7(3), August 1990, pages 103-107

Maiming Re-Viewed

Marcia Peoples Halio

It seems that I have touched a nerve. Since "Student Writing: Can the Machine Maim the Message?" was published in Academic Computing in January 1990, I have received well over 100 letters, and friends have sent me printouts of the firestorm of electronic mail that flared in response to the piece.

The mix of correspondence has been quite interesting, with heavy support for my position from cognitive psychologists and human-computer interaction specialists. But there has also been a steady stream of criticism of the type represented by the letter from Megabyte University and the essay from Kaplan and Moulthrop. I am glad to have an opportunity to respond to this criticism.


My own experience of more than ten years with students in remedial sections of first-year English, with students in standard first-year classes, and with international students has shown me that, used with care, WRITER'S WORKBENCH can be a fair indicator of what human teachers will like, that is, find acceptable. Granted, if you want to "trick" WRITER'S WORKBENCH (or any text-analysis program), you can, knowing that WRITER'S WORKBENCH is stupid, and that it can only count endlessly and spit out numbers; you can outsmart it gleefully by giving it a task it was never designed to do, for example, analyzing narration or description. But as far as exposition is concerned, in a study published in Computers and Composition, Reid and Findlay (1986) showed a high correlation of sentence length, word length, and readability scores with holistic scores given to expository essays by human graders. At the college level, teachers are accustomed to seeing average sentence lengths of more than 20 words and sentence complexity commensurate with that length. Indeed, at one point in its history, back in its own Dark Ages, perhaps, the National Council of Teachers of English announced that the ability to write complex sentences is a measure of students' readiness to do college-level work. So I believe that WRITER'S WORKBENCH, even with its limitations, can give reasonable indications about the level of students' writing. In fact, as some correspondents have noted, even if some individuals are reluctant to accept WRITER'S WORKBENCH's statistics as "intelligent," it is still statistically significant that the scores produced by Macintosh writers and those produced by IBM writers were so different. Such a difference indicates that something is going on here--something worth looking at.

Topic Selection

The answer to the question raised in the Megabyte University letter about the identical topics used by two Macintosh writers is quite simple: One of the essays that students read from the textbook for the course (The Prentice Hall Reader, edited by G. Miller) suggested an essay topic on a popular-culture phenomenon such as fast foods: Therefore, several students decided to use it. Actually, several of the topics used by both groups of students came from suggestions in The Prentice Hall Reader, including the ones on nuclear war and drunk driving. The point is, no matter where they got the ideas for their topics, students writing on Macintosh computers generally chose different types of topics than did students writing on IBM computers.


I would also like to explain more about how students selected the computer sections within my original study. A survey I did last semester among students enrolled in computer sections demonstrated that, although the sections had been labelled in the course selection book as either IBM or Macintosh, 75% of the students surveyed said that they had not consciously chosen either one computer or the other: They simply enrolled in a section of computer-supported first-year English because of the time of day that it met or because their friends were enrolled in it. Of the 25% who said they had thought about their selection in terms of computer choice, most gave only the most general reasons for their choice: For example, the Macintosh is user-friendly, or the IBM is used in business and will, therefore, be more useful to them when they graduate.

So the comments that the Megabyte University writers make about a need for details about race, ethnicity, class affiliation, and gender do not seem particularly pertinent here. The students in all sections were a typical University of Delaware mix--55% female, 45% male, mostly white, middle class, with mid-range SAT scores. Unfortunately, in spite of efforts to change the situation, our University does not enroll a particularly diverse student body from many different backgrounds.

Teaching Methods

In our writing, we do indeed teach writing as a process. We stress the need for conferencing, peer editing, pre-writing, and revision. But the papers produced at these various stages in the process showed such noticeable differences that all of the instructors queried were disturbed at what they saw. Although it is true that the examples I used in my article represented Macintosh users' early drafts, I quoted from them because they were so different from the IBM users' early drafts. The statistical analysis done of WRITER'S WORKBENCH, however, was performed on the final drafts of the essays.

Computer Training

When the course was given (Spring, 1987), students in Writing Program courses had to use public sites around the campus and work mostly on their own because the English Department did not, at that time, have its own site. Fortunately, we now have one, so teachers are far more involved in coaching computer writing than in the past. But the point is, students in all sections of computer-supported first-year English received the same treatment--approximately 90 minutes of in-class training and handouts that they could take with them for reference. Because all students received the same amount of training, it seems fair to compare the products of their labors.

Qualitative Judgments About Writing

The writers of the responses are correct in stating that I made qualitative observations about students' writing; but, then again, those of us who teach writing do that all the time. That is what we are paid to do! We evaluate, we judge, we grade, and we make judgments about what constitutes "good," that is, acceptable writing for whatever course we are teaching, and what does not constitute acceptable writing. So, in making qualitative observations, I was doing something that I have done in many courses for many years and that all of us do as composition teachers all the time.

Moreover, I train teachers of writing at the University of Delaware. I run workshops for them on grading, and I, along with others in the program, have developed grading standards for first-year English and for various other writing courses. How have we done that? By reading many essays, by reading articles on holistic scoring, and by talking at length about what constitutes excellence, ordinariness, and mediocrity in writing. We cannot claim absolute objectivity all the time, but then, who can?

Research Design

Moulthrop and Kaplan make many excellent suggestions about research design, and I will certainly keep them in mind as I move ahead . My published essay, however, never claimed to be a tightly structured study. It certainly is "descriptive" research. But I think it is important for teachers to report what they see happening to writing in their computer classrooms.

When the alphabet came into use, few people were aware of the changes it would bring in thinking (see McLuhan and Powers, 1989; Ong, 1977, 1982; Heim, 1987, 1990; and Costanzo, 1989). But we are in a position to be aware, to be cognizant of changes wrought by technology, to initiate discussion in the profession, and to alert those who design the hardware and software. Not everyone will agree about the future directions that writing and the teaching of writing should take, but the dialogue must be free and open to all to participate in.

Judging from many of the letters I have received from teachers and researchers who generally agree with my findings, I believe we can anticipate a continuing, lively debate. "Can the Machine Maim the Message?" focused on concerns many teachers up to then had voiced privately; now, those issues have become the subject of vigorous and open discussion--exactly what I hoped the article would accomplish.

Marcia Peoples Halio is the Assistant Director of The Writing Program at the University of Delaware.


Costanzo, W. V. (1989). The electronic text: Learning to write, read, and reason with computers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Education Technology Publications.

Heim, M. (1987). Electronic language: A philosophical study of word processing. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Heim, M. (1990). Infomania. In C. Ricks (Ed.), The state of the language (pp. 300-306). Berkeley: University of California Press.

McLuhan, M., & Powers, R. (1989). The global village: Transformations in world life and media in the 21st century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ong, W. (1977). Interfaces of the word: Studies in the evolution of consciousness and culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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

Reid, S., & Findlay, G. (1986). WRITER'S WORKBENCH analysis of holistically scored essays. Computers and Composition, 3, 6-32.