Printout: On Composition and Computers--Deborah H. Holdstein
Holdstein, Deborah H. (1987). On Composition and Computers. New York: MLA.
This brief, readable monograph is the third work in the MLA Technology and the Humanities series edited by Hans Rutimann. In the Foreword, Lisa Gerrard calls the book a "down-to-earth guide that offers practical advice on equipment, software, writing labs, and that also sifts the fact from the hyperbole." I would add that the book addresses political ramifications of computer use in the humanities, perhaps its most important contribution. To this extent, Holdstein's book goes beyond the practical details that we would expect in a book of this sort.
From the outset, the author makes clear that computer use should arise from a preconceived composition philosophy and not vice- versa. That is, the pedagogy should direct and take precedence over the technology. This seems an obvious enough point, although as Holdstein indicates, too often instructors assume they must radically alter their "teaching styles to prove their familiarity with or commitment to technology" (p. 5).
Chapter 1, entitled "Assumptions, Definitions, and Techniques," presents seven types of computer software and examples of each: drill-and-practice, tutorial, simulation, and so on. Holdstein suggests viewing these as a continuum, ranging from the least flexible to the most flexible, with word processing corresponding to the latter. Chapter 2 develops guidelines for evaluating and selecting software and hardware; it also contains a section on setting up a computer lab for writing instruction. In this chapter, Holdstein draws heavily on Thomas Barker's survey of hardware and software use and refers to Barker's work at Texas Tech as a case study in setting up a microlab. Although Barker's example is instructive, here is a place where more diversified information would be preferable. Holdstein is obviously familiar with a number of composition programs using computers but seems reluctant to provide full descriptions of a wide range of approaches. Yet, now that computers are increasingly prevalent in English departments, such information would have been helpful in this chapter.
Just as Chapter 2 classifies types of software, Chapter 3 provides a valuable categorization of eight types of computer/composition research ranging from testimonials to empirical research to surveys. Further on, Holdstein touches on some of the most notable research project. Here again, I hoped for more extensive coverage. For a book of this type, five pages on research seems inadequate even considering the relative brevity (92 pages) of the book as a whole. Also, I wish that the specific project cited were linked more clearly with the eight research categories described at the beginning of the chapter.
I find Chapter 4 the most worthwhile in the book. Called "The Politics of Computers and Writing: An Overview," it raises issues that should concern anyone developing computer-based materials in a humanistic discipline. As she did in her contribution to Lisa Gerrard's Writing at Century's End (NY: Random House, 1987), Holdstein here discusses the complex matters of software ownership and of software as publication. She raises eleven key questions for faculty members interested in software development, such as, "Are there adequate financial resources to develop and field-test the software?" (p. 65). The author perceives that computers add "a new dimension to the traditional, though unfortunate, division between writing and literary specialists" (p. 68). But she says little
more about this conflict, although this is one of the most important political ramifications of bringing technology into the writing classroom.
On Composition and Computers contains, particularly in Chapters 2 and 3, some material that is readily available elsewhere. And the four-page glossary seems extraneous. But the omissions here are more worrisome than the excesses. I have noted the need for more emphasis on specific computer-related writing projects and for more attention to research. In addition, a list of software referred to would be most helpful. Curiously, Holdstein includes only her own software in the bibliography.
The book's final chapter, "The Future" glances at innovations which will soon change the look of our writing courses even more: desktop publishing, networks, optical disks, CD-ROM technology, and sophisticated workstations. As we plunge ahead, worrying over how much emphasis we should place on computers, guides like this one will be helpful. In recent years, we've had some excellent introductory essay collections and surveys in this special area which is not even a decade old. But we are nearing a time when more specialized books will be essential as we attempt to pair sound pedagogy with current technology.