9(2), April 1993, pages 23-34

Computers and Composition:
Rethinking Our Values

Lisa Gerrard

As I think over the last twelve years of activity in computers and composition, it strikes me that specialists in this field have operated from a remarkably consistent value system. In spite of individual differences, as a group, we have regarded technological innovation, risk-taking, trust in our instincts, collaboration, and the sharing of power (democracy) as constructive forces. These are the values that govern how and what we teach; these are the values we hope our students will adopt.

But these are not the values that govern our profession. To a large extent, English departments mistrust technology, are nervous about radical experimentation in the classroom, and wish we would prove the benefits of computers through a controlled study rather than assert them through impressions. Although these differences have led to conflict in individual departments and have often impeded computer-based pedagogy locally (Gerrard, 1991), they have interfered little with the growth of computers and writing as a subdiscipline of composition. As external obstacles, they are often circumvented with time and changes in faculty and administration.

The other disparity in values is internal and therefore more problematic; it lies within us as practitioners of computers and writing. As we well know, the practice of English, like that of other academic specialities, is built on competition and ranking. Thus, while we promote collaboration and democracy in our teaching, we are encouraged to be combative and hierarchical in other areas of our professional lives. As compositionists who use computers, we participate in a profession with contradictory values: one set for the classroom, another outside it.

Perhaps because there have been so few of us, until recently, and we have functioned largely outside the mainstream of English studies, people working in computers and composition have formed an unusually supportive and democratic community. I do, however, see signs that we are becoming less collegial and more divisive. These are just isolated signs--not a full-scale transformation--but they leave me to hope that, in our effort to be validated by the academy, we resist the impulse to emulate its least attractive values.

Our Values

For the most part, the field of computers and composition has embodied some of the most appealing characteristics of the computer industry: optimism, vitality, and inventiveness. These characteristics have undergirded much of our value system.


We like it, of course. Although we may worry about abuses and exaggerated claims, overall, we're optimistic about technology. Nor are we afraid of it: We believe it belongs to us as much as to scientists and technicians. As machines get faster, friendlier, cheaper, and more powerful, and as new applications come along (such as hypermedia and synchronous conferencing), we look for new ways to teach with them. We follow innovations in the computer industry, attentive to their potential impact on student writing.

Although we keep an eye on computer developments, our teaching practices come first, technology second. Although we are willing to change our teaching in response to technology, we have also been determined to make the technology fit our uses: We alter commercial packages, design our own software, and tell Apple, Zenith, and IBM what we think. From the beginning, we have insisted on using only those computer capabilities that enhance our students' learning, and we have reminded each other not to use technology just because it's there. Our first concern has always been teaching, not the computer industry; thus, we have refused to take sides in the Mac/IBM debate. Witness the furor over Marcia Halio's conclusion that her students wrote better on the IBM than the Mac (Halio, 1990a). People wrote articles disputing her claim, sent her more than 100 letters, and loaded the wires with e-mail (Youra, 1990; Kaplan and Moulthrop, 1990; Halio, 1990b).


We value risk-taking and change for their potential to make things better. In the early days, we made fools of ourselves in computer stores, where we didn't understand the lingo; in our school's computer labs, where we were scorned by engineers and hackers; in our own departments, where we were ridiculed as faddists and dilettantes. [1] Despite these reactions and our own failures, we've remained inspired by innovative uses of computers and with the courage of those who risk classroom disaster to experiment. Although the more cautious among us have felt most comfortable with software that replicates established practices (for example, adopting style checkers to hunt down to be verbs), the more adventurous have had students explore interactive fiction, meet electronically rather than face-to-face, and write hypertexts instead of essays. If hypermedia, interactive fiction, and electronic mail challenge our notions of text and literacy, and disrupt our ways of reading, writing, and teaching--so much the better.

Our Instincts

We trust our observations about what works or fails in the classroom, what Stephen North (1987) calls "lore" (p. 23, et passim). We have largely stopped worrying about our failure to measure--with a clinically valid experiment--the effects of computer-based instruction. We are convinced that computers have made life better for writers and writing instructors--though we are not always sure why this is so.


One of the things we praise about computers is that, far from being impersonal, they socialize writing. From the earliest uses of stand-alone computers in composition, instructors reported that students in labs socialized far more than they did in traditional classrooms. Students chatted together, helped one another use the software, and--without encouragement from the instructor--read each other's papers, suggested revisions, and asked for advice. The lab encouraged cooperative learning.

This tendency to invite collaboration was one of the things we liked about computers in their early years in our classrooms, even though we started out largely concerned with individual writers, focusing on how the computer changed or supported their writing processes. William Zinsser's (1983) book Writing with a Word Processor assumes, as most of us did in the early 1980s, that writing is an individual act, and he uses the computer as most of us did at that time--as a tool for solitary work. Zinsser's focus on his personal relationship with the computer and his struggle to get it to accommodate his ways of writing is typical of the period. Early studies of students' uses of computers were likewise concerned with the computer's effect on the individual writer, for example, Ellen Nold's (1976) pioneering essay, "Fear and Trembling: The Humanist Approaches the Computer," and Hugh Burns's and George Culp's (1980) work on computerized invention strategies. But even as we exploited the computer's potential as a personal writing tool, we gathered students around a single monitor, had them exchange files with each other, or let them take turns contributing to a single work, stored online.

Since then, we have taken advantage of technological changes--e-mail and conference networks--that offer new opportunities for group work. Before 1987, few of the articles on computer-based writing in College English, College Composition and Communication, and Computers and Composition emphasized collaboration; since that time, it is a rare article that fails to mention it. [2] Undoubtedly, we have been influenced by our parent disciplines, composition and literary theory, and their emphasis on discourse communities and socially created knowledge; but we have also found that in the classroom, computer-based communities work. We like collaboration and write about it a lot. Carolyn Handa's (1991) anthology focuses on computer-based writing as a social phenomenon, and the online conference, Megabyte University, was originally set up to explore networking in the composition classroom. Although we recognize the problems of collaboration--for example, coauthors don't always contribute equally to a project (this was the focus of a Megabyte University discussion, summer 1990)--we generally agree that collaboration makes students sensitive to their readers, gives them a wider pool of ideas to work with, and makes them more cooperative human beings. We seldom talk about the isolated writer anymore.


We love democracy. We promote a student-centered pedagogy where the demos--our masses of students--control their learning. As with collaboration, we are again merging current movements in composition studies--influenced by Freire (1970) and Schor (1987)--with our work with computers. We advocate computer uses that give students power over their writing, respect for their individual voices, and confidence in their own authority and experience. We deplore prescriptive drill-and-skill software that stifles students' ideas and implies that they are flawed and need correction. We like open-ended heuristics that guide students without constricting them. We're excited about electronic mail, where, it seems, students say freely what they think and speak in their own style, unhindered by constraints of time, place, classroom decorum, and personal characteristics that inhibit classroom discussion, such as shyness or a need to think through an issue before responding.

We praise the nonauthoritarian pedagogy that puts the student, not the instructor, at the center of the action; where students click away at their keyboards, and the instructor is available to offer advice when asked rather than act as an authority delivering knowledge from the front of the room; where the instructor is an expert reader, but still, in the collaborative environment where everyone reads everyone else's paper, only one reader of many. On electronic mail, instructors can use pseudonyms and thus efface their identity entirely, becoming just another voice in the conversation. Although in practice many of us hold center stage a good part of the time--we like to talk, and we are loath to relinquish control--in our speech and writing, we praise the decentralized classroom where power is dispersed rather than concentrated in a single person.

We support an egalitarian pedagogy--one that includes mainstream and nontraditional students, immigrants, the poor, racial minorities, women, the physically handicapped, the underprepared. We see computers as a potentially equalizing force; we praise electronic conferencing for allowing students to converse without being distracted by physical appearance, a foreign accent, or a stutter. We worry about equal access--about poor students who attend schools that can't afford computers, or schools that restrict students to drill-and-practice applications, or programs that route only boys into computer classes.

These, then, are what I see as our dominant values as specialists in computers and composition. These are the values we pass on to our students. In the classroom, we support technology and risk-taking and advocate democracy, pluralism, and cooperation. We train our students to cooperate, to help one another plan and revise their papers. We model this behavior with supportive comments on their drafts, suggesting alternatives rather than condemning failure--"You might add a detail here," not "Vague"; "Here's a more economical way of saying the same thing" not "Awk." We encourage our students to regard one another as equals and to respect their classmates' differences in ideology, experience, and culture--in fact, to celebrate these differences and learn from them. We tell them they are equals in a community of writers, and, by taking a nonauthoritarian stance, we join that community. We discourage competition and point instead to the enriching prospects of collaboration. We put them in groups to practice what we preach.

The Values of the Academy

Ironically, however, we engage in quite another value system outside the classroom. As we interact with our colleagues, departments, and institutions, we participate in a profession that is built not on cooperation, democracy, and acceptance of divergent viewpoints, but on competition, hierarchy, and divisiveness. English departments rank their faculty, putting theorists on top, other literary specialists beneath them, and composition faculty in the basement. [3] Coauthorship is frowned upon; single-authored works are the norm. Deconstructionists, reader-response critics, and historicists say nasty things about each other. Literature professors sneer at composition specialists, who couldn't be any good or they wouldn't be teaching writing. Composition specialists sneer at literature professors, who, as everybody knows, aren't good at teaching anything. Literature and composition people compete not just for status, but also for resources, though usually it is assumed that part-time composition faculty will subsidize the sabbaticals, research funds, and small class sizes of the literature faculty. Critiques of the alienation of compositionists from the literature elite have surfaced repeatedly (e.g., Johnson 1984, Young 1984, Moglen et al., 1988), but have made scarcely a dent in our profession and none at all in its values.

The Values of Compositionists

Unfortunately, this divisive mentality has crept into composition. Although we began not so long ago as a teaching field, as we developed into a discipline, we began to engage in research, establish methodologies, and enunciate theories. All this activity has allowed us to reflect on our practice, enrich our teaching, create new knowledge, and pass this knowledge on to others. But in the process, we have begun to adopt the divisive values prevalent elsewhere in academia. Although some researchers see room for a range of methodologies, others, in their disagreements over what constitutes knowledge about writing and learning to write, have joined warring camps: quantitative versus qualitative research; contextualists versus cognitivists. Carol Berkenkotter (1991) has argued that by polarizing our thinking, these disagreements have assumed a disproportionate importance and have deflected attention from deeper research issues. She calls for a less combative method of knowing. [4]

Among composition professionals, we have created a political hierarchy reminiscent of the one splitting literature specialists: Researchers in composition have more status than teachers, and the more theoretical the research, the better (Sledd, 1991). Where hiring committees once sought experienced instructors of composition, they now place ads in The Chronicle of Higher Education and MLA Job Information List asking for scholars in rhetorical theory and PhDs in rhetoric and composition. To some extent, these announcements reflect the growing professionalization of composition and the recognition that composition has become a discipline--an encouraging change in a profession that has long regarded writing instruction as a nonintellectual pursuit for faculty wives and failed PhDs. At the same time, when the Conference on College Composition and Communication refers to its professionalism, it's less likely to be talking about pedagogy than about research, publication, and "formal training . . . in rhetoric and composition" (Corbett, 1987, p. 445). In research institutions especially, the concept teaching professional is an oxymoron, so to gain legitimacy, compositionists rush to do research and publish. Many of these research projects, motivated more by the pursuit of tenure than the pursuit of knowledge, have been described as "appalling," generated in "an attempt to win 'public sanction' for our programs," and running "on a great deal of hoopla and not much substance" (Chapman, 1987, pp. 44-45).

If some research has been appalling, much of it has given us new ways of thinking about how we teach and how people learn, write, and think; about the function of rhetoric in our culture; about the meaning of literacy; and about the uses of technology in all these arenas. Much of it has improved our classroom practice and invigorated our profession. The problem is not research or theory, but the value we attach to it. In our eagerness to legitimize composition in the English department, we are adopting its priorities--joining what Barbara Christian (1988) calls the "race for theory" (p. 68) and depreciating teaching in favor of scholarship. Jane Peterson (1991) puts it concretely: "What do I do on Monday morning?" is viewed as a trivial concern, while "How can I code this protocol?" is considered an "important question with many implications." We talk condescendingly of a "classroom mentality," she reminds us, never of a "research" or "manuscript" mentality; we say "I'm only a teacher," never "I'm just a scholar" (p. 28).

Computers, Compositionists, and the Hunger for Theory

Now it looks as if the same process is occurring in computers and composition. Like our parent discipline, composition, we began in the classroom, looking for ways to improve instruction. Now we too are gradually beginning to theorize. Although all of the presentations at the first three Computers and Writing conferences (1983-1985) were directly tied to pedagogy and had a strong practical focus (arranging labs, designing courseware, evaluating word-processed writing, training teachers), in the five conferences since then, a tiny but steadily increasing minority have begun to discuss theories related to computers and language. Their papers comprised roughly 4% of the presentations at the 1986 Computers and Writing conference, 5% of those at the 1989 conference, 7% in 1990 and 1991, and 10% in 1992. [5] This shift reflects an increasing curiosity about the meaning of our work and its relationship to other technological and intellectual trends.

At the same time, we are beginning to apply the same value structure that governs other areas of English studies. The more abstract the theory and the farther it is from classroom practice, the more prestige it garners from the computer cognoscenti. This attitude surfaces in casual comments at conferences and on the campus where I work. One colleague labels another "stupid" because her only interest in computers is what she can directly bring into her IBM-outfitted classroom. Another colleague sneers at a writing instructor who has spent years devising computer-based curricula and developing courseware: "She's not a real computer person." The "real computer person," in his view, talks about chaos theory, fractals, Bakhtin, and the digital revolution--not about students. Real computer people do not design lab layouts, electronic editors, or paperless writing courses; they think about the poststructural, the postcognitive, the postmodern.

Again the problem is not theory. Some of our most interesting work has leaned heavily on the poststructural, postcognitive, and postmodern, as well as theories of feminism, reader-response, human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, and physics. From the beginning, our uses of computers in composition have depended partly on the available technology, but primarily, they have been influenced by composition theory. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, those who emphasized product-based teaching developed grammar tutorials, hoping that computers would correct students' grammar, or at least teach them to do this themselves (Southwell, 1983). Those who were committed to theories of writing process embraced word processing as the ideal tool for enabling revision (Daiute, 1983). Following research into writing processes, many of us broke writing into stages, developing electronic invention aids for idea generation, and style editors for revision (Von Blum & Cohen, 1984). By the late 1980s, with increased interest in communication as a social construct, computerists began to explore the computer's potential for collaborative writing and critiquing on networks (Payne, 1987). Recently, as compositionists have become interested in liberatory pedagogy and the student-centered classroom, many of us have been inspired by the potential of conferencing to shift the focus of the course from instructor to student (Batson, 1988; Cooper & Selfe, 1990). Similarly, the interest in interactive fiction and hypertext, both of which allow the user to determine the path of a narrative, has been inspired both by theories of liberatory pedagogy and reader-response theory (Ziegfeld, 1989; Slatin, 1990).

Many of us hunger for a theory of computer-based writing that will help us reflect on and revise our practice. Theory helps us understand what we're doing. It provides us with questions, goals, a vocabulary for talking about our work, strategies for revising it, and a common frame of reference for sharing it with one another. But theory has a reciprocal relationship with practice and should be valued alongside it, not above it. Theory grows out of what we do in the classroom and conditions what we bring back to the classroom. Without practice, it wouldn't exist.

The worship of theory can lead to doublespeak. Such was the case at a conference I attended two years ago, where three panelists on a session on writing and multimedia spoke at an exceptionally high level of abstraction. The question period that followed began with a long silence, followed by a single query from a frustrated member of the audience: What, if anything, did the presentations mean? He wasn't the only one wondering. I'd been jotting down some of the buzz words ("rhetorical digitization," "the convergence of the technological consciousness and the postmodern revolution"), hoping they would add up to a shred of wisdom. They never did--not for me, anyway.

The valuing of theory over teaching is so deeply entrenched in our academic consciousness that it's easy to understand the impulse to sound loftier than one's thoughts warrant. And in our desire to legitimize computers and writing--to see our work recognized by the rest of the English department--it's tempting to adopt the least constructive values of our profession. But maybe we shouldn't try so hard to fit in. There are advantages to being on the outskirts. Two years ago, Computers and Composition celebrated our marginality, urging us to "take our time. . . think about our work carefully," and develop real theoretical understanding (Hawisher & Selfe, 1990, p. 11). If experimentation is one of our healthiest values, let's take advantage of our place in the margins, where we have the freedom to explore.

Our field is young. As we experiment, we will develop theories of computer-assisted composition. In the meantime, let's not forget that we originally set out to energize our teaching, and that we began--and for the most part continue to function--in a spirit of collegiality and shared discovery.

Lisa Gerrard teaches in the UCLA Writing Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.


  1. Though most of my colleagues simply ignored or pooh-poohed my early efforts teaching with a mainframe computer, my students' peers were less subtle. Sitting at adjacent terminals in the math sciences building, many of the engineering majors snickered when they saw freshman writers composing online. For some of my students, embarrassment--not the long wait for a terminal or the awkwardness of the text editor--was the biggest obstacle to computer-based writing.

  2. I surveyed College English from January 1983 through April 1992; CCC from February 1983 through May 1992; and Computers and Composition from its inception in November 1983 through the April 1992 issue. Not surprisingly, Computers and Composition is especially revealing of our changing taste for collaboration, showing an incremental increase in articles mentioning group work. In its first 4 years, 8 of its articles discussed collaborative uses of computers; in the second 4, the total is 21, with several articles devoted entirely to computer-based writing as a social act.

  3. The ranking of academic specialties is inherent in our educational system, which (like other arenas of American culture) thrives on competition. Certainly the discipline of English studies is conceptualized divisively: Literature is split from composition, research from teaching, reading from writing, intellectual growth from skills acquisition. These divisions are reflected in the way we structure our departments--literature and composition are separate courses taught by separate faculties, often in separate buildings. The profession promotes literature as an intellectual endeavor and promotes and tenures its practitioners; it endures composition as a lamentable necessity and endures compositionists as an invisible servant class. Even our individual practice is fraught with division; whether we are composition or literary specialists, the scholarship we do competes with our teaching. Teaching cuts into time more profitable (because it is rewarded) spent writing and is therefore a burden (a "load"). No one ever talks about a research load.

  4. "Need we chose sides between quantitative and qualitative or empirical and hermeneutical approaches to our objects of study? How can the efforts of the empirical research community enrich rather than rival the efforts of those of us who see the needed work in composition to be done in the areas of cultural studies, critical theory, and feminist theory?" (Berkenkotter, 1991, p. 166).

  5. Issues of theory and practice often overlap, so these should be taken as rough estimates. I labeled a presentation theoretical if its classroom application was not fairly immediate and obvious. Topics I considered theoretical included artificial versus natural language, social construction and hypermedia, qualitative research, hypertext and literary criticism, posttypographical literacy, and theories of networking. There are no figures from 1987 or 1988, when the Computers and Writing conference did not take place.


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