9(3), August 1992, pages 5-22

Teachers in a Strange LANd:
Learning to Teach in a Networked Writing Classroom

Elizabeth Klem and Charles Moran

In spring 1989, we conducted a semester-long naturalistic study of two writing teachers teaching for the first time in newly-equipped, networked computer classrooms. We wanted to find out how writing teachers would adapt to this new environment. We began the project knowing that there has been a great deal of research on the effects of a computer-equipped classrooms on students' writing behavior (Bernhardt, Edwards, & Wojahn, 1989; Gerrard, 1989; Curtis, 1988; Sudol, 1985). There is also a current belief that a networked computer environment can foster among students the social, collaborative dimensions of writing (Barker & Kemp, 1990; Selfe, 1989a, 1990; Batson, 1989; Elder, Bowen, Schwartz, & Goswami, 1989; Kremers, 1988, 1990; Sirc, 1988; Kinkhead, 1987). But we found little in the literature that examines what the effects upon teachers may be when they are asked to adapt to a computer-equipped writing classroom. What would this transitional semester look like? To what extent would the teachers use what we saw to be the potential of this writing and teaching environment? To what extent would the new networked classroom further, or impede, progress toward the teacher's pedagogical goals?

We felt that this transitional semester would be an interesting opportunity for our research. Judith Langer and Arthur Applebee (1987), in their chapter titled "Teachers in Transition," find that many teachers do not adapt readily to changes in curriculum. Wendy Bishop (1990) details the ways in which affective factors determine which new strategies teachers will implement in their classrooms. Shoshana Zuboff (1988) has chronicled the resistance of factory workers to the changes wrought in their world by computer technology. Joy Peyton (1990) has given us the history of Doug Miller, a teacher whose first experience in a networked classroom led him to return to a conventional classroom. Most recently, Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe (1991) have suggested that in many of our writing classrooms, "computer use simply reinforces those traditional notions of education that permeate our culture" (p. 55).

Observing from a distance, through the available lenses of teacher training and program administration, the computer-equipped classrooms might seem a success: Both the teachers and their students had been consistently enthusiastic about the teaching and learning that occurred in these facilities. But if we carefully and thoroughly observed this teaching, what would we see? To what extent would these teachers modify old behaviors? To what extent would the teachers adapt their pedagogy to the new environment, and to what extent would they resist? When they encountered this new writing classroom, how would they think, feel, and act?

The Context of the Study

Writing Program Pedagogy

Both teachers in our study were teaching English 112, College Writing. This course, as it is described in Writing Program literature, and, in particular, in the standard English 112 syllabus, has as its principal aim the improvement of students' writing through extensive writing practice and extensive feedback from both teacher and peers. The course has no textbook; the students' own writing is given greatest importance. To this end, student writing is published regularly, by xerography. Students are treated like writers: They will write, revise, edit, and publish, according to a set of deadlines published in the "Writing Schedule," which comprises the last two pages of the syllabus. In the design of the course one can see the influence of James Moffett, Donald Murray, Janet Emig, Roger Garrison, and Peter Elbow.

The Computer-Equipped Classroom

The settings of our study were two separately-networked classrooms, each with 22 workstations and two laser printers. In each classroom, the computers were set in pods of six and eight. There was no projection screen or teacher station designed into the room, although a folding table, for viva voce group discussions, and a whiteboard, for teacher use, were added when teachers requested them. Twenty sections of Basic and College Writing were scheduled into this facility for four hours each per week: The three normal class hours and a fourth lab hour scheduled to guarantee at least this amount of daytime access for each class of students enrolled in the computer-based sections. The system--IBM-compatible 286 workstations and laser printers connected to file servers running NOVELL NETWARE--had been installed one month before the semester of our study began. It was set up in a way that gave a great deal of autonomy to the students at their terminals. There was no "teacher's console," and the teacher was not able to broadcast to, or control in any way, the students' screens. Students had access to their class's subdirectory structure, which was reached through a class-name logon routine. Teachers could write a "Class News" script for their students to read as they logged on the system. Using their subdirectories--which were "mapped" to "boxes" T:, U:, and V:--teachers could leave class materials on the system for their students to read, students could "turn in" their papers electronically, and could drop their papers for other students to read and critique. At log-in, the students were automatically brought into the word-processing program Microsoft WORD 4.0; they accessed the subdirectories through WORD by saving or loading files to the class's T; U; or V boxes.

The Program's director, in negotiating for the installation of the computer classrooms, argued that these classrooms would support and complement the Program's chosen pedagogy, as outlined above. It would, he maintained, be more difficult in these classrooms to treat writing as a subject, and almost inevitable to treat writing as an activity. In these classrooms, the teacher would function most easily as a coach, or as a facilitator/editor in a room full of writers.

The Teachers

The two teachers, whom we'll call "Jean" and "Lee," were experienced teaching assistants who had had experience teaching in the earlier stand-alone computer classrooms. Both had had positive student evaluations, and both were considered good teachers by the Writing Program administration. Jean had taught English 111, Basic Writing, for three semesters, and Lee had taught English 112, College Writing, for one semester in un-networked classrooms. During the semester of the study, Jean and Lee taught one section apiece of English 112. Both of them had taught English 112 before, and both had volunteered to teach in the newly-equipped classrooms.

Both Lee and Jean were graduate students in the English Department. Lee was in the Master of Fine Arts program, seeking an MFA degree in English and a career as a fiction writer. Jean was studying American literature, working toward a Ph. D. and a career as a professor in a department of English. Lee, in addition to teaching the one section of 112, was writing his thesis and finishing the coursework for his degree. Jean was not taking any graduate courses, but was studying for her Ph. D. qualifying exam, which she took, and passed, at the end of the semester. Although both instructors had worked on word-processing systems before, neither had much practice with Microsoft WORD 4.0, which had been installed on the network. They had both participated in a brief training session before the start of the semester. This one day of systematic training had been preceded by several days of writing time in the newly-equipped classrooms. The purpose of this training was to help the teachers become comfortable as writers on the system. In addition to this prior training, both teachers attended, as the semester progressed, first weekly and then biweekly training seminars with program staff. Lee had a computer of his own and worked with Microsoft WORD at home as well as in the classroom; Jean did not have her own computer, but she did have nearly unlimited access to the classroom's computers. Because of her schedule, however, she spent very little time working on screen.

Data Collection Procedures

Our study generated three kinds of data: transcripts of four hour-long interviews with both teachers; notes we took during more than sixty hours of class observation; and student responses to a questionnaire administered at the end of the semester. We met weekly to compare findings and to discuss patterns that seemed to be emerging from the data. In addition, at the end of the study, the two teachers granted us permission to use the end-of-semester teacher/course evaluations.

For the first twelve weeks of the fifteen-week semester, Klem observed Jean's class; Moran spent the same number of weeks in Lee's class. For the last three weeks, the researchers switched classes to supply a check on any possible biases. In total, we observed roughly two-thirds of the regularly-scheduled classes taught by the teachers. We focused on Lee and Jean: what they said; how they moved; how they used the networked system; and, insofar as we could see and record this, we'd note as well what the students were doing, either independently or in response to the teachers' actions.

As a supplement to our field notes, we interviewed each instructor after the first month of classes and asked about their plans, goals, and approaches to the classes--particularly, their plans for the computerized network. The initial interview was followed up with three more: one mid-way through the semester, one at the end of the semester, and a final interview at the end of the next semester, to provide a last check on the teachers' perceptions. The interviews were taped and transcribed. We used the transcripts of the interviews to check our observations, to follow up on questions raised in our notes, and to track the teachers' changing, or in some cases continuing, concerns.

What We Saw

Teachers' Enthusiasm for the Computer-Equipped Facility

Through the interviews and our observations, we came to know two instructors who were enthusiastic and positive about the effect of computers on the attitude and performance of their writing students. Jean said that computers "help their [students'] motivation," and viewed the machines as a kind of "magical presence." They gave her students, she thought, a sense of "independence" and a "feeling of success." "Everyone has a better working attitude, or a more self-sufficient attitude, or something." She saw the teachers and their classes as an "elite group" relative to those teachers and students working in conventional classrooms. Lee felt that the computer "makes students look at writing and reading in a new way." For Lee, the computers helped keep students on task. In the computer lab, he said, "They feel more professional."

Both teachers maintained this positive attitude toward the computer in interviews conducted at the semester's end. Two weeks after classes ended, we asked both teachers whether or not, if we had more resources, we should teach all sections of first-year writing in computer classrooms. Both said that we should. Lee said, "In the ideal university every student would have a computer." He elaborated on the effect of the computer on student writers: "I think the computer kind of empowers them, too . . . it's their little machine, and it's their desk, and there's something about the whole syntax of delete a document and create a document, move text." In response to our question, Jean said this: "I can't think of any special advantage that noncomputer classes would have over computer. I mean, to me, there's such a big difference. You can do all the same things, and the students are happier and they're willing to work. I guess I'd go with pie in the sky." In subsequent semesters, both teachers chose to teach in the computer classrooms, and, in interviews at the end of the following semester, they restated their belief that the computer-equipped classroom environment had a positive effect on their students' writing.

The students in the two classes felt too that the computer-enhanced environment was beneficial to their writing and their learning. Their responses to our short answer survey, which was administered at the end of the semester, let us see that nearly all had a positive experience both with writing and with the machines. Question #14--"In what ways has working with the word processor changed any of your habits as a writer?"--prompted many students to note that the word-processing program had encouraged them to write with more control. Responses to Question #16--"How would you describe the word processor to someone who was interested in using it for writing but wasn't too familiar with it?"--led students to emphasize the ease with which text could be produced and manipulated. Furthermore, their responses given on the Writing Program's standard end-of-semester teacher/course evaluation forms suggest that the students were well satisfied with their experience. The totals from both Lee's and Jean's class are well in line with the rest of the Writing Program classes--both computer and conventional sections.

Despite both instructors' sense that the computers were helpful to them in achieving their instructional goals, in our observing we saw many moments when the teacher and the facility seemed to be at odds. We place these moments in three categories: those attributable to the participants' unfamiliarity with the hardware and software; those attributable to the teachers' and students' need to cope with two different media--print text and electronic text; and those attributable to a conflict between the models of writing instruction brought to the facility by the teachers and the model of writing instruction that informed the construction of the facility.

Learning the New Software

In the first weeks of the semester, we saw teachers and Program administrators struggling to learn the new word-processing and networking software. We frequently felt that the teacher and the classroom were in conflict: Because of some glitch, the teacher was unable to run the class she or he had intended to run. The class would characteristically lose direction and momentum as the teacher focused on a single student's difficulty. The teacher, too, would seem to lose authority: Here was a problem that was, to all in the room, beyond solving.

During the first two weeks, because the software that distributed the print jobs to the laser printers often mis-fired, misplacing page-breaks and margins, or, in a few extreme instances, combining into one document bits of text from several student essays. When the printing system broke down during one of Jean's early classes, she quickly came up with an alternative activity, coping nicely, but never returning to the old plan when the printers again came on line. Again in the first two weeks, in both Jean's and Lee's classes, students attempting to double-space their documents selected ALT-F2 instead of ALT-2, which commanded the printer to make a footer of the entire text, and produced strangely-printed texts. This was a problem that took Program personnel some time to diagnose. The fix for this particular problem--writing a macro that would cause ALT-F2 to act like ALT-2--had to wait until the lab personnel had learned to write macros that applied to the entire network.

Later on in the semester, students experienced a mysterious "full disk" problem: Their disks would somehow become full of .TMP files and sometimes, apparently as a result, unreadable. Again, the full disk problem occupied more than a little class time and created some anxiety among teachers and students. Several calls to the publisher of the software produced no answers. Program personnel developed a batch file that purged the .TMP files from student disks. Late in the semester, the teachers discovered that students were taking their disks out of the computer and then logging off, thereby preventing the software from cleaning up its own .TMP files.

The teachers were less troubled by these problems than were the observers. Indeed, the teachers saw their own unfamiliarity with the software as a potential pedagogical asset. In the computer labs, they both said, students who know the software can become teachers, empowered in this domain. The computer-equipped classes, they thought, fostered community, as students taught each other how to use the more esoteric functions of the software. Jean several times called upon the more computer-familiar students to explain a function--such as "windows"--to the class, using the occasions to foreground a class member's skill. And Lee, reflecting on his experience six months later, thought there was value in the somewhat rocky experience of this first semester: "One of the reasons why the class was really good last year, was that we were all doing it together, and that there wasn't this teacher standing up . . . . I think there is something nice about the mistakes that were made last year."

Print Text vs. Electronic Text

On a number of occasions in both classrooms, we saw teachers and students operating in different worlds: The students, working at their screens, operating in the world of electronic text, and the teachers, at the head of the class, operating in a world of print text. In addition, the teachers often signalled, by their actions, that print text was more important, or better than, electronic text. This surprised us, because of the teachers' prior experience with computer-equipped classrooms and their often-stated belief that computers were good for writers and for writing classes.

The clash of the two media was most obvious in Jean's class, although both classes gave us evidence to draw upon. On several occasions, Jean asked all her students to call up a single essay from one of the class's boxes. As the students read their screens, scrolling through a text without page markers, Jean herself stood at the spot she'd defined as the teacher's place and read from a printed draft that she held in her hands. She talked about the printed draft she held in her hand, while students read their copies on screen. When Jean moved beyond general questions about the essay's strong and weak points, she asked her students to refer to particular passages on particular pages. When she did this, her students would be confused, because her print-based system of referents was not available on their screens. As a result, Jean was surprised that her students would not refer to particular words or phrases in these situations. She worried that her students were lazy readers, although it seemed to the observers that the difficulty lay not with the students' reading habits, but with the fact that the teacher was reading from the printed page, and the students were reading from the screen.

In addition, Jean did not put her assignments or prompts online. Her use of printed handouts instead of online instructions sent a clear signal: Print text was the more important medium, the teacher's medium. The dittoed peer-editing sheets that she distributed required the students to write, by hand, in the allocated spaces below the questions. To use these printed peer-editing sheets, students had to push their keyboards aside to write. Although Jean's reliance on print seems like a natural response during this transition semester, it also underlines her resistance to the new context her students were working in. On one occasion, Jean asked her students to call up a piece of student writing and to write their comments on screen, inserting them into the original text. When she did this, she did not give her students instructions for distinguishing their comments from the author's text; neither did she suggest the red-lining capability of the word-processing software. She might have asked the student editors to make their comments in boldface or italic, or to use the "Window" function to insert comments at the end of the text. However, she seemed not to see the difference between writing comments on paper and writing comments on screen, where there are no margins, and where the newly-entered text becomes indistinguishable from the original. Only a few students adjusted on their own by making their responses either in all caps or in boldface, and, again, the class's general reluctance to "get specific" was a point of confusion for Jean. Although the students had been specific when they'd done the initial exercise, their electronic comments--which could not be differentiated from the original text--were not readily accessible. This activity fell flat, whereas a similar reading/commenting session had worked--an occasion when the students marked in the margins of printed drafts. Jean seemed to overlook the different demands of the two different media.

In describing Jean's class, we speak of a clash between media; in describing Lee's class we have to describe a clash among media. Lee twice brought in videos as writing prompts; he required his students to view and review a film; and, as we noted above, he often devoted entire class periods to oral discussion. Screen text was thus in competition with images (video and film), with oral language (discussions and reading-aloud sessions), and with printed materials--both those produced by students and those introduced by the teacher.

Unlike Jean, Lee did use the network's "Class News" feature regularly to give his students assignments and directions online. He also, for the first few weeks, conducted online peer-editing sessions and, early in the semester, requested additional subdirectories so that he could divide his class into four work groups, assign each a subdirectory, and have them work collaboratively in that electronic space. In these actions, he indicated that he was comfortable with electronic text and that he was happy to have his students work in this medium. However, his tendency to negotiate class plans with his students encouraged him to give up, turn over, the network to his class too early, and with too little scaffolding. After the fourth week of the semester, Lee had essentially abandoned his involvement with the networked computer environment. Without his guidance and direction, the students seldom used the capabilities.

Despite his early enthusiastic use of the network, Lee habitually undercut the value of both screen text and the new technology in a number of ways. He made relatively heavy use of printed handouts. Granted, much of this material would have been hard to deliver on-line: source material for in-class discussions, including a booklet of copied articles on AIDS, and a booklet of articles on the Becker-Grimshaw case. For one full-class discussion, the focus was a booklet of essays written by the students, beautifully laser printed. But on other occasions Lee, like Jean, distributed materials that might more easily have been delivered via the network. He often issued essay-writing instructions on blue dittoed sheets, and, at the end of the semester, he distributed a printed portfolio-inventory form.

Lee also included in his classes a substantial component of oral reading of print text--one more situation that privileged print text. Occasionally, he would read aloud a particular piece of printed student writing; on other occasions he would ask a student to read a hardcopy of a student essay--their own or another's. In these situations, students were turned away from their computer screens; the centers of attention were the printed page and the reader's voice. In addition, Lee preferred editing and correcting print-drafts to reading student writing on screen. In the semester following our study, he did try commenting on the students' screen text, but he reported that the screen comments possible with WORD were not "noticeable" enough, adding that "they needed that red marker" which allowed for more of a teacher/editor presence. When he was teaching in the workshop mode, he most often read the student's essay in print form--often at the teacher's place at the front of the classroom. Here, with pencil behind his ear, he was the professional editor, reading paper copy. At other times, he'd straddle his chair and read the student's printed draft at the student's workstation--a one-to-one writer's conference. At the end of one of these individual conferences, the observer notes this: "When [Lee] goes, the woman turns to her screen and reads through the draft there."

New Models vs. Old

We could anticipate that teachers and Program personnel would take a while to learn how to operate new hardware and software. What we had not anticipated was that we'd see in these new classrooms a persistent and deep-rooted conflict between the teachers' own goals and those built in to the new facility.

It is generally thought that computers carry with them new pedagogies and that teachers will, in some undefined way, go along. Indeed, computers are often hailed as "The Catalyst for Broad Curricular Change" (Gilbert & Balestri, 1989). Our computer classrooms were designed, as noted above, to complement and reinforce the Writing Program's model of good teaching. The room layout, with its notably absent teacher place, privileged a workshop model of a writing class, and aimed to cast the teacher as a fellow writer and editor--albeit the most experienced writer in the room--rather than as the center-of-the-class authority. Moreover, the network configuration sought to foster a class model in which much of the learning and writing would happen as students collaborated on the in-process drafts.

What we saw in these teachers' classes, however, was a fair amount of dissonance--a genuine clash between the kind of writing class envisioned by the teacher and the kind of writing class privileged by the computer-equipped classroom and its architecture. Because we were not attempting to measure student learning, we can not relate what we saw to the progress students made. We have to admit, though, that the tug of war between the teachers and their classroom was on-going and sometimes quite striking. The teachers' behavior did not change significantly as the semester progressed; neither did the teachers noticeably adapt their teaching styles to the new environment.


As he moves in the classroom, and as he engages with students, Lee seems relaxed and easy. He projects a sense of purpose. He clearly enjoys and respects his students, and he is, quietly, in charge. He is, however, willing to negotiate this authority. When a writing assignment seems not to be working out, he listens to the problems his students are having and reacts, often modifying the assignment. He sees his directions as "prompts" or "stabs," as his best guess, and certainly not written in stone. He connects this teaching practice with his own writing practice: He's "the kind of writer that just starts writing." He used to give assignments in the "modes of discourse" manner--argument, description, narration. Now, however, he feels students can be left free to choose their own approaches to assignments. Left to themselves, "they hit on all the main things [genres] anyway." Despite the authority that he grants his students in some areas, Lee is displeased when his students continue to type at their workstations while he is talking to the class as a whole. He is firm about this: "I think it's personal. It's like if someone misses class." He notes that in the computer classroom "you never quite know what they're doing on the computer." They might be writing work that he has assigned, or they might be writing something not connected to class.

Lee had two characteristic and favored teaching modes: the full-class discussion of contemporary issues, and the one-to-one writer's conference. The discussions that he led were lively and student centered, with lots of eye contact and practically universal participation. Some student comments were addressed to the teacher, but most were addressed to other students. Lee clearly enjoyed hearing what students had to say on topics such as "contemporary attitudes towards AIDS," and questions such as "Was Grimshaw, a battered woman, justified in killing her husband?" The full-class discussions were lengthy, certainly going beyond any pre-writing function for which they may have been intended. In one case, a discussion continued, lively and engaging, for 75 minutes. From interviews and conversations, we learned that Lee felt he was performing a service by engaging students in contemporary social issues; and he deeply enjoyed the "talk" of the human community that he had helped establish. He seemed also to enjoy the control that he had of the group. In interviews he spoke of "leading" and "directing" these discussions. He demonstrated an interest in, and an understanding of, the dynamics of these discussions, discoursing at length about the roles he saw his students taking, and of the inter-personal relations that he saw operating in particular discussions.

To make these group discussions possible, Lee had to pull students away from the computers and put them in a circle in a corner of the room. During these discussions, the computers were unattended, their screens turned low and their cooling fans emitting a low hum. The computer lab did not at this time have a "chat" or "interchange" program available on the network; Thus, Lee did not have the option of conducting real time, online discussions. But we think, given what we've seen, that an online discussion would not have been attractive to this teacher. For Lee, it would not have been "social" in the same way: no eye contact, and no face-to-face interaction. Moreover, the online discussion would have been more difficult for the teacher to control or direct.

Lee's second favored teaching mode was the one-to-one writer's conference. In an interview with us, he said, "I think most people like personal help better." In the class time devoted to one-to-one writer's conferences, Lee would wheel his castered chair about the room, pencil behind his ear--the writer/editor moving from student to student, conferring. Or, he would call students one at a time to a table in the room that became the editor's workplace and would work there with a printed copy of the student's writing. In both situations, whether at the teacher's table or at the student's workstation, because Lee was working with a printed text, the computer was a bystander. We note here that Lee did not, as he might have done, deliver his comments online, but chose instead to comment on the students' printed texts and to supplement these comments with individual, face-to-face conferences.

In both of these modes, the whole-class discussion and the one-to-one editorial conference, the computers were irrelevant or even obstructive to Lee's aims. In the full-class discussion, Lee moved students away from the computers, because, as he said in his first interview, "I still have a problem when I want to discuss something in class. They're all kind of separated. It's hard to--they have to scream across the room to be heard. So I started putting them into a little circle." The networked computers and their arrangement make difficult what he wants to do--lead a discussion of a contemporary issue--so he moves students away from them entirely. In Lee's second favorite mode, the teacher-to-student editorial conference, the computer became simply a fancy typewriter, stationed beside the editor and his writer. Such a conference could have been held in any university space: Lee's office, the student center, or the library.


Although gentle in manner and generous in intent, Jean is an authority, a teacher who wants to be fully in charge of what happens in the room. Early in the semester, she created a more or less permanent teacher's place, stationing herself and her teaching materials at a particular table. She would characteristically begin class by taking attendance standing in front of her table, grade book in hand. Students would occasionally line up at this teacher's place to talk with her. Although she would frequently circulate through the room to check on students' progress, she would most often stay at this place for much of the class period, addressing the students from there. Jean was most happy, she said, when she saw "heads nodding in approval" in her classes--which meant that the students were listening to her and taking in what she said. Teaching was, for her, like "being on stage." She liked her students, thinking them, each semester, a particularly good class, better than those she'd taught before. She saw them, too, as students, a group of young people placed in her charge.

Jean's classes were a planned sequence of various, discrete, teacher-led activities, any one of which might have been more easily conducted in a conventional classroom. Among the activities were lessons on aspects of composing, lessons whose direct source we do not know, but which remind us of the chapter headings of many current-traditional writing textbooks. Using the whiteboard, Jean covered such subjects as "how to narrow a topic," "the difference between fact and interpretation," and "the difference between abstract and concrete language." During these sessions, students sat in front of their computer screens, some watching the teacher, and some working on-screen. In Jean's class, discussions--not about issues, but about the interpretation of texts--were teacher-centered: Students almost invariably addressed their remarks to Jean, who would then restate them for the rest of the class. Interactions were typically between teacher and student, or student and text, but seldom between student and student. Early in the semester, we saw students waiting for Jean to tell them what to do--a sign, to us, that they had become dependent upon her for direction. In their small-group discussions, we often heard students referring to "what she wants."

Jean was not merely the more-or-less traditional teacher; she was a teacher of critical reading, a literary critic operating in a writing classroom. At the center of Jean's writing pedagogy was the interpretation of text, a tendency perhaps heightened by the course of study she was currently following in her Ph.D. program in English. Jean was a writing teacher, certainly; there was no assigned reading in her class and the syllabus she worked from was the Writing Program's standard syllabus. But in her interviews and in her classes, Jean cared principally about her students' ability to read critically. This goal was most clear in one assignment which called upon students to "explicate" an advertisement. She explained in a later interview: "I just wanted them to be able to see ads critically, and see how language is used, is manipulated, and to understand assumptions somewhat." Later, she set a goal for herself: "I also want to work some more on trying to [have them become] better critics. More critical readers." In teaching critical reading, she was the authority: She was a trained reader, the best in the room.

In addition to this reading goal, Jean wanted students to become aware of their own reading processes. This second goal was loosely connected to her "critical reader" goal and to the writing class concept of audience. If students understood their own reading processes, then they might better be able to address other readers. To this end, Jean often had students read their own work, or the work of others, with a focus not on the writing, but upon the reading that was taking place. In some instances--notably the few times she used the network for group reading tasks--the notes that students took on their reading were for their own edification rather than as genuine feedback for the author. Even though she regularly had her class engage in peer reviews of in-process essays, for Jean, reading, like writing, really remained a transaction between reader and text--an essentially private matter--not really open to social negotiation.

Neither of these models of the writing teacher--the leader of a teacher-centered class or the critical reading instructor--was supported by the computer-equipped classroom in which Jean taught. To the extent that students wrote at their computers, they de-centered the class and made her feel that she was "doing nothing." For Jean, teaching was at its best, when she was "on stage," and in this particular environment, being on stage was difficult. It is difficult for us now, after the fact, to imagine how one could use this computer-equipped classroom--one without a projection facility or teacher-controlled student screens--to teach critical reading, at least as Jean conceived of its teaching: The teacher is the most expert reader in the room, and either evaluates the other readings or models good readings. We are reminded of a moment when the computer writing classroom seemed more like the reading room at a local library. Jean distributed the students' essays of the week before and asked the students to come together in a circle, away from the computer stations. There, in a circle, the class read, with the computer cooling-fans whirring in the otherwise quiet room.


What we have seen, in a nutshell, is that the way a person teaches is much more a function of the individual's sense of "good teaching" than it is of a definition of "good teaching" built into a particular teaching environment. Our findings here confirm those of Langer and Applebee (1987) who conclude that "new views of instruction are not likely to replace more traditional views without well-orchestrated support for change on the part of the teacher, the school administration, and the general public" (145).

Our research suggests to us that teachers' use of a computer-equipped teaching environment may be affected by their access to similar software and hardware. The speed and degree of the teachers' learning may be a function of the extent to which they themselves feel comfortable, as writers and teachers, with the new environment. Jean was only online for the four hours she was in class each week, and Lee hardly more--neither, during the semester of the project, had spent enough time working with the environment to become easy with the hardware and software. Neither had become familiar enough with what Selfe has called the "new grammars" (1989a, p. 6) of electronic text to communicate easily with students who were working in the new medium.

Our study most clearly showed us that each teacher brings a pattern of behavior--one cultivated by past experience, and by beliefs about what writing is and how it is best taught--into a classroom. Making the change to a computer-equipped classroom environment may challenge a teacher's models more deeply and more subtly than we have heretofore recognized. Here, a larger conceptual shift is required than is involved in, say, moving student desks into a circle. In the computer-equipped classroom, the instructor must have enough familiarity with the new information, and, more importantly, must have a high degree of self-awareness in order to match the new environment's capabilities to her own goals. Our study has let us see that instructors are restricted by two kinds of limits: limits to their available energy, which will dictate how much preparation time they will be willing to devote to the shift; and, limits to their ability to examine their own teaching styles--and the implicit assumptions about learning and writing these contain--in order to effect a successful match to the new setting. These limits need to be understood and respected--seen as predictable, comprehensible human behavior and not as a personal failure on the part of the teacher.


Our experience with these two teachers and their classes leads us to sketch out several implications for writing programs, their directors, and their staffs.

The first is that computer technology, of and by itself, does not magically change the ways in which we teach. If we believe that we should teach writing by lecturing, or by oral recitation, or by large-group, offline discussions, then we will use these teaching strategies in a computer-equipped classroom, despite the architecture and equipment of our classrooms.

The second is that when teachers do adapt to the new technology, it will be the result of carefully-designed and extensive staff-development programs. These staff development activities ought to have at least these aims: a) to develop in the teachers' familiarity with the hardware and software they will be using; b) to help the teachers become "screen-writers" in an environment that helps them see the differences between screen text and print text as media; c) to develop the teachers' awareness of the models of "good teaching" that they now carry with them; and d) to engage the teachers in the process of asking, "Given the new medium we have here, what kinds of 'teaching' could, and should, I be doing?" Lastly, our long and full acquaintance with Jean and Lee suggests to us that even if a writing program can provide the necessary training and support, it is unlikely that it can expect radical and rapid change in the way its teachers teach, if James Slevin tells us--it is generally the case that those teachers are graduate student teaching assistants and/or part- time lecturers. Certainly a computer-equipped writing classroom, backed by a strong training program, can foster a student- and process-centered approach to the teaching of writing. But our experiences with Jean and Lee--both graduate students, one a parent--let us see that people have finite reserves of energy despite the best intentions. Our study has led us to understand how much we are asking and of whom we make these demands.

Charles Moran and Elizabeth Klem teach in the English Department of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


  1. We want to thank our two co-workers "Jean" and "Lee," the two teachers in our study, for their generosity and patience. They invited us into their classrooms and spent hours talking with us, both in formal interviews and in corridor conversation. We also want to thank Anne Herrington for the help she gave us in designing the study and in thinking through the available interpretive strategies.


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