7(1), November 1989, pages 27-36

Why Is There a Text in This Class?:
Classroom Teachers' (Re)Views of Computer-Assisted Composition Textbooks

Linda Laube Barnes

The large and powerful composition textbook industry is ever alert and seemingly responsive to research trends in our field. A cursory examination of titles reveals the trends and catch words in the composition pedagogy of recent decades. In the 70s, "process" dominated; "writing in the disciplines" emerged in the early 80s; and one of the current trends is to emphasize "word processing." The idea is for "every publisher. . . to produce a textbook [that] capture[s] the new market" (Appleby & Bernhardt, 1987, p. 478). The publishers' representatives master the current jargon, too, and skillfully promote their "revised" texts that have been updated to reflect the trends. Too often, when trained and experienced writing instructors examine these texts, they find little innovation: Even though new labels mark the sections, or new sections are inserted to simulate monitoring the pulse of the field, the content is generally unchanged. The precious few truly innovative texts are either not marketed aggressively or simply are not published by the "major publishing houses" because the texts stray too far from tradition.

In their review of four 1987 computer and composition textbooks, Appleby and Bernhardt (1987) praise the books' discussions of the value of word processing for student writers and the books' practical advice for using word-processing systems advantageously. But the authors criticize these textbooks for offering "stock advice." Such criticism should not be limited to computer-assisted composition textbooks, however. Composition textbooks in general seem to contain the same information and activities for generating and limiting topics, and for writing and organizing a paper in terms of either modes of development (comparison/contrast, definition, process, etc.) or modes of discourse (narration, description, exposition and persuasion/argumentation). It seems possible that the stock advice appears in these computer-assisted composition textbooks as a concession to the publishers' concern for producing a text that looks like a composition text. As a comparison, when "process" became the perceived catch word in the field, handbooks and some of the long-used rhetorics were "revised" to include at least one chapter or section on the writing process. In reviewing these texts, I found that the publishers had missed the point of the early theoretical challenges to the centrality of such texts in a product-centered composition pedagogy, and they were simply looking for a way to satisfy everyone by embracing the trend without committing to it.

In their review, Appleby and Bernhardt also ponder several important and serious issues about textbooks and computerized instruction. I have rephrased the most important as questions: Might books be "the best place to learn about word processing and the writing process," or might "the same learning. . .not be introduced orally or in collaborative lab activities" (p. 479)? How ". . . useful [is] such stock advice to experienced writing teachers, who often find themselves uninterested in or unable to make use of what textbooks have to say about how to be a good writer" (p. 482)?

What follows attempts to address these questions. Below, I report the views of five of my colleagues, all experienced and talented composition teachers, (and draw from my own experience as well) regarding composition texts in general and their use in computer course sections specifically. When I called on my colleagues for their input, my goal was not to create a controlled study but rather to interview colleagues with whom my personal and professional rapport was comfortable enough to elicit candid descriptions of their practices in the computerized sections of our first-year composition program. Because I had had occasions to directly observe, or otherwise witness, the teaching "styles" of these colleagues, l could corroborate the accuracy of their reports.

My colleagues--two females and three males joined me in a conference room for a tape-recorded group discussion about their responses to some questions I had asked them to consider prior to our meeting (see Appendix). Each person began by simply describing how he or she teaches composition with computers and how the presence of the computer has altered his or her teaching. Because the discussion was informal and conversational, we frequently explored the topics our conversation generated rather than adhering to the order of the questionnaire. Overwhelmingly, my colleagues' comments regarding the impact of the computer on their teaching echoed what has been discussed fully elsewhere. (For example, see the essays contained in the "Pedagogical Issues" section of Gerrard, 1987.) Their most common experience was that the computer had transformed their composition classrooms into a workshop or studio, with very few teacher-to-class "lessons" and much individual and group work, requiring students to "write and revise a lot," as one colleague remarked. Their classes had become more student-centered. One teacher reported that her students had made the class their own: They had become responsible for checking the disks in and out and telling her what was wrong with the equipment. The physical arrangement of computer classrooms often removes instructors from the typical "center-stage" position; they have less need to direct the class and are freer to observe the students write via our linked monitors. One colleague reported, "I never have class anymore." She has found that she doesn't have to be anything but an advisor.

In addition, my colleagues reported that they devote much more class time to writing during class than they do in noncomputer classes. A colleague expressed a positive difference in his use of time: Once in the computer classroom, not only was he more aware of what the students were writing in class, but the students used class time to "generate drafts, or to work out ideas and play with them a little bit more, and they could see the consequences of it." They concurred that students seemed more relaxed, if not "playful," when they were asked to write. "They like to play with the equipment," commented one of the instructors. From my colleagues' comments, it seems clear that the structure and nature of computer-assisted classrooms invite alternative composition teaching and learning styles.

Because of the workshop atmosphere in their classrooms, my colleagues reported using textbook material very little, building their classes around students' writing needs, "not around texts [textbooks]." They reported occasional use of selected chapters from the departmentally adopted rhetoric/process texts, most often citing as valuable the chapters on developing and organizing ideas because "they [students] come into a [writing] class . . . with that kind of question." These teachers assign a selected chapter for out-of-class reading and then briefly discuss and model important points. Only one colleague mentioned the stylistic handbook (sections) popular in the textbook market. He has occasionally assigned a pertinent section on a grammatical or syntactic point to help a student with a particular grammatical element, but he has "found that this [practice] rarely produces the desired benefit." Based on his experience, he argued for dealing with each student's grammatical problems individually and personally. Instructors reported assigning some of the readings in the departmental reader, if the topic was a current or idea-rich one, to stimulate thinking and response. These instructors typically disregard any rhetorical notes or analytic presentations that the authors or publishers have painstakingly included in the texts. They disclosed being more inclined to bring in reading materials from eclectic sources (predominantly magazines and newspapers) to use as prompts for writing assignments.

More significantly, these teachers reported that computers allowed them to use their students' and their own writing as the course text. One colleague shared, "Our main text really is what they [students] write out of class and bring in on disk, and we spend all the time looking at it as a group of thirteen people and criticizing back and forth." Another colleague said that he shares with his students some of his own writing--"past papers that I had been working on to show them, to get them more familiar with what rewriting might involve." One benefit of such "texts" is that students see what choices other writers have made, which they remember to repeat or avoid when they are writing their own papers. According to one colleague, another benefit is that students expand their definition of what "constitutes knowledge and . . . authority . . . because so much of the information the students are picking up they're picking up from other students now who are creating the text."

My colleagues are able to conduct class as described above because our computer classrooms are equipped with IVAN (Instructional Video Access Network). IVAN and LINK are similar, and fairly simple to operate, video switching systems. With IVAN, any information on a student's or the instructor's screen can be viewed at another individual monitor, at several monitors, or at all monitors for small-group or whole-class discussion. Because the system shares monitor images rather than files, IVAN is far less expensive than a system of fully networked computers. Our IVAN system encourages a kind of peer-group work that noncomputer classrooms cannot enjoy. Complaints registered in research on peer groups in writing classes suggest that problems arise for a number of reasons: Some peer members do not have enough copies of their papers for other members of the group, some members do not participate or skip class, some members do not offer substantive or helpful comments, and some peer groups get off task or defer to the teacher when she or he approaches the group at their desks (Berkenkotter, 1984; Freedman, 1987; George, 1984; Nystrand, 1986). A video-switching system can help ameliorate these problems.

A video-switching system allows the teacher or students to determine the size and membership of the peer groups according to the type of project, the level of writing skills and expertise, and the specific members who are in attendance and ready for peer reading. Thus, students do not have to move from their seats. Even better, as suggested in the previous paragraph, if the entire class and the teacher form the group, no one member can make or break the performance of a peer group. Another advantage is that the writer always remains in control of his or her text displayed on the screen. While all readers can view the text, only the writer can execute the changes suggested by the peer group. In turn, the entire group can see the change immediately and analyze its effect. In addition, no student can write "teacherly" comments on another's paper or take it over by crossing out words or changing sentences. The teacher is also able to monitor the efforts of the peer group from the sidelines without disturbing the dynamics of the interaction with his or her presence.

None of my colleagues had used any of the writing textbooks designed especially for computer classrooms. Three of them had examined the contents of several for possible adoption and had voted against adopting any of them. Two of my colleagues specifically mentioned two texts also reviewed by Appleby and Bernhardt--B. Edwards' Processing Words: Writing and Revising on a Microcomputer and R. Sudol's Textfiles: A Rhetoric for Word Processing. Neither colleague felt Textfiles was student or teacher friendly; proclaimed one, "Sudol's text seemed real 'computer-tech' language to me and Edwards' seemed more like a writing book." Added the other, ". . . Sudol tried to create a different language and even used different computer language than we were all used to. . . . Edwards has some easy assignments ... not real complicated assignments, which may be the key to a good computer textbook . . . but a lot of these assignments were assignments we would do whether we were in the classroom with computers or not." Speaking in general, one colleague said that she found it difficult to "find a good assignment that teaches computer skills and writing at the same time . . . it would be a lot less time-consuming to make my own up."

Appleby and Bernhardt suggest that experienced teachers are "uninterested in or unable to use" the rhetorical information in texts. As evidence, my colleagues generally seemed to have ignored such information in the texts. Instead, my colleagues were more interested in what kind of activities were available to teach a specific word-processing skill within a context of real writing. If they were to design a textbook, they would want one that contains writing activities that secondarily teach word processing, and one that contains an easy index to word-processing maneuvers. My colleagues argued for texts that have sets of exercises provided on disk that focus on specific writing strategies, such as revising for appropriate register, and that also teach students how to use the computer commands to accomplish the revision, such as a search or a search/replace command. With such texts, teachers could focus their students' attention on learning to write and not on using a word-processing system, in accordance with Helen Schwartz' advice (in this collection) to computer-assisted composition teachers.

My colleagues' comments suggest that a hard-copy textbook is inappropriate in computer writing classes. These individuals argued that more promise seems to lie in (commercial) programs and software tools. The software programs provide specific assignments and activities for prewriting or revising. Unlike the early programs, many of the new versions or new programs allow teachers to adapt the specific activities and assignments to their classes. One colleague argued that we need to start thinking of this software as the main text for our courses rather than as supplements to our teaching. "Because many of these programs are so programmable now, . . . what you're really doing is giving them [students] a textbook. Then instead of giving them directions, ask them questions that force them to come to certain conclusions in order to go through their writing." In addition, on-line handbooks are available with accompanying word-processing programs or as separate software programs. Because my colleagues discussed using handbooks in class only occasionally as references for a student having a specific problem, the advantage of an on-line handbook is that it can be accessed more readily and sometimes viewed on the monitor with the student's problem also visible.

More significant than the software programs, software tools have begun to redefine the concept of a "composition textbook." Software tools, such as Apple's HYPERCARD and IBM's LlNKWAY, are interactive multimedia programs used in combination with hard-disk driven computers and videodisc players. These software tools bundle or crossreference audio, video, and graphics images with textual information that allows students (and teachers) to "collect, explore, and organize information just as you do in your mind--by association" and view this information on their monitors (Phillipo, 1989). Anything that is displayed on the monitor can be captured on disk. Indeed, as Bernhardt discusses elsewhere in this issue, this sophisticated software redefines "text" from being a linear left-to-write, top-to-bottom form to being a non-linear, fluid set of visual, audio, and written connections.

It is time for practitioners to take the lead and demand a new definition of "textbook." It is time to say "no" to publishers' representatives selling us the same stuff in new jargon. Of course, our boycott may put some of our best friends out of work, but the need for over 3,000 textbooks all offering the same safe advice has passed. A new generation of composition teachers, highly trained and knowledgeable about teaching writing, needs information that goes beyond the contents of most textbooks. These teachers conduct their own research, in addition to keeping up with others' research, and some pursue specialized degrees offered at institutions throughout the country in the teaching of (and/or research in) composition. They no longer teach composition out of necessity but by avocation. In addition, many of these teachers have taught only computer-assisted composition. A junior colleague confessed that she really could not assess how the computer had changed her teaching because she had taught composition only with computers. Indeed, as one colleague noted, there will be a time soon when we will have a generation of writing teachers who "know only the computer" as the way to teach composition.

Winterowd (1989) argues that the first concern of publishers is to produce textbooks based on "what their potential customers want." If this argument is true, this paper has shown that the new generation of teachers wants composition resources that are adaptable, not adoptable. These teachers simply have no use for most textbooks currently available for the profession. The high level of professionalism in the field, and the increasing sophistication of computer technology, will make the current conception of composition textbooks obsolete. As one colleague noted, "Maybe there really isn't a place for those textbooks and . . . [a redefinition of 'textbook' is] going to come to us through an electronic medium." As the software begins to replace the hard copy textbooks, traditional composition textbook publishers will really have to shuffle in order to have a marketable product. Teachers will demand more of the profession and of the publishers, and these teachers will seek and discover new models for teaching writing not formerly possible in the noncomputer paradigm of composition teaching. Indeed, as one colleague confessed, ". . . I changed none of my behaviors, which may mean I'm not exploiting that room [computer classroom] . . . ." Publishers' best survival response might be not only to create collaborative teams of both software specialists and expert composition teachers that will explore ways the software can be adapted, but also to prepare manuals for teachers that will encourage innovative, imaginative applications, assuring the fullest possible exploitation of computer-assisted composition classrooms.

Linda Laube Barnes teaches at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.


Appleby, B. C., & Bernhardt, S. A. (1987). Review. College Composition and Communication, 38, 478-483.

Berkenkotter, C. (1984). Student writers and their sense of authority over texts. College Composition and Communication, 34, 312-319.

Edwards, B. L. (1987). Processing words: Writing and revising on a microcomputer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Freedman, S. W. (1987). Peer response groups in two ninth-grade classrooms (Technical Report No. 12.) Berkeley: Center for the Study of Writing at the University of California.

George, D. (1984). Working with peer groups in the composition classroom. College Composition and Communication, 35, 320-326.

Gerrard, L. (1987). Essays at century's end: Essays on computer-assisted composition. New York: Random House.

Nystrand, M. (1986). Learning to write by talking about writing: A summary of research on intensive peer review in expository writing instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In M. Nystrand (Ed.), The structure of written communication. Orlando: Academic Press.

Phillipo, J. (1989). Videodisc technology and HYPERCARD: A combination that can't be beat. Electronic Learning, 8, 40-41.

Sudol, R. (1987). Textfiles: A rhetoric for word processing. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Winterowd, W. R. (1989). Composition textbooks: Publisher-author relationships. College Composition and Communication, 40, 139-151.

Appendix A:

Questionnaire Regarding Computers, Composition, and Textbooks

Below are the primary questions that we will discuss in our meeting. Your input is essential to the quality of my report.

  1. How has teaching composition with computers changed your teaching style, activities, class organization, etc?

  2. Specifically related to #1, how has teaching composition with computers changed the way you use textbooks in general?

  3. Which textbooks do you use most often? Specify in which ways you use each textbook and what percentage of total course time you devote to the use of the text.

  4. Do you borrow activities, ideas, etc. from other books? Are any of the books you borrow from especially designed for computer classrooms? Please be specific about what you look for when you borrow something.

  5. If you rarely or never use a text, briefly discuss the materials you use/prepare for your class.

  6. Would you use or have you used composition textbooks specially written for computer classrooms? If yes, identify them and explain what you liked or didn't like about them.

  7. If you could design the ideal composition textbook for a computer classroom, what features would you include?