9(3), August 1992, pages 71-77

We've Barely Started--
and We've Already Done it Wrong:
How Not to Start a Computer-Assisted Writing Classroom

Dave Harralson

Early in 1991, my college received a small grant from Apple Corporation for the creation of a classroom devoted primarily to writing. Amid the joy and congratulations, we at the college began to talk about what this classroom would look like.

To determine the layout of the facility, a proper committee was organized: the Director of Instructional Technology, a handful of the most concerned writing faculty (including the Director of our Writing Center and the Dean of the humanities faculty), and a physicist who had developed a computerized classroom for his discipline. I called several people for advice, among them Cynthia Selfe, editor of Computers & Composition at Michigan Technological University; and Donald Ross, a computers-and-composition specialist at the University of Minnesota. Our committee worked together and developed a floor plan with which we were all happy. But now, as construction is underway, I have come to realize that we've barely started--and we've already done it wrong.

I write this as a brief angst-ridden homily to faculty members of English departments in high schools or colleges who may find themselves in the position we were in. The road is well mapped (Barker, 1986; Bernhardt, 1990; Schwartz, 1987; Selfe, 1987; Selfe, 1989), but for those of us shouldering heavy loads in colleges that pride themselves on being teaching institutions, a little well-meant cursory investigation and a few sincere phone calls are woefully inadequate. We learned about our grant just before midterm during the Spring 1991 semester. Midterm is quickly followed by a blizzard of papers and finals just preceding graduation. And before the perspiration of graduation has dried in our mortarboards, we find ourselves making uninformed decisions about this computerized writing classroom--decisions that will be difficult to undo.

Where did we go wrong? Our intentions were good; we worked in good faith together. Our committee was not divided or divisive. So what happened?

First of all, we were so happy to get our Apple grant that neither the English faculty nor I, the Dean of the humanities faculty at the time, did the one thing we should have done immediately when we heard about the possibility of the grant: establish our instructional goals. A number of papers have addressed the importance of these goals and objectives, and the process of constructing them would have clarified--implicitly or explicitly--several issues:

The questions our committee answered were questions of machines, of technology, of space--not questions of the processes people use to write well.

The "ownership" of this facility had been unconsciously determined by what we casually called it--"the new computer classroom." But it was not a computer classroom; it was a writing classroom. English professors should have researched and discussed the issue. But under the pressure of getting the "computer classroom" ready for the computers, determining the networking software and working the bugs out of the system before the fall term, we let the a neighboring institution's newly finished computerized writing classroom influence us, though we didn't know their goals or why they had constructed their facility as they did. Furthermore, we were also influenced by a colleague in physics who had constructed a physics lab to meet the needs of his discipline--and he was now helpfully at work with graph paper laying out the new writing classroom in a way similar to that of the physics lab. I have no criticism for this colleague; he is truly interested in improving the quality of written work in all his classes. We English faculty remarked to ourselves that a 20 foot by 25 foot room seemed a little small for twenty Macs, as well as all the other things that such a room would need, but, in the absence of goals, we shrugged our shoulders. In two meetings and some informal chats we had decided on the way the room would be configured.

We asked the wrong questions--questions about machinery and technology, not about people and writing processes. The composition faculty should have come to this process with clear instructional and operational goals.

Goals for the use of this facility (which was to be dedicated to writing at least 85% of the time) would have established it clearly as a writing space. If the computer faculty had developed goals governing this room's use, they would have had intellectual ownership of the space. I do not want to diminish the role of the Director of Technology; she is a good colleague, knowledgeable and hard working. Nor do I want to disparage the good efforts of the physicist who mapped out the floor plan; he was being collegial in the best sort of way because he genuinely cares about the work of our writing teachers. Finally, I do not want to claim that the English department, not the college, "owns" the machines. For the educational enterprise of the teaching of writing, however, we English faculty members should have claimed this space so we could mould it to the most effective use of current composition theory and practice.

Let me center on the effects of the composition faculty's lack of goals. Most important, we accepted a room for this computer-assisted writing space that was far too small. Forget the necessary 4.5 feet to 5 feet of table space for each machine; we had to accept 3 feet just to get all the machines in the room. Although we placed the computers fairly close together around the perimeter of the room, we still couldn't fit them in without jury-rigging a solution at one end of the room. The machines are not situated to encourage--or easily allow--collaborative work, and the two conference tables are insufficient for the work typically done in a classroom of normal size. Well-formulated goals would have made it clear that our instructional purposes could not be easily achieved in this room. A composition faculty with well-articulated goals would have insisted upon a reasonably sized facility for the role it had to play. Goals based on the latest composition research would, I feel, have been convincing to our sympathetic administration.

We offered none.

So the construction of instructional goals for the writing program must be the first priority. Departmental goals of five or ten years ago are insufficient in light of recent changes in composition theory and pedagogy. No matter whether you already have a computer-assisted writing classroom or lab, are planning one, or are just thinking about one, you must determine the goals of your writing program. This suggestion seems so reasonable, so common-sensical, but I find that far too many of us have not taken this first necessary step. The goals would, of course, apply to all the writing classrooms, not just the new one with computers in it. The computer is a tool--a powerful, expensive, empowering tool--but it does not change the goals for writing instruction.

Now to the goals themselves. I wish someone had talked to me about these goals before I took part in this process. What should they contain? Your goals will vary with your institution in light of considerations such as writing-across-the-curriculum programs, writing-intensive classes, a writing center, and so on. The goals, however, must deal with writers, not computers. After all, popular opinion says that students work easily with computers; that same popular opinion concludes that those students cannot write well.

Goal 1: Creating an enticing, adaptable environment for writing.

Goal 2: Teaching writing as a flexible, process-oriented activity that serves both as a method of learning and a means of communicating with an audience.

Goal 3: Encouraging collaborative exchanges among writers (peer-to-peer, student-to-writing group, and student-to-faculty).

Goal 4: Sharing and engaging in the latest in composition and communication research with our students and peers.

These goals--whatever you decide them to be--have to be firmly established and generally accepted so the questions that arise concerning the operation of this computer-assisted lab do not become questions of machines or technology. People and their needs as writers are kept firmly in the forefront when the goals specifically deal with the varied, nonlinear, recursive process of writing. The ultimate question may be unpalatable: Should writing instructors accept the promise of a computerized writing lab in a room too small or otherwise not conducive to writing instruction?

These instructional goals, adapted to the dynamics of your institution, provide composition faculty a kind of pedagogical ownership of the computer-assisted writing lab. The student writer's needs are in the forefront and haven't been superceded by technological concerns, or by limitations or rules growing out of other disciplines. If this facility is going to be one of the major educational arenas for your writing faculty, you should be the ones to best know how this room should be developed, basing the decisions on your educational needs. A number of first-rate computer-assisted writing classrooms and labs have coffee pots, microwaves, refrigerators, and popcorn poppers. Dickie Selfe at Michigan Tech reports that the food associated with these appliances has not been a significant source of hardware problems. Anything else composition faculty want to do to personalize their writing space should not be vetoed by those outside the writing program.

Winning the battle to determine the layout of the room is not enough. You must quickly follow the instructional goals with operational goals. Operational goals grow out of instructional goals, for they provide specific means for implementing the instructional goals. Once again, I would not presume to write operational goals for your specific computer-assisted classroom or lab, but operational goals should include the following:

A good bit of negotiation will take place before agreement is reached on either set of goals. But the discussion is worth it. These operational goals will not only demonstrate that your instructional goals are sound, but also inform the teaching of writing. As both sets of goals are completed, pass them along to the appropriate administrators. Your two sets of goals will announce to all administrators your perspicacity and foresight--and in the best of all possible worlds, you will be rewarded.

This brief homily cannot conclude without a few positive words. Although we have just begun to construct our computer-assisted writing classroom and although we may have initially put technological concerns ahead of writers' concerns while we planned, we have already begun to reevaluate our early decisions. I do not doubt that we soon will correct our errors and oversights. Our administration actively cooperates with the faculty, and faculty here are generally given as much responsibility as they wish to bear. Our composition faculty members have again and again shown themselves to be adaptive and resourceful teachers and scholars. This paper, therefore, should be taken as an interim report.

An old familiar axiom says that if you don't know where you want to go, any road will get you there. In the same vein, the planning activity for our new computer-assisted writing classroom has served to remind me that hard work and good will cannot proceed, or succeed, without well-thought-out, writer-based goals. Please learn from our mistakes.

Dave Harralson teaches English at Utica College of Syracuse University and works as a volunteer for Literacy Volunteers of America--New York State.


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Moran, C. (1990). The computer writing room: Control and authority. Computers & Composition, 7(2), 61-69.

Schwartz, H. (1987). Planning and running a computer lab for writing: A survival manual. ADE Bulletin, 86, 43-47.

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