported writing program at Ohio State has addressed this concern.

Brief Context

At the Ohio State University, the ten-year-old Computers in Composition and Literature Program (CCL) offers computer-supported versions of regular English Department courses in twenty-seat, networked classroom labs. The majority of these course are first- and second-year writing courses taught by graduate teaching associates. The staff for CCL includes a part-time faculty director, a full-time assistant director with an administrative/professional appointment, and three graduate student administrative associates. The primary role of this staff is to provide training workshops, materials, consultations, and in-class technical and pedagogical support to the teaching associates. To ensure that our support for teachers is effective, the administrative staff conducts ongoing research.

The Problem

Writing program administrators (WPAs) are already working in a complex array of roles (mentor, evaluator, trainer) even if they do not work with computer-supported pedagogy. Thus, any WPA has to find ethical and responsible ways to negotiate the varying power relationships suggested by these roles. Further, when WPAs conduct research involving teachers in their programs, they must consider their roles as researchers in relation to their participant teachers.

Yet another role that complicates research by WPAs in computer-supported writing programs is that of “technological guru.” For instance, when CCL staff go into classes to observe, teachers may introduce them as computer wizards or may tell their classes that the visitors are checking to see if teachers are using the computers well. Even when structures have been put in place to equalize and define the administrators’ and teachers’ authority in the context of the research project, administrators in these kinds of programs can all too easily be perceived as power figures who have not only authority over teachers but also expertise regarding computers—and neither perception may have any clear relation to writing pedagogy.

In our presentation, we will discuss how we, as CCL staff, have tried to address the distances between ourselves and participant teachers in recent research projects. For this discussion, we will cite the research methods we have used in a regular series of classroom observations and a longitudinal study of teachers’ development in a computer-supported program. More specifically, we will discuss how we have reduced distances between ourselves and teachers by involving them in the design and interpretation of our research—soliciting feedback on research methods, asking for help in interpreting interview data, and collaboratively designing on-going professional development opportunities. From our own perspectives, we will discuss the effectiveness of these methods and the implications for future research in computer-supported pedagogy.

Author: Lori Mathis and H. Lewis Ulman


Target Audience: Not Applicable

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