Lee Roger Taylor, Jr.
Last November I attended a conference entitled "Integrating Computers in the Classroom," which was sponsored by the Northwest Area Foundation in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Foundation has a number of educational directives, one of which it was just concluding: stimulating computer use in the classroom. The conferees came from colleges and universities in states that roughly occupy the Northwestern United States. The conference was male-dominated faculty and administrators. While examining the computer room that was set up for the testing of faculty-developed software, I came across one fellow working on an IBM; he was using WORDSTAR.
I commented casually over his shoulder, "Ah, WORDSTAR. . . ."
He growled, "Yeah, you wanta make something of it?"
It was not difficult to peg him as a devoted fan of WORDSTAR .
Indeed, the zeal with which many defend their favorite word-processing packages approaches the extreme limits of xenophobia. All other packages are foreigners trespassing on the sacred ground of whichever software one happened to learn first. We are all guilty to a certain extent. We have one package, and we are faithful to it. We, perhaps, learned on one package, and we are reluctant to learn another. Different key patterns, different control markers, a different page appearance, and different procedures are alien to us, frightening, if not confusing or unsettling.
My favorite is WORDPERFECT.1--the culmination of a two-year search for my holy grail: the "perfect" word processor. During my search, I learned PC-WRITE, WORDSTAR 3.3, WORDSTAR 2000+, DISPLAYWRITE 2, DISPLAYWRITE 3, and VOLKSWRITER DELUXE (not to mention the Apple WORD JUGGLER and APPLE WORKS and the integrated packages such as SYMPHONY and OPEN ACCESS). Although my prejudice for WORDPERFECT is solidly in place, my xenophobia never had a chance to develop. It was effectively quashed when I chucked the first package. Others are less fortunate and, perhaps, as a consequence, so are our students. What is perfect for me may not be perfect for someone else.
The two general rules of thumb (or is it thumbs) exist in writing labs developing across the country. The first is that some person (a teacher or administrator) selects a word-processing package. The second is that the selection is based either on a personal guess or prejudice that the person has for a word-processing package. Rarely, if ever, is the selection based on what best facilitates the
composing process. Oftentimes such choices have consequences that even affect the future purchase of machine types.
What we neglect in favor of what we know has a direct effect on the composition efforts of our students. As teachers, we are, of course, no strangers to these prejudices. I have a fondness for Southern writers in my literature courses; my views of essay structure are at variance with my colleagues'. The outcome of these classes is general with only minor specific differences from my colleagues elsewhere: my students gain an understanding/appreciation of literature and can communicate reasonably effectively in the essay format. What we teach them, however, with word-processing packages running on microcomputers, besides the composing process, is a specific method of composing, specifically prejudiced by the keystrokes they have learned on whatever word-processing package they have to work with. Composition in the lab becomes Composition with Word Juggler 101. A composition class using WORDPERFECT becomes Composition with WordPerfect 101. The keystrokes required for the insertion of composing structures vary in complexity from one package to another. The phenomenon we old hackers call, WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), likewise has an enormous impact. And still again, the page-oriented word-processing package versus the document-oriented directly affects the student's ability to visualize his or her essay. Quirks and characteristics abound--and, while researchers investigate the effect of word processing on the composing process (all using different word-processing packages, of course), no one has yet addressed the fundamental ques-
tion of which mechanical keystrokes facilitate or inhibit. Nor has the crucial question been addressed as to just what effect the burden of learning package-oriented keystrokes has on the student prior to learning to compose on a word processor.
I cannot argue, nor do I want to at this time, the virtues of the composing process on one package versus another. What I do want to emphasize is that we should as "composing" teachers learn different composing methods--different methods of the composing process. Xenophobic adherence to a single word processor is admirable if we are certain it is best for the composing process and reasonably easy for the student to learn (and can defend it). A xenophobic adherence is contrary to our purpose as teachers if our only reasons are that "I like it above all others" or "I don't want to learn another."
As a final word, about a year ago I read a good rule of thumb in PC Week: "never buy a software package larger than your head."