9(3), August 1992, pages 59-69

Revision Worship and the Computer as Audience

Paul Heilker

Let me begin by saying that I am not a Luddite. I do not yearn for a return to the days of quill and parchment. Quite the contrary: I have thoroughly embraced the use of computers as an incalculable boon for both my writing and my teaching of writing. The frantic dread that accompanies my occasional loss of access to a computer highlights for me how much my writing processes have benefited from and, indeed, rely on, word processing these days. Likewise, while working at Colorado State University, I taught Basic Writing, First-Year Composition, and Advanced Composition in two differently configured computer classrooms; I was quite pleased with the results in all these cases, as were the vast majority of my students. Moreover, having repeatedly taught two sections of the same course at the same time but in differing environments, I'm convinced that I much prefer both the means and the ends of teaching writing in a computer classroom over those of a traditional classroom.

Let me also begin by specifying two things about what follows. First, what follows is primarily the result of what North (1987) calls "practitioner inquiry." This mode of inquiry has a structure which is experiential--its constitutive traditions, practices, and beliefs are "best understood as being organized within an experience-based framework" (p. 23)--and it locates "the greatest authority over what constitutes knowledge . . . with the individual Practitioner, and private knowledge" (p. 28, author's emphasis). These bases, along with practitioner inquiry's consequent lack of "scientific" rigor, cause "considerable confusion and frustration for those whose loyalties lie in other modes of inquiry," and judged by the standards of these other modes, "Practitioners are bound to seem consistently undiscriminating, illogical, and sloppy" (p. 27). This text thus asks you to beware and suppress what North (1987) calls "the academic reflex" (p. 53), the automatically low regard we typically have for the results of practitioner inquiry, and to approach what it offers on its own terms. The knowledge it offers is no less real or true than that offered by empirical research, but rather differently real and true, as Foucault (1972), Rorty (1979), Bruffee (1986), and others have contended. Second, what follows is primarily an essay: a provisional exploration; an unfinished quest for new knowledge; an experiment in making sense of things (Sanders, 1987, p. xiii); a search for a testable hypothesis, not an attempt to deliver proven facts (Kinneavy, 1971, p. 100); a means not of demonstrating understanding but of achieving understanding (Spellmeyer, 1989, p. 270); an effort to stimulate and broaden our vision rather than assert conclusions, to complicate rather than simplify, to start inquiry rather than stop it (Zeiger, 1985, p. 455-457); an endeavor to open up new conversations rather than close them down (Harste, 1989, p. vi); a struggle not to gain adherence but to disturb and stimulate thought (Beale, 1987, p. 112); a counterpractice offering resistance, a counterstatement in opposition to dogmatic systems (Holdheim, 1984, p. 30); a subversive attempt to overthrow the thematic and conceptual hierarchies of a field, an antimethod resisting the repressive order of systemic disciplines and the injunctions of official culture (Kauffman, 1981, p. 101, 186). With these approaches, I hope to present an alternative perspective in opposition to the party line and so expose and undercut the monologic, the closure, the univocality of authoritative discourse on computers and revision.

I have recently become aware of a thorny problem with computers and composition which concerns the writing processes we call revision and the relationships that enable or hinder those processes. This problem has had significant negative effects on both my writing with a computer and my teaching writing with computers. Computers offer the writer an incredible improvement in terms of the physical ease of composing and especially of revising over that of writing longhand or typewriting, and although it indeed seems trite to say that that ease has enabled the teaching of the value of revision, that ease is also a two-edged sword. It seems to have fostered a reconceptualization in which writing teachers have come to value revising for revising's sake and then passed this mind set on to their students. Rather than being conceived of as a means, revision has become an end in itself.

I think my own development as a composition instructor offers some important insights into how this may have happened. In my training as a writing instructor, "process" was the Burkean god-term. Giving students practice in discovering and developing their writing processes was presented as the major goal of composition pedagogy. Computers were extremely helpful in meeting this objective, I was told. My trainers promoted various prewriting strategies/programs and noted the ease of drafting with a word-processing program; but most importantly, they stressed, computers enabled the instruction of revision. Indeed, this emphasis on the ease of revision offered by computers was the carrot by which they lured in the technophobes among my fellow teaching assistants, and, eventually, the same carrot by which I lured in my resistant students. "Word processing makes revision so much easier," they/I said. "If you want to go in and delete just the second paragraph, for instance, it's a measly three keystrokes instead of rewriting or retyping the entire paper. It will make your life so much easier!"

Unfortunately, as we standardized and centralized our initially valuable and worthwhile goal of instructing students in writing processes, we made the deleterious slide over into instructing them in the writing process. The writing process, the one that experienced adult writers used, according to Sommers's (1980) tremendously influential study, emphasized deep revision: the major, extensive reforming or reshaping of the whole of a text in order to discover one's meaning; the holistic readjustment of the text's form, balance, rhythm, communication, emphasis, and proportion through the addition, deletion, substitution, and reordering of material to best meet the needs of one's readers (p. 384-386), an activity that occurs "continually throughout the writing of a work" (p. 380, author's emphasis). As we came to embrace the testimony of experienced adult writers in Sommers's study, which stressed revision as the large-scale, holistic, deep restructuring of a text from one draft to the next, multiple drafts became de rigueur for our students. What also became entrenched was the teaching method by which we could promote and, indeed, attempt to insure such revisions: the collaborative workshop. Both of these developments would probably have been substantially impeded (perhaps impossible) if our students had not had fairly widespread access to computers and word-processing software.

Here, I think, is where we unwittingly made "the big wrong turn." The proliferation and entrenchment of using a workshop class period, an activity that almost always occurs during the class period before the final draft is due, rips revision out of a holistic, continually recursive notion of writing process and firmly plants it in a linear one. As Sommers (1980) herself has said, in "linear conceptions of the writing process revision is understood as a separate stage at the end of the process--a stage that comes after the completion of a first or second draft and one that is temporally distinct from the prewriting and writing stages of the process" (p. 378). The sad fact is that if you schedule a workshop date or even collect your students' drafts in order to offer them intervention commentary--events you assume will be followed by their revising their papers--you are imposing a linear notion of writing process and placing revision as a separate stage at certain points along that production line, most typically the end of the line.

Generally, our guiding notion is the more revision the better. To encourage our students to assimilate behavior (which may be, for them, alien behavior), we have to reinforce it through the use of the two roots of education: reward and punishment. Composition teachers at both institutions where I have worked require their students to turn in all drafts of a paper so that the instructors can compare and contrast the drafts and follow the kinds of changes students have made over time. Those students who make the deepest and most numerous holistic changes over the course of writing their texts, and thus have most clearly assimilated the revision behaviors we value (the writing process of experienced adult writers), receive the greatest rewards, the highest grades; those who are unable to or refuse to revise on this deep, holistic level are faulted by their teachers, punished with lower grades in the hope that they will mend their ways.

Regrettably, the computer is the catalyst that allows writing teachers to require revision with a clear conscience. Because we know how mechanically easy revision is on a computer, we are thus more inclined to require our students to revise their texts. And because revision is no longer most closely associated with the mere drudgery of rewriting by hand or the grinding toil of retyping, we do not feel bad about assigning it. Indeed, besides seeing revision itself as being inherently good for our students' writing and development as writers, we can, moreover, fall back on the knowledge that revising on the computer also gives students the opportunity to learn valuable technical skills and thus become more desirable prospective employees.

In this fashion, we have become prescriptive enforcers of mandatory, institutionalized revision. Requiring holistic revision, imposing it (even with the best of intentions) as a necessary part of an effective writing process and the one that experienced adult writers use, nonetheless assumes--and sends the message to our students--that there is one best kind of writing process. We suggest that this process is the one we want them to bend for their own good. We suggest that this is the one most effective kind of writing behavior, and we encourage them to adopt this behavior through the application of positive or negative reinforcement through grades. Likewise, requiring revision from our students, no matter how easy the computer makes it, sends them a number of other misguided messages: that revision is always a good, productive thing; that revision is a worthwhile end or goal in and of itself; that every text needs to be or should be revised; that revision comes after writing as a separate, often last stage in a linear process. Yet these messages are but symptoms of a deeper problem, mere trappings of an obsession.

I think we writing teachers are obsessed with revision. I believe we almost worship it. Let me be clear: I think we are obsessed with the holistic readjustment of a text's meaning, form, balance, and rhythm through the use of substantive additions, deletions, substitutions, and reorderings. I think we tend to elevate revision to a superior status and conceive of it as the single most important aspect of writing process. While we worship revision, and so enforce it as a necessary part of the best kind of writing process through the use of scheduled, mandatory workshops, students further cognitively reduce and oversimplify what we have already reduced and oversimplified about writing process. Just as we focus on revision at the expense of a more holistic notion of all the aspects of writing process, (proportionately disregarding the value of initial invention, for example), our students focus on editing and proofreading at the expense of a more holistic notion of revision, proportionately overemphasizing the value of surface-level manipulations. The entrenchment of scheduled revision as a separate stage in a linear process forces students to conceive of it not as a holistic, continual readjustment but as a cleaning process in preparation for presentation of the finished product. The students are not to blame for this reductive mind set. They are not simply being intractable, nor are they stuck in some old thinking/feeling patterns about writing. Required revision, through the auspices of word processing and the scheduled workshop format, becomes synonymous with editing and proofreading.

In other words, our students--the good ones at least--pick up on our monomania about revision. In their desperate desire to psyche out the professor and get a good grade, they, knowing which side their bread is buttered on, focus on revision even more closely and reductively than we do. Just as we writing teachers oversimplify and reduce the writing process by overly attending to only one aspect of it--revision--our students oversimplify and reduce revision by overly attending to only one aspect of it--the manipulation of localized surface-level features--an activity that is just as easily (if not more easily) enabled by the use of computers as is deep, holistic revision. It is frightening how some of them, the "A" students, usually, practically obsess about and fixate on the act of altering the surface of their texts. I remember one student being near tears because even after her sixth draft she still could not get her text down to the reading level suggested by the text analysis program, and I recall another who tortured his otherwise tight and vivid prose in order to remove every last flagged passive construction. I would agree with Sommers (1980) that students "understand the revision process as a rewording activity" (p. 381), and that it is not that they are unwilling to revise, "but rather that they do what they have been taught to do in a consistently narrow and predictable way" (p. 383). I would add, however, that they have been forced into doing what they do, despite all our obvious intentions to the contrary, by our institutionalization of revision and the consequences of that entrenchment.

At this point, I wish I could stop and conclude that our students are so attentive to exploiting the ease of computer text alteration in a misguided effort to appease their instructors' misguided obsession with revision, and thus have so fixated themselves on localized, surface-level acts of revision, that they are neglecting the reason we make revisions in a text in the first place, which is, of course, to improve the communication to better fit the needs of specific audiences. If I could stop at this point, I could then simply advise that we restore the careful audience analysis and reanalysis parts of the writing and rewriting processes that our teacherly worship of computer-aided revision for its own sake has dislodged. The situation, unfortunately, is not that simple.

The students in the previous examples are people who grew up with computers, who are more knowledgeable about them than I am, and who are thus quite aware of a computer's limitations. Yet despite my repeated warnings and protestations about these limitations, those students responded to the output from the text analysis program as if it were feedback (or more correctly, a directive) from an intelligent being. Their relationship with the computers was apparently stronger and more important than their relationship with me, its authority greater than my own. I now realize that as an audience, reader, and critic of their writing, I had been replaced. Thus, it is not that those students were disregarding audience considerations, but rather that they were doing a good job of addressing the needs of a different and specific audience: the computer. Those students, it seems, were using what Sommers (1980) calls "teacher-based" revision strategies:

. . . those directed towards [sic] a teacher-reader who expects compliance with rules--with pre-existing "conceptions"--and who will only examine parts of the composition (writing comments about those parts in the margins of their essays) and will cite any violation of the rules in those parts. At best students see their writing altogether passively through the eyes of former teachers or their surrogates, the textbooks, and are bound to the rules which they have been taught. (p. 383)

These students, however, were directing their revision strategies toward a new teacher-reader surrogate--the computer. This, then, is the fundamental problem: The writer-computer relationship is displacing and replacing the writer-audience relationship in the rhetorical situation. In this respect, these students seem paradoxically to be using what Sommers (1980) identifies as a characteristic of experienced adult writers. Experienced writers, she says, "imagine a reader (reading their product) whose existence and whose expectations influence their revision process" (p. 385). The computer is usurping the role of the audience, of the teacher as privileged reader, its existence and expectations influencing students' reduction and oversimplification of revision to the manipulation of surface-level textual features.

It is not that these students did not fully appreciate that computers are just a collection of on/off switches that cannot read and cannot think. They did. And yet they nonetheless engaged with the computer as if it could read and think. Nor can their approach to computer use be explained by their being inexperienced writers and students, because I also write with a word-processing package and I, too, engage my computer as my audience and suffer for it. Although I do not own or use a style analysis program, this relationship with my computer as my audience is still detrimental to my writing (and, I might add, to my emotional health). For instance, one spring day two years ago, I toiled for the full length of the day over my paper for an upcoming conference; and for the full length of the day I was stymied; and for the full length of the day I was convinced that one more go at it, one more alteration and printout, would reveal the problem and suggest the solution. It did not. In desperation, I remembered that I did still have human friends in town, and was saved when Betsy, a good friend and keen critic, succinctly located the weakness and advised a solution. But why did it take me so long to seek her out?

I suppose it was because, even though I was alone as I composed, I was operating as if I did have a human audience with me in the form of my computer. Ede and Lunsford (1984) have argued that we can divide the notion of audience into two categories: audience-addressed--"actual or real life people who read a discourse"--and audience-invoked--"the audience called up or imagined by the writer" (p. 156n). They note, however, that these are not mutually exclusive distinctions, that writers both address and invoke their audiences, and that the "most complete understanding of audience thus involves a synthesis" of these perspectives (p. 167) because the "term audience refers not just to the intended, actual, or eventual readers of a discourse, but to all those whose image, ideas, or actions influence a writer during the process of composition" (p. 168, author's emphasis). Similarly, Roth (1987) has examined the "ways writers actively construct their audiences," creating them as they compose (p. 47), often with writers' "newly-created readers resembl[ing] themselves" through a "chameleon-like readiness to project oneself onto one's audience" (p. 50-51). The reason I took so long to seek Betsy out, it seems, is that I already had an audience--invoked, addressed, projected, and constructed--sitting in front of me on my desktop, humming and blinking, one who strongly influenced me during the process of composition of that conference paper.

This notions disturbs me. The computer with word-processing software is a writing tool, is it not? A fancy typewriter or a very fancy pencil, no? How did my computer, my writing tool, and I come to trade places? Then how did I lose control of it and it gain control of me? Maybe the answer is that a computer is not a writing tool or not just simply a writing tool. This metaphor, like all metaphors, is seductive and misleading, blinding us to some of its implications. Bowers (1990) has argued that a computer is not a tool, not an extension of one's physical body like a hammer, or a shovel, or a saw, but a machine--something that can perform certain functions on its own. And as a machine, he said, it has autonomy; it can make us conform to it, surrender our autonomy to it. Clearly, then, the computer is a forceful entity in the rhetorical situation. It is in competition with another entity in the rhetorical situation, the human audience, which also makes demands on the writer's autonomy.

But just as the computer blurs the line between tool and machine, it also blurs the line between machine and human. I am not talking about artificial intelligence projects. Seven years ago, which as we know amounts to eons in the development of computer hardware and software, Wresch (1984) noted the advantages of using computers to teach writing. Among these benefits, he said, are the computer's ability to function in the roles of collaborator, responder, commentator, and teacher, giving students "a continuing 'audience'" (p. 3-4). Turkle (1984) similarly says that because "people tend to perceive a 'machine that thinks' as a 'machine who thinks'" (p. 25), "You inevitably find yourself interacting with a computer as you would with a mind" (p. 16).

I do not wish to suggest that any of this is inherently sinister, that these insidious machines are taking over and dehumanizing us. Rather, on the contrary, I think the problem is that both my students and I are getting caught up in trying to humanize our computers. My experience of last spring reminds me of a phenomenon I have observed repeatedly in my computer classrooms, one I thought may have been a subjective delusion until Chilton (1990) independently validated it. When students compose and revise in a computer classroom there is an otherworldly stillness, an eerie silence punctuated only by the sound of clicking keyboards and the occasionally buzzing printer. This happens even when students are commenting on each other's drafts on screen. There is no unprompted student-to-student discourse; and there is practically no teacher-to-student discourse that I do not initiate. When I teach in a pen-and-paper classroom, however, the same activities do tend to produce at least some task-related gab, some writer-initiated discourse.

I think the explanation for this difference may lie in the differing writing technologies used as they interact with a fundamental fact of our biology. According to Johnson (1988), Burke has argued that the desire to identify with others is inherent in human beings and is a characteristic response to the isolation imposed by our natural state of biological separateness (p. 160). I think that because we cannot easily identify with our pens and paper, we reach out to other people in the traditional classroom environment. But because we can and do somehow easily identify with our computers as intelligent beings (responders, commentators, questioners, teachers, collaborators, and allies)--as our audiences--we need not and do not engage other people to achieve that identification, to overcome that separateness.

It is this ability to identify with our computers, our successful efforts to humanize them, that may debilitate our relationship with our human audiences. As Turkle (1984) says, "there is a risk of forming a relationship with the computer that will close rather than open opportunities for personal development . . . [because] computers, reactive and interactive, offer companionship without the mutuality and complexity of a human relationship" (p. 19), "without the threat of human intimacy" (p. 135). The writer-computer relationship in the rhetorical situation is thus perhaps seductively and insidiously preferable to the writer-audience relationship for both our students and ourselves. To the extent that we interact with the "machine as a projection of part of the self" or identify with a "psychological machine" (Turkle, 1984, p. 15-16) as a companion--one who does not require mutuality, complexity, or intimacy in our relationship, who embodies no real threat, who wields no real power to punish (as a teacher might) or challenge, disagree, or even ridicule (as a reader might)--we and our students may be preventing ourselves from developing as human beings and as writers. To the extent that we anthropomorphize our computers, we may risk potentially dehumanizing ourselves. It seems that the computer as audience threatens to disable our development as writers.

In sum, I think it is ironic that while the social perspective on writing is now in ascendancy, the computer, our privileged tool of writing pedagogy and practice, may often function as a new kind of writer's garret, isolating authors. Furthermore, I find it even more ironic that this isolation, this neglecting of social relationships, might result from our attending to a powerful, humanizing social relationship: the one we have with our computers.

Paul Heilker teaches in the English Department at Texas A&M University.


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