ERIC Identifier: ED353604
Publication Date: 1993-00-00
Author: Puccio, P. M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
The Computer-Networked Writing Lab: One Instructor's View. ERIC
The setting in which we meet with our students is a factor in the composition
of student-teacher relationships. Virginia Woolf, in A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN,
reflects on how congenial academic surroundings with conspicuous amenities
affect the intellectual work of students, as well as their sense of community.
Expressing her dissatisfaction with the underprivileged women's college, with
its spare lodgings and uninspiring food, Woolf explains how the richly endowed
male college provides a setting in which one's mind can become disencumbered
enough to enjoy agreeable company and lively conversation: "how good life
seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how
admirable friendship and the society of one's kind, as, lighting a good
cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window-seat" (San Diego: Harcourt,
Woolf maintains that a student's education is, to a great extent, shaped by
the external character of that education, that the quality of self-knowledge,
human interaction, and behavior in general is fashioned by the qualities of the
rooms in which we live and learn. Or, to invoke Woolf's language, that
"urbanity... geniality...[and] dignity...are the offspring of luxury and privacy
and space" (24).
Most public institutions of higher learning, and a good many private ones as
well, are not currently distinguished for their excesses of luxury. With
administrators struggling to secure little more than an adequate supply of
paper, let alone the teachers to use that paper, we can hardly expect to stumble
over a surplus of amenities. The University of Massachusetts, where I teach, is
certainly no exception to this sad standard. And yet, the computer classroom,
the harvest of an earlier, more bountiful budget, furnishes students with an
oasis in this fiscal desert.
Carpeted, air-conditioned, decorated, somewhat, with reasonably pleasant
museum posters, the computer classroom is decidedly sumptuous in comparison to
other rooms on this increasingly threadbare campus. Very significantly, there is
no teacher's desk. When I work in the class, I write at a computer identical to
those my students use; I print from the same laser printers they do; I sit on
the same cushioned, adjustable chairs they do.
"A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN"
I discovered almost immediately after
I began teaching in this room that I could teach differently here than I did in
the conventional classroom. I welcomed the chance to teach writing in a setting
where I could be more interactive. No longer was I moving 20 uncomfortable desks
into a circle, in a vain attempt to transform a barren all-purpose room into a
site appropriate for a writing workshop. Finally in the computer classroom, I
was teaching writing in a room designed for writers--a room where nothing else
was taught and where nothing else could be taught (Gay, 1991).
Students quickly recognize that the computer classroom can be a congenial
work space--and they behave accordingly. Although my section of Basic Writing
meets at 8 a.m., four or five of my students typically arrive at 7:30--sometimes
to work but most often to talk. After all, this classroom is probably more
comfortable than some of their dormitory rooms. The rest of the class arrive
closer to 8:00, and, inevitably a few stroll in a little later; at whatever time
students arrive, they receive a "Class News" message from me, outlining an
agenda for the class and inviting them to begin. These messages make students
responsible for their work; even those who miss class entirely can find out
exactly what was expected of them for the day.
Other aspects of the computer classroom--and my teaching practices in
it--likewise encourage student independence and define my role more clearly as
an accomplice in their efforts. Frequently, my students and I work together at
the same task--some in-class writing, an on-line interchange conversation, or
some preliminary writing for an essay. They know that when I'm writing, my eyes
are fixed on my screen and not on them: I'm not looking over their shoulders at
what they are writing or how much they are writing. Especially for basic
writers, who, for one reason or another, generally feel insecure about their
writing, my respect for their privacy can be liberating.
Because I don't prepare my responses for the work we do together, there is a
refreshing spontaneity to the class which helps me to view it a little more from
the students' perspective. During a recent interchange discussion about their
autobiographical essays, several of my students chided me for not writing one
myself. "We want to know more about you," one student announced--a remark which
the rest echoed in chorus. And so, a week later I presented them with my own
personal essay, for which they graciously thanked me, saying that it comforted
them to know that at least one of their teachers had been, at some distant time
in his life, a child.
Because students move through the writing process at different rates, I can't
expect all of them to be ready for a given stage of that process on the same
day. Quite often, one group will be ready for peer response, while some are
still sketching out an early draft (Sirc and Reynolds, 1991). I
mingle--contributing questions or ideas to the discussion, offering suggestions
to the student who is having a hard time drafting an essay, explaining an
assignment to someone who is confused, encouraging peer respondents to respond
in more detail.
However bustling the computer classroom might become at times like this, the
atmosphere is almost always notably relaxed: students take short breaks when
they need them; small social circles form among students who work near one
another; the atmosphere is almost jovial. Virginia Woolf might have paraphrased
herself and remarked that the basic writer had found a classroom of her own.
COMPUTER-NETWORK AFFECTS CLASSROOM PRACTICE
experience a communal ownership of the classroom because the network allows them
ready access to all of the texts, theirs and mine, that comprise the course
itself. There are designated directories for in-process student writing, for
final drafts, for peer response sheets, for my assignments, for explanations of
computer functions, and for course policies, syllabi, and work schedules. The
work schedules map out deadlines, shared class activities, as well as
recommended dates for progress through the writing process. Needless to say, all
of this management is not only abetted by the computer network, it is shaped by
it. Within a couple of weeks, students comfortably navigate their way through
the network to locate or verify whatever they need (Posey, 1993).
Using the computer network to provide a readily available structure for
students is like opening my desk for them to see and use; it suggests that the
class is something that we share, and, although I might conduct it, I do not
orchestrate it. Formerly, if anyone wanted to look at a draft which I had taken
away to read, the student would have to wait for me to finish with it; in the
computer classroom, that draft is as available to the student as it is to me.
I've also found that I teach differently: I can plan complicated in-class
writing assignments with impunity--revealing the entire class plan to the
students so that they know exactly where the assignment is heading. No longer do
I play the conjurer, performing appearing and disappearing acts with their
These changes in my classroom practices, all effected by the computer
network, allow me to respond to individual student needs with more flexibility,
empathy, and respect. Students need teachers who don't expect all of them to
write the same, to think the same, and to turn out the same--teachers who can
neutralize a history of bad writing experiences and help dignify a new
succession of positive writing experiences.
It is, of course, true that teachers with less interactive pedagogies can use
the computer network to reinforce their own teaching practices. Indeed, some
other teacher, with a teaching style antithetical, perhaps even antagonistic, to
my own, could write a paper with the same title as this one and describe
student-teacher relationships dramatically different from those I describe here.
Despite our pedagogical differences, we all have a responsibility to
recognize that the networked classroom can provide students with a congenial
setting where they might learn not only to endure writing but even, on occasion,
to enjoy it. We should also remember that the relationships which we compose in
those classrooms can, and often do, reverberate outside the walls of the rooms
in which we teach. Perhaps we would do well to reflect on the words of the
nineteenth-century educator F. W. Sanderson, who said "Schools should be
miniature copies of the world we should love to have."
Gay, Pamela (1991). "Questions and Answers in
Basic Writing and Computing (Computers and Controversy)." COMPUTERS AND
COMPOSITION, 8 (3), 63-81. [EJ 431 123]
Posey, Evelyn J. (1993). "Word Processing in the Basic Writing Classroom."
TEACHING ENGLISH IN THE TWO-YEAR COLLEGE, 20 (1), 23-30.
Sirc, Jeffrey, and Tom Reynolds (1990). "The Face of Collaboration in the
Networked Writing Classroom." COMPUTERS AND COMPOSITION (spec. issue), 7, 53-70.
[EJ 411 535]
SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Batschelet, Margaret, and Linda Woodson (1991). "The Effects of an Electronic
Classroom on the Attitudes of Basic Writers." Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English. [ED 344 206]
Pomper, Marlene M., and Sandra Brown (1989). "Writes of Passage." Paper
presented at Annual Meeting of the Ontario (Canada) Speech Communicators
Association. [ED 324 701]
Reigstad, Tom (1991). "Teaching Basic Writers: The Personality Factor."
Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 8 (1), 57-64. [EJ 446 288]