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PRINTOUT: Reviews of Two New Books

Ken Autry

McKenzie, A. T. (ed.), (1984). A grin on the interface: Word processing for the academic humanist. New York; MLA.

Collins, J. L. and E. A. Sommers (eds.), (1985). Writing on-line: Using computers in the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Ten years ago, when Ellen Nold published "Fear and Trembling: The Humanist Approaches the Computer," (College Composition and Communication, 26, 269-272), there was justification for her assumption that humanists view computers with trepidation. Many, perhaps most, humanists continue to deny themselves the pleasures of computing. And fear may still be a deterrent. But there is little point in belaboring the "computer as bogeyman to be conquered" theme any longer.

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Two types of articles have best typified the efforts of computer aficionados to assuage the fears of the uninitiated: the "testimonial" and the "bits and bytes report." The first of these genres usually begins with an avowal of former ignorance about computers and moves on to the sudden revelation of seeing the first electronically-honed page reel out of the printer. The second is a glorified glossary calculated to demythologize the arcane vocabulary of computer lore. Presumably the assumption here is that if a humanist can get a grip on the key words she'll be secure enough to try some inputting of her own. I was all ready to declare a moratorium on both genres when I discovered the first pamphlet in the MLA "Technology and the Humanities" series.

There it was in Chapter One, a "testimonial," this time written by Carolyn Heilbrun. In her first paragraph she asserts, "I write here, not primarily to celebrate computer efficiency for those whose lives are words, but rather to reassure and persuade the timid souls who view word processing with a lackluster, affronted, or fearful eye." The following seven pages are laced with literary references, themselves apparently calculated to place the humanist on familiar ground. But except of fleeting appearances from the likes of Lady Macbeth and Derrida, the essay contains all the familiar traits of the "testimonial," adding little to a well-worn genre.

Alan T. McKenzie, editor of this 82-page pamphlet, contributes three of its five chapters. One of these falls into the second category mentioned above, a "bits and bytes report." This

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generic information is available in numerous other books, manuals, and articles. But I'll admit that those who pick up A Grin on the Interface as an introduction to keyboards, cursors, and CRTs will find this chapter useful. In subsequent chapters McKenzie argues the benefits of the word processor over the typewriter for common "typing chores" and provides some guidelines for purchasing hardware.

Charles T. Cullen's chapter on "The Word Processor and Scholarly Editions" is a concise description of "the advantages new technology brings to literary or documentary editors." The essay benefits from numerous references to editing projects in various universities, although the puzzling lack of further bibliographic documentation will frustrate those who wish for more information. The final chapter, by Mark P. Haselkorn and Jim S. Borck, concerns the use of a word processor in editing a scholarly journal. Their emphasis is on how traditional editing procedures change with the advent of computer technology. Here too, the lack of a supporting bibliography is a weakness.

The three appendices contain material that might have been incorporated into earlier chapters or left out altogether. I can't figure, for example, how a listing of common WORDSTAR commands would serve much purpose. As a whole, the MLA pamphlet is a lightweight introduction to word processing--readable within a couple hours but not adding substantially to what is already on the market.

If the thesis of the McKenzie collection is that literary scholars can profitably use word processors, the new book by Collins and Sommers

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takes as its thesis the assumption that computers are compatible with current composition research. The emphasis here is mainly, though not exclusively, on word processing. Sommers lists four points that should govern the use of microcomputers in writing instruction:

  1. The writing teacher is indispensable as collaborator and audience, as facilitator and assignment-maker.

  2. Writers learn best when writing is taught as a process in decentralized classrooms.

  3. The microcomputer is most valuable as a writing tool enhancing our writers' abilities to explore, to articulate, and to reshape.

  4. Microcomputers are counter-productive when used in a theoretical vacuum.

The "testimonial" in this collection is written by Peter R. Stillman. It's humorous, unfolding as a series of journal entries. But it conforms to the genre nevertheless. The obligatory "bits and bytes report" is Collins' chapter on "computerese." After an extended explanation of ROM, RAM, and kilobytes, he warns against allowing the hacker inside us to get in the way of the writer. Michael Spitzer's chapter entitled "Selecting Word Processing Software" rounds out the first of three sections in the book.

Part Two moves beyond computer basics and on to a series of seven essays on particular instructional uses for computers. The chapter

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by Linda L. Bickel on the use of word processing in middle school relies heavily on anecdotal reports about the motivational power of computers. The report by Shirlee Lindemann and Jeanette Willert on their use of word processing in high school writing classes traces steps they followed in introducing the new technology to students. They mention six constraints on computer use, a welcome reminder that, like pens and paper, computers have their shortcomings.

James Strickland's contribution to this collection, "Prewriting and Computing," explains how heuristics can be computerized, characterizes good invention programs, provides guidelines for selecting such programs, and assesses the state of the art. A cogent introduction, this is nevertheless rather perfunctory, probably not as useful as the recent essay by Richard and Dawn Rodrigues in CCC (35, 1985, 78-87). John F. Evans addresses the teaching of literature through word processing in an essay based on his teaching of an experimental class of high school students. Much of what he relates concerns word processing in general rather than its specific applications to literature.

A more extensive essay by Glynda A. Hull and William L. Smith outlines an approach to error correction through computing, but they describe a system they are working on rather than one that is already in place. Thus, they admit the hypothetical nature of their model. Donald Ross's useful essay on computer analysis of written composition also suggests a model of sorts, one that would govern future development of editing programs.

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Three essays here pertain to research that has been conducted and suggests certain conclusions to the authors. Cynthia L. Selfe's "The Electronic Pen," reports on a study involving 51 students at Michigan Tech. Gail Womble profiles several high school students who used word processors in her class. And Lillian Bridwell and Ann Duin argue, based on a recent study, that the computer enables us to study student writing processes in ways not previously possible.

I hope that such research findings, however tentative, indicate that we no longer need mere "testimonials" or "bits and bytes reports" The best of the essays in the Collins and Sommers collection suggest that we are ready to move beyond "fear and trembling" to substantive investigation into the use of computers to teach writing.