Reviews of Noteworthy Books
Jean W. Halpern and Sarah Liggett, Computers and composing: How the new technologies are changing writing (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 144 pages.
Sally N. Standiford, Kathleen Jaycox, and Anne Auten, Computers in the English classroom: A primer for teachers (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1983), 55 pages.
Helen J. Schwartz, Interactive writing: Composing with a word processor (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1985), 376 pages.
William Wresch, ed. The computer in composition instruction: A writer's tool (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1984), 221 pages.
Composition instructors attempting to stay abreast of computer developments in their field face two constraints. One is a bibliographic problem, the need to seek out information in unfamiliar places. The major composition journals now print an occasional article or bibliography on computer use, and several journals, such as The Writing Instructor, have devoted full issues to this topic. Yet, anyone wishing to keep up with the plethora of recent software and new ideas relating to computers and composition must be willing to look far afield of the English teachers' standard references.
Some have attempted to address this problem through cumulative bibliographies. Bradford Morgan's annual bibliography in the May issue of Research in Word Processing Newsletter, though not exhaustive, provides a thorough list of books, articles, and conference proceedings, most of which relate to word processing. This year's compilation ran to eighteen pages. Special bibliographies such as Word Processors and the Writing Process: An Annotated Bibliography, by Paula Nancarrow, Donald Ross, and Lillian Bridwell (Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984) are also helpful. And there are now publications devoted to regular software reviews. Digest of Software Reviews and Software Digest Ratings Newsletter are just two among many.
The second constraint on the composition instructor interested in new computer developments is the difficulty of evaluating materials once they are located. The proliferation of books and articles in the field
requires considerable selectivity. This column, PRINTOUT, addresses this need. Our purpose is to review and evaluate currently available books that show promise for departments or individuals who wish to make some use of computers in teaching students to write.
As a group, the four books reviewed in this initial column suggests the range of work now being done in the field. Three of them share the sponsorship of the National Council of Teachers of English, illustrating the vigor with which one professional organization has plunged into this relatively new area of interest. The fourth is the first of what may become a genre--the textbook designed for writing classes that use word processing extensively.
The fifty-page booklet by Standiford, Jaycox, and Auten is subtitled "A Primer for Teachers," and fits that description well. It assumes that the reader knows nothing about computers and their potential. Beginning with the question, "What is a Computer?" the first chapter proceeds to introduce a rudimentary computer vocabulary. The second chapter outlines instructional strategies for which the computer can be used--drill and practice, tutorial, problem solving, word processing, and recordkeeping. The next chapter, more specific to English instruction, includes a list of commercial sources for computer-based materials and suggests guidelines for developing computer lessons. Finally, the booklet tells how to evaluate courseware and concludes with a bibliography and brief glossary.
Each of the book's four chapters ends with a "scenario" designed to illustrate in an educational setting one or more of the principles covered in the chapter. These link theory and practice but appear contrived, and it is difficult to see how these could be very helpful. Another problem here is the bias toward computer assisted instruction as opposed to other computer applications. Word processing is given only two paragraphs. This bias is more understandable when we consider that the booklet was published two years ago and was perhaps written before the word processing boom. Despite its brevity and superficiality, this booklet may continue to provide English teachers with a non-threatening, quick introduction to computers before they move on to more substantial fare.
While Computers in the English Classroom places undue emphasis on CAI, the thirteen essays collected and edited by William Wresch in The Computer in Composition Instruction constitute a balanced survey of recent developments on several fronts. This collection is probably the best starting point for those seeking state-of-the-art knowledge beyond the "primer" level. Most of the contributors are university teachers of English who have distinguished themselves for their early work in this fledgling field. In his eleven-page introduction, Wresch provides a justification for computer use in the composition classroom, scans the short but fast-paced history of the field, and glances ahead to possible future developments. Each of the essays describes a particular project originated by the author, telling its
purpose, illustrating how it works, and concluding with system specifications and availability. The samples of computer dialogue found throughout the essays help to illustrate the packages described. The book concludes with Bruce C. Appleby's sixty-item, annotated bibliography and a brief glossary.
Wresch has divided the book into four segments. The first, entitled "Prewriting Approaches," begins appropriately with Hugh Burns, who pioneered the use of computers for invention. After his review of these early efforts, comes an article on "creative problem solving" by Dawn and Raymond J. Rodrigues. Then, Helen Schwartz describes her "SEEN" tutorial, covering in detail how she has made use of it with classes and how students have responded.
The book's second section contains essays on two programs to be used beyond the prewriting stage, when students have already written a draft. One of these is the much-discussed WRITER'S WORKBENCH, described by Kathleen Kiefer and Charles R. Smith. The other is HOMER, the style analyzer devised by Richard A. Lanham and Michael E. Cohen. A third essay in this section, and the only one in the book concerned with CAI for grammar instruction, is Michael G. Southwell's on his adaptation of the highly touted COMP-LAB modules to computer.
The third section of the book concerns various ways to gain the most from word-processing systems in composition classes. The essay by Lillian S. Bridwell and Donald Ross should, prove helpful to any department seeking to
integrate word processing into the composition curriculum; it is something of a case study of their efforts at the University of Minnesota. Stephen Marcus explains some "special effects" which can help stretch the word processor's instructional uses, making it more than simply a glorified typewriter. And Colette Daiute's chapter is notable for what it says about her use of a special word processor with young writers.
Each of the final four essays in the Wresch collection tells about a system that combines some of the benefits of prewriting, word processing, and editing programs. These are complex packages that encompass the entire writing process rather than one part of it. There are reports on Wresch's WRITER'S HELPER, Ruth Von Blum and Michael E. Cohen's WANDAH, Cynthia L. Selfe's WORDSWORTH II (a.k.a. WORDSWORK), and Christine M. Neuwirth's DRAFT.
Computers and Composing, by Halpern and Liggett, despite a title similar to that of the Wresch collection, is not so much a survey of current work in the field as it is a detailed consideration of a single development. After reviewing five "new communications systems," such as audio mail (answering machines) and interactive telecommunication, they narrow their focus to dictation/word-processing systems. They argue that dictation followed by word-processor transcription, already quite common, will become increasingly prevalent. Also, they point out that this medium combines the skills of speaking, listening, and writing--traditionally the domains of the English Department. Basing their
assertions on research among businesses using this system extensively, they project a set of new composing strategies required by dictation with word processing. One chapter addresses the unique problems posed by a combined oral/aural transcription system. The authors emphasize the necessity of collaboration in such a system and maintain that composition classes in college should prepare students for this. The fourteen appendices provide documentation from their research and supply a number of examples of documents prepared and edited using the electronic systems they describe. The book concludes with an eight-page selected bibliography.
Composition instructors may not want to incorporate all of the suggestions made by Halpern and Liggett. But those who read the book should at least be prompted to ponder the shape of composition instruction in an age when various electronic devices, in addition to word processors, are standard communicative tools.
Helen J. Schwartz's textbook presupposes the availability of word processors for all students in writing class. It is the first composition text structured around that assumption. The obvious problem with such a text is the impossibility of keying it to a particular computer system. Schwartz attempts to solve that problem by having the student, guided by a "demonstrator" or manual, fill in instructions appropriate to the machine being used. For example, where the textbook reads, "Type the proper command(s) to load the textfile," the
student must note in her book the commands that fit her computer. Thus, the text purports to be part generic technical handbook and part rhetoric, a potentially confusing combination. This arrangement may prove more long-winded and complicated than it would be for the student to learn the word processing system separately from a manual or workshop.
On the other hand, one of the strengths of this innovative text is its emphasis on how word processing can enhance the act of writing. There is some attention to how word processing opens up collaborative possibilities, and the "Activity" sections invariably include both "paper and pencil" and "word processing" exercises. The chapter on research includes information on using data bases. And there is a useful, though brief, appendix on "Computer Vocabulary and Disk Care."
Although the teacher's guide to Interactive Writing is the typically unprepossessing paperback booklet, it contains a storehouse of supplementary information that many instructors are likely to find useful. Rather than simply providing supplementary exercises, assignments, or class activities, it describes and lists sources for some fifty computer packages relevant to composition teaching. The eleven-page annotated bibliography should also be a welcome bonus.
KEN AUTRY teaches at the University of South Carolina. Books for review in PRINTOUT may be submitted to Ken Autry, Department of English, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208.