7(2), April 1990, pages 61-69

The Computer Writing Room:
Authority and Control

Charles Moran

Computers are expensive and troublesome: they require space, technical support, initial capital outlay, and continuous staff training. So, why do we bring these resource-eating monsters into our writing programs? An answer frequently found in our professional literature is that we do it to empower our student writers. Computers will, we think, give students authority and control over texts (Elder, Bowen, Schwartz, & Goswami, 1989, p. 7); computers will encourage our student writers to take risks (Schwartz, 1984, p. 245); computers will give new authority to voices now marginalized (Selfe, 1988); and the presence of computers in our classes will exert pressure on us to make our writing classes more student-centered, more writer-centered (Sudol, 1985; Stine, 1989, p. 30). Recently, we have heard that local area networks (LANs) will further decenter our writing classes, permitting us, or even causing us, to further empower our student writers (Batson, 1989).

We have, however, other motives for bringing computers into our writing programs, motives that are not quite so pleasant to contemplate. We bring computers into our curriculum because of our own histories and personalities: the action somehow suits us, satisfies us. And we bring computers into our curriculum because of the dynamics of institutional power: we are professors of English, teachers of writing, or directors of writing programs in the institution that is contemporary American, post-secondary education.

It is my belief that these personal and institutional motives conflict with our stated, and real, desire to give power to our students.

I begin with an anecdote, one that is based on my teaching diary of February 23, 1989. The scene is Bartlett 105, one of our two newly networked writing classrooms. We are, the students and I, in our third week in this new facility. In the previous semester, the rooms were equipped with stand-alone Digital Dec-Mate workstations, running Digital's WPS 2.0. Now the workstations are IBM AT clones, connected to a fileserver, running MICROSOFT WORD 4.0. Ten weeks ago I was working in the closed world of Digital and its software. Now I am working in what the computer -enter people call a "DOS environment," coming to terms as best I can with DOS, MICROSOFT WORD 4.0, and NOVELL NETWARE 2.12.

Today is the day when I schedule writing conferences with each student for the coming week. I pass around a conference schedule for the class--on lined, yellow paper. I ask students to sign up for half-hour conferences on their writing. At 9 a.m., I check to see that everyone has signed up. They have. I tell the class that I'll go upstairs and Xerox the schedule. Shana says: "Why don't I type it up here? And put it into the system? I'll save it as 'Confer, ' and we can all pick it up from the T-drive."

I say to myself, "Of course!" And to Shana, "Sure. Go ahead." But then I continue, to myself: "Now, why didn't I think of that?"

At the risk of over-interpreting the event, let me interpret. My first reaction, "Of course!", I'm pleased with, in retrospect. The students are themselves utilizing the network; they think it is theirs. Shana understands: They can themselves create documents and save these documents to public-access subdirectories. They can take charge of the entire process. Indeed, they can schedule their own conferences. All they need from me is my schedule.

My second reaction ("Why didn't I think of that?"), is a much less pleasing prospect. Here I stand revealed as the person who needs to be the one who generates procedures and develops ways of using the network. This is still my baby. That one of my students should develop a technique for using the network does not seem right. Here, my need to control students' use of the network runs counter to everything I think I believe about teaching writing. As a writing teacher, I believe that students will sometimes, indeed often, exceed me. What they write has value. Student writers have authority, as writers, in my classes. They should also have some degree of authority in deciding how they will use the network. That Shana should think of posting the conference schedule electronically really represents my success, not my failure.

I thought I had outgrown, or at least suppressed, this need for control in my writing classes. I have learned that I do not have to see all of the students' writing, that they can take charge of editing and publishing their own work--that this activity can go on, invisible to me, and that such a situation is okay. I do not know everything that is happening in my writing classes. Indeed, I never could know, because much of what is happening happens in the minds of the students, which are accessible to me, only intermittently, through the window of their writing. As a writing teacher, I've learned to be the good parent--providing scaffolding, but permitting the children to function with increasing autonomy. I've learned to let go of the students' writing.

But now, I find that I need to go through the same process again with the network. What I have learned--to permit students to "own " their writing--has apparently been situation-specific. For me, this change in behavior has been limited to the teaching of writing--and, possibly, parenting as well; my new behavior has not transferred automatically to this new field of endeavor, introducing students to a networked classroom environment. The old behavior, the old Adam, is still there. And the introduction of the new technology--the networked classroom--has given it a chance to break out again. Until I let go of the system, the only person who has been empowered is me.

Now, why did I, do I, feel such a need to be the first to know everything about the system? Why does it need to be mine? Clearly, there's lots to unpack here. I need to begin with an examination of my motives for bringing in the computer equipped writing classrooms. I look first at a motive that is rooted in personal history, and as I do, I assume that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between one's personal history and one's actions in the present. I turn then to institutional motives, and, as I do, I assume that our behavior as a unit, "The Writing Program," is not disconnected from our behavior as teachers within the unit. I assume as I do this that you will extrapolate from these particulars to the general. I believe, though I have not attempted to substantiate this belief, that the motives that seem to have driven my behavior are not unique but are operating, at some level and to some degree, in other writing teachers and program directors.

First, the personal motive: I love machines. My father was an amateur race-car driver, and, as a result, I misspent my youth tinkering with then-high-tech machinery: carburetors, jets, ignition points. Now, cruising into my sixth decade, I begin to replay the tapes, tapes not only from our family, but also from the generation for whom the automobile was the new technology. The computer is the exotic machine of today. My father bought me a car to work on; we bought our children Apples. The computer offers me the chance to merge this love of machines with the teaching of writing. It permits me, as a professor of English, to tinker on company time with batch-files and macros, and even replace Ethernet boards, configure printers, and install fonts. The computer classrooms have been dubbed by one of my colleagues "Moran's hobby shop." My father taught me about automobile engines, I teach my students about my computers. Note the first-person possessive.

My need for control is also a function of my history as an English professor. I am a good, perhaps even at times an expert, teacher of writing and of literature. I am not, however, a computer expert. I know more about computers than most people in my department, but that is not saying much: the activities that are "English" do not include, even now, the activities that would lead me to expertise in this area. In the humanities, computer knowledge is for technicians, not for professors. The line is sharply drawn. And my own deepest love is for language, not for machines. Had it been otherwise, I would not have entered the field of English, and I certainly would not have persisted through the Ph.D.

Therefore, I really do not know how the network operates, and I certainly do not know how to fix the network if it should hiccup and eat all our text. Like the mind of the writer, the network is something that I cannot really understand--ever. But I have not yet come to terms with this lack of understanding. The network, with its complex hardware and software, presents a new field for my imagination. I feel the need to know what is happening in the dark, inside those little chips, inside that tiny Ethernet wire. I sense that the entire structure is fragile, on the brink of chaos. I am not, as a teacher, secure. This lack of security leads me to want to script my students' use of the network in the way that, as a beginning teacher, I needed to lay out a detailed plan for every class. Shana's innovation--putting the conference schedule on the system--was not part of my plan. Damn. "I should have thought of that."

My need for control is also, I believe, related to my motive for wanting the Writing Program to develop computer-equipped writing classrooms. My stated motive was pedagogical: to improve students' writing skills while introducing them to a new writing technology. But there was an unstated motive--I might say the real motive--which had more to do with our program's status (real power) in the university than it had to do with students' writing skills. A first-year writing program is, at a research university, an endangered species. If it is perceived to be remedial, it is expendable. Bringing computers into the Writing Program may change the way in which we are perceived. Certainly computers are not, in themselves, remedial. With networked writing classrooms, we are up-to-date, on the cutting edge. In addition, by introducing computers into our curriculum we create common ground with well-funded and prestigious units such as Computer Science departments; we steal a march on our parent English departments; and we develop at least the potential for connections with the computer industry. Furthermore, if we can use the computer-writing rooms as the basis for research, then we are really flying--high tech and research, at the same time. Unbeatable. With this combination, we may achieve for ourselves some degree of power within the institution. So we bring computers into our programs to increase our own power. Small wonder that we are not likely, at least as a first move, to turn it over to our students!

In addition to the motives I have thus far described, the process I went through to bring in our networked classrooms was one that I now think aggravated my need for control. As Program Director, I researched and wrote the request for proposals (RFP) myself. I did this because we had to move fast, and because I was the only person in the program who knew enough about computers and networks to even think of beginning the process. We had to move fast because of the kind of funding we had received: "Capital Outlay" funds that were likely to disappear. When I started to write the RFP, I knew nothing about networks. When I finished writing the RFP, I still did not know much about networks. I knew as much as a person could learn in two months of reading and telephoning, but I still was deeply unsure of myself. I listened to lots of advice from outside the program, but I was responsible for making decisions--because I was the only person who had any degree of expertise in this field in our writing program and, indeed, in our English department. When the system was installed, therefore, I had a great deal invested in its smooth operation. The system was mine to an extent that, I believe, affected my teaching in the computer-equipped classrooms.

Bringing in the networked writing classrooms meant dealing with other units of the University--chiefly our Computer Center, and it is my belief that the character of these negotiations also made me feel that I owned the new facility when it came on-line. When we received the green light to proceed, my first move was to contact our University's Computer Center. I found that they were--surprise! engaged in turf-wars, the struggle for survival. They advised us to install a complex network that we could not manage ourselves. But no matter. They would manage it for us, by remote control, from the Computer Center, located about 3/4 of a mile north of our building. You can imagine how that sounded to this English professor-turned-writing-program director-turned-writer of megabucks RFPs. Oh, and yes: the writing classrooms would have to become public classrooms to which we, the Writing Program, would have access. Unless the facility was public (read theirs), the Computer Center could not help us with maintenance and supervision. Given my own lack of expertise, I felt threatened by this approach and was reluctant to turn over this degree of control to the Computer Center. We wanted writing classrooms, not multi-use computer rooms.

I received the most help from our data-processing group. These people seemed to understand our situation--partly, I think, because our application was not unlike an office application. They seemed also to enjoy helping this somewhat baffled and overwhelmed professor of English. And, being outside the world of academic affairs themselves, they had no real stake in the decisions we were having to make. The advice of this group coincided with the advice I was getting from other writing program directors. So, with this support, we did not take the path suggested to us by the Computer Center, but installed a Novell Network, one that was popular in campus offices and one that I felt the Writing Program could manage. For me, the decision turned, finally, on the question of ownership. On the one hand, I did not want to emulate the survivalist: we'll cut ourselves off from human society, store gold, water, and pemmican, and make it on our own--indeed, find our reason for being--when the University system, the world, goes down. On the other hand, I did not want to lose control of the system. I wanted us, Writing Program personnel, to feel that the system was ours--that we would develop, mess with it, figure out how we wanted to use it. Ownership. Power.

The elements in this history that are significant are these. The Writing Program director is a professor of English, not a computer expert and, therefore, not secure in his grasp of the field in which he finds himself operating. He knows the kind of teaching he wants to occur in the computer classrooms, but he does not know enough about the technology to know which architecture or configuration will best suit the pedagogy. Decisions have to be made quickly and without sufficient information. The unit that should help in this decision-making process, the Computer Center, does not itself feel secure and cannot be trusted to give disinterested advice. The program director, therefore, takes over the project, making it his own. From this follow at least these consequences: he is reluctant to give his students appropriate authority in their use of the new technology, and, as a teacher and program director, his failure to do so becomes a model of "bad" teaching that propagates itself throughout the program.

And, now that my tale is done, I want to bring you a word from two of our sponsors: commercial marketers of software and business professionals who understand my need for control. The first voice you will hear is that of Robotel, a firm that markets a configuration of hardware and networking software that gives teachers absolute control over their students' screen displays. In its descriptive material, Robotel has this to say to us: "No more inattentive student. . . . You can transmit the video display from your station to the screens of your students. . . The system permits the teacher complete control over each of the classroom computers." Robotel goes on to tell the story of the genesis of its Microselect network in the language of creation myth, the origins of Superman.

Microselect was designed by Robotel Electronique specifically to satisfy the needs of teachers using microcomputers in the classroom. The classroom computer age ushered in a need for new instructional technologies and computer-assisted training techniques. Computers tended to interfere with age-old, proven pedagogical approaches. They could distract students [From what? The teacher's voice?], fail to facilitate different work and learning rates, and make group involvement next to impossible."

And now, the voice of another sponsor, Realtime Learning Systems, which has, I believe, evolved from Trent Batson's work at Gallaudet: "The CT SYSTEM III video switching system provides the instructor with the capability to manage the video images in a classroom of networked computers. The CT System III allows the instructor to broadcast or receive any video image from any CRT on the network." The language in the descriptive material is the language of control: if you hit "Off," "all student monitors are disabled." If you hit "Broadcast," "each monitor displays the instructor's image." In other materials from Realtime, the authors predict that "computer networks will move from a simple lab configuration to multiple networks that encompass an entire school." The prospect is chilling--a giant octopus, or huge spider that will suck its victims dry. Big Brother in spades.

These voices emanate from "Ed-Biz," that lucrative market: educational software and hardware. This market is an extension of the also-lucrative-to-some-people textbook market that tells me, in a recent promotional flyer, that I can empower my students by making them buy the Simon and Shuster Handbook for Writers. Interesting: that we are being sold networks--new technology, as a means of controlling our students, and handbooks--the old technology, as a means of empowering them. The language being used by the advertisers is language they know we want to hear. This is not the "good" teachers versus the "bad" advertisers; the copywriters know what the market wants. Way down deep, we want control.

So where does this leave us? Roughly where we began. In respect to the distribution of power in our writing classrooms, technology is neutral. It is what we do with the technology that counts. In the early stages of adaptation, when the technology is new to us--newer to us, probably, than it is to students--we may be particularly tempted to seize control. With more unknowns in the equation, we may fear loss of control and hold on tight. During this transition time, we may find ourselves, as I found myself, unable to give up control in a situation where I should have.

I think I have learned my lesson, though clearly I will have to learn it again, and again--each time we introduce a new function. Those who market networks know me well. They know that I have an instinctive need for order, control. They know that, as a person who teaches in a lab four hours a week, I will not ever know the system. They know I will be anxious--now, not only about what my writers are doing, but what the network is doing. So they sell me, us, networks like those described above--networks where I can seize control of a student's screen and replace it with mine.

Networked classrooms are wonderful--don't get me wrong. But as we bring these classrooms on-line, we need to be careful that we understand ourselves--and that we do not lose sight of the deep aim of our teaching: to help students realize the power they have within them as writers, as people. We need to take care, lest computers become, like grammar-based workbooks or a lock-step process classroom, just one more way of keeping students from learning what they need to know.

Charles Moran is the Director of the Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


Batson, T. (1989). Teaching in networked classrooms. In C. Selfe, D. Rodrigues, & W. Oates, (Eds.), Computers in English and the language arts: The challenge of teacher education. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Elder, J., Bowen, B., Schwartz, J., & Goswami, D. (1989). Word processing in a community of writers. New York: Garland.

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

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

Sudol, R. A. (1985). Applied word processing: Notes on authority, responsibility, and revision in a workshop model. College Composition and Communication, 36, 331-335.

Stine, L. (1989). Computers and commuters: A computer-intensive writing program for adults. Computers and Composition, 6(2), 23- 31.