[conclusion of Davis article at top of this page]
When I decided to teach English 401, Advanced Writing, I also decided to commit myself to an advanced composition course that would have value beyond the classroom. I wanted my students to encounter practical exercises that they would likely meet after college, to write papers that would interest them after they left E-401. Much of this decision was predicated on the fact that the course is designed for the upper division student as the most advanced non-fiction writing course in our English curriculum. Of the four papers designed for the course (totaling at least 8000 words) one was to be based on market surveys and query letters, another was to be a critical essay, a third was a personal experience/personal perspective essay, and a fourth was to be a computer-generated manuscript.
Of the 14 students enrolled, 10 were seniors, one was a junior, and three sophomores were taking the course for upper division credit. Among those 14 students, six were English majors, two were anthropology majors, one was a secondary education major, and one an art major.
I had no expectations as to what the result of this assignment would be. I might have to be satisfied with students who could just get into and use the
PSF WRITE software on our computer lab's IBM PCs perhaps write a HELLO or maybe even a I HATE THIS ASSIGNMENT AND COMPUTERS ALTOGETHER. My real hope, of course, was that everyone would be able to generate a complete manuscript.
Setting aside a two-week unit for this part of the course, I divided the class into two groups--users and non-users. As luck would have it, 7 of the 14 had previous computer experience. That experience ranged from on-line activities with an Apple, an IBM PC, a DecMate, a TI, a Commodore 64, and a Hewlett-Packard 3000. Among those 7 students, only 3 had any previous experience with word processing software which included WORDSTAR, SPELLBINDER, and WORD PRO 3 PLUS. The other 7 students had never laid a finger on a computer keyboard.
I matched up persons with similar interests, writing skills, and communication levels. One user who had already done a market survey on OMNI magazine was matched up with a non-user who had an interest in science fiction writing; two non-traditional re-entry students felt comfortable with each other; two others were neighbors and could schedule on-line time with little difficulty.
The assignment asked each student to write a paper related to their major field of study. Those non-users with no familiarity with computers would have less fear and stress knowing that they were working on a subject they were familiar with even though their hardware and software might be unfamiliar.
Over the two weeks assigned for the exercise, I met with students individually at the University's computer lab in the education building. Classtime was on-line activity. My syllabus had already indicated that those 6 hours would probably not be enough for some of the students and each would be expected to sign up for more computer time when they needed it. The longest period of frustration for learning was 45 minutes, the shortest, 15; this was for users and non-users alike, those who had to adapt to new hardware or learn new software.
Each paper from this assignment averaged around 7 pages, 2-3 pages longer than they might have been if they had not been computer generated. The 14 papers included a personal experience essay marketed for SAIL magazine, another for READER'S DIGEST's Life in the U.S.A., a third for PARENTS on experiences with raising two sets of twins; communications majors defined communications as a discipline, examined MTV as a new field of communication, developed a response to the First Amendment for a national essay competition; the art major dealt with critical perceptions of peer evaluation; the English majors wrote about the difficulties of being a non-traditional student, summer sports, the writing process in general, an introduction to a personal collection of poetry; one anthropology major wrote about an archeological dig; and two students chose to respond to an essay from the textbook which dealt with Aristotle's ESSAY ON MAN.
At the end of the two weeks, after the papers had been handed in, I asked each student to write an additional one or two pages in which they detailed their experiences with the assignment and the computer, being sure to indicate the total number of hours spent and their evaluation of the assignment.
Students reported spending from 2 to 20 hours on the assignment. The average amount of time spent by each student totaled 9. Most students said that they discovered the computer experience as a time saver, an added element of efficiency, and a savings in the writing process of draft procedures.
Frustrations, according to the students, included the initial introduction to the computer and to the software. One student complained of text "evaporating" until he learned how to save his materials. The common complaint about the misplaced IBM shift key gave way to a patient understanding of the new keyboard. And, over the two-week period, students reported only two power failures which wiped out parts of manuscripts.
As a result of the study, one student has drastically changed his writing process, claiming he has "learned to compose and type at the same time"; another student wants to learn how to incorporate her learning into writing her Girl Scout Newsletter, even having her troop work for a computer badge. Another student is still skeptical after her off-campus experiences with the Commodore 64 and WORD PRO 3 PLUS because of the stress on an "overheated" machine and will stick to her pen, her Smith-Corona, and her Liquid Paper. A self-professed "mechanical idiot" and self-styled "technopeasant," who relies on high technology but can't run the machines, looks forward to the day
when she can sell a computer-generated manuscript so that her computer can become a deductible business expense. One other student has already achieved that goal by selling his article on local sports to a regional magazine.
Some students can't wait until the next semester when they can return and continue their adventures with technology. All of the students have been satisfied with their experiences beyond the classroom with computers, and the assignment has proven itself pedagogically sound for the purposes and needs of an advanced composition course.