2(4), August 1985, page 6

The Confessions of Professor Strangelove; Or, An Apology for Literacy

Helen J. Schwartz

If you're reading this journal, you're probably computer literate or well on your way. Perhaps I'm preaching to the converted, but here are my confessions about the tribulations and triumphs of an English teacher becoming computer literate in addition to being literate. My experiences may not be typical, but these "confessions" are meant to comfort those passing through the same tribulations and encourage those who feel they must be "stupid" because they can't assimilate the entire WORDSTAR manual in less than two days.

I started working with computers because I was mad and scared. The five-year plan (even in 1979) was talking about a requirement in "computer literacy." "Hell!" I thought, "a lot of our graduates aren't properly literate, let alone computer literate!" I set out to discover what "computer literacy" was all about because I was scared about the mystical powers I heard being attributed to the beast.

Never one for half-way measures, I jumped in the deep end: I made my students in business and technical writing use a computerized readability formula (free from Dick Jilbert of GM Service

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Research Division and modified by Oakland Schools, as discussed in Schwartz, 1980). I took a programming course in FORTRAN. I started trying to find out about existing programs in English.

My early efforts left a lasting effect. The difficulty my students and I felt in getting on a mainframe computer and using it left me with a deep-seated dislike of any time-sharing (a.k.a. big) computer. My decision to learn FORTRAN, like my decision in junior high school to study Latin, helped build character, but at least Latin also helps with etymology! It was at this stage of my computer career that I conceived the dream of a large pillow, with sewn attachments to make it look like a computer. I cold make lots of money by stationing this pillow outside the computer lab and renting out my tennis racket for $5 per minute.

I hated computers that told me, an English teacher, that I had made a syntax error! I hated statistical packages that told me, a humanist and rhetorician, that "0 arguments is too few."

Although I later learned that "error messages" could save me hours of searching for bugs or problems with a program, I never got over my early resentment of these humiliating responses. (Recently, as I worked on the mainframe, I typed my invocation to the deity to consign the machine to eternal damnation. The computer's reply was "segment god not found."

As I look back on my early efforts, I don't know why I persisted. Perhaps it was the challenge of the puzzle; certainly it was not the glow of easy achievement in a user-friendly

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environment. Perhaps it's a masochistic streak or an insensitivity to humiliation.

Whatever my motives for continuing, I have learned not to consider myself as typical. I never minded working next to students; they could help me figure out what to do next. But, many faculty will not work at public terminals and will not tolerate learning from unreadable manuals. Probably they are the sane ones. When someone complains to me and I start into a "you think you've got it bad" routine, I remember that no movement progresses if everyone has to be a pioneer. Fortunately for society, the sane people predominate and insist on ease of use.


My experience has been typical, however, in that I learn like an adult. I think adults learn word processing and computing more slowly than kids because they are no longer used to jump-in over-your-head learning. As adults, we have a broad world view, a liberal education--or maybe it's just that we have enough control over our lives so that we don't have to learn entirely new things. Kids still have to jump in over their heads. Teachers make assignments, and most kids jump in and figure they'll learn as they do it.

Besides, kids may be more playful than adults because their work is less operational (get-something-done-ish) than the work of most adults. We adults get uncomfortable when we don't know what we're doing step-by-step. And learning most word-processing systems or other utility programs (like spread sheets or data bases) involves partial power. That is, we can't

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know it all at once. And it may take weeks to even learn the basics.

I learn like a sponge--I fill up with just so many instructions, and then I have to assimilate those before I can soak up any more. I need to remember that truth when I teach a complex program like word processing to colleagues. I now refuse to explain bells and whistles until I've covered all the basics.


Remember Alice in Wonderland and the mushroom that made her too big or too small? It's a great introduction to being the first kid on your English-Department block who is computer literate. You know how pitifully meager your knowledge of computers is; yet your colleagues consider you an expert. Moreover, you start attracting anti-sentiments from all sides, as a lightning rod attracts lightning.

The people who control the computers are friendly as long as you aren't in a position to shift allocations to your side of the campus. And the folks back home start associating you with unemployment, killer robots, irremediable computer errors on their charge accounts, and the death of the humanities. You argue that if the humanities are to defend their turf, humanists must know the enemy, perhaps even improving its use and taming it to humane purposes, harnessing its power for humanistic endeavors.

I felt increasingly marginal. But then I had lunch with a friend in political science who told me I had it wrong: I wasn't marginal; I was really a gate-keeper, the person of influence

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in a community who introduces new changes into the culture. That helped a little, but not much.


At about this time, I started seeing computer applications that looked interesting and humane. I also worked on my sabbatical with Tom Dwyer and Margot Critchfield on their National Science Foundation project at the University of Pittsburgh's Computer Science Department. In their project, Solo/NET/Works, they stressed the power of computers to involve the student in solo learning that can be joined with that of others to enhance the social nature of education (Dwyer, 1971). I also read about the open-ended, interactive programs of Ellen Nold (1975) and Hugh Burns (Burns & Culp, 1980).

These people working with computers combined in my head with the theoretical work in composition on heuristics and the importance of a sense of audience. I combined theory and practice in a computer program, now called SEEN, that has a tutorial to help students perceive evidence on literary analysis, format their observations and refine hypotheses, and then share comments with others on a built-in computer network (Schwartz, 1984).

Although my work was emphasizing the computer as an asset to the social side of learning, my personal sociability wasn't growing in quality or quantity. I had a few people at the university I could talk to about my work. I started trying to drum up a support group by starting "Computer Users in the Humanities" with a mimeographed notice of meeting and a reserved

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room in the student center. Response from humanists was minimal at first, but my work was bringing me in contact with interested administrators and with a colleague in Engineering named Ron Mourant. Ron became a kind of mentor. Nothing in my graduate or undergraduate training had prepared me for proposal writing, for lab planning and administration. Ron taught me the ropes:

Rule 1: "No one will give you something you don't ask for." In order to test the prototype of SEEN, I wanted a computer and released time from one class, so I got the Dean to provide released time, and that became my ante with the Provost to request a computer. I have followed Rule 1 repeatedly. Most of us in the humanities (with the possible exception of chairpeople) simply don't ask for things except books. We may not always get what we ask for, but we have little chance of getting what no one knows we want. Furthermore, we have to stop thinking, as a colleague of mine did, that $3400 is a large grant. (In fact, the Arts Council to which he is applying categorizes anything under $10,000 as a "small" grant.)

Rule 2: "Ask for what you want and you may wind up getting what you need." I wanted three computers for a class. "No, I guess I really need six, but twelve would be better." That was not an unrealistic request, but I got only six computers for my first lab. And I built on small successes. I now warn the Dean and Provost that as soon as I get x computers I will ask for 2x next year. (They also know I'll settle for what I need.)

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Rule 3: "Walk it through." Once I got authorization for my first computers, I needed to learn the bureaucracy of expediting purchases and remodeling. I became increasingly impatient with the slowness of the bureaucracy. I found myself yelling at everyone and fuming to myself, "This is not my job!" I realized, however, that I couldn't always expect yelling to work. And I realized if something were priority #2 for me, but priority #15 for the person whose job it was, then I needed to make it easy for that person to help me out.

Rule 4: "Involve others." As a habitual loner, this rule has been hard for me to learn, but most productive. Colleagues can provide moral support, tough criticism, shared ideas, votes in the University Senate. Delegating jobs helps others become involved and allows me to accomplish more than if I did it all myself. Involving students allows me to work closely with them and get their added personpower, letting me accomplish more while also feeling the pleasures of mentorship.


Working with computers has enlivened my own research and teaching. It has also given me access to some power within the university. Faculty in the humanities generally aren't used to power. I still find it hard to say that I have it. Why does work with computers provide this access to computers: Computer use in the humanities is still relatively rare, so any self-identified

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person willing to take a leadership role will probably be seized upon by the administration, though perhaps viewed with some suspicion by colleagues. (Gatekeeper, remember gatekeeper!)

Secondly, the most universal use for computers across campus is writing with a processor, and guess whose province that is. Although the scientists, engineers and social scientists may have the monster mainframes, the humanists find a natural ally in microcomputers. (See Immerwahr, 1984.)

Thirdly, humanists can generally write pretty well. If we learn enough computerese to translate the ideas of the computer experts into English, we have real power in speaking to faculty and administrative groups. Many in these powerful forums are generally committed to computing but are not highly computer literate. And the computer experts are generally not very articulate. (If you doubt this, look at the "help" documentation on a computer or in a manual some time.) Humanists have been extolling the power of writing for a long time: now we have the chance to use that power concerning an issue with enormous ramifications for educational equity and allocation of university resources.

Another powerful mode of being helpful is writing a newsletter. This gets information out to faculty regularly, publicizing the work of computer-using faculty on campus, giving information about lectures, conferences, grants, sources of on-campus help. John Immerwahr of the Philosophy Department at Villanova University gave me this idea, along with suggestion to label the first issue as volume 3, number 1 (to sound established and drive everyone crazy looking for

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the first two volumes). Students working for me get credit for an internship, and I get much needed help.

I guess my favorite audience, however, is the new recruits. If you are the computer expert at your school, you probably know what I mean. If you are a new recruit, read on. For me, one of the greatest enjoyments of working with computers is learning by doing and learning from newcomers. My students have taught we a lot as I have worked with them and prepared for them. Colleagues come up with important criticisms and new ideas. They bring their fresh eye and expectations not tamed by the limits of computer programming.

Oddly, perhaps, people new to computers become too awed by the computer when they first start to use it. But as I make this remark, I find myself hearing the Zen advice of Stephen Marcus in his program COMPUPOEM: "At first, the computer is the master. Then the person is the master. Finally, neither needs to be the master." I am sometimes overwhelmed by experiments testing the impact of computers on writing. Then I remember my first computer project with a computerized readability formula--also not earth-shaking. But we pass that stage, I trust, into a stage of mastery that puts our strengths in our disciplines back at the center.

We gain mastery, renew our creative powers and build on existing competencies by jumping into the experience of computing. As we gain mastery, we need to test and evaluate our endeavors against the highest standards and aspirations of our profession. When neither we nor the computer needs to be master, we can use

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this new technology to further the goals of literacy and informed participation.

HELEN SCHWARTZ has written a textbook (Interactive Writing, l985), using a word processor throughout the writing process. She has programmed computer assisted instruction; has consulted and lectured widely on computers in English; and has become a major force at her university in shaping and implementing policy on computer use.


Burns, H. L., & Culp, G. H., (198O, August). Stimulating invention in English composition through computer-assisted instruction. Educational Technology, 20, 5-10.

Dwyer, T. A. (1971, July). Some principles for the human use of computers in education. International Journal of Man-machine Studies. 3, 220-225.

Immerwahr, J. (l984). Microcomputer politics or how to talk back to the director of the Computer Center. In T. E. Martinez (ed.), The Written Word and the Word Processor. Spring conference, Delaware Valley Writing Council, Villanova, PA.

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Nold, E. W. (1975, October). Fear and trembling: The humanist approaches the computer. College Composition and Communication, 26, 269-73.

Schwartz, H. J. (1985). Interactive Writing. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Schwartz, H. J. (1984). SEEN: A tutorial and user network for hypothesis testing. In W. Wresch (ed.), The Computer in Composition Instruction. Urbana, Il., NCTE.

Schwartz, H. J. (1980). Teaching Stylistic Simplicity with a Computerized Readability Formula. Washington D. C.: International Conference Association. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 196 014.)