7(2), April 1990, pages 7-19

Competing Ideologies in Software Design for Computer-Aided Composition

Paul LeBlanc

One certainty in composition studies today is that new technologies will have a significant impact on the way we perceive the activity of writing and the ways we teach writing. Indeed, only four years after the commercial introduction of the microcomputer in 1977, computer-based learning programs were in 50 percent of U.S. educational institutions, with higher education accounting for the largest portion of that number (Chambers & Ohl Lewis, 1988, p. 31). Computer-assisted composition (CAC) software was introduced more slowly. But in the last five years, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of available programs, and new, more advanced, "second-generation" programs are becoming readily available.

In their studies of literacy, Marshall McLuhan (1962), Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979), and Walter Ong (1982) have made clear the fundamental connection between technology, communication, and social structures. What we should recognize from their work is that computer technology, in the form of CAC tools, stands to alter dramatically our current understanding of literacy. That is, these writing tools have the power to provide new answers to the three questions that Goran Therborn posits at the heart of ideological definition What exists? What is good? and What is possible? (Berlin, 1988, p. 479).

Joseph Weizenbaum (1976) illustrates the transformative power of the tool in Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. When hunters acquired spears, for example, they must have seen themselves in an entirely new relationship to their world. Large animals that had earlier raided their foodstores and even attacked their children and which they feared, now became their prey. Sources of food for humans grew, for now humans could kill animals at a distance, including many species that had previously eluded them. The effectively greater abundance of food must also have enlarged the domain over which hunters could range, thus increasing the likelihood that they would meet other people. Humans' experience of the world changed and so too must have their idea of their place in it (p. 19).

Key technological developments of the past occurred through extended periods of time--for example, the 2000 or so years for the steam engine and the 600 or so years for the clock--and the influence of these developments could be felt and assimilated more gradually; however, the computer is impacting our world with astonishing speed and pervasiveness. Given that the primary use of the microcomputer is as a writing tool, composition will be particularly affected by the proliferation of microcomputers and the development of CAC software. As professionals in the field of composition, we can react to these changes in our field, or we can be pro-active in shaping the computer tools with which we will work in the future. While composition researchers are not in a position to exert much influence on hardware design, we can have much to say about the software that gives hardware its definition as a writing tool. First, we should start by recognizing that CAC software programs are not neutral. Any CAC program operates with an implicit ideology, one that values or devalues certain writing behaviors and ultimately demands adherence to a given view of the writing process. Second, we must play a greater role in the development of CAC programs. As Lewis Mumford (1934) says,

No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the sciences, it does not form an independent system, like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill. (p. 6)

As the managers of textuality, composition teachers and researchers are best equipped to guide the development of computer writing tools. Yet many of those who work in the area of computers and writing face formidable obstacles in their departments, an ideological struggle of another sort. As researchers trying to understand the impact of this new technology on writing behavior, we can no longer be solely concerned with word processing as the computer's incarnation within the world of writing. The stand-alone word-processing program is no longer a very interesting tool. I was one of the first instructors in the University of Massachusetts' Computer-Based Writing Lab some five years ago, and one of the first things we tried to do was to find ways to stretch the limitations of our word-processing programs. We tried doing things like invisible writing and monitor switching (a la Stephen Marcus), electronic classroom journals (a la John Dinan and M. Meeker), and electronic instructor feedback, through the laborious process of collecting and copying files onto student diskettes--one or two at a time. We did not, by conscious decision, elect to use any of the then-available CAC programs, because they were mostly of the "drill and practice" variety or style checkers that reinforced a product-centered approach to composition pedagogy. Much has changed since then. When James Strickland wrote FREE (a prewriting program based on some of Elbow's freewriting techniques) in 1982, he did so because nothing like it existed at the time. When I requested a copy of it last year, he expressed embarrassment at what he called its "primitiveness." Indeed, written in BASIC with a modest requirement of 48K of memory, FREE is a distant ancestor of a program like THOUGHTLINE (an artificial intelligence based invention program using Socratic questioning) that requires a hard drive, and 640K of memory, and which, in its first version, was written in LISP. The lack of CAC software we felt in 1984 has been short-lived, and where we once could focus solely on the impact of word processing on the writing process, we are increasingly faced with a powerful array of new tools that have the potential to shape writing behavior, each in its own way. John Thiesmeyer's (1989) recent condemnation of CAC software reflects our initial dismissal of it for our computer writing lab, but he fails to account for exciting developments in program design engendered by the use of networking, telecommunications, artificial intelligence, hypermedia, and other "second generation" program components. As Ellen McDaniel (1987) has pointed out:

As a profession, we would be mistaken not to keep this evolution of writing software under close surveillance; ultimately, its influence on texts, language, and thought may be as revolutionary as those of the writing and printing technologies that have preceded it. (p. 140)

To illustrate the implicit, if not necessarily intentional, ideological foundations of CAC software, it's useful to compare two computer-writing aids on the basis of the way they answer Therborn's ideological questions. First consider GRAMMATIK II, the latest version of the first style checker, which the distributor tries very hard to sell as something more than a style checker. Here is a passage from the introduction to the manual: "It does so much, the term 'style checker' scorns its power. That's why we ask you to resist calling GRAMMATIK II a style checker.' Why not call it an 'electronic editor'?" (Bauer, 1986, Introduction).

I had the opportunity to observe the use of GRAMMATIK II for many hours in the local offices of a state agency that had recently gone on-line and had purchased it as their sole writing aid beyond word-processing programs. The program runs a document through the following 11 functions:

  1. Proofreads for typos.
  2. Finds punctuation and capitalization errors.
  3. Finds "clumsy, hackneyed, illiterate, trite, misused, pretentious, redundant, and wordy phrases. . . ."
  4. Offers a readability analysis (Flesch Grade Level).
  5. Offers count and percentage of passive voice and prepositions.
  6. Compares your text to the Gettysburg Address, a Hemingway short story, and an insurance form, on the basis of the following: readability (grade level), the number of words per sentence, the number of letters per word, the percentage of sentences in passive voice, and prepositions as a percentage of all words.
  7. Provides a list of all the words in your document (by frequency or alphabetically).
  8. Offers a dictionary of phrases.
  9. Creates specialized dictionaries.
  10. Reads a document for special problems such as the following: archaic or foreign words, vague adverbs, gender-specific words, and redundancies.
  11. Marks problems in your text if you wish it to do so.

The manual says these functions "include the same basic rules your English teacher tried to teach you" (Bauer, 1986, back cover). We all recognizetheproduct-basedcriteriaforwritingevaluationimplicitinsuch a list. These criteria are part of what Henry Giroux (1983) would call an instrumental ideology, one which places a strict emphasis on rules and mechanics of presentation and form and which does not value content (p. 209). Giroux argues that the underlying principle of instrumental ideology is the notion that human knowledge can be quantified, can be reduced to mathematical terms. This same notion, echoing Leibniz's seventeenth-century belief in a calculus of reasoning, is the cornerstone of modern computer programming, manifested in the work of Babbage, Boole, Turing, and in Claude Shannon's successful attempts to transform logical reasoning into electro-mechanical circuitry. Because the kind of knowledge represented on the screen lends itself most easily to computational rendering, it is no surprise that so many of the early writing-aid programs should be style checkers. Computation is, after all, just the kind of thing the computer can do reasonably well. What becomes interesting and important for us in the field is that the computer's mere ability to perform a task well gives that performance a kind of validity that flies in the face of our better knowledge. How else do we explain the investment of resources and energy into sophisticated "second generation" programs like IBM's CRITIQUE, which generates grammar and style critiques, even as almost everyone in the field of composition agrees that "process" is good and "current-traditional" rhetoric is bad--to use Lester Faigley's (1986) succinct summary of the paradigm shift (p. 527)? Or is the development of "product"-based software a case of the tool, which has the ability to perform certain tasks better than others, answering our ideological question of "What is good?" in a way different than we might answer it without the tool?

Joseph Weizenbaum (1976) has argued that computers often serve to "entrench and stabilize social and political structures" that might otherwise be reformed or radically altered (p.31). Programs like GRAMMATIK II and CRITIQUE can be seen as serving such a function, reinforcing a still wide-spread understanding of literacy that Giroux (1976) ties to state needs, as illustrated in his examination of UNESCO literacy programs in developing nations (p. 215). Andrew Sledd recognizes this ideological link when he associates CAC programs with back-to-basics reactionaryism in his 1988 College English article on literacy (p. 499). These are the kinds of issues we must address, or we may find ourselves developing and working with tools designed without sound theory and pedagogy. We must take care that the CAC tools both our students and we will use do not possess an ideological foundation we would prefer to keep out of our classrooms. Happily, the grass-roots movement of teachers designing computer programs, an educational movement that John Kemeny and the developers of BASIC hoped for in 1958, has taken hold in the field of composition. So many of the best CAC programs now available to us have come out of the composition classroom, which continues to be the case. One such program is INTERCHANGE, a program that emerged from Paul Taylor's and the Daedalus Group's work at the University of Texas and was in part inspired by Trent Batson's work at Gallaudet University. INTERCHANGE is a real-time conversation program using a standard file-transfer microcomputer network to create on-line classroom discussion. It has five main components:

  1. The individual student writes on a "scratch pad," and when ready, he/she can send the comment to the main display window on every screen signed-on to the conference.
  2. Comments appear on the main window as they arrive in chronological order, and the screen scrolls to make room for incoming comments. Students can move through the text to reread what has been sent.
  3. Users can break off from the main conference and create subconferences to pursue new topics or lines of conversation.
  4. Split-screen capability allows a conversation to take place on one window about text that appears on another window.
  5. The program can provide a hardcopy transcript of the conversation at the end of the session.

A program like INTERCHANGE provides a dramatically different set of answers to Therborn's three questions than does a program like GRAMMATIK II. INTERCHANGE locates the real, the answer to the question, "What exists?" in the dialectic interaction of writers working within a discourse community. It places positive value in egalitarian participation in social discourse, empowering participants who, for a variety of well-documented reasons, might not otherwise participate fully or at all. It allows those participants to ignore many of the social/hierarchical cues that mark traditional classroom exchange--cues associated with gender, race, position, social status, or appearance (Selfe, 1988). What matters in this program is the quality of ideas--not the societal definition of those who produce them. I would argue that this is just the sort of literacy behavior Cindy Selfe (1988) envisions in her work on feminist theory and computer technology. While GRAMMATIK II serves a current-traditional rhetoric, INTERCHANGE goes a long way towards realizing the ideal social-epistemic classroom Berlin (1988) envisions, a classroom that welcomes, in his words:

. . . behavior that is always open-ended, receptive to the unexpected, and subversive of the planned. Most important, success in this classroom can never be guaranteed . This is a place based on dialectical collaboration--the interaction of student, teacher, and shared experience within a social, interdisciplinary framework--and the outcome is always unpredictable. (p. 492)

INTERCHANGE will not achieve this ideal classroom alone, yet it is a powerful tool which opens up new possibilities for the composition classroom. However, not everyone is so optimistic about the future of CAC software. Nancy Kaplan, a co-designer of PROSE (an instructor-commenting program that guides student revision), winner of an EDUCOM Distinguished Software Award in 1987, asserted in a recent interview with me that,

in a sense, what we are working with now, I think, was shaped for us in the 50s and 60s, and we weren't there. What is being shaped now is what's going to appear on our desks in 10-15 years. And we're still not there. We're still not where the shaping is going on. Just a few of us are. (personal communication, February 1,1989, p. 17, lines 22-7)

In many ways, we are struggling to work with tools that were, for lots of reasons, designed without our input. For example, word-processing programs are spin-offs from the original workstation editors that programmers always used to inscribe program codes. Workstation editors were not designed around the needs of writers. Kaplan recognizes the danger in adopting tools not based on one's actual needs. She sees dire risk in the phenomenon that Mumford illustrated about tool use or technology, which is that the tools we use force us to reconceptualize what we do, and once that happens, there's almost no going back. The question then is how do we, as a field, play a more active role in CAC design--in shaping the tools we and our students will work with in the future? Our success in that venture will depend in large part upon our ability to first convince our colleagues in the field of composition that computer technology stands to dramatically alter our understanding of what we do.

We then must go one step further and convince English departments to support and reward those who work in CAC design. In my interviews with program designers, it became very clear that with the exception of technically oriented research institutions like Carnegie Mellon University, English departments have failed to support and reward CAC researchers adequately. If composition researchers are still struggling for recognition within departments, computer and composition researchers are more marginal yet. A few examples from my interviews illustrate this point. In one case, the designer of a useful program used nationally in the public schools received no professional recognition within her institution and continues to work as an adjunct faculty member on a year-to-year contract. In another case, a university challenged the ownership of programs designed within their computer facilities and effectively drove CAC designers off the campus to form their own outside CAC research and design group. In another case, a designer's work was not only unsupported in terms of money, hardware, or release time, but it was also made clear that her CAC work was to take place on her own time and was not to interfere with so-called academic duties. By the way, the success of her program earned her no departmental recognition outside of a blurb in a newsletter, and she, too, continues to work as an adjunct on a one-year renewable contract. These program designers are losers in an ideological struggle of another kind--one in which the power of tenure, promotion, and departmental resources are held in the hands of English-department humanists who see computers and those who work with them as part of the technological culture with which they will not conspire. The 1988 EDUCOM Academic Software Development Survey confirms the marginality of faculty software developers:

The results of the interviews indicated that incentives were not generally available to faculty. Release time seemed to be tied into the availability of funds on campuses and, for the most part, was available only through external funding. Since criteria for promotion and tenure were established at the department or school level, there were few campuswide standards that gave credit; others counted it [software development] as a publication if it was published; and still others did not accept development activities as promotion criteria at all. (Keane & Gaither, 1989, p. 55)

The EDUCOM survey examined software development in all disciplines, and there is every reason to believe that CAC software developers suffer a worse lack of support than their colleagues in many other fields, particularly the sciences. This is true for three primary reasons:

  1. English departments are not sure how to evaluate CAC efforts because they possess little understanding of those efforts generally.
  2. The ideological foundation of CAC work contradicts the dominant ideology of English studies ascribed to by organizations like the MLA and embodied in the rewards structure of most departments.
  3. CAC work is seen by English faculty as inhabiting the enemy camp in the battle between the culture of technology and the culture of the humanities.

These three, while obviously related, operate at different political and ideological levels: the first dealing with pragmatic issues of departmental policy, the second with broader issues within the discipline, and the third with a fundamental opposition between the cultures of technology and humanities. In his article "Understanding and Evaluating: The Humanist as Computer Specialist," CAC developer Joseph H. Bourque (1983) recalls his department chair's surprise at his request to have one of his programs actually considered a publication. Bourque goes on to argue for the validity of CAC work in the advancement of knowledge, and he sets up some standards for considering CAC work as such. Departments need to accept this notion and establish guidelines for evaluating CAC efforts. They also need to make clear the way those efforts will play into deliberations over promotion and tenure. Those discussions are starting to take place, if only because English departments are faced with continuing pressure to integrate computers into their writing curriculum, even if they would rather not in some cases. This pressure often leads to the hiring of one computer specialist on whom the burden of CAC development and integration can be unloaded. Selfe sees the newly hired CAC specialist as being in a position to force departmental clarification of policy regarding CAC work:

I think that people who are in computers are going to have to, when they get hired, go to their department chairs. It is going to be the mutual responsibility of the two to clearly articulate in a written form their expectations, the professional expectations of the chair and of the person, so computer specialists don't get caught in changing expectations. I think we can do that, but we have to take a pro-active role. We can't sit back and assume that a head is going to understand what we know about computers. We have to educate the head, and the head has to educate us about educational constraints, and there has to be a negotiated stance that comes out of that. (personal communication, March 18, 1989)

Until this happens, release time, promotion, and tenure will be likely to remain more readily available to CAC developers working in research settings. When CAC development is tied to research goals, as it is in the case of Chris Neuwirth's COMMENTS and NOTES programs, John Smith's WE, and Earl Woodruff's CICILE, the reward value of those efforts is tied in part to the researchers' success in producing publishable research results. However, when someone like Mimi Schwartz creates a program like PREWRITE, designed for classroom use as a teaching tool, she is only rewarded with faint praise from her department. The majority of CAC programs available are intended to improve the writing curriculum, and English departments place little value in them not only because the departments don't understand them, as mentioned earlier, but also because they place little value in pedagogical improvement. This point is supported in the work of the FIPSE Technology Study Group:

The conflict faculty face when forced to choose between the rewards of improving learning in a course and the rewards of publishing research results is deeply rooted in the culture of higher education. We recognize that the traditional and most significant system of faculty reward, tenure, and promotion based on disciplinary research, [sic] is not flexible enough at many institutions to encompass work in developing curriculum. (Balestri, 1988, p. 46)

Thus, much CAC development work has been conducted by those already marginalized in their departments. Hugh Bums wrote TOPOI, BURKE, and TAGI when he was a graduate student. Fred Kemp and Paul Taylor were graduate students when they wrote their programs. Kaplan is an adjunct faculty member at Cornell. As CAC developers enter full-time tenure-track positions, they will have to bolster their CAC development efforts with a stronger theoretical orientation, that is, more published research, if they are to partake in the departmental reward structure. Unfortunately, the added burden of traditional publication (as opposed to software publication) to full teaching loads and other junior faculty responsibilities promises to cut into the already circumscribed time that full-time CAC people have for software development. Fred Kemp, for example, readily admits that he has had little time to continue his software-development work since completing his doctoral program and being hired to a full-time tenure-track position. Selfe (1989) sees the marginality of CAC development work stemming from more deeply rooted ideological orientations than from academia's stress on research over teaching or from humanist's lack of technological understanding. She believes that the rhetoric of technology in the writing classroom reveals a "reformist vision of computer-supported classrooms" (p. 5):

. . . one in which students are active, engaged, central, and one in which technology is helping teachers address racism, sexism, inequitable access to education and other disturbing political/social problems now operative in our educational system. (1989, p. 5)

She compares the rhetoric of CAC to the rhetoric of feminism, both being "highly politicized, rhetorical, persuasive discourse that calls for change and that commits a community of scholars to positive reform" (p. 6). The collaboration that comes with a program like INTERCHANGE, the empowerment of marginalized students that networks and telecommunications can allow, the challenge to notions of authorship in a hypertext environment, and the idea of shared databases like the one in CICILE, all serve to challenge the traditional value structure of traditional academic discourse. Most CAC software itself is collaboratively designed and developed, and when software is reported on in print, CAC developers often speak in terms of fundamental changes to our present understanding of textuality and its management, a discussion generally "couched in terms of hope and change" (p. 5), to use Selfe's phrase.

The struggle CAC researchers are having with English departments can be seen in yet another light, one that Ted Nelson (1987) examines in his quirky and often enlightening book Literary Machines. The struggle is between what he calls the Noids, short for technoids, and the Fluffies, the humanists. Nelson calls for a reconciliation of the two to produce what he calls "systems humanists." He says,

In the broader view, the goals are the long ones of civilization--education, understanding, the preservation of human values--but we must use today's technologies. I call this view systems humanism. Civilization as we know it is based in part on running water. That system had to be thought out. Similarly, somebody's gotta design waterworks for the mind. But it should be someone who understands the fluidity of thought. (p 1/14)

Bourque (1983) makes a similar argument for the field of composition. He says,

. . . if we are to enjoy cooperation in achieving our common educational goals, we must recognize that it takes many kinds of efforts to make a successful English department. Computers are an inevitable part of our future, and those who facilitate their use make a significant contribution to the discipline which must be acknowledged. (p. 73)

While Nelson does not mention CAC work specifically, CAC software developers come very close to fitting the role he describes for systems humanists. Steven Jobs calls the computer the "finest tool" built by the finest tool builders who have ever lived (Sprecher, 1988, p. 127). That tool will have great influence on our understanding of writing--in ways we are only beginning to understand now. I started my inquiry by looking at only one small piece of that puzzle, the way CAC programs can promote an implicit rhetorical ideology, and found myself finally talking about English department politics. But there is a vital connection between the two, between our role in the integration of computers in composition (with all kinds of implications for our understanding of textuality generally) and the willingness of English departments to answer the questions of "What exists?" "What is good?" and "What is possible?" in new ways. Should English departments abdicate their responsibility to guide the development of computer tools for composition--tools we will surely be working with in the future--we may very well find ourselves working within an ideological, and thus also pedagogical, concept of writing that is not of our own making.

Paul LeBlanc teaches at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts.


Balestri, D. P. (1988). Ivory towers, silicon basements. McKinney, TX: Academic Computing Publications.

Bauer, R. (1986). GRAMMATIK II. The writing analyst instruction manual. San Francisco: Reference Software.

Berlin, J. (1988). Rhetoric and ideology in the writing classroom. College English, 50, 477-494.

Bolter, J. D. (1984). Turing's man: Western culture in the computer age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Bourque, J. (1983). Understanding and evaluating: The humanist as computer specialist. College English, 45, 67-73.

Chambers, J. A., & Ohl Lewis, J. (1988). The effects of academic software on learning and motivation. In J. Sprecher (Ed.), Facilitating academic software development (pp. 71-98). McKinney, TX: Academic Computing Publications.

Dinan, J. S., Gagnon, R., & Taylor, J. (1986). Integrating computers into the classroom: Some guidelines. Computers and Composition, 3(2), 33-39.

Eisenstein, E. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Faigley, L. (1986). Competing theories of process: A critique and a proposal. College English, 48, 527-542.

Giroux, H. A. (1983). Theory and resistance in education: A pedagogy for the opposition. South Hadley, MA: Bergin.

Keane, D., & Gaither, G. (1988). Academic software development survey. In J. Sprecher (Ed.), Facilitating academic software development (pp. 47-69). McKinney, TX: Academic Computing Publications.

Marcus, S. (1983). Real time gadgets with feedback: Special effects in computer-assisted instruction. The Writing Instructor, 2, 174-181.

McDaniel, E. (1987). Bibliography of text-analysis and writing instruction software. Journal of Advanced Composition, 7(1 & 2), 139-170.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Meeker, M. (1986). Waiting for WANDAH: A critique of present trends in computer-assisted composition. Computer-Assisted Composition Journal, 2(1), 42-54.

Mumford, L. (1934). Technics and civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Nelson, T. (1987). Literary machines. Theodore Nelson.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Methuen.

Selfe, C. (1988). Technology in the English classroom: Computers through the lens of feminist theory. ADE Bulletin, 90, 63-67.

Selfe, C. (1989). An open letter to computer colleagues: Notes from the margin. Paper delivered at Computers and Writing Conference, Minneapolis, MN.

Sledd, A. (1988). Readin'--riotin': The politics of literacy. College English, 50, 495-508.

Sprecher, J. W. (1988). Facilitating academic software development. McKinney, TX: Academic Computing Publications.

Strickland, J. (1987). Teaching writing with computers: An annotated bibliography. Unpublished manuscript.

Thiesmeyer, J. (1989). Should we do what we can? In G. Hawisher & C. Selfe (Eds.), Critical perspectives on computers and composition instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.

Weizenbaum, J. (1976). Computer power and human reason: From judgment to calculation. New York: W. H. Freeman.