7(2), April 1990, pages 21-33

Overcoming Resistance:
Computers in the Writing Classroom

Laura Brady

Initially, I found word-processing programs to be alienating and intimidating. I didn't trust the computer's "memory." In fact, I resisted the anthropomorphism that the term "memory" implied. Blinking cursors and keys that would "CONTROL" or "DELETE" lacked the familiarity of paper and pen or of my old manual typewriter; on the other hand, turning away from this new technology seemed to concede defeat. I persevered, wondering whether the computer wouldn't finally win in the end. It did. I now depend on word processing for my own writing, for teaching, and for collaborating with others. I continue to see my own reservations and suspicions, however, in some of the faces of my first-year composition students and in some of my colleagues.

There are still quite a few skeptics who wonder what computers will "do" to writers and the writing process. The Times Literary Supplement reports, for instance, that Michael Heim's book, Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, reinforces negative views: "[Heim] offers a pessimistic critique of today's technology. Word processing is seen as regularizing, algorithmic, automatic, and formulaic, public, evanescent, and intrusive" (Hodgkin, 1988, p. 166). Heim draws upon Martin Heidegger to support his critique of the "totalitarian" aspirations of word processing:

The language machine regulates and adjusts in advance the mode of our possible language through mechanical energies and functions. The language machine is--and above all, is still becoming--one manner in which modern technology controls the mode and the world of language as such. (Hodgkin, 1988, p. 166)

The reviewer reminds us that Heidegger wrote this passage in 1957, some ten years before the concept of "word processing" was invented; yet his words seem predictive of recent resistance to writing technology.

The resistance to writing technology is as old as writing itself. Recent mistrust of word-processing programs is not unlike Socrates' mistrust of "letters" in the Phaedrus. Toward the end of the dialogue, Socrates recounts the myth of Theuth, the Egyptian god who invented letters. The Egyptian king, Thamus, criticizes Theuth's invention:

The result of your invention will be this: in the souls of those who learn it, forgetfulness will have lodging through a want of cultivation of the memory; they will trust to writing, a thing outside themselves, and effected by external characters, and hence will not remember of themselves and from within. (Plato, 1948, p. 65)

As Socrates resists writing because it fosters forgetfulness and prevents the writer from internalizing knowledge, Heidegger and Heim resist the "language machine" because it fosters "totalitarian" control of language, impedes originality, and prevents contemplation. Heim argues further that the evanescent nature of electronic language threatens the contemplative appeal of books and their "sustained suggestions of stable symbols" (Hodgkin, 1988, p. 166).

Colette Daiute (1985) counters resistance to writing technology in her book, Writing and Computers, by arguing that writing is an extension of thinking and talking--a social process that evolves as instruments of writing have evolved. As the process for translating ideas into written words becomes faster and simpler with every change in writing technology (from stylus and paper, to printing, typing, photocopying, and now word processing), texts become transformable and interactive in new ways. Writing technology does not foster either forgetfulness or totalitarian control of language for Daiute; computers promote the exchange of ideas. Daiute, unlike Heidegger, uses the phrase "language machine" in a positive sense to describe the variety of production activities that a computer can perform:

Writing on the computer means using the machine as a pencil, eraser, typewriter, printer, scissors, paste, copier, filing cabinet, memo pad, and post office. Thus, the computer is a communication channel as well as a writing tool. (1985, p. xiv)

Daiute's book continues to argue that the computer can help create a social, collaborative context for writing in the classroom: the computer can help us shift conventional attitudes toward writing, reconsider the pedagogical emphases of composition courses, and redefine student and teacher roles.

In the field of composition research, few people share Heim's pessimistic view of word processing. Instead, they concur with Daiute (1985) and see the computer's potential for encouraging more interaction, and more writing. Microcomputers offer a new medium for composing, not for regulating language.

In the past few years, software for composition instruction has increased rapidly both in number and quality; more and more software focuses on open responses, rather than on drill and practice exercises. Fred Kemp's (1987) article in College Composition and Communication (CCC) focuses on the particular advantages of open-response exercises where the programming effort is directed toward provoking student awareness of knowledge structures, of purposes, and of procedures. Kemp argues that the soul of open-response programs (such as Hugh Burns' TOPOI or Helen Schwartz's SCENE) is the "thought prompt": the question that provokes the tensions leading to greater self-discovery. Helen Schwartz (1984) voices a similar opinion: "Students soon realize they cannot get answers from the computer. They soon revel in the fact that they are doing the thinking, not the machine. . . . This can be liberating" (p. 241). The technology, in other words, should complement the writing process as it provides writers with new, flexible tools for their craft.

The ACCESS system, designed by Donald Ross and Sheldon Fossum at the University of Minnesota, is a flexible software system that encourages open responses from students while also enabling instructors to write and/or adapt exercises themselves without knowledge of computer programming. A program like ACCESS is most significant because it gives design control back to instructors who can then create or adapt exercises for their own as well as their students' needs.

The ACCESS program makes the computer medium accessible to more instructors by taking away the possible impediment of learning computer programming as a new language. Because the design commands are all in simple English, instructors can focus on the content of the exercises rather than the mechanics of programming. The instructor--not the pre-packaged software--can control the pacing of the exercise and the complexity of the exercise questions; the instructor can also determine what kinds of help and examples are needed, how to anticipate the students' answers, and so on. Regardless of whether one uses ACCESS or not, this system raises instructional issues about pedagogical practices, student needs, and individual writing processes; it also puts a new perspective on who controls the instructional medium--returning the option to the instructor.

Context and Method of Study Using ACCESS Software at the University of Minnesota

I explored the ways in which computer-assisted instruction (CAI) affected teaching goals and student responses in four sections of a first-year composition course at the University of Minnesota. Although the uses of CAI varied slightly in each classroom, the instructors teaching these sections all used a set of ACCESS pre-writing exercises (collectively called Start) and the ACCESS word-processing program with their students. My central interest in using ACCESS in my own classroom and in discussing ACCESS with other instructors who had used it was to find out if the CAI affected our roles as teachers--and if it did, in what ways?

The ACCESS Start exercises (see Figure 1) were written by Don Ross, Marion Larson, and me. We based our design of Start on open-ended pre-writing heuristics such as Young, Becker, and Pike's tagmemics (particle, wave, field), Cowan and Cowan's cubing, Elbow's freewriting, and standard journalistic questions. These were the exercises most commonly used by instructors in our program and represented pre-writing strategies that we felt would provide students with starting points suited to a wide variety of writing situations and composing styles.

[Figure 1]

Figure 1. "Start": Invention Exercises for ACCESS

Because the Start exercises were designed to complement other aspects of the composition course, the instructors using Start would introduce the concept of pre-writing before the students came to the computer lab to try ACCESS. Start was not, in other words, a substitute for the instructor but a way of re-presenting pre-writing concepts. Unlike a textbook or a printed handout, the Start exercises could focus on one strategy at a time, allow time for response, provide additional explanations or illustrations, and offer the students options about how quickly they wanted to move through the exercises and about which techniques they wanted to try. Typically, the instructor would suggest one aspect of the Start exercises that seemed best suited to the assignment or that would build upon other strategies. For example, freewriting and brainstorming were often used early in the course to encourage writing of any sort; looping then would be introduced to find patterns and connections within that material. The journalist and cubing questions seemed to go well with an interview assignment that asked students to base an analysis on several perspectives.

Before discussing the actual exercises, the student responses, and the implications of this very preliminary study, I would like to examine some of the variables that influenced student and teacher attitudes. Thomas Barker's (1987) survey of studies in word processing notes that many factors can affect computer use in writing, among them experience with word-processing programs, the type of equipment, the type of software, the ways in which computers are used (transcribing versus composing), the students' experience as writers, and the setting. I will focus my analysis on experience levels and the ways in which the computers were used within the context of the first-year composition course.

Students' Previous Experience with Word-Processing Programs
The average section enrollment for first-year composition at Minnesota is 24; in the first-year composition course included in this study, roughly 14 students in each section already had some experience with a microcomputer. In one honors section, with an enrollment of 16, 8 students were familiar with computers. In other words, slightly more than half of the students had been using this form of writing technology for about four years, either because of computers in their homes or because of computers in their high schools. Most of the students had worked with Apples rather than IBMs--the type of computer used in the University of Minnesota courses.

As a result of this fairly high rate of student familiarity, the more experienced users helped the novices learn where the disk drives were, how to turn on the machine, how to select from a menu, how to delete, insert, print, etc. The fact that the more-experienced students were learning both a new software and a new computer did not seem to be an impediment. They were able to generalize upon their previous experience and were familiar with ACCESS after one, hour-long introductory session. The computer novices typically took two to three hours to become familiar with the system, and these students relied on extra help from colleagues or the teacher.

Instructors' Previous Experience with Word-Processing Programs
I was one of three teachers who used the ACCESS exercises with students. I had learned to use a word-processing program on the ACCESS system, and I had co-written many of the pre-writing exercises. Because I knew both these aspects of ACCESS, I felt very much at ease explaining the system to my students and could take on the role of "troubleshooter." For the computer novices in my section, the knowledge that they could get "stuck" or confused and be able to get help to overcome the technical problems seemed to lower their apprehension and frustration levels. By encouraging students with computer knowledge to help their colleagues learn the system, the introductory sessions set up a positive environment for sharing questions and knowledge; the students used the sessions to see what they--and the program--could do. Another instructor had reviewed the exercises at length before integrating them into her class and was familiar with three different word-processing programs; she also felt at ease when coaching her students on how to use the computers and noted a similar workshop environment.

The most marked difference in experience and attitudes occurred with the third teacher who was just learning the ACCESS exercises and word processing along with her most novice-level students; this instructor admitted that she needed help in introducing ACCESS and in answering questions but solved the problem by asking a more "expert" instructor to conduct the introductory sessions, while she functioned as an assistant to keep everyone at the same pace. This instructor, like the other novice computer users in her class, felt comfortable with ACCESS after two sessions and was able to conduct the rest of the class sessions on her own. She remarked that the experience of being a novice herself had some interesting effects on student/teacher roles:

The students were often more knowledgeable [about computers] than I was; they took more active roles in interacting with me and with other students to share that knowledge. I was afraid that my lack of knowledge would cause frustration--and it did to some extent (the first session where I tried to run everything without any expert to help trouble-shoot was horrible--but overall, it made for a more collaborative relationship with my students where everyone in the class took turns helping each other in areas where they had ideas or expertise. Seeing me taking a risk with the computers and turn to someone else for help seemed to encourage my students also to take risks and to ask for help.

Success of the ACCESS System in the First-year Composition Classroom

One instructor's comment summarizes the views of all three instructors: "ACCESS seemed to fit naturally into my course; it contained all the pre-writing things that I would do." Part of the reason for this was that the ACCESS Start exercises for pre-writing were written with the University of Minnesota's first-year composition class in mind, by instructors who had several years of experience teaching the course. The students could see the relevance of the pre-writing exercises to the assignments and to other class work; many felt as though the exercises had been written specifically for them because of the types of techniques, the examples, and the choices.

On average, the students spent between one and two hours per week in the computer lab using the exercises when the instructor and other students from the class were present; the instructors also encouraged the students to spend additional time writing with the computers by requiring that all drafts of course assignments be written using the ACCESS word-processing program.

By requiring the students to use ACCESS for their pre-writing and drafting, instructors were able to free up much of the class time that they would normally spend explaining and modeling different writing techniques. Instead, the instructors were able to create the environment of a writing workshop. The students produced a greater quantity of work with a medium that (1) invited focused, written responses to open-ended questions; (2) simplified revision; and (3) encouraged collaboration.

Students' Responses to ACCESS
Responses gathered from surveys and follow-up interviews illustrate the students' attitudes toward pre-writing, revising, and collaborating with the computer. Pre-writing, they reported, was easier on ACCESS. Several students said they spent more time pre-writing because ACCESS called for written responses at several points; for example,

Start got me thinking and collecting my thoughts alot [sic] more than a regular notebook would.

[Start] made me think about why/who I was writing for. The Cubing and Journalist questions made me look deeper into the issue, and I thought more about writing strategies for my audience.

The exercises were good because they got ideas going. By having all sorts of questions, they also showed what you knew and didn't know. I had fun with these exercises. It was easier to concentrate. I practically wrote my entire 3rd paper [the interview assignment] on the prompts from the Journalist questions.

These representative student comments correspond to the increased quantity of pre-writing reported by all the instructors. Student prewriting generally doubled in volume according to all three instructors; the quantity jumped from an average of two hand-written notebook pages to two pages of single-spaced word-processed text.

Revisions were also affected by the use of Start. The students reported a greater willingness to make changes in their texts because the revisions were easier to make. Again, I quote from student responses:

I could type a lot without TYPING--know what I mean?

I think better at a computer than free-hand. I can get my thoughts down faster and not worry if I have to change things around or get rid of stuff/add stuff later.

The instructors support these students views, reporting more traces of the students' pre-writing in their drafts than they might expect from hand-written pre-writing. One instructor speculated that the fact that the students could call up their pre-writing notes through the word-processing part of ACCESS made it easy for them to work directly with the material they had already generated--changing it, adding to it, or just using pieces.

The students' comments also reflect the collaborative aspect of the system:

I almost always worked with a partner to start. My partner helped me find what I needed for each topic that would be interesting.

I liked working with a partner or my conference group because it gave another point of view and helped me see another perspective.

The computer made working with a partner easy. More ideas were generated. We could change stuff. Sometimes we'd make copies of our disks so we could both work at the same time and see two versions at once.

By having the class meet in the lab or having open hours when you knew you could find other people you knew there [in the lab] it was easier to work. I could always get someone to take a look at what I was doing and help when my brain stuck or [I] wanted a reaction.

The students' comments were not, however, completely positive. Some still found the computer to be an alienating medium. "I can't type so fast. The computer really slowed me down. I think I lost a lot of thoughts in the process," wrote one student. Another complained, "I hate the way it blinks and beeps and clicks. It really gets on my nerves. Give me a nice quiet pen and paper any day." And yet another student pointed out the physical limitations of the computer and the computer lab:

I can't carry it around with me like I can my notebook, and I can't work at home and be a grub listening to the stereo and eating pizza as I write, and I have to keep track of what hours it's open [the lab] and how to get there and back--it's a hassle.

At another level, some of the experienced computer users in the classes were hostile to the ACCESS editor because it was not as sophisticated as other word-processing programs. They wanted different fonts and text formats or a mouse to make graphic organization plans. They frequently wanted software and computer equipment that was the same as that which they already owned or that would be compatible, so they could copy the software and take it home.

These negative comments represent the minority, but they do raise important issues of individual writing styles, of computer availability, of artificial versus natural settings for writing, and of ethical concerns over the copying of software.

Implications for Pedagogy

Although using CAI seems to be easier for students and teachers who are already familiar with computers, a mix of novice and advanced users can foster a sense of camaraderie in the classroom where students and teachers work together to solve technical problems as well as to generate ideas.

The flexible pace of the exercises--which give students several options regarding the amount of instruction, examples, and prompts-- enabled students to select the exercises, the sequence, and the "help" levels that would be most useful to them. Some students, for example, would call up the optional "example" screens or would choose to do several invention exercises before drafting; others would use perhaps one exercise--and only the most basic questions--to warm up for five or ten minutes before immediately beginning a draft on the word-processing program; still others would draft first and then return to the invention exercises to create new information for their revisions. The program menus are both simple and flexible enough to accommodate this range in writing patterns.

Although it is difficult to measure the effects of CAI on the quality of the students' writing, this study found that the quantity of writing produced increased dramatically. Students using the ACCESS system typically wrote longer, more complete answers to heuristic exercises. This can be attributed perhaps to the series of questions that came up on the screen one at a time; more importantly, the screen would continually scroll up, so there was no spatial limit to the students' responses.

Collaboration was yet another effect of the computer-based courses. Students would often exchange seats with one another, working for short periods on each other's drafts. The individual authors could always "delete" or move their collaborators' ideas if they didn't find them useful; just as frequently, the writers would continue the draft where the collaborators left off--using the new perspective to expand on their own ideas. At an editing level, another reader could go through a classmate's draft correcting spelling, punctuation, grammar, and style; the writer was spared the tedium of transferring corrections that would normally be pencilled onto a draft and--again--had the option of rejecting the reader's changes and restoring the original copy stored on the disk.

There was also more student-teacher collaboration. The instructors were seen alternatively as "trouble-shooters" and as fellow learners and writers. Both perspectives altered the traditional authority roles in a positive sense and created more interaction between the teachers and students in the actual process of writing.

Implications for Further Research

This preliminary study looked at only the most easily observable effects of CAI in the composition classroom. The issue of whether CAI can improve the quality of student writing (proportionate to the increased quantity of writing) remains a project for further research. Because the ACCESS exercises used in the cases described above were aimed at invention, quantity was a positive initial result. However, a more thorough study might look at comparative changes between drafts and might look at what types of revision strategies would be most effectively adapted to the word-processing medium. Because collaboration was mentioned by both students and instructors as a positive benefit of computers and computer-aided instruction, it might prove interesting to study the ways in which such collaborative work can improve student writing.

Colette Daiute's (1986) study of patterns of influence by collaborative authors provides a starting point for further research. Daiute's study of fourth- and fifth-grade writers asked the students to write individually, then with a partner, and once more by themselves. The individually- and collaboratively-written essays shared the same general topic and purpose (telling stories about picture books of different animals). Daiute compared the drafts written before and after collaboration; she concluded that "co-authors share creative input, evaluative perspectives, composing strategies, and notions about 'good writing' when they work together" (p. 382).

In addition to providing a rationale for studying collaborative writing, Daiute (1986) emphasizes the ways in which computers facilitate co-authorship: "a computer word-processing program . . . offers writers the tools for producing, merging, and changing their texts without the interference by two handwriting styles or the need to recopy" (p.387). Thus, multiple writers can enter the text at any point to add new ideas, delete others, alter word choices and punctuation, and so forth. By removing some of the practical, mechanical problems faced by co-authors, the use of computers encourages more extensive interaction among writers.

Daiute's (1986) study might be replicated in the context of a computer-oriented composition classroom: The analysis would be complicated (presumably) by longer texts, by more complex rhetorical purposes, and by more sophisticated language uses; but it would provide further study of both the collaborative features of CAI and the effects of collaboration on the writing of more advanced students.

If we can overcome some initial resistance to new technologies, CAI opens up an exciting new medium for both writing and teaching. Helen Schwartz (1984) encourages us to "keep ourselves open to innovation" so that we can integrate new approaches to the teaching and practice of writing (p. 247). Word processing can offer new ways to provoke students' thoughts, encourage collaboration, and create a lively and interactive workshop environment in the composition classroom.

Laura Brady teaches in the English Department of George Mason University.

Author Notes

My thanks to Eileen Walsh and Sonia Feder-Lewis at the University of Minnesota, who used the ACCESS exercises with their classes and allowed me to survey their students along with my own. I also gratefully acknowledge Donald Ross' advice at various stages of this project.

Requests for information about ACCESS should be addressed to Donald Ross, Program in Composition and Communication, 209 Lind Hall, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 55455.


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Daiute, C. (1985). Writing and computers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Daiute, C. (1986). Do 1 and 1 make 2? Written Communication, 3, 382-408.

Hodgkin, A. (1988, February 12-28). Writing on automatic [Review of Electric language: A philosophical study of word processing, by M. Heim]. Times Literary Supplement, p. 166.

Kemp, F. (1987). The user-friendly fallacy. College Composition and Communication, 38, 32-39.

Plato. (1948). Phaedrus. In L. Cooper (Ed. & Trans.), Phaedrus, Ion, Gorgias, and Symposium, with passages from The Republic and Laws (pp. 7-71). New York: Oxford University Press.

Schwartz, H. J. (1984). Teaching writing with computer aids. College English, 46, 239-247.