6(1), November 1988, pages 9-13

Computers across the Curriculum:
A Confluence of Ideas

Nicholas Gordon and Susan Mansfield

At a workshop at Drew University in the summer of 1985, Elaine Maimon expressed the hope that the computer would give the writing-across-the-curriculum movement a "shot in the arm." One of the problems in teaching process-based writing and having students submit multiple drafts of their work is physical: the need to retype each draft. Students resist handing in papers more than once, and instructors arc loathe to require it. The computer solves that problem by making changes easy. Instructors no longer need feel uncomfortable about asking a student to revise a paragraph or to provide additional evidence for a statement. More important, the computer encourages students to see their work as "in process" because the medium in which it is stored is so malleable. Students can move back and forth from expressive to transactional writing (Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod, & Rosen, 1975) or from responding as writer to responding as reader (Daiute, 1983) instantaneously. Further, the computer can remove other obstacles to the success of writing across the curriculum: Spelling and style checkers remove some of the mechanical errors that so many content-area teachers find intolerable; and each paper, no matter which draft, is beautifully printed and easy to read.

By making multiple drafting easier, the computer makes it more likely that content-area teachers will pay attention to the processes of writing and the evolution of texts in their courses, which makes it more likely that a writing-across-the-curriculum program will work. Assigning writing in content areas without addressing the processes of writing, and therefore the processes of discovering meaning, fails to make clear the inseparability of learning and articulating and fails to compel the learner to search for connections, select and order ideas, and discover meaning by struggling to impose form on developing text (Knoblauch & Brannon, 1983, p.468). Although growth in writing skills is an inevitable and wonderful result of a writing-across-the-curriculum program, it is the "potential for new learning implicit in the act of writing itself" that is its primary justification (p. 466). A writing-across-the-curriculum program that simplistically mandates more papers, exams, or reports in the content areas and does not perceive writing as a learning tool will discourage recently (and perhaps not altogether voluntarily) trained teachers now faced with more writing to read, much of which may be either plagiarized or poor. Such teachers may feel an obligation to attend to the flawed surface features of the writing and feel they are losing "content" time. This common response, which impedes the success of a writing-across-the-curriculum program, is based on the view of all writing as a product that must be corrected and improved, rather than as a process that can advance the causes of thought and discovery (Martin, 1976).

But many English teachers tend to forget that the computer is an academic tool for more than writing. Even in the humanities, a database is an excellent way to compile a bibliography. In the social and physical sciences, the computer is an essential tool of inquiry. Computer programs enable the student to compile databases, manipulate quantitative data in spreadsheets, transform the data into graphs, and include the results in their papers. The whole point of the writing-across-the-curriculum movement is that writing is a form of learning in any discipline and that learning to write in a discipline is a way of learning to think in that discipline. Compiling a database or setting up a spreadsheet are other ways of thinking in a discipline. Thus, the computer completes the original aim of writing across the curriculum, which is to stimulate thinking and creative communication in all disciplines.

It is therefore more likely that content-area teachers would be firmly committed to a writing-across-the-curriculum program if it offered them a total package of thinking and communication techniques. It makes little sense, in a science course, to use the computer as a tool for making writing and revision easier and to ignore its capabilities for enhancing scientific investigation and thought. The most sensible approach is to see the process of thinking and communication as a whole and to use the computer imaginatively in all steps of the process. In many content areas, this means using the database and spreadsheet capabilities of the computer as well as word processing.

Several conclusions follow from the recognition of the relationship between the writing-across-the-curriculum movement and the movement to put the computer into the classroom as a tool for intellectual inquiry and expression. First, it makes sense to expand a writing-across-the-curriculum project into a computers-across-the-curriculum project. Such expansion promises to make the project more enduring because teachers will find it easier to work with multiple drafts when they know that their suggestions for change will not entail retyping the paper, and because spelling checkers, punctuation and style checkers, and simply the printout process itself will make student papers much more presentable. Moreover, teachers in most disciplines realize that the uses of the computer extend far beyond writing, and once exposed to the computer will begin to use its full capabilities creatively. Finally, most teachers will see the vocational as well as educational advantage of graduating students who can use computers to solve problems and incorporate the information (with graphics) into well-written reports.

Extensive use of the computer in the classroom, then, may tend to institutionalize attention to the processes of writing and thinking, provided that instructors become aware of and interested in working with these processes at the outset. This recognition leads to a second conclusion: Workshops for an expanded writing-across-the-curriculum project should have at least three components--writing as a process, writing across the curriculum, and writing using the computer as a tool. That is, participants in the workshops should discuss strategies for teaching writing as a process; should consider how best to incorporate writing and critical thinking into the teaching of their disciplines; and should learn how to use various types of applications programs for writing--word-processing packages, databases, spreadsheets, and graphics programs. They should emerge from the workshops with specific strategies for using the computer as a writing and thinking tool in their classrooms.

Not only the workshops, but all the support components of such a project need to be expanded to include computers. The writing lab must also become a computer lab, with enough machines and sufficiently easy access to encourage students to come in frequently to do their multiple drafts. The lab must be staffed not only with faculty and peer tutors in writing but also with people who are familiar with the applications programs the institution has chosen to use. Students in writing courses must learn from the outset how to use the computer to write their papers. Support groups that meet throughout the school year must discuss not only ways to incorporate writing into courses, but also ways to use the computer.

Further, it makes sense in such an environment to teach all students an integrated program (such as APPLEWORKS or FRAMEWORK) that includes database and spreadsheet capabilities as well as word processing. That way, no matter what the course, the teacher and students will be familiar with the same program. English teachers might be tempted to use the computer as a magnificent new kind of typewriter, but this is a parochial and unnecessarily constraining view. Written reports, even in English classes, need not consist only of words; they can include tables, charts, and illustrations as well. The computer can manipulate numbers and pictures as well as words. People concerned with writing as process and with writing across the curriculum need to keep this in mind.

The computers-across-the-curriculum concept, of course, adds one more level of training, of resistance, and of expense to the already difficult effort of starting a writing-across-the-curriculum program. The trouble is worth it. Computers are not going to disappear from the worlds of business and professional writing. They are here not merely to stay but to become much more common and essential. If we are planning to concentrate on thinking and communication skills in all courses at our institutions, it makes sense to do it all the way and teach with the available technology. Difficult as it is to get started with computers, in the end they do make things easier. If we establish the use of the computer as an academic tool, we have a much better chance of institutionalizing the teaching of writing in content-area courses and of writing as a process in all courses. At the same time, our success in institutionalizing the use of the computer depends upon our ability to persuade our colleagues that teaching the processes of writing and thinking as essential ways of learning is the business of the entire academic community.


Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A., & Rosen, H. (1975). The development of writing abilities, 11-18. Schools Council Research Series. London: Macmillan Education.

Daiute, C. (1983). The computer as stylus and audience. College Composition and Communication, 34, 134-145.

Knoblauch, C. H., & Brannon, L. (1983). Writing as learning through the curriculum. College English, 45, 465-474.

Martin, N. (1976). Language across the curriculum: A paradox and its potential for change. Educational Review, 28, Sessions 75-76.