COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 8(1), November 1990, pages 89-93

Book Review
Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction
Hawisher, G. E. & Selfe, C. L. (Eds.) (1989).
New York: Teachers College Press.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Sommers

To examine the current state of thought about computers and composition, scholars Hawisher and Selfe divide the twelve chapters of this book into three sections. Contributing writers analyze research findings, propose tentative theories, acknowledge pedagogical problems, address political imbroglios, and sometimes suggest workable solutions.

Part I: An Emerging Knowledge Base: Theory and Research

These chapters, dealing primarily with research concerns, offer much substance. Seasoned in the field of computers and composition, practitioners and researchers thoughtfully address limitations which they have found.

In her own chapter, Selfe analyzes the changing nature of literacy--"Redefining Literacy: The Multilayered Grammars of Computers." She explains how the grammars of the screen differ from traditional page-based grammar; and she explains how computers "change the way we 'see' text and construct meaning from written texts." Selfe urges that as the nature of literacy itself changes, we develop new reading and writing strategies to help students educate themselves. As in so much of her work, Selfe states here that we can turn to our students to learn how to educate them. In this chapter she seems to go even further, arguing that "our generation, raised as we have been on the print medium, may not be capable of generating some of the more creative strategies for coping with the conventions of computer screens, computer systems, or computer networks."

Haas and Collins also contribute to Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction. Haas offers a cogent view of on-line reading problems and their implications in "'Seeing It on the Screen Isn't Really Seeing It': Computer Writers' Reading Problems." Collins examines the limitations of text-analysis software in "Computerized Text Analysis and the Teaching of Writing" and discusses software he considers more promising for writing classrooms (WRITER'S HELPER, however, one of the programs he discusses in terms of its limitations as a text-analysis program actually does offer many additional programs for prewriting, revising, audience awareness and other concerns).

In "Research and Recommendations for Computers and Composition," Hawisher provides a meta-analysis of forty-two research studies of computers and writing. While recognizing the difficulty of generalizing from a broad range of research approaches, Hawisher examines selected quantitative and qualitative studies. She includes experimental comparisons, case studies and ethnographic approaches. Not surprisingly, she finds a broad range of early results and a lack of consistent patterns. Only positive affective responses seem fairly universal, but Hawisher points to emerging trends and offers valuable recommendations for future research.

Part II: Current Problems: Practice and Politics

In the past several years, the profession has developed serious concern about both pedagogical difficulties and about intractable political realities. In this section, the authors examine emerging difficulties and problems, sometimes suggesting viable solutions.

In "Should We Do What We Can?" Thiesmeyer expresses well-founded reservations about many of the tools available to writing teachers and students: prewriting programs, spelling checkers, usage checkers, text-analysis programs, outliners, and word-processing programs. While he questions the value of current versions, Thiesmeyer still recommends access to word processing and selected usage, spelling and text checkers.

But Thiesmeyer puzzles me. He says, for example, that "left to themselves, the hundreds of students I have observed do little more with a word-processing program than they would have done with a typewriter. In fact, many do less."

If we have learned anything with certainty since the early days of computer-assisted writing instruction, it seems to be that computers alone most certainly do not help writers to revise. Thiesmeyer seems to suggest once again that somehow word processing in itself should help, when, in fact, pedagogical practices are demonstrably far more important. And Thiesmeyer seems unjustifiably dismissive of current research in computer-assisted writing instruction, claiming that

much of what passes for 'research' into the effects of word processing (and of writing aids generally) consists of tabulations and reports of student feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about what they have been doing.

When juxtaposed to Hawisher's meticulous analysis of forty-two major research studies, Thiesmeyer's claim seems facile.

In "Computers and Basic Writers: A Critical View," Gerrard also warns against prescriptive uses of revising programs, style checkers, and grammar tutorial programs. She notes that teachers can inadvertently encourage both shallow revision and student passivity: "These students need to gain confidence in their ideas, the skills they have, and their ability to grow as writers"; yet many of the tools available to them can encourage exactly the opposite. Gerrard stresses in no uncertain terms that intelligent instructor intervention is the key. A writing teacher who understands the pitfalls can individualize instructional tools, can teach students to write recursively, can take advantage of positive affective responses and can encourage students to collaborate.

Herrmann focuses on political issues. She uses her considerable knowledge of public schools to discuss the many impediments to effective integration of computers into the curriculum. In "Computers in Public Schools: Are We Being Realistic?" she specifies the obstacles: lack of administrative support, lack of teacher training programs, and perhaps most importantly, lack of true commitment to change. Herrmann argues cogently that administrators, teachers, and students must collaborate if computers are to make a genuine impact on the public school system.

Holdstein discusses both politics and teacher training in "Training College Teachers for Computers and Writing." First, she reintroduces a familiar problem: Many English departments resist teaching writing at all. They resist training teachers in any way. They resist computers as writing tools. Holdstein then sketches her training programs for college writing instructors who plan to include computers in their curricula. Unfortunately, her chapter offers English educators little concrete information about how writing teachers might advantageously use computers in writing classrooms. She mentions networks, word processing, and prewriting, but she does not develop these possibilities with any depth. Sometimes her references are mysterious: "most important," Holdstein writes, "we can learn to create prewriting 'files'." Why is this most important? She never says.

While Holdstein believes that writing teachers need to develop their own best methods for teaching writing on-line, she gives few examples of potentially worthwhile strategies; and she states even these few all too cryptically: sharing files, group evaluations. She proposes short workshops, such as those with follow-up colloquia, but these seem insufficient substitutions for a thorough education in writing theories, pedagogies, and computer-assisted writing instruction.

Part III: Promising Developments: Theory and Practice

The authors of chapters in this section, looking toward the future of computer-assisted writing instruction, are able to focus on potentials rather than dangers and failures. As Hawisher and Selfe comment in their introduction to this section, "in an important sense, the lure of computers is always what they promise for the future." In different ways, each of the chapters in this section explores these encouraging possibilities.

Fortune's "Visual and Verbal Thinking: Drawing and Word Processing in Writing Instruction," provokes much thought. Fortune develops a theoretical basis from scholarship on visual and verbal thinking and discusses his own use of this theory in combining drawing and word processing in his classrooms. In "Desktop Publishing: Perspectives, Potentials, and Politics," Wahlstrom raises and discusses the many questions which arise with the proliferation of inexpensive desktop publishing capabilities, including economic, political, and aesthetic issues as well as pedagogical. In "Computer Conferencing: An Emerging Technology," Spitzer discusses the currently available technology for computer conferences and its potential for scholars as well as for teachers and students.

Eldred, in "Computers, Composition Pedagogy and the Social View," painstakingly documents the scholarly basis for what she refers to as the "emerging social view of writing." Second, she directly links this social view to developments in composition theory, and then to potentials in computer-assisted composition instruction. By adeptly connecting theory to practice, Eldred's chapter becomes one of the strongest and most useful in the collection.

Hawisher and Selfe say that they intend an audience which includes writing teachers, professional educators, and graduate students. Of this group, veterans in the field of computers and composition seem likely to find the book's critical perspectives especially useful--those who are aware of the potentials, who know, or at least intuit, successful classroom practices and strategies in short, those who have already negotiated their way through the problems of integrating theory and practice with technology. Novices, I suspect, might be overwhelmed by the many unknowns, the obstacles, the dangers, and the lack of practical advice about what to do in the classroom.

Overall, I strongly recommend Hawisher and Selfe's Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition. The inquiry centers around the most compelling issues regarding computers and composition . At their best, individual chapters in Hawisher and Selfe's edited volume provide a penetrating, unsentimental look at the burgeoning field of computers and composition. The book builds a knowledge base, challenges unsound practices and moves on to pressing new issues.

Elizabeth Sommers teaches English at San Francisco State University in San Francisco, California.