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Creating a Computer-Supported Writing Lab: Sharing Stories and Creating Vision

Cynthia L. Selfe

In the last five years, increasing numbers of computer-supported writing labs have been established in answer to our profession's desire to shape a unique vision of technology's role in English Composition programs. Many of these facilities grow out of existing writing labs or reading and writing centers and are nurtured by English faculty who direct, staff, and use them. Often, because these computer-supported writing spaces provide the opportunity for teachers and students to gather together in one physical where they can share information about writing and writing problems, the rooms soon develop into focal points for collaborative composing activities, that involve new and productive kinds of writers' communities.

But computer-supported writing labs are not guaranteed to encourage the formation of communities which share a common interest in written language. Nor are they guaranteed an easy birth. In fact, most come into the world the hard way. Lengthy planning and preparation, a great deal of trial and error, and countless

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modifications precede even the smallest of successes.

As the Director of the Center for Computer-Assisted Language Instruction at Michigan Technological University (MTU) and the co-editor of Computers and Composition,I get frequently receive telephone calls from colleagues who have been charged with starting computer-supported labs for their own writing programs. They want help and advice. They want answers from someone who has a working lab. Many of them are desperate--faced with a deadline to use or lose unexpected moneys, they want specific details about the best machines, software, configurations, layouts. They want a summary of all this information in one ten-minute, long-distance telephone call.

Most often, I am unable to help these callers in the way that they expect. I can't give them answers; I can only tell them stories of the obstacles my department has encountered while designing, establishing, and operating our own lab. Frequently, I ask how they have handled similar difficulties. But the tales we exchange, these colleagues and I, have a singularly soothing and powerful effect; they contain the comfort of shared experience and the germ of truth nestled somewhere deep within. In this article, I tell these well-worn stories once again for those colleagues who have not called. I offer these tales in the hope that they will help other teachers construct their own successful labs and contribute to a new vision of computers for our profession.

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Like many computer-supported writing labs, ours was born and nourished within the protective arms of a traditional reading and writing center. Over eight years ago, a colleague had the foresight to acquire two microcomputers for use by faculty and, on a default basis, by students. By 1980, our Humanities Department had purchased four machines. Among other things, this embryonic lab convinced me to accept my first academic post (at MTU). Previously, as a graduate student at The University of Texas, I had come to depend on computers to complete my dissertation and wasn't about to give them up easily. The number crunching computers at Texas, however, were a far cry from the computers at Michigan Tech. These machines, tucked away in a corner of the department's Reading and Writing Center, composed a much different lab environment.

At least part of this difference was attributable to location. The Reading and Writing Center existed within a Humanities Department where language formed the focal point of scholarship and teaching--the computers, in this department, were tolerated only as tools that allowed people to be more productive and effective in making language. Even the surroundings in which the machines were used suggested this perspective. The computers perched on second-hand writing tables, surrounded by stacks of books and manuscripts; they were unobtrusive; often dusty; and, in a strange way, comfortable.

The people who helped to establish this early lab at Michigan Tech were the primary

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architects of this language-centered perspective on machines. The faculty preferred to see and understand the machines as word-makers, document-producers, as tools that helped them communicate with colleagues and students through writing. It was not that these teachers of literature, philosophy, and linguistics lacked a technical grasp of computers; indeed several had academic training as computer scientists. Rather, it was that they had chosen to be humanists and language specialists, and this orientation made them come at computers from a new direction.

In addition, my colleagues at Michigan Tech had another advantage on their side as they established this early computer-supported writing lab. As a result of a successful writing-across-the-curriculum program that had been in place for five years under the direction of Art Young and Toby Fulwiler, they had identified the common theoretical and pedagogical assumptions that formed the foundation for their writing program. They had defined, as a faculty, those things they knew to be true about writing and the teaching of writing: among other things, they believed that writing teachers have to deal with processes of composing as well as the products, that students have to be given the opportunity to practice writing in a number of different rhetorical situations, that writing is a way of thinking.

Although these assumptions had nothing to do with computers--rather, they grew directly out of the faculty's scholarship about writing and their experience with the teaching of writing--they did inform the department's attitude toward the new technology. Because my

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new colleagues had such a strong sense of their writing program, what they wanted it to accomplish and where they wanted it to go, they had a relatively easy time of accommodating computers within the framework of the department's mission. The early computer-supported writing lab that these colleagues established was able to flourish because it grew organically from an existing writing program and because it supported the academic life of the department.


Given the factors just outlined, the computer-supported writing lab at Michigan Tech was destined to succeed in its early form. And yet, by the time I arrived at Tech in 1980, it was clear that we could do much more. With only four computers to serve the needs of fifty faculty and all of the students in our writing classes, the lab had quickly become over extended. In 1982, computer use was limited to the department's scientific and technical communication majors, and only ten of the faculty had become regular computer users. Most colleagues were discouraged by the crush of people vying for precious computer time; many could see no possibilities for using such limited lab facilities effectively in the classes they taught. Quite a few faculty members lacked training on computers and were not willing to become novice users in an environment that seemed hostile to leisurely and private explorations of this new technology.

And so our search for funding began. In spare moments, snatched from research and

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teaching, we drew up lengthy equipment grants that we thought might appeal to various computer companies. The grant was sent out to eight companies--among them IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, and Texas Instruments--and rejected by all eight. We changed tacks, sending grants to federal agencies, private foundations, and our own university--all were rejected, politely, but firmly. There was no money available for another computer lab, no money available for a computer lab that was designed to support writers, or just no money at all.

Meanwhile, we expanded the lab on a modest scale using internal funding. The Dean of the College of Sciences and Arts, Bill Powers, and the Head of the Humanities Department, Art Young, found funds wherever they could, and we added five new computers. And yet we often felt a distinct sense of failure in connection with the lab. We had been involved in the effort to expand the computer lab for two years, and had very little to show for it. What we didn't know at the time was that people were starting to pay attention.

Within the department, the computer lab had captured the imagination of a few more faculty members. Colleagues began discovering new ways that the lab could support their writing-intensive courses: technical writing teachers discovered that the two Macintoshes could be used to produce integrated text and graphics; the video classes began using the IBM PCs to produce scripts; composition teachers experimented with using the computers for electronic peer-editing; the journalism teachers found the machines useful for reporter's logs and stories assigned on a deadline.

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Ironically, the first concrete signs of the lab's success were complaints from faculty. Colleagues stopped each other in the hall to ask why we didn't have enough room to accommodate an entire first-year composition course; to complain about the crush of teachers using the machines; to shake their heads over our majors who were staying in the lab until 2:00 in the morning, munching on sandwiches and napping in corners as they waited for a free machine on which they could compose a draft of a technical writing report. Blissfully ignorant of the unsuccessful attempts to find outside funding for the lab, the faculty continued to demand new software packages, programs for managing projects, for creating mock-ups of publications, for checking spelling, and for creating more professional-looking graphs and charts. The marginal information contained within the text of these complaints was clear: our faculty was demanding an expanded lab. They were becoming more sophisticated computer users who constructed their own vision of what a computer-supported writing lab should be. They were experimenting with the use of computers in a wide range of writing-intensive courses, and, in doing so, they were articulating a set of goals for a new and larger facility.

At the same time, our university administration also started paying more attention to efforts underway in the lab. They enjoyed the increased level of research activity supported and generated by the lab. They noted that the teachers who were using computers had begun writing about the machines as well, incorporating computer-based issues into their scholarship. A teacher of mass communication

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teamed up with a rhetoric scholar to write and publish a paper on collaborative composing on computers. The same teacher wrote and published a paper on persona and user-friendliness in computer-assisted instruction (CAI). Another instructor, who specialized in technical writing, began research on computer ethics, computer grading, and computer-supported evaluation. Investigations on CAI for writing-intensive classrooms, word-processing, and computer-apprehension were also undertaken. In our technologically oriented university, the administration also liked the new look of the lab. They sent photographers and video crews to shoot footage for public relations tours, and invited VIP's to make a stop in the facility. This publicity was welcome at the time and proved to be invaluable as the lab grew.

The attention the lab attracted from the various quarters of the University community eventually solved our funding problems. When the administration made a decision in 1984 to upgrade its outdated mainframe system, they included our expanded lab as part of the new campus system. From our numerous grants applications, administrators had learned that we had a clear sense of our goals, equipment needs, and operations; our scholarship had convinced them that our application of technology was unique and valuable. By the Fall of 1985, a package deal was set up with IBM for computer equipment, and we were on our way.


When the dust settled, we had an expanded computer lab--of sorts. We had gotten the

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twenty-five microcomputers we wanted, but no tables or chairs; we now had a computer network, but no large-screen projector; we had no funds for software, consultants, or the lab director. Faced with these challenges, we started learning important lessons, instructing ourselves on the importance of internal and external support, perspective and flexibility, a knowledgeable and supportive staff, and creative financing.

Lesson #1: Building Internal and External Support

One of the most immediate lessons we learned during the first year of the lab's operation involved the twin concepts of internal and external support. Internally, we discovered how fortunate the department was to have built the lab on the firm foundation of an existing writing curriculum and to have had the time for our writing faculty to become used to computer-supported classes. Those four years of slow growth had paid off. Because so many writing faculty saw the lab as an integral part of our curriculum--directly supporting first-year composition, technical writing, and advanced technical writing, introduction to communication, and television production courses, among others--Art Young, our Head, was willing to provide one course of release time for a lab administrator, approximately $5,000 in salaries for consultants, $2,000 in software; and a great deal of moral support. Our assistant department head found used cafeteria tables and folding chairs; faculty donated plants, a desk, trash cans, and two filing cabinets.

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Our department also learned how visions had to be shared to build a base of external support. It was not enough that our own faculty knew what it wanted in connection with the computer lab. We had to articulate our ideas to computer specialists--hardware technicians, software and applications experts, programmers-- before they could make the machines do our bidding.

These people, talented and expert as they were in setting up a traditional computer facility, had absolutely no experience with the kind of writing-centered lab we hoped to establish. As a result, both writing experts and computer specialists learned to question even the most innocent assumptions. The first problem we encountered involved the physical placement of computers--an issue that seemed minor only because we were naive. When our computers arrived, the computer specialists arranged them in neat rows that corresponded to the placement of electric outlets in the room. These technicians thought first of cables, extensions cords, electrical outlets, and only secondarily about the use of the lab as a writers' environment. They spent the rest of that first week replacing this elegantly simple cabling system and relocating computers: our faculty had to insist on a more practical, and messy, arrangement--placing the machines in clusters so that groups of students could work and collaborate at the same time.

More serious philosophical skirmishes followed. By the third week of operation, we found that the software specialists had set up the computer network's hard disk so that all writing was stored and accessed in the same

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manner: expressive writing pieces, such as the preliminary journal writes our students produced in response to readings, and transactional writing pieces, such as essay drafts our students wanted to share with their peer groups, were treated the same under this system. All text files, regardless of rhetorical purpose, were stored on the public section of our hard disk where peers and teachers could call them up, and read and/or critique them without the permission of the author. Writing experts on our faculty knew that such a system was incongruent with our department's pedagogical approach to writing and with most currently accepted rhetorical theory. To remedy the situation, they insisted that the storage system on the network be modified to accommodate more appropriately the different kinds of communication activities our faculty assigned--that the computer network allow for the storage of journal writes in invisible sub-directories to protect the privacy of students' expressive prose while allowing for the storage of transactional paper drafts on a public bulletin board where they were easily accessible for group or individual critiques.

It took three months and countless conferences with the technical experts before we were satisfied with our computer network and our writers' environment. It was not until both writing specialists and computer specialists shared a common vision of the lab's goals--that is, saw writing and writers rather than computers as the focus of the lab--that our department could make effective use of the hardware and software we had purchased for our writers' environment.

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Lesson #2: Gaining Perspective and Maintaining Flexibility

In making the new computer lab work for our department, we also had to learn lessons about perspective and flexibility. One of the first things we discovered was the importance of establishing and articulating a fresh perspective on computers. As language teachers and language users, we realized that we needed to see computers from a totally new vantage point, not one previously established for us by computer scientists.

Refining this new vision was not an easy task; we had to fight a continuing battle against our own conceptual inertia, to forget what computer labs should look like and think instead about what characterized a comfortable, relaxed writing environment. Working from this perspective, we focused on writers rather than on machines. Plants were brought in to add color and cut down on static electricity. A radio was tuned to a classical music station to mitigate keyboard clatter. Artwork on the walls, authors' biographies pasted on the sides of the computers, and photographs soon followed.

The undergraduate and graduate students who volunteered as computer consultants also helped us formulate this new vision of a computer supported writer's environment. When on duty, they wore red lab coats and name tags to emphasize their willingness to help writers who used the room. They brought in a coffee pot; set up study tables for writers who were not using computers; found computer art, computer cartoons, and Sony Walkmans for students who disliked classical music. They rewrote

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documentation so that it made sense to inexperienced computer users. With each of these changes, the lab became a more attractive writers' environment, and both faculty and students started gathering there to work on writing assignments and share information.

We also learned lessons about flexibility. Soon after the new lab opened, it became evident that no two writers or writing teachers used our computers in exactly the same way. Some teachers wanted to have their entire class meet in the lab. Other colleagues wanted to keep class handouts on the computer network and send students in individually. We learned the necessity of supporting English teachers who used the lab once a year and those who used it twice a day. We found also that students exhibited a similar diversity. Some had mastered four or five different word-processing programs before entering college; others had never touched a keyboard of any kind. Some students were attracted to computers like June bugs to a porch light, and some were so apprehensive about touching machines that they could barely bring themselves to enter the room.

Lesson #3: Staffing the Lab

It became evident that our success in handling a range of writing styles, abilities, and approaches was dependent on assembling a staff who shared our distinctive departmental vision of computers. We turned to the writing consultants in our Reading and Writing Center for help. Two of these people, Ruthann Ruehr and Dickie Selfe, had considerable expertise with

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computers as well as experience with teaching writing and small-group and individual instruction. Ruehr and Selfe, working a total of twenty hours a week, provided the consistent effort and expertise that allowed us to keep the writing needs of our curricula, faculty, and students in sharp focus. They trained faculty, taught courses in computer literacy, and worked to make the lab support the specific kind of writing instruction that was valued in our department.

In addition, these professional consultants organized our cadre of student consultants. The students, generally majors in our Scientific and Technical Communication program, were willing to volunteer three to five hours of time a week in exchange for unlimited use of the computer lab, teaching experience, and the chance to build an exciting new writers' space. Students who wanted to become consultants in the lab went through a standard course of training which took a total of eight to twelve hours and covered the basics of using the word-processing systems, handling the common network and printer problems, teaching basic computer literacy, and providing security for the facility.

At first, we worried that this rather tedious and laborious preparation requirement would limit the number of students who would volunteer to become consultants. It did. Those students who were committed to the preparation period were a self-selecting population. They liked computers; they liked people; they were well acquainted with the department's process-based approach to writing, and they were organized enough to make time in their own busy schedules for the training procedure. To these

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highly motivated individuals, the whole ordeal became a game, a challenging rite of passage. When consultants-in-training passed their last certification test, they were accepted into a select community of scholars that held common beliefs about the importance of written communication and about the value of using technology appropriately to support such communication.

During our first year of operation, the two professional consultants and seventeen student consultants, kept the lab open an average of eighty hours a week--from 8:00 AM most mornings to 10:00 PM most nights and on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The consultants also took on most of the hidden work involved in running our computer-supported writing lab. They introduced small groups and whole classes to the networked system, rewrote program documentation so that it would empower rather than intimidate users, formatted disks, posted schedules, and established security procedures.

Lesson #4: Operating a Computer-supported Writing Lab

If our department learned anything during the first year our lab was open, we learned to adjust. First, we adjusted to fiscal reality. By the end of our second term of operation, we had a fairly clear picture of how much it cost to operate our facility. During each ten-week term, we spent between $1,400 and $1,500 on expendable supplies (paper, ribbons, print wheels); approximately $500 maintaining and repairing machines; $1,700 on salaries for the professional consultants; $3,000 in salary for

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the release time of the Lab Director; and $50 in miscellaneous expenses. Total cost--$6,700 for each ten-week term that were in operation.

To defray these expenses, we began charging a $20 lab fee for use of the computer lab. This formula allowed us to provide each student who used the lab (up to 300 students per quarter) more than eighty hours of computer time over a ten-week period, but still left the department with a partial bill to pay.

We also learned to adjust our teaching approaches to a predictable cycle of lab use. The first two weeks of each quarter, we found, demanded the heaviest teaching commitment. Approximately forty hours each week were devoted to group and individual introductions to the lab, conducted by the consultants. We experimented with several different approaches to these introductions and eventually refined a one-hour overview of the lab, our networked system, and the main word-processing package that we offered. A consultant would introduce these topics according to a standard script we had written and start individuals on a set of drafts of their papers on the public section of our network so peers could access them and offer suggestions for improvement, how to store expressive journal writes in hidden subdirectories, how to employ increasingly powerful formatting procedures, and how to use the Macintosh computers for various applications. We also worked with teachers to suggest new uses of computers in the courses they taught, to help them store class materials on the computer system, or to teach them new applications.

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The last two weeks of the quarter, we just tried to keep up. Students, who had by this time become convinced of the computer's power as a writing tool, spent more and more time in the lab as the quarter progressed. We answered their increasingly difficult questions as well as we could, tried to keep paper and printer ribbons in stock, and wondered at the innovative uses of computers constantly in evidence. It was student users, for example, who suggested we set up an electronic bulletin board to keep everyone appraised on the rapid changes in the lab as they occurred, who demanded an on-line suggestion box so that they could participate in shaping the writers' environment that existed in the lab, and who encouraged their teachers to set up on-line mailboxes to receive the questions, comments, and responses they had in connection with assignments.


Those first quarters were exciting times. The department had an expanded lab in place, and its operation brought with it some welcome surprises. In the new computer-supported writing facility, our faculty discovered additional potential for developing the sense of scholarly community we had always valued so highly.

At Michigan Technological University, isolated as it is in the Michigan's ruggedly beautiful upper peninsula, one hundred miles from the nearest stop light, five hundred miles north of any major city, community is a way of life. We shovel snow together and start cars with shared jumper cables in frozen parking

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lots. This sense of community carries over into our academic lives. Our Humanities faculty knows the value of human interaction and the exchange of information among writers. And so we write together frequently, often passing four or five drafts of a single paper among our patient colleagues. In classes, we teach our students the same cooperative strategies. Our expanded computer-supported writing lab fit neatly into this conceptual framework. In fact, the facility allowed us to support an increasing level of collaborative energy among faculty and students and bring together new, productive language groups.

The departmental graduate students and majors, for instance, considered the lab a gathering place for serious writers, one that they could shape to their own purposes. These students served as consultants during the prime-time hours of the lab, when non-major use was heavy, gaining experience in teaching and using technology to support composing efforts. During night and week-end hours, however, the slack times of lab use, these students gathered in the lab, sitting around the worktables, the consulting desk, and the radio to discuss their experiences with teaching writing in a computer-supported environment. They also wrote together. Using the computers with a skill that surpassed most teachers, they sent on-line messages to members of their group; taught each other how to handle common document problems; discovered together how to use graphics, time-management, and spelling software to attack the communications assignments faculty set for them.

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The non-majors also formed writers' communities in our lab. In their writing-intensive classes, they learned how to depend on peers for help at all stages of the composing process. In our lab, they saw this process at work. Because the facility brought writers together in one space, these students were able to observe the effects of collaboration in the most immediate sense. They saw faculty and students working together to solve rhetorical problems, and noted the obvious advantages of combining writing strategies from several creative minds. These same students found that collaboration came naturally when productive writers worked in close quarters and that technology could facilitate such efforts.

In exchanging feedback on papers, these technologically savvy students made effective and creative use of the public section of our network, the electronic mailboxes, and other writers around them at the time. Some writing groups scheduled regular meetings during which all group members would access the same paper on their individual computers, have a round-table discussion, and then conduct a group writing session. Other groups posted their drafts on the hard disk for two or three days at a time and encouraged members to come in independently for readings. Groups soon discovered that they could type their revision suggestions right into an individual's draft file if they differentiated revision suggestions from the author's text by hitting the CAPS LOCK key. Other groups used colors, blinking characters, or highlighting to call attention to revision advice when the text appeared on the computer

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Teachers also began coming to the lab to enjoy the writers' environment. In a mechanical sense, the computers helped these faculty members with the burden of writing. Word-processing programs facilitated publication; data-base and mail-merge systems simplified professional obligations of journal editors and officers of national scholarly organizations; the networked system eased the teaching load, allowing instructors to store handouts, grade papers, keep track of students journals without the additional burden of transferring thought to paper and without additional drain on the time of secretaries. In a creative sense, the lab provided teachers the impetus to form new research communities, to join colleagues and graduate students on projects that identified the effects of computers on composing processes, on collaborative writing efforts, on written products; that explored issues connected with computer ethics, computer-assisted instruction, and computer apprehension; that addressed computer-assisted grading, computer literacy; and computer access.

But the communities fostered within our computer-supported writing lab also crossed traditional social boundaries. Because the facility brought teachers and students together as writers in one space, both groups could observe the other at work. Students learned that teachers sweated as they wrestled with words, that they agonized over organization, word choice, and arrangement. They watched teachers as writers and learned from the strategies they employed. Teachers, on the other hand, observed their students, noting the effects of course assignments and the effort

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that students put into these communication problems.

Technology also helped to blur the traditional social boundaries in the lab. Students who knew more about computers than instructors, automatically became the teachers and demonstrated formatting tricks, printer commands, and software functions. Faculty members who had little knowledge of computers, learned once again what it was like to be students faced with unfamiliar communication problems.


The past year has not been a restful time. There continue to be more problems with our computer-supported writing lab than solutions. Some colleagues still see computers as dehumanizing influences; some note that the money going into the lab might better be spent on library purchases; and others, myself included, resent the time we have to devote to mechanical or technical details when teaching in a computer-supported classroom. And the faculty are not alone in their dissatisfaction. Some of our students resent the additional financial burden of a lab fee; others continue to lobby for more room in the lab, longer hours, or more software. Just today, a student asked me to purchase "at least two more printers" to reduce the length of our print queue.

Many of these difficulties will never be resolved. Computer facilities often function as black holes: consuming as much money, energy, and time as a faculty are willing to commit.

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Our department, college, and university are continually engaged in the process of defining the boundaries of their support for our lab and other computer facilities on campus.

However, as I look at our lab from the perspective of a full year of operation, I can see most plainly those things that will contribute to continued momentum: a growing realization by our profession that computers can play a valuable role in teaching writing, the increasing support and expertise of our faculty, the vitality of the writers' communities that flourish in the environment we have created. In comparison to these successes, the inevitable problems seem minor.

This perspective, then, accounts for the outrageous enthusiasm that leaks into my accounts of our lab. It is the reason why, when I tell stories about the place, I allow excitement to figure so prominently in my tales. This room full of computers has captured my imagination, the imagination of my students, and that of my colleagues because it has provided us a room of our own, a private place to construct our own vision of writing and collaboration, and to continue our work as a community of scholars. This is the stuff of which the best of our stories are fashioned, and the reason teachers must continue to share their tales with each other and for each other.

Cynthia L. Selfe teaches at Michigan Technological University, in Houghton, Michigan.