Printout: Two at Random

5(1) p. 63
Book Review
Printout: Two at Random

Ken Autrey

Feldman, Paula R. and Norman, Buford. (1987). The Wordworthy Computer: Classroom and Research Applications in Language and Literature. New York: Random House.

Gerrard, Lisa, (ed.). (1987). Writing at Century's End: Essays on Computer-Assisted Composition. New York: Random House.

Two recently published books from Random House deserve the attention of those interested in how computers affect writing instruction. The Wordworthy Computer is valuable for its information on how microcomputers can aid scholarly research, while Writing at Century's End will be most useful for its pedagogical implications.

The Feldman and Norman book begins with a 24-page chapter justifying the use of word processing. Included here are tips in purchasing hardware and software. This introduction may be of interest to novices, but many readers will no doubt wish to skim quickly over these preliminaries. The first of two major subdivisions in the book is devoted to "classroom applications" for computers. While this section, too, covers ground that will be familiar to many composition specialists, it does contain some laudable features. The frequent citing of specific software packages along with purchasing information is most helpful, and the 9-page chapter explaining writing activities on the word processor is

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excellent for those who want to know how the computer can become more than a glorified type writer without the purchase of expensive software.

The main course in The Wordworthy Writer is Part Two, which addresses computer research applications for scholars in the humanities. There are chapters on databases, concordances, statistical analysis, and scholarly publishing. This is a timely contribution to the slim book shelf on this growing area of interest; only recently have some of the applications described by the authors become possible on microcomputers. This situation is attributable both to the increased availability of software heretofore available only on mainframe computers and also to the greater speed and memory of the current generation of micros. In non-technical and always accessible explanations, the authors seem primarily interested in opening up possibilities for their readers, indicating what has been done by others and what might potentially be done with, for example, concordances or databases. Those needing suggestions regarding specific software packages will have to look elsewhere. No doubt Feldman and Norman felt such information would take them beyond the scope of this rather brief survey. Yet, comments on software packages were incorporated into the chapters on classroom applications, and the book would be more useful if the same were done in its latter half.

The appendices and 896-item bibliography are among the book's assets, making this a reference source that many will want to keep handy. In fact, it compliments Bryan Pfaffenberger's The Scholar's Personal Computing Handbook, which was reviewed here in November, 1986. Pfaffenberger's book, the more substantial of the two, addresses a broader audience and includes topics, such as communications and networks, not covered by The Wordworthy Computer. On the other hand, Feldman and Norman examine several areas untouched by the previously published book, thereby filling a gap on the computers and humanities bookshelf.

The collection of thirteen essays edited by Lisa Gerrard contains several essays which, like parts of the book discussed above, skillfully explore unmapped territory. But others seem little more than padding to fill out this 150-page volume, as often happens with collections gleaned from professional conferences-in this case the 1985 UCLA Conference in Computers and Writing.

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Like Feldman and Norman, Gerrard structures her book in two parts, beginning with pedagogy and moving to "theoretical and political issues." Underlying the book is the assumption that computers do more than enhance the writing process: they transform it, compelling teachers to think carefully about using them in instruction. Several of the essays (such as those by Jennings, Payne, and Herrmann) suggest that an important factor in composition courses involving computers is the opportunity for collaboration, and this is one type of transformation brought about by computers.

Each of the eight essays in the first half of the Gerrard collection reports on an experiment involving computers and writing pedagogy. Edward M. Jennings describes a "paperless writing" class in which conferences, paper grading, and peer critiquing were all handled on the computer screen. He points out that there were some benefits in freeing his class from the "boundary conditions" imposed by paper but acknowledges the uncertainty of the outcome; in fact, he calls it a "crude paperless experiment." Don Payne's essay also concerns ways in which writing by computer alters our assumptions-in this case our assumptions about audience. He notes, for example, that computers create extended audiences and that they open up interactive possibilities not offered by writing that is locked onto the printed page. Furthermore, he points out that the whole concept of publishing changes when we consider computer-produced text.

Two other essays in the first half of the book reach conclusions about the impact of computers on writing pedagogy. Diane P. Balestri's "Algorithms and Arguments' convincingly advocates that students take computer programming along with their writing courses because programming requires many of the same skills as proficient writing. However, I was not persuaded by her assertion that programming should become a "metaphor for composition." Also basing her conclusions on an experiment with a writing class, in this case technical writing for engineers, Valerie Meliotes Arms finds that computers foster creativity, facilitate collaboration, and "encourage the synthesis of visual and verbal ideas."

The essays by Erna Kelly and Elaine 0. Lees concern, respectively, an assignment for writing and testing directions in a technical writing class, and a procedure for using text-to-voice synthesis as a revision tool. These reports are limited in scope but commend-

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-able for advocating specific teaching strategies, something we need more of. On the other hand, I find John C. Thoms' "Observations on a New Remedial Language Arts Course" and Andrea W. Herrmann's ethnographic study too diffuse to be of much help.

Of the five selections in Part II of this collection ("Theoretical and Political Issues") the essays by David Dobrin, John F. Thiesmeyer, and Deborah H. Holdstein are most stimulating. Dobrin and Thiesmeyer both issue warnings against excessive faith in particular types of computer software. Dobrin, while somewhat long-winded, convincingly debunks the grand claims often made for idea processors, which he finds limited and theoretically unsound. Thiesmeyer tells why he believes artificial intelligence systems will not in the foreseeable future master the complexities of natural language and will thus be only minimally useful in evaluating writing. Finally, in what I find the best essay in this book, Holdstein raises issues regarding the politics of software development, publication, and selection that most English departments will ultimately have to face. These are issues that have not been widely acknowledged but will become increasingly critical.

Both books under review here are introductory, although parts of each suggest that computer-assisted research and pedagogy in our discipline are now quite sophisticated. Reading Feldman and Norman, I often wished for more information; it's one of those rare books that could profitably be longer. In contrast, Gerrard would have done well to pare down an already slim volume even more.

Ken Autrey teaches at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina