9(4), November 1993, pages 89-94

Re-lmagining Computers and Composition: Teaching and Research in the Virtual Age

Eds. Gail E. Hawisher & Paul LeBlanc. Portsmouth:
Boynton/Cook Heinneman, 1992. 222 pages.

Reviewed by Joseph Janangelo

Gail E. Hawisher and Paul LeBlanc are philosophers of technology and literacy instruction. Like Jay David Bolter, Mary Louise Gomez, Stuart Moulthrop, Cynthia L. Selfe, Michael Spitzer, and some other scholars, they think about technology in philosophical and humanistic terms. It is not surprising, then, that these editors would produce a splendid text that fuses the impulse to think critically about computers with specific plans for educational reform and teacher activism. In suggesting ways of using computers in teaching and research, Gail E. Hawisher and Paul LeBlanc have created an important text that contributes to the increased effectiveness of computer use in literacy instruction and to the increased professionalization of people who devote their scholarly and pedagogical activities to teaching with computers.

Re-lmagining Computers and Composition: Teaching and Research in the Virtual Ageis divided into three sections. The first section, "Re-imagining the Profession: Teaching in the Virtual Age" raises questions about what the future may hold for teachers of writing. In Chapter 1, "Computers and the Writing Classroom: A Look to the Future," Charles Moran discusses the changing nature of the classroom. Moran argues that computer-equipped classrooms, and especially the online writing classroom (by virtue of its mail system, filing or storage-and-retrieval system, and computer-mediated conferencing system) promise shared "autonomy" (p. 13) between students and teachers and a more "complete educational environment" (p. 19). To his credit, while describing the value of virtual classrooms, Moran also discusses the disadvantages and "losses" (p. 21) of such environments.

This responsible balance of praise for and criticism of the new technology is voiced even more powerfully in Cynthia L. Selfe's "Preparing English Teachers for the Virtual Age: The Case for Technology Critics" (chap. 2). Stating that "few teachers feel prepared to carry out effective instruction in the virtual classroom" (p. 24), Selfe argues that, to better prepare teachers to work in the virtual age, "we will need to help them learn to use technology and to function actively as technology critics and reformers in the context of our educational systems" (p. 25). As is characteristic of many authors in this book, Selfe does not just theorize eloquently about change. Instead, she offers five detailed suggestions for improving teacher preparation. For me, Selfe's most intriguing statements occur near the end of her chapter when she advocates theory-based teacher-inquiry. She wisely argues that "increasing instances of observation and research are essential to directing our efforts during the next decade" (p. 33) and suggests that teachers should actively participate in the "customization" (p. 37) of their computer-assisted classrooms by "articulating a specific educational agenda" for those spaces to support.

The book returns to the present with Elizabeth Sommers's essay, "Political Impediments to Virtual Reality" (chap. 3). Sommers begins by recounting a brief exchange with a colleague whom she invited to attend her computer-assisted class, a space he termed "computerland" (p. 42). The invitation and response went as follows: "'Why don't you come and see for yourself?' I asked. 'Oh no, it's all beyond me,' he said, and we went our separate ways" (p. 43). Arguing that this kind of exchange has "resonant meaning" (p. 43) beyond her personal situation, Sommers outlines major lines of resistance (e.g., professional, administrative) that English departments traditionally use to ignore the pedagogical and professional work of humanities faculty who teach with computers.

One of the book's most insightful essays is "Exploring the Implications of Metaphors for Computer Networks and Hypermedia," written by Janet Carey Eldred and Ron Fortune (chap. 4). In this essay, the authors suggest that the metaphors traditionally associated with computer networks and hypermedia are at once alluring (in that they present a "familiar frame of reference to explain something whose attraction is based in part on . . . difference" (p. 59) and inadequate because they are constrained by "metaphors of textuality" (p. 67). Arguing that "We need metaphors that both capture the essence of this technology as we currently understand it and at the same time have the power to continue and extend our grasp of its potential" (p. 68), the authors don't use voice an unavoidable poststructuralist position, e.g., can language ever accurately represent reality? Rather, they go on to tentatively support metaphors of hypertext as a "geographical space to be navigated" and "topographic" (p. 69) space--ones which they argue more accurately suggest the infinitely decenterable and recenterable facets of hypertext and which "move us along" (p. 69) in the "continual commitment to critique and creativity" (p. 72).

Inspiring teacher creativity is a central purpose of this book, and Part II, "Looking Beyond Virtual Horizons: Teaching Writing on Networks," focuses on ways that computers are creatively used in a variety of networked writing situations. Things begin very promisingly with Gail E. Hawisher's Chapter 5, "Electronic Meetings of the Minds: Research, Electronic Conferences, and Composition Studies." In this chapter, Hawisher summarized findings from research conducted on electronic conferences and discusses them in the context of social constructivist views of language. In discussing these research findings, Hawisher succinctly outlines the significant advantages and drawbacks of electronic conferences. By framing her discussion within social constructivist theory and theories of critical teaching (p. 95), Hawisher provides the invaluable contribution of bring research in computers and composition into conversation with ideas that are central to the academy.

Just as Hawisher's chapter breaks down theoretical barriers to understanding work with computers, William W. Wright Jr.'s Chapter 6, "Breaking Down Barriers: High Schools and Computer Conferencing," seeks to break down institutional and geographical barriers between students and teachers. Wright describes Middlebury College's experiments with computer conferences for high school classes at the Bread Loaf School of English. In working to prevent student (and teacher) isolation, Wright delineates a number of computer conferences that have brought communities together. While Wright's perceptions of computer-assisted activities are a bit more optimistic than any of the other contributors, his essay is valuable for its detailed coverage and descriptions of these conferences.

In Chapter 7, "Teaching Composition in Tomorrow's Multimedia, Multinetworked Classrooms," Hugh Burns discusses a newer experiment--one in which telecommunications supported by satellites are used to link writing classes synchronically in Jackson, Michigan with classes in Austin, Texas. He also presents excerpts from his online exchanges with students from Apple headquarters located in Cupertino, California. In describing what it is like to teach in this "postmodern chaotic virtual kind of way" (p. 115), Burns presents many transcript excerpts which attest to ways that these conferences can be used to build and expand community by establishing forums for discussion, exchange, and play. One especially interesting section occurs when the technology itself becomes the subject of students' questions like, "Could we 'meet' face to face through interchange and virtual reality?" (p. 125). This question shows that once technology is involved, no matter what gains are made, more is always wanted. As Burns admits, "Technology is never content for long" (p. 130). Nor, thank heaven, are its users.

Paul Taylor concludes this section with a Chapter 8 on "Social Epistemic Rhetoric and Chaotic Discourse." Taylor asks us to consider synchronic conferences in terms of chaos theory. Arguing that such conferences create a communal text that challenges notions of single authorship and textual coherence, Taylor rightfully argues that transcripts of these conferences are not only valuable as "resources for researchers" (p. 140)--resources which show language in the process of changing (p. 141)--but that "computer conferencing is evolving into a new genre, a new form of communication that has not been possible before now" (p. 145).

Part III of the book is called "Navigating Virtual Waters: Where Do We Go From Here?" and focuses on valuable research motives and methodologies. Marcia Curtis and Elizabeth Klem begin this section with Chapter 9, entitled "The Virtual Context: Ethnography in the Computer-Equipped Writing Classroom." In their essay, Curtis and Klem advocate "critical and feminist ethnographic practices" (p. 155) for computer research in order to obtain a more complete vision of the "computer-based composition classroom as a cultural phenomenon" (p. 159). The authors advocate the ethnographic because they believe it retains "three basic principles--open questioning, full contextualization, and reflexivity" (p. 161). Although one could ask these writers to clarify which strands of feminist theory they adhere to and to qualify the words "full contextualization" with "fuller," this essay is certainly intriguing and insightful. The authors even achieve the "reflexivity" (p. 161) they describe by admitting their own positions of relative "privilege" (p. 156) within a "large, research university" (p. 156).

In Chapter 10, "Computers and Composition Studies: Articulating a Pattern of Discovery," Christine M. Neuwirth and David S. Kaufer outline a research methodology and mode of inquiry for using the strengths of cognitive science as potentials for software design. In naming some patterns of discovery, Neuwirth and Kaufer articulate four steps which can help teachers make their classrooms more creative, challenging, and supportive spaces for student learning. Although the authors focus on pedagogical advice for large-group instruction, they do not forget theory or individual student needs, arguing that a "great deal of theoretical work on interfaces is needed to guarantee that writers can define their own tasks, navigate them as they see fit, diagnose, and correct problems they uncover in their own processes" (p. 186 7).

In Chapter 11, Paul LeBlanc discusses "Ringing in the Virtual Age: Hypermedia Authoring Software and the Revival of Faculty-Based Software Development in Composition." LeBlanc's text, like Selfe's chapter, combines theoretical awareness with a plan for teacher advocacy and activism. LeBlanc encourages faculty to become involved in software development--arguing that our content expertise (p. 195) should override our trepidations about the coming involved in software design. For me, the most intriguing section of LeBlanc's text is when he considers our possible roles in training students to participate critically in "nonacademic settings" (p. 197). By paying careful attention to computer-assisted communications in business and technical writing situations, the author projects computer-assisted instruction into a very important, often overlooked, arena. In advocating increased teacher involvement in software design, LeBlanc phrases things clearly and dialogically: "If we are to have a hand in shaping the new literacy, we need to nurture the faculty development and study of hypermedia" (p. 203). By using the word need instead of must, LeBlanc avoids dogmatism and gives us some choice. He makes active participation "in the age of virtual literacy" (p. 203) an intriguing option for teachers, rather than an onerous obligation.

The book concludes with Richard Selfe's "What Are They Talking About? Computer Terms That English Teachers May Need to Know" (chap. 12). Selfe's glossary of terms, arranged in six useful categories, is quite useful and very readable. I hate to say it, but the editors should not be surprised to discover that this invaluable chapter is photocopied and distributed in methods classes and writing labs across the country.

In the book's preface, Edward P. J. Corbett recommends this text as a "must-read" (p. viii) text for those involved in teaching or training people to teach with computers. I agree. This book represents a process of ongoing theorization, self-critique, and social action that is essential to any maturing discipline. I have one wish and one quibble. My wish is for a chapter on re-imagining assessment in the virtual age, especially since assessment appears to be the academe's key term and motivation for the 1990s. My quibble is with the relatively minor level of echoing that sometimes occurs in this text. Except when co-editor Paul LeBlanc (chap. 12) explicitly refers to some of the book's chapters, a few of the insights offered in this book are a bit more repetitious than intertextual. Examples of this occur when Hugh Burns asks, "Are we satisfied that our students are learning to learn in our courses?" (p. 118) seemingly unaware that Cynthia L. Selfe is suggesting that we are not (p. 28). The same is true when Burns envisions the "metaphors for describing tomorrow's teachers" (p. 124) apart from Carey Eldred and Fortune's discussion of metaphors in Chapter 4. The sense of echoing comes up again when Paul Taylor suggests that "Transcripts. . .are quite valuable resources for researchers" (p. 140) after Gail E. Hawisher has discussed that in some detail on pages 84-86. Despite this minor quibble, the many virtues of this text far outweigh any minor echoing I may claim to hear. Re-lmagining Computers and Composition: Teaching and Research in the Virtual Age is a very insightful and responsible book; it shows teachers ways of theorizing and using technology with knowledge, creativity, and, most importantly, humanity.

Joseph Janangelo is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Loyola University of Chicago.