Thomas J. Derrick
Few writing teachers have enough time or knowledge to develop interactive software programs that even begin to simulate a Socratic exchange between writer and respondent. Relatively unsophisticated CAI modules can be designed by resourceful teachers dissatisfied with commercial programs, but the hours are many and the "EUREKAs" few.(1) Furthermore, outright skeptics and begrudging acceptors of computer-assisted instruction rightly remind us that high-tech pedagogy, particularly when pre-arranged responses masquerade as intelligent interpretation, is a poor substitute for human criticism and encouragement.(2)
I teach composition courses in which students write multiple drafts on microcomputers, and I annotate the hard copy. Eager to involve my students more directly in the process of composing with computers, I adapted Stephen Marcus' technique of "invisible
writing" into an interactive game called DOSEQUIS.(3)
Invisible writing is freewriting without visual feedback. With the contrast control on the monitor turned down, the student is invited to write continuously about a subject under development. Attention to a train of thought necessarily supersedes proofreading because the text is not there to fuss over--unless someone turns the contrast knob and peeks. The saved text is later evaluated for insights, habits of phrasing, and other less-than-conscious phenomena. If students can overcome the fear of losing their narrative way in the dark, they gain a sense of fluency uninterrupted by the urge to correct surface features.
In another variety of invisible writing, two students sit at adjacent work stations, unable to see their own screen outputs because the monitor cables have been crossed. Each partner can only see what the other has entered on his or her keyboard. One student begins freewriting and enters ??? if lost. To this question the partner may respond with a reminder, "YOU WERE SAYING...." If the free-writer enters XXX to designate a lapse of ideas, the partner offers suggestions. This cooperation yields an assisted freewriting and a set of comments based on a genuine dialectic: students depending on each other's responses to writing.
Marcus' idea offers considerable benefits, practical and theoretical. This is an ingenious way to provide interactive responses without recourse to artificial intelligence systems. All you need are a couple of micros, two students, and any word-processing program. More important than avoiding elaborate programming or
mainframe equipment, this cooperative composition instills trust in the process of making sense on paper. Writing invisibly and receiving written help becomes an analogy for the writer's solitary thinking on a subject and eventual expression. Conversations can lead to the same end, but they are ephemeral. The beauty of cross-cabled invisible writing is that the two students document their struggle to make sense, while prompting each other and, thus, increasing their chances for success.(4)
My own game incorporates Marcus' invisible writing strategies, as I've described them, and follows these additional procedures:
1. Switch monitor cables between two microcomputers.
2. Load a list of words containing the sound of "x" (sex, exercise, axis); choose three of these words. [The teacher prepares the word list and the students review it using the DOS "TYPE" command. This may require them to practice the <CTRL>S delay command if the file is arranged in one long column.] 3. Have teams of two students invoke the word-processing program and open a file named by their initials. Next, have one partner (the starter) enter your three X words. [Because of unfamiliarity with the diverted screen output, students may be allowed to look at their partners' screens or to ask each other for help. This dialogue makes acquaintances, establishes
trust, and relieves the initial frustration of entering "invisible" text.] 4. Now have students tilt the monitors and communicate only by typing questions and responses. The starter types a number 1 and composes a sentence using one of the X words visible on the screen from the set chosen by the partner. If students want to ask a question, then type ??? and enter their question; if they lose their train of thought, then type XXX and their partner can respond with some helpful advice like, "YOU WERE SAYING. . . ."
The students partner will, in turn, enter sentence number 2, using one of the X words visible on the screen. Back and forth it goes, until the students have run out of words and questions. Students should not worry about misspelling and other mistakes--the point is to write sentences that somehow fit together. Encourage students to use their imagination and ask their partner for help if they feel lost. [The number of sentences is either set by the students' enthusiasm or by the teacher in advance.]
5. When students are finished, tell them to save the file and exit to DOS. Have them copy their partner's file onto their diskette and vice versa. [At this point silence can be broken and the monitor cables switched back. If practice of the DOS copy command is not desired, this step can be
accomplished within the word-processing program.]
6. Finally, have students invoke the word processor and merge their two files. When two sets of dialogue and sentences are assembled, have them use block moves to copy the sentences into one paragraph. Preserve the original transcript, and print the complete record of the game. [The teacher should comment on the coherence of this paragraph and the nature of the collaboration, but an experimental piece like this should not be graded.]
I developed DOSEQUIS for several purposes: to create a truly interactive program of instruction, to transfer the fun of sophisticated game-playing to composition, to exercise a few DOS commands. The last is a useful though not essential skill; it is handy to know how to display and copy files without resorting to a word-processing program. Secondly, mental game-playing, as opposed to the test of hand-eye coordination found in video arcades, allows students to experience the satisfaction of thinking creatively about writing. Partnership relieves the pressure to perform solo and increases the pleasure of working together towards a mutually determined goal, a coherent paragraph. Finally, DOSEQUIS is one-hundred-percent interactive, that is, human responses are guaranteed. Eliminated is the temptation to fool the machine or ridicule the programmed instruction. Two students can play it outside of class or a tutor can play it with a tutee. I use it in a computer lab where
up to twenty-four students can pair off. A game like this is, however, not the same as a program a student can use anytime, autonomously.
Any composition course, but especially one relying on computers, needs a developed concept of interactivity. Whether students use cathode-ray tubes, typewriters, or paper as their medium, composing requires the liberating discovery that words are not just the "output" of thought and thought is not "put into" words directly. Composing is a mediated activity mutually dependent on thinking and writing, a dialectic duo.(5) DOSEQUIS helps people realize how greatly human language differs from word processing and why computer literacy is a misnomer: composition, understood as the putting together of meaning, requires far subtler discriminations of mind than the mechanical skills needed for computer competency or computer skill. "Literacy" implies a comprehension of a higher order than it takes to manipulate DOS commands. DOSEQUIS aids the retention of these relatively simple procedures without making them the focus of the lesson. Accepting and transforming the uncertainty of how and where the paragraph will turn out, perceiving computer-aided dialogue as a model for the dialectics of composition--these are the real lessons.
Let us examine some of the manners of approaching the game and analyze some of the paragraphs. Not all students will pose questions or admit to being lost if they can respond in some fashion to each preceding sentence. Here is an example of a paragraph composed by two students who knew what they
wanted. They began with the following word list: reflex, exercise, exit, sex, x-ray, ox.
Your reflexes are very slow. I heard that sex can sharpen those reflexes. Sex will only sharpen your reflexes if you exercise often. If you exercise in the sun, the x-rays will damage your body. If the sun gets to [sic] hot you can exit the beach and exercise in your bedroom. Make sure you are not being followed by a fat ox.
This adolescent flirtation is partly inspired by the sensual associations of X words customarily advertising products like cars and movies. In the above case, the students' reliance on conditional constructions would be a proper focus for the teacher's commentary. If/then serves as a model for causes and effects derived from an innocent statement about slow reflexes and concluded by an imperative, warning against the dangers of bovine desire.
Now consider a more complex record, beginning with the assembled paragraph and continuing with a sample of the writers' dialogue, arranged into double columns. The writers began with the word list: luxury, xylophone, Texas, axis, exam, Mexico.
Final Assembled Paragraph: Most people think that Mexico is a semi-exotic, semi-tropical country fraught with drug smugglers and tourists. Actually, very few Mexicans enjoy the luxury that we usually associate with this country. Under police exams, most dealers testify that they eke out a living exporting produce across the border. In Texas, it is common to find many rich drug sellers. But the axis of their income (and thus their spending) centers in houston [sic] and other large cities in the United States; very little of the profit reaches Mexican citizens. Poor citizens, such as the talented xylophone players of Mexico, who cannot afford sheet music, have to find other, degrading sources of work.
Student #1 Student #2 1. Most people [...] tourists. Jessie, does that look like a sentence? Yes! Better return before you start your sentence. 2. Actually, very few Mexicans XXX Which word are you trying to fit in? luxury That should work because drug dealers, you would thinhk, [sic] would live in luxury. You mispelled think. Can't see it to correct it. [another segment] 6. Poor citizens such as the talented xylophone players of Mexico That's not really a sentence. You gotta say "Poor citizens such as the talented xylophone players of Mexico, who cannot even afford sheet muic [sic] have to etc. just add on to mine. We can edit later. Take it from the comma after music. have to sell match books at the train station to eat? have tosell [sic] Don't take my idea. It has to be your own sentence. I'm just trying to inspire you. have to find other, degrading sources of work.
The first segment shows how willingly people will help one another overcome the difficulties of sending messages into a void. The writer on the left, a tutor, reinforces the proper priorities for this game--sense first, editing later. In the second segment, notice how this writer offers criticism and encouragement to her less confident tutee. Their cooperative effort leads to a respectable paragraph that gathers diverse X words including that hard-to-accomodate xylophone.
The teacher might comment on the series of contrasts arising naturally from the dialogue technique. What "Most people think" about Mexico is opposed to the assertion that "Very few Mexicans enjoy" the wealth from drug traffic. The supporting claim about the meager income of exporters (an unsolicited X word) is set over against the relative success of American dealers. That remark solicits sympathy for the other side, which gives some pretext for working in the xylophone, a tough word to reconcile. Praise is due for the writers' coherent compositions, and the teacher might then suggest that each propose a theme sentence gathering these contracts into a clearer focus.
Dialogue games enable the teacher to observe that the interaction between partners occurs similarly in a writer's inner dialogue. Because most composition students are not aware of the give and take of their thinking, a game like DOSEQUIS can demonstrate the process graphically. The players unconsciously imitate the Socratic method. A clever invention program like TOPOI, despite the appearance of playing "Socrates to every student's Phaedrus," might be better personified as Gorgias the Sophist, because the "respondent" is a subroutine, albeit one designed by a sensitive programmer.(6) The student's entry is not understood but decoded for key words that trigger pre-arranged responses. Students knowingly responding to each other's queries and comments illustrate the value of human interpretation rather than the mechanical signals I. A. Richards derisively considered the inanimate conveyances of meaning and Whitehead dismissed as "mere sensa."(7)
Students may be oblivious to the puns in the title of DOSEQUIS and to the subliminal associations of X words, but that does not matter. Human intelligence supersedes the current state of computer-simulated intelligence, although the mimicking is becoming more and more sophisticated.(8) Games that employ the computer as a dumb transmitter exploit the intelligence of student writers, who are often pleased and surprised at how much sense they can make when working together.
1. Two useful primers: John E. Huntington (1979). Computer-assisted instruction using BASIC. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Education Technology Publications. Burrowes, Sharon, & Burrowes, Ted (1985). Improving CAI in BASIC. Eugene, OR: International Council for Computers in Education, (1985).
2. See the following references:
Harris, J. (1984). Computer Luddism. Etcetera, 41(1), 56-60. Bok, D. (1985). Looking into education's high-tech future. Harvard Magazine, 29-38.
3. The title plays upon coincidental resemblances among 1. the acronym for Disk Operating System 2. "two Xs" in Spanish 3. a Mexican beer of the same name.
4. Marcus, S. (1983). Real-time gadgets with feedback: Special effects in computer-assisted writing. The Writing Instructor, 2, 156-164. Also in WiIliam Wresch, (Ed.), The Computer in Composition Instruction (pp. 120-130). Urbana, IL: National Council for Teachers of English.
5. Berthoff, A. E. (1981). Thinking about language, and Towards a pedagogy of knowing, in The Making of Meaning. (pp. 107-112, 48-60). New Jersey: Boynton/Cook.
6. Burns, H. Maj. Recollections of first-generation computer-assisted prewriting. In William Wresch, (Ed.), The Computer in Composition Instruction (p. 26). "Questionnaires indicate that most composition students want more help in the early stages of writing, but composition teachers do not have enough time to play Socrates to every student's Phaedrus." Burns alludes to the innocent companion in Plato's dialogue, Phaedrus. The wily Socrates asks Phaedrus questions until the pupil understands that the topic under discussion, love, is not as simple as he supposed. I question the assumption that, just as the Socratic method can lead to the recognition of a truth, so a clever invention program can enlighten students in the same way. My contrasting allusion refers to another Platonic dialogue, Gorgias, whose titular character is a rhetorician in love with words, speeches, and, in Socrates' eyes, only the appearance of wisdom. Gorgias' persuasive oratory resembles interactive CAI in that both are calculated to show understanding of the audience, whereas, in fact, they achieve their powerful effects without "understanding," in the human sense, any responses at all. Without denigrating the motives of programmers and teachers, I would suggest that Socrates' perception about Sophistic rhetoric also applies to computer-aided instruction: "...the activity as a whole, it seems to me, is not an art, but the occupation of a shrewd and enterprising spirit, and of one naturally skilled in its dealing with men, and in sum
and substance I call it `flattery'." The Complete Dialogues of Plato (1961) Princeton: Princeton U.P. (p. 246) (465 d, in W. P. Whitehead's translation of Gorgias).
7. Richards, I. A. (1984). "Functions and factors of language" and Whitehead, A. N. "Expression." In Ann E. Berthoff (Ed.) Reclaiming the Imagination: Philosophical Perspectives for Writers and Teachers of Writing. New Jersey: Boynton/Cook (pp. 84, 92).
8. Schank, R. & Hunter, L. (1985, April). The quest to understand thinking. Byte. pp. 143-155.