From the issue dated November 26, 1999
Many professors try to combat the bad habits they fear their students pick up on computers
Ever since the days when students wrote in chalk on slates, or dipped quills into ink pots, technology and writing have been closely connected. But computers are affecting students' writing in ways unlike any other technology in the memory of their instructors.
Professors say students come to college accustomed to writing in the unstructured, chatty style of e-mail discussions, but not in formal prose. Students submit essays that are longer but not better written than those in years past. Worse, many students do not revise or even proofread their work, relying instead on software to check spelling and grammar.
"Computers make everyone write a lot more, and a lot longer. But they're absolutely not making them write better," says April Bernard, who teaches literature at Bennington College.
For students' writing, faculty members say, the new technology presents both perils and possibilities.
The perils are clearer. "Students will tinker endlessly with the text and forget that their paper doesn't have a thesis," says Kathleen Skubikowski, an assistant professor of English who directs the writing program at Middlebury College.
"I receive immaculately word-processed documents that are just terrible," says David Galef, an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi.
The possibilities are exciting, but their effectiveness is largely unproved, say faculty members who teach writing. Many of the professors are looking for ways to make good use of the tools that students are already using.
Drafts of papers can be e-mailed to professors, and sensitive critiques can be delivered the same way, in a medium that is conducive to private "conversations." In computer-equipped classrooms, assignments can be easily distributed among students or posted in a collective electronic space. Students' work can be published on the World-Wide Web, attracting feedback from readers elsewhere who may be neither peers nor professors -- and exposing the students to a wider variety of opinions.
"The one good thing that everyone always says" about technology, says Sven Birkerts, a lecturer in writing at Mount Holyoke College, "is that it seems to reduce the initial intimidation factor in writing itself.
"It's easier to get students to generate quantitative amounts of prose -- and if you don't look too closely, that's a plus," says Mr. Birkerts, who describes himself as a "techno-skeptic." But on closer examination, he says, it is really a minus. "Where writing is concerned, quantity and quality are in an inverse relation. The very nature of technology generates a vast amount of prose and discourages the next step, which would be to prune, winnow, consolidate it. Give it texture and depth. That can't be done by the machine."
Students' unwillingness to revisit words that have scrolled off their screen may be the computer's most unfortunate literary legacy. "There is [a] tendency to write and never look back, alas," says Roslyn Bernstein, a professor of English and journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York. "This means that students use a conversational voice, and that they do not proofread or copy-edit their writing. I generally make it clear to students that I expect carefully written prose, and I circle each and every problem area on the first paper."
She then requires a second draft. In fact, students send her drafts of their papers via e-mail throughout the semester. She emphasizes structure and organization, as well as transitions between ideas.
Rewriting, which many professors say is the essence of writing, is a slow process, and the computer culture encourages speed. Some writing professors are responding by trying to teach students how to slow down. "I try to build assignments around revision," says Mr. Birkerts. "A week or so will go by, and then I'll require them to look at their work, so the psychological distance is there."
He prefers a total rewrite. "It's easy with computers to say, 'Lines four, five, and six are fine,' and make quick, local changes." But, he acknowledges, "I'm battling a serious tendency" against slow, considered writing. "I can't claim any big success rate."
Revision is hardly the only issue. Good writers must be good readers, but students glued to the screen are neither, say faculty members. "They read more casually. They strip-mine what they read" on the Internet, says Mr. Birkerts. Those casual reading habits, in turn, produce "quickly generated, casual prose," he says. "They do not enter very deeply into either the syntax or the ideas" of an article.
What's more, writing on a computer has altered the process of composition, says Leslie C. Perelman, director of writing across the curriculum and an associate dean of undergraduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When using a pen or a typewriter, writers usually think out the entire sentence before committing it to paper, he notes. "Otherwise, you end up crossing out a lot. It gets very messy. But on a computer, no one does that. People will start a sentence and then go back and move things around, because our computer screen is elastic. Therefore, the composing process has become very elastic."
Middlebury's Ms. Skubikowski says she notices an "additive style" in students' writing, in which sentences and thoughts pour out with all the structure of a small child's speech: "And this happened. And then that. And so then this." Such a style might work in an on-line discussion, where remarks cascade and build on each other. It is wonderful for brainstorming, she says. But such a collage of thoughts can translate into poor structure in a formal essay.
Ms. Skubikowski says she has learned to focus on what is essential to writing: precise thinking. "The tools will always change. We must teach what won't change. That's the connection between critical thinking and critical writing. At the center is precise thinking -- the ability to articulate what you know."
Ms. Bernard, of Bennington, says students who want to articulate their thoughts clearly may, over time, even return to pen-on-paper outlines. "E-mail is here to stay, and certain types of computer conversations are here to stay, but I'm optimistic that they will wind up being adjunct to traditional forms of writing. I encourage students not to write their first drafts on a computer, so they might actually think before putting words on the page."
Elizabeth McCracken, a visiting faculty member at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, combats wordiness by asking students to print out their work. "If you don't print something out, you can forget how long it is, because all you can see is what you see through the keyhole of the screen," she says.
However, Diane Davis, a professor of rhetoric at Iowa, is enthusiastic about the combination of technology and writing. She encourages her students to publish their writing on the Web as a way of expanding their understanding of who the reader is.
"I haven't seen any evidence of student writing getting sloppier in print, even after they spend time in electronic writing spaces where slang, misspellings, and creative shorthand are the norm," she says. "On the contrary, my students seem to develop a kind of rhetorical savvy about this very quickly. What you can get away with in e-mail is a no-no in an essay."
Publishing her students' work on line improves their writing at all stages, Ms. Davis argues. "I've noticed that when students realize their work is going on line, in a Web journal or something similar, they tend to work harder." When students can receive e-mail responses to their posted writings from anywhere in the world, they pay more attention to how they can best express their ideas, and they worry about how poorly written prose may look to their readers, she says.
Telling students that their professor and their classmates will read their work does not have the same effect, says Ms. Davis. "They know that when it comes down to it, the real audience is the teacher -- and the teacher is not a very interesting audience. But when I say, 'You're going to put this work on the Web, offer your e-mail address, and submit it to search engines,' students get excited."
The same technology that makes written works accessible to readers from across the world can also let students work more closely with classmates across the campus. E-mail and electronic bulletin boards let them exchange critiques 24 hours a day.
David Brown, provost of Wake Forest University and dean of the International Center for Computer-Enhanced Learning there, says it's "extremely useful" if students use collaborative tools to comment on each others' essays. "There is simply more communication, more collaboration, more accountability in the system" with high-tech tools, he says.
Indeed, many students have become so unused to the physical act of writing at length with pen and paper that M.I.T. no longer herds entering students into classrooms to produce writing samples on paper in the placement process for required writing courses. Now they submit the samples over the Web before arriving on the campus, says Mr. Perelman, the associate dean. "We allow them to use an on-line thesaurus, the grammar checkers and spell checkers, because in the real world people are allowed to use those tools," he says. "Most grammar checkers hurt more than they help, and we tell them that." The goal is to help students write as they will at M.I.T. and later in the professional world. "The move to the Web has been a major success," he says. "The technology has changed the way people write."
As students and professors alike strive for "electracy" -- a neologism coined by Gregory Ulmer, an English professor at the University of Florida, to mean fluency in the new digital media -- Iowa's Ms. Davis says electronic writing is taking its place alongside oral and print literacy.
"The Web is where we're all going," says Robert Coover, a professor of English at Brown University. "It is now the dominant medium of expression and communication. My own workshops make extensive use of it. The digital revolution and the rush to the Internet that followed on its heels seem, from this fin-de-siecle vantage point, irresistible and to be with us indefinitely. It has, more or less overnight, become a fundamental element of literacy."
The ability to write effective e-mail messages, for example, has become so important in the business world that M.I.T. now has a credit course on e-mail writing. "E-mail is an entirely different form" from other kinds of writing, says Mr. Perelman, who teaches the course. It will soon be required of all M.I.T. students.
"Be sure the [subject] header indicates very specifically what you're talking about," he tells students. "Have a short introductory sentence that summarizes what you're going to say in the body, because people get many e-mails a day."
Not everyone is a fan of e-mail. Mr. Galef, the English professor at Mississippi, says student prose is more emotional now than it used to be, which he thinks might be an outgrowth of e-mail culture. "On e-mail, people call up an address and just pour out anything they're thinking. It's anal-expulsive rather than anal-retentive."
But professors from many disciplines notice that many students who are quiet in the classroom will speak up in cyberspace, participating in e-mail discussions, posting on message boards, or asking questions during "e-office hours," when professors respond to e-mailed questions. Writing teachers in particular notice the new voices. "I had one international student tell me that he doesn't have an accent on line," says Ms. Skubikowski.
Many professors say computers also call into question the extent to which writing is a physical act as well as an intellectual one. "The real loss, students tell me, is the physical attachment to their writing -- pressing down on the pen, thinking and feeling the word as your hand writes it out," says Ms. Skubikowski.
That slow, manual process touches the soul, she says. "Students who write essays on screen say they would never write a poem on screen."
Copyright © 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
November 26, 1999
Section: Information Technology