8(2), April 1991, pages 5-15

Computers and Compositionists:
A View from the Floating Bottom

Lisa Gerrard

At the last meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I ran into a colleague of mine on my way to a session on computers and writing. As we parted company, she commented sympathetically, "It must be awful to have to go to those computer sessions." The remark surprised me because I thrive on these meetings. But it shouldn't have surprised me. It reflected something I have noticed for a while: the low status of computer-based writing in the profession.

Resistance to Computer-Assisted Composition

I imagine that my friend expected the computer sessions to be boring--to address machines, not people, and technical data, not ideas or human experiences. I've seen her reaction and others like it many times, for many faculty members in English departments view computer-assisted composition with indifference, disdain, or outright hostility, and they do so for several reasons:

  1. Some of them believe that computerphiles are aligned with foreign forces. We talk to the computer science department, to programmers and academic computing administrators, and we use esoteric language and concepts--GUIs and CLIs, nodes and linking, flat and relational databases. It is fine to export our expertise to other departments; that's writing-across-the curriculum. But importing their expertise? That's an intrusion.

  2. CAI still threatens many humanists. Humanists may have discovered the joys of using computers for word processing, but they still distrust computers--particularly in the hands of other people. Some humanists see the computer as their opponent--a mechanizing force that will make life in the remainder of the 20th century even more sterile, isolated, and unfeeling than our postmodern artists have assured us it already is. I know this is an old view, but it still persists. Norman Cousins (1989), for example, still sees the poet and technician as opposites and fears that humans will become their machines, "[humans] make [themselves] over in the image of [their] electronic marvels" (p. 5). Many of my colleagues rely heavily on word-processing programs, databases, and e-mail for their own work, but balk at giving the same resources to their students. Computers, they claim, will do students' writing--even their thinking--for them. Though presumably a computer has never written one of my colleagues' articles, they still attribute to the machinery mysterious powers they can't control.

  3. Then there is resentment. Humanists are already sensitive about the huge gap between their prestige, salaries, and grant endowments and those of scientists and engineers. They know too well that their fellow citizens "worship at the temple of science" (as Joseph Weizenbaum, 1976, puts it), and find little value in the literary exegesis they produce. In defense, they look down on those technicians they suppose impervious to the higher values of philosophy, aesthetics, intuition, and the spirit that the humanities supposedly incarnate. To these folk, we proponents of CAI have signed a pact with the devil.

    Presumably, these are minority views, and the average humanist is neither neurotically obsessed with his or her low status nor philosophically hostile to technology. Yet there are other reasons that many of the people we work with look with contempt on computer-based composition.

  4. For one thing, they perceive computer-based composition as a fad. Like students with nose rings and magenta hair, this, too, will pass. Like the image on CRT, computer-assisted instruction seems ephemeral, unstable, glittery, and lacking substance. Some of the language sounds exaggerated and histrionic: EXPERT systems, HYPERtext, TURBO mouse, SUPERcomputer--and some of the software sounds ridiculously optimistic: WORDPERFECT, DRAWPERFECT, DA VINCI, CHARISMA, SYMPHONY, APPLAUSE. Even sticking to writing software, our practice is occasionally a media event: we do not just process words, but pictures, color, speech, and music. Our claims are extraordinary: computers, we say, change the way people think, redefine the nature of text, revolutionize social relationships in the classroom, even in the culture at large. Like other fads, computer-based instruction is in constant flux. No sooner do colleagues discover word-processing techniques than they find out they should be networking, writing hypertexts, or constructing fantasies in CD-ROM. No sooner have they distinguished RAM from ROM than they hear rumors of a recursive universe, fractal geometries, and hypertextual consciousness. Anything that changes this fast cannot be serious and certainly will not endure.

  5. Computer-assisted instruction is a nuisance. The equipment is not just frivolous, but expensive, and there is no place to put it. Security, viruses, software piracy, and faculty training are a worry, and a whole new curriculum is too much work. Besides, how can you teach composition if you are teaching word-processing skills? These complaints are probably the easiest to justify, but ironically, they occasion the least resistance to CAI.

  6. Computers invite collaboration. They support sharing, as their language reveals--interactive, feedback, input, output, tutorials, network--sharing that's realized in conference systems, electronic bulletin boards, and simple group work in the computer lab as well as joint development projects involving technicians and humanists across disciplines. Collaboration may be norm in science and business, but it is plain suspect in English. People start to wonder if you only did half the research; if you are not really an original thinker; and who wrote which sentence, anyway?

  7. Computer enthusiasts have not proved that students write better as a result of the technology. (Never mind that inspecting student papers is probably the wrong way to evaluate computer-based composition) (Cohen, 1987). We have lots of encouraging anecdotes. We claim that our students have better morale and increased self-confidence, that they collaborate more, revise more, write more, experiment more, and are having more fun. But we cannot say that their papers are better. For the most part, they are not.

    In many schools, these curmudgeonly views pose little threat. Their proponents may grumble or shake their heads at us, but they pretty much leave us alone to get on with the business of teaching, arranging the computer lab, and monitoring our successes and failures. But when resources are scarce, as they often are, instructional computing has been known to take a back seat to faculty computer needs, and in some cases the student lab has been abandoned altogether. An English department at one university is killing off its computer-assisted writing program by gradually reducing the number of composition sections assigned to its two 25 computer classrooms and letting the equipment deteriorate until it no longer works. The authors of the decision were uncomfortable that the computer-based sections differed from the noncomputer sections. They argued that computer-assisted composition was of negligible interest to the profession and of little value to students and that their department would benefit more from a composition/rhetoric or business/technical writing scholar that a "computer guru." On top of this, the authors worried that computers would make composition positions less attractive to the part-time instructors who staff these courses.

On this last issue, this English department was probable right, but not for the reason it gave. Computers and compositionists may often be incompatible, but the fault lies not with computers, but with the profession--a profession that feeds on the exploitation of an enormous underclass, composition instructors. As Indhu Rajagopal and William D. Farr (1989) point out, full-time faculty benefits such as salary increases, sabbaticals, housing, research/conference funding, computer time, and office-space would be financially impossible without the large-scale employment of part-time and temporary faculty.

The security of full-time faculty depends upon the universities' ability to live up to employment commitments made to them; the part-timers represent a buffer against financial exigency as long as part-timers' own security remains slight or nonexistent. (p. 278)

Instructional benefits like increased enrollment and smaller upper-division courses similarly depend on large numbers of temporary faculty. In English departments, lowly composition--given by and to the masses--subsidizes the elite literature courses:

loading the classes and putting the class loads on the composition teachers, an English department [can] maintain a corps of elite that it [cannot] justify if literature and language courses [have] to pay their own way. (Szilak, 1977, p. 27)

Most compositionists are part-time or temporary employees, and their lack of security has everything to do with the future of computer-assisted composition. This brings me to the second part of my argument: computer-assisted composition and the working conditions of composition faculty. As instructors of composition, we occupy the bottom of the academic hierarchy, and as compositionists whose main interest is pedagogy (as opposed to theory and research), we occupy the bottom of the composition hierarchy as well. Thus, as teachers who devote their energies to computer-based learning materials, we may be triply stigmatized: as computerphiles, as teachers, and as compositionists.

Ladder-Track Composition Faculty

It is well-known that research institutions measure their value in Nobel Prizes and megadollar research grants, which go to outstanding researchers, not to outstanding teachers. So it is not surprising that teaching is not as highly valued as research and that computer-assisted instruction is a relatively low priority at these universities. Several critics have already commented on the professional risks taken by untenured faculty who devote time to computers (Holdstein, 1987; McDaniel, 1990). If they develop software or do research in computers and composition, their efforts are unlikely to be regarded as serious scholarship when they apply for tenure. Courseware design is a relatively new endeavor and few English departments understand it, let alone have a mechanism for evaluating it. But the main reason work in CAI can damage the tenure candidate is that software development and research on computers and writing serve teaching, a low-status activity at a research institution. And it is not just any teaching--but composition, the humblest of undergraduate offerings.

While the favoring of research over teaching is most openly acknowledged at large universities, more and more liberal arts colleges are expressing the same preference. Increasingly their job announcements in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the MLA Job Information List call for PhDs in rhetoric and composition or experienced teachers with substantial scholarly publications. Even members of CCCC often regard research, not classroom practice, as evidence of professionalism in composition. Maxine Hairston (1985) associates professionalism with publication and warns us that "in the league we want to play in [being good teachers] is not enough" (p. 279). Edward Corbett (1987) attributes the "enhanced professionalism" of writing instructors to "formal training . . . in rhetoric and composition" (p. 445). And when The Wyoming Resolution, which was originally drafted to improve the working conditions of composition teachers, became the "CCCC Initiatives on the Wyoming Conference Resolution: A Draft Report" (CCCC committee on Professional Standards for Quality Education, 1989) the resolution acquired a new emphasis on composition research as "a legitimate field of scholarship" to be rewarded at tenure time (p. 61). While the finished document (CCCC Executive Committee, 1989) does in fact balance concern for both teaching and research and does an admirable job of defining optimum teaching conditions, the early draft made quite a few compositionists wonder if CCCC was adopting the status system that dominates MLA. [1]

Certainly composition scholarship is enriching the profession and influencing our classroom practice. Certainly composition scholars should be rewarded with tenure. But the movement in our profession to imitate the literature people--to prove to them that we, too, are scholars--is leading us, the compositionists to devalue our teaching in favor of research. Let me emphasize that I have no quibble with composition researchers: my argument is not that we should cease theorizing about and studying issues in composition. Quite the contrary. But in pursuing our research, we must avoid adopting the value system common to English departments, where scholarship is rewarded and teaching is simply a burden, as in the words "teaching load."

If the tendency to separate researchers from practitioners becomes entrenched in composition, we will be adding another stratum to the class system that already divides literature from composition--and that lowest class is likely to be us, the computerists. Most of our work in computer-assisted writing is classroom based. Courseware, after all, is primarily a tool. Like a textbook, courseware is an adjunct to teaching, and therefore, does not constitute scholarship. And there is no theory of computer-based writing. Theory emerges from years of practice, and our field is just too young. Thus, though we may find that our institutions are quite generous with release time or grants for the software or curriculum development and honestly encourage computer-based projects, these projects may count against us at tenure time.

Nonladder-Track Composition Faculty

The problem, however, is not just how computer work affects our professional status, but how our status affects the future of computer-based writing. The vast majority of composition courses is taught by temporary employees, part- and full-time, under generally deprived and insecure circumstances. [2] The marginal status of these faculty members inhibits computer-assisted composition. The writing instructors I work with--full-time temporary faculty with PhDs in literature or rhetoric--decline computer projects not because they expect an adverse tenure review, but because they never expect to come up for tenure at all. For the past ten years, our department has tried to encourage computer-based projects and has been willing to buy our faculty equipment and software. Yet faculty support has been miniscule. Last year, I tallied a short survey on computer use that, among other things, asked if the faculty would use a courseware library if we set one up. Only 20 out of 44 compositionists returned the survey, and only 8 of those expressed interest in the library. The rest of my colleagues are simply too busy looking for permanent employment.

And who can blame them? How much imagination and time should they put into curriculum development when they chronically have one foot out the door? These instructors are interested in teaching, work hard, and are good at what they do. But they cannot commit themselves to a job that offers no security and requires them always to be thinking about where they will work next. Thus, many of them are unwilling to explore any innovation that will disrupt their syllabus and require hours of training. When I offer my faculty computer workshops about half the instructors show interest (and about a quarter actually attend), but not always to improve their teaching. Again and again, the no-shows tell me they wish they had participated because "it's good to mention computers in a job letter" or "you need to show you know about computers in a job interview."

Furthermore, computer-assisted composition, like any innovation, is risky. Instructors who experiment with technology need time to make it work. But the nontenured do not have time to make mistakes. Aware of their vulnerability, the nontenured cannot risk low student evaluation scores; these scores are frequently the main criterion for their reappointment. Nor can they afford to be the lone computer crusader in a department hostile to technology. As several critics have observed, academic freedom is a major casualty of the oxymoron, permanent temporary employment:

the teachers who must go, hat in hand, every year (or every two years, or every three years), indefinitely into the future, to ask if they may stay, are not teachers who can feel free to speak and write the truth as they see it. (Thomson & Sandalow, 1977-1978, p. 272)

However excited they may be about computers, it is hard for temporary employees to urge a recalcitrant administration to speculate in hardware, software, security, upkeep, and faculty training--with uncertain, if expensive prospects.

. . .[Nontenure-track faculty members],like other faculty members are free to express their opinion, to introduce innovations, and to pursue and publish whatever sort of research they like--all those things that the principle of academic freedom is supposed to protect. But if any of these activities displeases the department head who hired them, they probably will not be rehired. (Schultz, 1989, p. 11)

Those faculty members whose departments encourage them to teach with computers are often thwarted by lack of clout--the untenured may have little to say about when, where, or how the computer lab will materialize. At our school, where computers are plentiful and the administration supportive, during any academic year, our lab can unexpectedly expand, contract, migrate, or vanish entirely. Lab monitors and schedules are similarly unpredictable, and often no one is entirely sure who is running the show. Faculty members have little voice in these matters, and find it easier to steer clear of the computer lab than to engage in a project they cannot control.

Furthermore, composition instructors often have to fight for resources that are freely granted to ladder-track faculty members. They are likely to share multiperson offices, telephones, desks, a single typewriter or computer; they often have no budget for photocopying, travel funds, computer accounts, research or clerical assistance. Compared to many composition instructors, the faculty at my school teach in prosperous conditions. Yet even we are reminded daily in big and little ways that the university does not consider us serious professionals who need basic resources to do work. And many of these reminders impinge directly on our work with computers. When Apple and IBM gave generous computer grants to our humanities division, our dean decided to allot each ladder faculty member a machine. Nonladder faculty were eligible, too, but only if they could justify their need in a formal proposal. The need of the ladder faculty was assumed; of course, they do scholarship and might even develop courseware. Our need had to be proved. More important, the nonladder track faculty were never invited to apply for the grant nor were they informed about it until almost all of the computers had been claimed. To date 237 computers--with attendant software and peripherals--have been distributed to individual professors in the Art History, Musicology, English, Philosophy, Folklore, Linguistics, Speech, TESL, and 10 foreign language departments; 0 to lecturers in the writing program, the second largest unit in the humanities division.

When our program directors support their faculty and take interest in computers, as mine have done, they often have little more influence than the instructors. At many schools, writing program heads only supervise their programs; they cannot make policies. Often untenured themselves, they seldom hold real power (Olson & Moxley, 1989, p. 53). Where the program director is a tenured English professor, concerns for the exploitation of faculty may be undercut by contradictory feelings. The faculty may be doing a great job, but if they were really any good, they would be teaching literature. How hard will the program director fight for working conditions that would encourage instructors to experiment with computers? And if the director does fight, what chance is there to gain permanence and equal benefits for instructors? The director is probably struggling just to keep the program alive.

Nor are most of the people they supervise likely to get interested in CAI. If they are not full-time, temporary employees, they are graduate students studying for their qualifying exams or part-timers commuting to three other schools. They labor anonymously, invisibly, carrying the heaviest teaching loads, doing the department's dirty work. Even if they can afford to come to a CCCC or a computer and writing conference (at their own expense, of course), when will they have time to renovate their courses to incorporate software? To fight budgetary and logistical battles to set up a lab? To design and test even the most modest bit of courseware? And what incentive will they have? They will not be around long enough to complete a development project or to enjoy the computer lab they campaigned for. In fact, their contracts may expire before they have even learned enough about computers to think of doing these things. And if they do revise their courses to include computers, how likely is their instruction going to reward them with a permanent job?

This state of affairs works against what research and common sense suggest--that the most effective computer-based composition projects depend on faculty training and support. Computer-assisted instruction is one of the most exciting and dynamic fields in composition. In some cases, CAI has utterly transformed the classroom and the experience of learning to write. Yet CAI universal acceptance as a teaching tool is being retarded by the retrograde status of composition faculty. While writing faculty are the ones best qualified to design writing software and the curricula to go with it, and to observe and test its effects in the classroom, only a few instructors have the luxury to do this. Too many faculty function at subsistence level--like a woman in the audience at a CCCC session I attended last year. She described her life as a part-timer--a "freeway flyer." She teaches at four different schools in Southern California, but rarely knows where she will be working more than a term in advance. She leaves home at 7:00 in the morning and returns at 11:00 at night, 5 days a week. She receives no benefits and takes home $1,000 a month.

Any profession that rests on such exploitation has many serious problems of ethics, of morale, and of simple expediency. The priorities that prevent schools from validating the woman's expertise are the very ones that stand in the way of all of us as compositionists and computerists. Research and scholarship are fine for what they are. But they would not exist without teaching and teachers. Ideally, research and teaching should be mutually enriching and equally valued--with and without computers. If we want to exploit fully what computers have to offer our profession, we have to stop exploiting our writing faculty and recognize them for what they are--teaching professionals and scholars specializing in composition. Our status as compositionists and our status as computerists are intertwined. For this reason, the computer revolution is going to require a lot more than a lab down the hall. It will require a revolution in the profession.

Lisa Gerrard teaches in the UCLA Writing Program, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA.

  1. I am indebted to James Sledd for pointing out this bias in his critique of the draft of the CCCC Statement (1989).

  2. A 1989 study of 110 doctoral-granting institutions found that 71% of their English departments regularly used full-time temporary employees to teach composition. This statistic does not include part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants, who frequently teach the bulk of these courses. (Killingsworth, Langford, & Crider, 1989). The American Federation of Teachers estimates that part-time faculty perform 40% of all undergraduate instruction in the United States--a trend that does not appear to be slowing down: "in the eighteen years ending in 1988, the number of full-time faculty increased by 37% while the number of part-timers grew by 164% (Neilsen & Polishook, 1990, p. B9).


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