6(1), November 1988, pages 33-46

The Right Answer to the Wrong Question

Valarie Meliotes Arms

Robert McKim, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, has complained that "many of our students had trouble generating new ideas. They'd say, literally, 'I don't have any imagination.' What they'd been rewarded for in school was to manipulate words and numbers and pick single answers on multiple-choice quizzes" (McKim reported in Stewart, 1985). At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the engineers have been asking for a stronger humanities component because "MIT's engineers were learning to solve well-defined problems but were not learning to frame the problems in the first place" (Campbell, 1985, p. 52). Similarily, composition teachers complain about the lack of ideas in student writing. These are common complaints, yet they are still being repeated because creativity is little understood and almost impossible to teach. However, creativity can be encouraged, and computers such as the Apple Macintosh may facilitate its development--if teachers are able to develop curricula that encompass all of the cognitive processes. In particular, computers such as the Apple Macintosh can make the reiterative process of writing efficient while at the same time providing a visual environment that stimulates the creative mind.

In this essay, I will discuss some of the components of creativity and the importance of the teacher in providing a context that permits and encourages creative thought. I, also, will describe my experience in using the Macintosh personal computer to teach first-year composition at Drexel University. That experience will be contrasted with my earlier success in teaching technical writing with computers to juniors and seniors. The differences in the two courses indicate a path for planning the future integration of computers into the curriculum.


Creativity is most readily defined in terms of characteristics such as receptivity to new ideas, richness of ideas, originality manifested in unusual responses, and flexibility to accept failure and surprises. An important component of creative thought processes is the ability to relate images to ideas; in a popular metaphor, the right side of the brain, which sees in images, must work in conjunction with the left side of the brain, which verbalizes. Traditionally, curricula have taught cognitive skills that emphasize logic, rhetoric, and reason, but have neglected visual processes. Fostering creativity demands a more holistic approach. As Silvano Arieti has noted, "the phenomenon of imagery can no longer be ignored. . . . It plays a crucial role in the process of creativity" (1976, p. 46). Although the metaphor of right side/left side brain activity grossly simplifies the complex and little understood process that results in creativity, even its detractors grant its functionality in designing well-rounded curricula. Michael Corballis, for example, admits that "it would be churlish to deny the advantages of teaching children to think visually as well as verbally, or of fostering the creative imagination as well as the more traditional critical and computational skills" (1983, p. 7).

Teachers in many disciplines have been exploring the possibilities of using computers to expand their students' creative skills. As a consultant in computers and composition, I have been asked questions encompassing hardware, software, ergonomics of labs, content of syllabi, and economics; I have listened to concerns about declining skills in penmanship and spelling; I have applauded yet another presentation on how students loved writing on computers and revising for the fun of it; I have evaluated the impact of the computer on my own students; and I have participated in the evaluation of several other computer writing projects. But, as of now, all we can say with certainty is that computers alone do not necessarily affect the depth of revision, the quality of writing, or the creativity of the writer. (See Hawisher, 1986, 1988, for a review of research in computers and writing.)

Creating on the Macintosh

We can say that students and teachers are happier about writing on computers because of the ease with which they can produce text. Can they be more creative because they command a computer that has memory, drawing ability, and speed surpassing their own abilities? This was the question we posed as we contemplated teaching a new first-year composition class at Drexel University with a new computer: the visually oriented Apple Macintosh.

Since 1984, incoming first-year students at Drexel University have been required to buy a Macintosh, a personal computer that seems appropriate for students because its operation is transparent and its graphic capabilities, superior to any comparably priced computer, are well suited to design activities. The Macintosh also eliminates the need for extensive training on how to use word processing or graphics software. The "muddlers' machine" (because people can muddle through the commands sufficiently well to avoid reading the manual) uses icons rather than computerese for commands. Pictures such as a paintbrush, a phone, and a paper represent obvious functions--drawing, phoning into a network, and writing. To get rid of something no longer needed on a disk, students symbolically put it in a "trash can" and then empty the trash. (I still recall with horror the command in the first mainframe I ever used: "KILL.") Those of us possessing computer skills with what Seymour Papert (1980) terms "soft mastery" are a lot more comfortable with a "Mac" which checks to see if we really know what we are doing by gently asking "Are you sure you want to empty the trash?"

The visual environment of the Macintosh is especially important for those of us interested in a synthesis of visual and verbal thinking skills. Software such as MACPAINT provides drawing tools that enhance the manual talent of most users. A library of basic shapes can be used to create sophisticated designs as part of a computer-aided design process or as an illustration for a text. Shapes can be replicated, reversed, enlarged, miniaturized, shaded, and varied in numerous ways with simple commands.

Many researchers are noting the potential of computers such as the Macintosh to expand and enhance human capabilities. Bill Benzon in The Visual Mind and the Macintosh argues that "by making it easy for us to create images and work with them, the Macintosh can help us think" (1985, p. 113). He cites as support for the value of images to the creative process, Albert Einstein as well as Gabriele Rico's composition text, Writing the Natural Way. As he notes, "Talking is easy, but drawing requires that you have the proper materials and skills, which aren't always at hand" (p. 48). MACPAINT and other software provide a library of drawing tools in the same way that Bartlett provides familiar quotations and Roget provides synonyms. "You can zap the mouse around, draw a zillion rectangles in a minute, put four reflecting planes in the drawing space, and create amazing symmetrical designs with mere flicks of the wrist" (p. 114). And Benzon also notes, "the integration of visual and verbal information is important to us" (p. 120). The problem is that "some people specialize in writing, others in illustrating--but few become adept at both. Yet both images and verbal propositions are essential to thinking. This particular division of labor, in part, is caused by the difficulty of making good pictures" (p. 120). The Macintosh empowers those writers, who would otherwise be unable to draw a straight line, with tools for illustrating their own text. It also empowers those illustrators who hesitate to expound on their drawing by offering writing software to conquer fears about the mechanics of grammar and composition.

Obviously, the Macintosh provides the visual vocabulary so the mind's images can be solidified. The value of providing or augmenting a visual vocabulary is verified by Charlie (G. Z.) Brown and Barbara-Jo Novitski in the Department of Architecture at the University of Oregon (1987). Under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE), they have been developing software that enables students in architecture to use the Macintosh as an "electronic design studio." Like writing, architectural design is a reiterative process that involves creating, evaluating, and re-creating. Like software that analyzes punctuation, diction, or rhetorical strategies, architectural software, to date, has focused on calculations that analyze a given design without providing a way to synthesize creative ideas. My own complaint about writing software such as WRITER'S WORKBENCH has been based on the same argument. Until teachers and software designers recognize the relationship between design activities and creativity, computers and resulting students' products will only be "slick" like the often empty-minded but technically glib presentations of MTV (Music Television).

Students in writing classes parallel students in architecture classes because both need to integrate creative activities that have been artificially separated by emphasis on correctness. As Brown and Novitski suggest, "Spatial relationships and creative combinations of patterns can only come when the pattern-seeking brain is free to play unencumbered. But these ideas can only evolve into a building after being subjected to the analytical scrutiny of the rational brain and its concern for structural soundness, social needs, economies of material, etc." (p. 165). Brown and Novitski find their students more creative in their designs on the Macintosh because they are no longer limited by their ability (or inability) to realize a complicated drawing. By using a Macintosh in first-year composition and by providing this graphics capability, we hoped to encourage creativity in student writing.

Teaching First-Year Composition with the Macintosh

I had not taught composition for several years because of my preoccupation with research in teaching engineering students to write with computers. I had reported on the improvement of the engineering students, most evident in their attitude towards writing, in several papers and presentations (Arms, 1986). Aglow with success, I wanted to broaden what I learned, especially about the creativity facilitated by the command of images on the Macintosh computers. Engineers with strong visual ability had felt empowered by software that integrated the stages of the design and composing processes efficiently. Now that all students at Drexel are required to purchase a Macintosh computer, the first-year composition course would provide fertile ground for experimentation.

First-year writing classes at Drexel are typically composed of an equal number of students majoring in business and engineering. Roughly half the students commute, and half live in nearby dorms. Because each student owns a computer, several printers are located in the computer center, the library, and the dorms so that students can print assignments without the added expense of buying a printer. Knowing that students could work at their convenience on their own computer, we decided to make the Macintosh an integral part of a composition course.

In collaboration with Bernard Brenner, an artist and teacher with a background in psychology, I designed the first-year course to include several exercises with MACPAINT, the graphics package that is part of the required purchase. Each week, Brenner would meet the first-year students in the Macintosh lab and explain the visual exercises. I would meet them in a regular class setting to discuss the composing process. We would both meet them in the third weekly class for peer critiquing of rough drafts and revised papers.

We knew we wanted to stimulate creativity; we knew we had to find a holistic approach; and we were required to train first-year students to write 500-word essays. Viewing writing as a recursive process, we structured prewriting and revising activities into each assignment, stressing the students' freedom to make changes at any time. Students wrote in class with pen and paper to brainstorm for ideas. At home, they could choose to compose directly on the computer or to transcribe a handwritten draft.

Because of the Macintosh's emphasis on developing ideas through the association of images rather than outlines in prose, we chose Gabriel Rico's Writing the Natural Way (1983) as our basic text. The Rico text was extremely popular with the students who generally found it "the most interesting English book" they had ever read. We supplemented the images in the text with pieces of sculpture that Brenner had made. Students looked at works of art or brief models of writing and then wrote, brainstormed really, ideas that were connected by free association. Students were asked to "duster" ideas in Rico's terminology, then look for one idea that was worth developing at length. (The process functions similar to freewriting in getting ideas to flow without stopping to censor them.) The students' next step was to write a vignette based on their strongest link in the clustering. The vignettes were lively little paragraphs. Unfortunately, when I explained how to use them as details in an essay with a thesis, mental rigor mortis occurred.

In stating the objective of the MacPaint exercises that were done in the lab, Brenner explains:

These exercises are designed to enhance both fluency with, and awareness of, the creative act required to use visual process thinking. The Mac provides an extremely powerful tool for the exploration and understanding of how we shape and are shaped by the visual world. Of equal importance is the opportunity to observe the interplay between visual and verbal styles of thought. The computer can enhance the integration of left hemisphere processes (language, structure, and form) and right hemisphere processes (pattern recognition, etc.). This represents a real opportunity we have in the humanities to work with both verbal and visual literacy, a concept we have had no way to implement until the advent of the computer.

In the Macintosh lab, Brenner asked students to do a series of visual exercises with MACPAINT. The exercises he designed for the lab were deliberately playful and yet able to evoke subconscious feelings. The following are typical examples:

Few students ever saw the synergism between these visual exercises and the writing exercises; their clustering looked like sprawling outlines; and their texts were unilluminated. I read technical writing reports on topics ranging from radon detectors to biomechanical devices which relieved the boredom of reading first-year papers on how great friends were, how special eyes were, and why a college education was important.

Brenner and I were nonplussed. Yes, students did revisions, marveled at the ease of checking the spelling, even used global search to locate commas and eliminate comma splices. But they wrote their mechanically superior essays on the same trivial, general topics. A few of them used MACPAINT to create cover sheets with fancy titles, and a few used the typography to add interest to the text; for example, "Shadow" was an exceptionally good paper about shadows. Unfortunately, the clustering still looked like outlining gone askew--they wanted to know the rules without defining them for themselves.

We used a computer that provided a holistic learning environment in contrast to many projects where learning to use the computer itself intervened between the student and the subject; we designed a course specifically to synthesize visual and verbal types of communication; but, we did not see a dramatic improvement in the quality of the students'' ideas. As we both realized, in a 10-week term we could not undo the habit of linear thinking, or the desire to solve the problem and get credit for the right answer--a desire that was ingrained into the students by 12 previous years of schooling. Certainly, a variety of software has appeared that claims to teach "creative problem solving"--valuable activity after a problem has been perceived . Programs such as THINKTANK and WARRANT offer ways of breaking problems down into component parts to be tackled sequentially and logically. However, the first-year students could neither recognize nor define the problem. They could not see, let alone find, imagery to express their worlds. Their most memorable events fit predictable patterns and were sufficiently vague as to be interchangeable with their counterparts of 10 years ago who had written similar papers without the benefit of computers.

Using the computer failed to stimulate their thinking. Why? It had fired the imagination of the engineering students in my technical writing class who had crowded into special sections to get to use the computer lab and who had remained writing in the lab long after I had to leave for my next class. When our early success in technical writing was compounded with support from the FIPSE grant, the gains showed even more clearly that engineering students not only revised willingly and extensively but also took a "professional pride" in making the content as rich as the appearance of their letter-perfect printouts (Arms, 1986).

When we pioneered the path for Drexel to mandate the purchase of Macintosh computers for all students, the springboard for enhancing creativity was in place. I had done the research, and I had the experience to be aware of the pitfalls. Yet, now the initial enthusiasm had waned; everyone had a computer; and the novelty was gone. Many of the first-year students had been using computers for three or four years in high school. The class was no longer unique; every class required papers. Were all the early gains due to the Hawthorne effect?

Some of the better students found interesting ways to comment on the influence of the Macintosh. Such titles as "The After Mac" and "MacWrite or MacWrong?" showed some play with words. One student included an advertisement he had designed for his father's business. Another included an unrevised version of the paper to show how it differed from the final version that he had revised grammatically. Using publication software, a student wrote as if he were doing an interview for a newspaper in realistic format. A new generation reiterated that the computer acts as an electronic helper removing some of the frustration in writing: "I wish I could express myself better. It frusterates [sic] me when I write something down and it doesn't say what I felt deep down, the part I really wanted to express." Another student wrote, "Computers also have psychological effects on students. Students who use the Macintosh feel more superior and smarter than they did when they didn't use the Mac. They feel they are involved with the future and are really working towards accomplishing goals." Comments such as these suggest that the computer does affect cognitive processes, but it is not clear how or why it happens with some students and not others.

For the majority, the Macintosh has become the way to write and draw. However, many of the drawings were as trivial as the writing. Porsches showed up more often than anything else, a fact which may be of interest in Detroit but is of little interest to humanists.

Some composition theorists would argue that the students lacked the experience from which to draw, but how much experience did Updike have in his famous description of the beer can? I read William Styron's college themes while doing research on Sophie's Choice. No wonder Styron's mentor, William Blackburn, encouraged him to be a writer. It was not a wealth of experience but a sharp eye for detail, a way of seeing, that Styron expressed distinctly as a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist.

Styron had the creativity that Blackburn knew how to foster. Maybe there are few students destined to become novelists of Styron's caliber, but my point is that he made something of his own experience. In setting up a writing course with a computer lab, I did not expect the computer to do all the work, but I did expect more response from the first-year students. I had avoided the traps I myself had cautioned against: Students were not sent to labs without a teacher; the software was not expected to provide all the support; hard copies and audience feedback were not forgotten; and the computer was not a panacea. Computers in the lab setting that I envisioned could enhance the "human" uses of the computer by making holistic learning possible.

Technical Writing and the Macintosh

In contrast to the first-year students, the engineering students in technical writing had shown improvement in their writing that was noticeable not only in my class but also in their engineering classes. When they had access to Macintoshes, which they learned to use much more readily than the minicomputer, the improvement in quality of ideas, flexibility of presentation, and integration of graphics and text was dramatic. Technical writing students, evaluating the computer's impact, cited the creative aspect of the Macintosh. They made all the typical statements about ease of revision, efficiency, objectivity of typed text, and professional appearance. They even voiced the typical complaints: fear of lost text, lack of typing skills, and inadequate access to computers and printer. Yet, they had adapted quickly and learned to deal with the quirks of "computerland" as they produced better reports which their engineering faculty applauded as much as I.

The majority of the engineering students did not own a computer and so had to plan time to work in the lab to complete assignments. l reviewed rough drafts in the lab as part of the course and suggested students use hard copy for revision to be sure they had a good sense of the complete text, prewriting, and audience sensitivity (through peer reviews). The assignments were drawn from actual writing students had to do for major engineering courses, much to the credit of Drexel's engineering faculty which consistently supports communication skills as a requirement for competent engineers. Some titles of the articles I wrote reflected the faculty's mutual enthusiasm for what was happening in sections of technical writing, and in other writing students did: "Engineers Like to Write--On a Computer!" "The Computer as an Aid to Collaborative Writing," and "Engineers Becoming Writers: Computers and Creativity in Technical Writing Classes."

The engineering students' creativity was evident in their willingness to play with language, to make analogies, to vary formats for readability in user manuals, and to illustrate graphically. As an English teacher more at home with words than pictures, I had underestimated the engineers' visual approach in the cognitive process. Given the inherently image-oriented environment of the Macintosh, these engineering students felt liberated in expressing ideas over which they would have labored if confined to pen and paper. Albert Einstein, never a model student, explained how his own cognitive process was based on images: "The elements [of thought] are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will" (Benzon, 1985, p. 114). Asked to explain their cognitive process in dealing with an engineering problem, students in my classes would explain how they mentally pictured the problem and manipulated the picture in their minds until they grasped it visually; only then could they begin to verbalize the concept. With the Macintosh, they could begin composing around their drawings, rather than the traditional approach in writing which assumes individuals begin composing with words rather than images.

I found engineering students creative in their writing because the computer helped them overcome their shortcomings such as spelling, organization, and legible text. But these students were highly motivated, and their writing was purposeful. The engineering students in technical writing were more experienced writers than the first-year students and, as a group, more visually oriented. Many had produced a variety of technical documents in their 18 months of cooperative employment. They were, in some instances, thoroughly experienced with computers. And the papers they wrote were at least 10-page reports, which were required for their major engineering courses, not simply for their writing classes. This last point is important. Writing papers for major engineering courses may have provided a greater impetus for success and creativity than the first-year students' essentially "contextless" composition course.

Research at Carnegie-Mellon University identifies "crucial variables" for assessing the impact of the computer: "the subject's writing ability; the complexity of the task; and the context of the study, i.e., using the system for writing per se, or for the teaching of writing" (Neuwirth, Haas, & Hayes, 1986, p. 1). I would add that the motivation of the teacher is an important variable. I felt motivated because of my innovation in both the composition and technical writing courses, but I probably experience something of the Hawthorne effect myself when I first began teaching with computers.

Studies that look at funded projects may be confounded because of the teacher's extremely high motivation. Any new study should ask, "What happens when the computer is part of a routine environment, not spotlighted on the local news? What happens when the teacher is paid only to teach and not given time to reflect on results and write about them for international journals or conferences? And what happens when the student is already an experienced user of computers rather than a novice?" All of these questions must be addressed if we are to assess accurately the influence of technology on students learning to write.

Planning for the Future

The needs of students across disciplines and across the country from MIT to the University of Oregon are not being met by access to computer hardware or user-friendly software that simply lets students do more efficiently what they were already being taught to do by traditional methods. The computer could be, in part, the answer to the question, "How do we teach students to be creative thinkers?" But that is not the question being asked by most educators. The Macintosh and other computers that enhance human skills must be used in curricula that value and reward creativity as well as problem-solving, and they must be used by teachers unafraid to cross disciplinary boundaries or to explore territory as yet still virgin. That large demand is intimidating but not impossible if we are willing to learn from our failures as well as from our successes. So, I go on answering questions about setting up computer labs for writing, about choosing appropriate texts and software, and about grading multiple drafts.

As for first-year composition, Brenner and I are planning to teach a year-long interdisciplinary course with the help of a psychology professor and some cooperation from the registrar. We are thinking about writing assignments that have value to students in addition to being relevant to their experience. The interdisciplinary nature of the course should facilitate purposeful compositions and the year's time may allow for the breaking away from achievement-oriented learning to holistic learning. The Macintosh will be an integral part of our plan to encourage students to be receptive to ideas, to be flexible in trying them, and to be willing to risk failure in creating. Lest this be another diatribe about the state of education, please note that the very existence of this text is made possible by a computer, that this journal originated because of similar concerns, and that composition teachers face a future with, at worst, less eyestrain and, at most, more exciting papers.

Valarie Meliotes Arms teaches in the Department of Humanities and Communications at Drexel University. Philadelphia, PA.


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