Ken Autrey (1985) makes a wry observation that every computer book these days must have an obligatory "testimonial," a chapter of personal confessions from a convert to word processing that "begins with an avowal of former ignorance about computers and moves on to the sudden revelation of seeing the first electronically honed page reel out of the printer" (p. 72). The "testimonial" genre lives on: I recently reviewed a manuscript about word processing titled "Composing at the Word Processor: Confessions and Comments" (emphasis added), co-authored by Kevin Davis, Wendy Bishop, and Penny Smith (1988). I have no problem with confessions, serving, as they do, to celebrate the role of the computer in our brave new world. I am, however, bothered on two different points by essays such as these. First, they are testimonials from teachers, not students. Teachers of writing are open to conversion: Armed with a number of writing strategies and adept at new learning, they are already convinced of the value of writing. Second, the testimonials are retrospective accounts of the conversion, usually fictionalized re-creations based upon present knowledge, often delivered with the fervor of St. Paul.
I am more interested in how the student writer adapts to computers. We have a wealth of retrospective accounts from teachers and professional writers concerning the effect of computers on their writing. What we lack are real-time accounts of students--struggling to develop as writers, coping as computer novices.
In an attempt to fill this void in "testimonial" data,
I conducted a protocol study, collecting talking-aloud protocols
from a first-year student in College Writing I, the first of a
two-course sequence required of all students. This study, differing
as it does from an empirical study I did earlier (Strickland,
1985), does not have hundreds of pre- and post-study results to
compare. Rather, the protocol study follows a student writer in
real-time use of two types of software programs: one allowing
her to freewrite, draft, and revise with a word-processing program,
another helping her generate ideas with an invention program.
I had four concerns that I wished to address with this study.
Two concerns were what I thought of as operational: What influence
would student's expectations about computers have on the study,
and how significant a problem is actually learning to operate
a computer? The other two concerns were rhetorical: Would the
use of a computer promote the importance of invention strategies,
and would the use of a computer encourage revision?
Expectations about a Computer
When I did my earlier computer study, students commented frequently that they expected the computer to help them, in the sense of suggesting topics to them or giving them ideas about their topics. Invention programs would help, I explained to those students, but they were expecting a sophistication that artificial intelligence programmers are only now investigating. With student writers, I wanted to see how much their expectations about computers influenced their effectiveness, and I wanted to see how helpful the programs were when correctly asked. John Seely Brown and Richard R. Burton (1975), artificial-intelligence researchers, observe that when "a person communicates with a logically intelligent system, [the person] inevitably starts to assume that the system shares his [or her] world-view" and follows the interactive dialogue. I wondered how severe a problem mistaken expectations about computers would be for my students. For example, when QUEST, the invention program, asks students an explicit question about their topic--gun control, higher education, animal experimentation--do the students really expect the computer to know about the topic? When students are asked questions by tutors in any other situation, a writing conference for instance, it is not unreasonable to assume the questioner understands the topic. Is it unreasonable for the student to assume that a computer should also have some knowledge?
Since 1970, our computer software has been haunted by a computer
featured in the classic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a
computer named HAL, capable of thinking and feeling as a person.
In the spirit of HAL, we labor to fool our students into thinking
the computer is a person--which it isn't--and that the computer
understands what the student types--which it doesn't--and that
the computer is more of an authority on matters than the student
is--which it isn't. Fred Kemp (1987) calls this phenomenon the
"user-friendly fallacy." His notion is that we are doing
a disservice to our writers when we try to make our programs user-friendly,
giving writers the sense that the computer is something other
than what it is, a machine that is impressive at low level activities--
counting, following orders, capturing keystrokes--but unintelligent
about the discourse it displays on its screen. I was interested
in seeing how much a student's expectations about a computer would
influence the interaction that student writer would have with
Operating the Computer
When I began the study, I was interested in seeing if writers would have difficulty operating the computer's word-processing and invention programs. I deliberately made my instruction time as brief as my handout because I wanted to see how little instruction was needed to use a computer in a composition class. I wanted to know if writers were able to operate the computer in a computer lab without need of a teacher or lab assistant. A colleague at the University once asked me to recommend the easiest word-processing program, because she wanted her students to use the computer but wanted nothing to get between their creativity and the expression of those thoughts on paper. I held up a Bic pen as the answer. I knew that learning to write with a new tool would present some problems; I just wanted to see if they were manageable problems.
In addition to noting ease of use, I also wanted to evaluate the rhetorical value of using the computer. I thought that invention programs on the computer would be able to pose heuristic questions in a way that would promote the computer's use. I further hoped to evaluate whether or not the combination of word-processing and invention programs encouraged the transfer of material from invention sessions to successive drafts.
I had a hunch that the features of word processing would encourage writers to revise and edit. Also of interest was the question of how much time is needed to see rhetorical changes in a student's invention and revision strategies. In my earlier study, I concluded that a semester is really not long enough to see beneficial changes in the drafts of a writer using invention strategies. I hoped the protocol study would allow me to see if this was a plausible explanation for the "no significant difference" findings of my earlier study and those of others before me (Burns, 1979; Schwartz, 1982).
I began the semester by teaching the entire class, 25 students in College Writing I, how to use PC-WRITE 2.6, a word-processing program I had put on their disks for them. I chose PC-WRITE 2.6 as the word-processing software because, unlike many other word-processing programs, it does not require that an unfamiliar user memorize commands, read templates, or employ trial and error to use it efficiently. This word-processing program offers on-line help with 40 topics, each screen teaching an average of a half-dozen operations. I gave each student in the class a single-page handout to follow, and let the class proceed. Later in the semester, after discussing invention strategies in class, I gave the class another handout telling them how to use my invention program, QUEST, a revised version of my original computer-assisted heuristic program rewritten for the IBM-PC (Strickland, 1985).
For the protocol study, I chose one first-year student from the
class, Leslie. She impressed me as independent, perhaps because
she was two years older than her classmates. A writing sample
written the first week of class showed that she was a typical
first-year writer--narrowly concerned with surface correctness,
uneasy about her own writing abilities, anxious about a semester
of "college" writing. While I did not tell her the specific
concerns I was investigating, I explained that I was interested
in seeing how students experience writing with a computer and
that I would like to tape-record her working at the computer.
I explained what a talking-aloud protocol was, that she was to
verbalize everything as she was thinking it or as she was reading
it. I told her that I was interested in seeing her in the act
of writing, hearing what she thought and did while using the computer,
learning what she found difficult. I told her not to worry about
sounding "stupid," because I was interested in knowing
what students had trouble with. If I could better anticipate their
problems, I told her, then ultimately I could be a better teacher.
She agreed to come regularly for hour-long sessions, one evening
a week, when the department would be relatively free from distractions,
the teachers and students gone to their evening classes, and the
department's computer free. I was not able to find anyone else
in my class who was both willing and dependable enough to participate
under these conditions.
Expectations about a Computer
My protocol analysis showed little of the user-friendly fallacy. Leslie never seemed to indicate that she believed the computer to be intelligent or that she felt engaged with another person. At one point, she did say of the computer program, "Oh, I see how this works"--her use of the pronoun this distancing herself from the machine. Moreover, she did not indicate by anything she said that she expected the computer to give her a topic or to tell her what to write about. Yet, in her protocols she seemed to be engaged by the interactive invention program, answering questions as they were asked of her, commenting, "That's nice," when the computer complimented her by name--"Okay, Leslie. You're doing terrific." The first time she used the invention program, it asked her what she would like to be called; she answered "Honey" (she had been a server in a restaurant), and every time the computer called her "Honey," she read the remark or question in a normal tone of voice, neither endeared nor insulted by the familiarity. The next time, however, she instructed the computer to call her "Leslie," perhaps asserting with this formality an awareness that she was being addressed by a machine rather than a person.
Operating the Computer
Leslie did have trouble operating the computer the first time she used the word-processing program and the first time she used the invention program. The first protocol she did is fraught with frustration. She loses her confidence with file management, saying:
Start again . . . ALT, CONTROL, DELETE. Okay. The first problem with this computer is not being real good on how to run it. And that creates a problem right off the bat. Right now I'm thinking how much time I'm wasting because I screwed it up. And now I'm starting all over again.
Trying to insert a comma, she says,
. . . let's see . . . [typing] I know a lot of people who are educated. However . . . however, they are . . . I know a lot of people who are . . . oops, I've got to back up . . . who are . . . comma . . . who are ... comma. I'm messing with this computer.... I want to go back. I want to take everything back one space and I don't know how to do that. It makes me so angry when I can't do this.... I hate this when it happens because I cannot get this to go back right and it makes me really, really angry.... What is this little mark that I made? I made it when I pushed the ALT button, and I hate that because now it looks like this whole line is really messed up, and I'm really mad about that. I'm just going to erase it all because it keeps doing that. The only thing I tried to do is, I tried to go back and put a comma in....
Her frustration with inserting that comma has shifted her attention
from higher-order idea-generation to lower-order production; and,
when she returns, she says she's forgotten her idea:
[typing again] . . . I know a lot of people who are . . . comma . . . and then it just got messed up after that. And that's how long it took me, and I've just erased it so that I can start again . . . who are ... space.... Now I've forgotten even what I had written.
And when she loses her file, she voices an important difference
between pen-and-paper and computer: She can't lose pen-and-paper.
See, it's gone, because I didn't save that. See, now I'm totally frustrated because now everything on there is gone, and I don't have it written down on my pencil and paper because I didn't do that part. I was writing this from my head and I was getting into it, too. I don't believe this. Hold on. I'm going to push ESCAPE, and I'm going to look for F9. I want to find text . . . F9. No. What a drag. I don't believe this. It's gone. Oh, no! I'm going to cry right now. . . . I want to cry because this is frustrating. See; I would rather not use this computer than have this happen, because right now I'm lost. I don't believe it. I don't know. It's just amazing that it could be. . . . Stop, save, push F9. I don't know. I can't believe that that's gone, if you want to know the truth.
The first experience she has with word processing and computers
closes on a note of frustration, both with composing at the terminal
and with freewriting.
See, right now I only have about . . . I don't know . . . 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13 . . . I only have 13 lines and it's 6:30, so I think that's a drag. I mean, I don't have very much written at all, and I wasted more time. See, my attention span is almost through, and that's sad because I like writing. But this is . . . this is really hard because I'm just doing this from my head . I mean, it can't possibly be the best that it can be because I'm just thinking this and writing it. I'm just going along. I mean, how can this be right. . . .
Likewise, the first time she used QUEST, the invention program,
was equally frustrating. She makes mistakes, just like her first
week with word processing:
[reading the screen] How much can it change before it's no longer rock music. [typing] The beat must change. The beat must change. I messed that up. I hit RETURN and I shouldn't have. Okay. Now we're going to try....
Later that night, she gets tired and frustrated and says, in answer
to the question, "Would you like some more randomly selected
No. No more of that. [the screen changes in response to the "no" answer] Oh, I see how this works. [reads] Would you like to answer questions about rock music according to. . . .
That night she left a note on my desk with the printout she received
of her answers to the heuristic probes, saying, "Mr. Strickland,
this didn't turn out very good. When I tried to start over again,
it didn't work." A comparison of the printouts received after
her first and second experience with QUEST shows that these operational
problems had disappeared by the second use, a pattern consistent
with her experience of word processing (see Appendix). Although
the frustrations she experienced using QUEST the first time disappeared,
operational difficulties always had the potential of subverting
Leslie's rhetorical attention. At one point, having successfully
generated four answers to a rhetorical probe, Leslie's elation
is immediately crushed because she hasn't entered the information
the way the program expected it. She has to shift her attention
to getting around in the program, going back and entering the
answers the way the program wanted:
Now I can RETURN; I did all four. [reads] Feature #2. Oh wow! I messed this up, I think. Okay, now I've got to think of something else they do. I think I really messed this up. I don't know how to . . . I don't know how to go back. I know, you told me to go up. Oh, I see how they do it. Okay, I'm going to change this since I . . . because I left this out. Okay, I'm going to go back and do this. . . . Like feature #1, cleanse the body ... beauty products. . . . [reads] What features distinguish it from other things that are similar to it? . . . Okay. . . . Now where am l?
Perhaps we might warn our writers that computers are going to
be damn frustrating initially, but after that, they're wonderful.
This approach might be more honest than testimonials.
Leslie did not ask for aid from the help screens on PC-WRITE; although I told her about the on-line help and noted the option on my one-page handout. She used the word-processing program as a glorified typewriter, missing out on the chance to revise and edit with features such as cut-and-paste or search-and-replace. The word-processing program had the capacity to tutor her in these techniques but was never given the chance. Finally, at the end of the semester, I walked her through the help screens. Perhaps there is a certain amount of "hand holding" needed for every computer novice, regardless of on-line help, and a threshold to cross requiring a human teacher/tutor/lab assistant.
Leslie was more willing to ask for help when it was offered by
QUEST. She easily followed the directions to bring up the screens.
When consulted, the screens apparently seemed to answer her questions
because she was usually able to answer the probes after reading
the examples. Nevertheless, at one point, she says, "Well,
that example is so much easier than [my topic] rock music."
She also tried for a help screen where there was none; the system
recorded as her answer the word she typed help and continued
on with the program (see Appendix).
Like most first-year writers, Leslie needed help with invention strategies. Her first protocol reveals a basic writer's strategy for essay writing--looking in a dictionary:
Okay. . . . Where do I start? Right now my mind's a blank and I have to think about what education is. I'll start with . . . well, education . . . knowing a lot about something. Education is . . . no. If I had a dictionary I'd look up what education is. . . .
As the semester went on, Leslie became competent at using the
invention program, but her use of the program peaked quickly.
Unlike her use of word-processing, which continued throughout
the semester, Leslie had difficulty seeing the material generated
by the invention program as raw material for an essay. She didn't
want to use QUEST later in the semester because, she told me,
the exercise seemed to slow down the draft production. One reason
is that the heuristics demanded more time than she wanted to give
to the assignment. A second reason is that the heuristic exercises
result in a data file of answers to the probes and not a text
file of sentences and paragraphs (see Appendix). As a result,
she became competent at using the program as a discrete entity
but did not incorporate its process as part of her writing behavior.
The question haunts us: How can we convince writers that spending
time with heuristic exercises, strategies that seem to postpone
the production of the essay, will actually benefit a writer? Leslie
was not conscious of the rhetorical effect of the invention program's
probe; but at one point, when stuck for a fourth answer, she reviews
her previous answers to get an idea. This review, while slowing
down her production, leads her to a top-level idea:
Beauty products . . . [types] beauty products can . . . do . . . [stops] what nature left out. I know. They hide . . . whoa! They hide imperfections . . . [types] hide imperfections.
Leslie herself confirmed that she felt the essay on beauty products
was a better essay, although it took longer to write. The obvious
conclusion is that we need to get past our students' initial reluctance
to use these computer programs so that their writing may benefit
from the long-term use of these programs.
In my protocol study, I saw no examples of global revision, only lower-order local changes, usually at the level of word choice:
people . . . instead of people . . . our society; . . . bring out their good qualities . . . not good . . . their naturally attracting qualities.
This is consistent with what Colette Daiute (1986) found with
the writers she studied: Most revised by adding at the end rather
than by global revision.
Leslie's final essays show the need for tutoring at the reshaping
stage when she needs to shift from writer-based to reader-based
prose. Leslie does not realize that it took a session with QUEST
and many sessions of drafting to finally discover her issue:
See, what I'm trying to get to is beauty products . . . how they change a person. . . . I know this sounds weird, but I understand how they change a person externally, but how it affects them internally. That's the major thing of this.
We need to develop new programs for a particular point in the composing process: after material has been generated and when the writer is trying to evaluate and revise. Our students do not have enough top-level goals and corresponding strategies to evaluate what they've produced. As a result, they transfer material wholesale. It's not so much that the freewriting resembles the final draft as that the writers have no other strategy.
Our computer programs, limited by the present state of technology,
are unable to offer the type of "find and fix" strategies
(Hayes, 1987) that writers need to evaluate their own work. During
her first protocol, Leslie developed a long narrative about Len,
her office manager, to illustrate her point about education:
[typing] I know a lot of people who are educated but who have absolutely no common sense. [stops typing] Right now, I'm thinking of this guy, and he had a Master's Degree, he was an accountant, I think . . . I mean, he talked . . . I mean, he was really educated . . . I mean, I know he went to school for a really long time, and his name was Len O--. And he was really smart, but I'll tell you, he was an idiot.
But the story did not appear in the text generated. I might have
suggested including the story of Len, especially if I had heard
the "top-level sentence" buried at the end of her two-minute
He was an idiot, but he was really educated . And that's one thing education is not; it does not make a person smart. I know a lot of people who are educated but have absolutely no common sense. And that's what I thought of when I thought of that person, because Len had no common sense.
Computer programs are unable to make the kinds of suggestions that we, as teachers, can. Computer programs need to be developed to tutor at the most critical point, reshaping and evaluating material, whether that material was generated by a freewriting or an invention heuristic.
We find, finally, a common ground between the confessions of writing
teachers and the protocols of a student writer: "Word processing
may prove to be of the greatest benefit to those who already know
and understand their own writing process" (Davis, Bishop,
& Smith, 1988, p. 114). Writing teachers and professional
writers possess an understanding of rhetorical invention and strategies
for meaningful revision; they are ready to understand writing
in a new way--word processing. Student writers, on the other hand,
are struggling to understand their own writing processes. Leslie
became increasingly aware of her own writing processes. After
writing with a computer for a semester, she had begun to be comfortable
composing at the keyboard. Her writing had begun to show an awareness
I want [this essay] to be about how everyone uses beauty products and the effects of beauty products; I would like to take a closer look at beauty products other than to examine the obvious; I would like to focus on the effects that make-up have on certain people.
Her writing had begun to show an awareness of the conventions
The effects range from cleanliness, an outer appearance . . . comma [explicitly creating a free noun phrase with the comma]. . . [rereads] the effects range from cleanliness, an outer appearance. . . [continues] to inner fulfillment of confidence;. . . a dirty old man into a clean. . . maybe I'd better put dirty in. . . quotations [recognizing the multiple layers of meaning the quotes create: an unkempt old man and a dirty old man].
As a stimulant to generate new text, she continued her practice
of re-reading what she had already typed, but her writing had
also begun to exhibit a working towards the making of meaning:
I have actually . . . I have actually heard a sour . . . let's see. I have actually witnessed [choosing a stronger, more accurate verb] beauty products turning a woman with a sour . . . turn a sour-faced woman into a . . . I have actually witnessed beauty products . . . beauty products turning a sour-faced woman into . . . into a . . . witnessed beauty products turning a sour-faced woman into a radiant . . . a radiant . . . a radiant, self- . . . self-fulfilled woman. Okay. They are unsure of their ability to make proper decisions. I have actually witnessed beauty products turning a sour-faced woman into a radiant . . . radiant, self-fulfilled . . . radiant . . . radiant, shiny . . . a radiant, [still struggling with meaning, deletes the radiant-shiny connection] self-fulfilled woman.
The computer did facilitate the growth that I witnessed in Leslie's
protocols, yet the learner should receive credit for the learning,
not the computer. Leslie's "conversion" to the computer,
like that experienced by professional writers, signifies the development
of a writer's consciousness, not the intervention of a deity.
If we need more "testimonials" about the saving grace
of computers, we need only hear the protocols of student writers
struggling in the process of becoming.
James Strickland teaches at Slippery Rock University
in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.
Autrey, K. (1985). Printout: A review of two new books. Computers
and Composition, 3(1), 71-76.
Brown, J. S., & Burton, R. R. (1975). Multiple representation
of knowledge for tutorial reasoning. In D. G. Bobrow & A.
Collins (Eds.), Representation and understanding: Studies in
cognitive science (p. 324). New York: Academic Press.
Burns, H. L., Jr. (1979). Stimulating rhetorical invention
in English composition through computer assisted instruction.
Austin, TX: University of Texas. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 188 245)
Daiute, C. (1986). Physical and cognitive factors in revising.
Research in the Teaching of English, 20(2), 141-159.
Davis, K., Bishop, W., & Smith, P. (1988). Composing at the
word processor: Confessions and comments. Teaching English
in the Two-Year College, 25(2), 110-114.
Hayes, J. R. (1987, March). Recognizing cues to action.
Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication,
Kemp, F. (1987). The user-friendly fallacy. College Composition
and Communication, 38(1), 32-39.
Schwartz, H. J. (1982, March). A computer program for invention
and feedback. Paper presented at the Conference on College
Composition and Communication, San Francisco, CA. (ERIC Document
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Printout from QUEST following Protocol #4
Printout from QUEST following Protocol #5
IN THE PAST RESEARCH WASN'T AS ADVANCED. LIFESTYLES AND EATING
HABITS HAS MAKE SKIN PROBLEMS AND AGING MORE OF A CONCERN NOW
THEN IT DID YEARS AGO
MORE COMPETITIVE SINCE THE MEDIA IS PUSHING EVERYONE TO BELIEVE
THAT LOOKING YOUNGER IS THE KEY TO A HAPPY LIFE. EVERYWHERE YOU
LOOK PEOPLE ARE LOOKING FOR THE MAGIC FORMULA.
THE PUBLIC CRIES FOR AN ANSWER TO THEIR BEAUTY NEED. BEFORE THEY
ARE MARKETED THEY MUST BE TESTED AND PROVED SAFE.
THEIR IS USUALLY A STORY BEHIND HOW A FORMULA WAS DISCOVERED AND
HAIR PRODUCTS ARE A NECESSITY FOR GENERAL HAIR CLEANSING. BEAUTY
PRODUCTS REDUCE DISEASES CAUSED BY UNCLEANSINESS. CLEANSES THE
BEAUTY PRODUCTS MAKE A PERSON FEEL BETTER. THEY ULTIMATELY MAKE
THEM ACT BETTER BECAUSE THEY FEEL BETTER. THEY PROTECT AND KEEP
THE SKIN FROM AGING. BEAUTY PRODUCTS CAN, DO, HIDE IMPERFECTIONS.
THEY CAN DO WHAT NATURE DIDN'T. IF USED THE RIGHT WAY BEAUTY PRODUCTS
CAN ENHANCE A PERSONS NATURAL BEAUTY.
BEAUTY PRODUCTS CAN MAKE A PERSON FEEL BETTER ABOUT THEMSELVES.
IF A PERSON IS SAD IF THEY CLEAN THEMSELVES UP A PUT ON SOME MAKEUP
9 TIMES OUT OF TEN THEY WILL PORTRAY AN ATTITUDE OF SELF CONFIDENCE.
(WOMEN IN GENERAL),KEEPS THE SKIN FROM DRYING OUT AND SHOWING
SIGNS OF AGING. DEPENDING ON A PERSONS SKIN TYPE THEY CAN USE
PRODUCTS THAT ARE DESIGNED TO REDUCE THE NATURALAGING PROCESS.
YOUR SKIN IS LIKE ANYTHING ELSE IT WEARS OUT IN A MATTER OF TIME
SKIN CARE,BODY CARE,HAIR CARE,GLAMOUR] BEAUTY PRODUCTS GENERATE
A LOT OF INCOME PRODUCTS COME IN MANY FORMS AND MANY PRICES. IT
WORKS ON SUPPLY AND DEMAND
EVERYONE USES BEAUTY PRODUCTS TO A CERTAIN DEGREE BEAUTY PRODUCTS
CAN NOT BE KEPT. THEY ARE USED UP SO AS FAR AS MONEY GOES, TO
SOME PEOPLE THEY AREN'T A GOOD INVESTMENT.
THEY INITIATE SELF WORTH. THEY CLASSIFY PEOPLE. BEAUTY PRODUCTS
ARE SEEN WITH THE HUMAN EYE IMMEDIATELY UPON MEETING OR PASSING