Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 1/ January 1, 1995 / Page 7

What's Dis'course About? Arguing CMC into the Curriculum

by Bill Hart-Davidson (

Here then is the central question before us as educators and as citizens. What, if anything are we in danger of losing or conversely, what might we gain when students in large numbers and eventually people throughout society begin writing, not just by linking items in a database or conversing on-line, but by integrating words with pictures, moving as well as still, and sounds?

Myron C. Tuman
Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age

As a writing teacher, a student of rhetoric and composition, a voice in the discourse of computers and writing, and a "concerned citizen," I have attempted to ask and respond to the question raised by Myron Tuman to just about anyone whom I thought might need to hear. Sometimes I rephrase the question, depending on who is listening: What happens when writing does not equal print? What happens when our supposed goal of literacy for all is seriously undermined by access to technology? What do we really teach when we teach "writing"? But the questions are always meant to provoke, disturb, and, inspire the listeners.

Here again, I have the chance to ask such a question, and to offer some provocation. But the readers of CMC Magazine are much more likely to have been the askers of the kind of questions I mentioned above than the usual stunned listeners; and so I am asking here a different question, one that is very much focused on the future of the technologies we call CMC, and the technologies that we lump together under the word "writing." My question:

How can we argue our case more effectively than we have been?

The ambiguity of the question I have posed is a place to begin. Is it a benefit or a threat to our purpose that the "we" in the question remains radically undefined, yet unified as the subject of the action? Of course it is both. If we assume, for example, that the "we" represents those people involved in the computers and writing "movement," those actively involved in the discourse of the movement might rightfully shudder at the gross generalization the "we" represents. But those who are involved in "teaching writing" and NOT involved in "computers and writing" probably see no problem with the "we." So how should we argue from this "we" position?

Arguments and Imperatives

I have found myself, in the last year or so, arguing from the position of this innocuous "we" speaking as "computer writing person" to plain old "writing persons." The argument usually starts off something like this:

Changes in writing technology--spurring the shift away from print-exclusive views of writing and the need toward the need to prepare students to handle writing situations that occur both on-line and off-line--suggest that writing courses, as they are currently taught at most institutions, need to be re- conceived.

Our challenge is to respond to two imperatives:

What I am really suggesting in this kind of an argument, to this kind of an audience, is that writing is no longer the writing we used to know...and how can we go around with the words "writing person" describing us if we don't pay attention to what writing means? Of course, sometimes I have to be a little less direct. For example, in a memo trying to convince my Writing Program Adminstrator that I should be allowed to teach a First-Year Composition (FYComp) section in a networked environment here at Purdue (the departmental computer facilities here are currently reserved almost exclusively for technical and professional writing courses), I said:

As the activities which we collectively call "writing" become increasingly associated with, if not dependent upon, computer technologies, we do ourselves and our students a disservice when we claim to be engaged in a process of teaching basic discursive competency without acknowledging and incorporating computers in our first-year composition sections. Without waxing too polemical here...I am strongly committed to a revision of our fundamental literacy goals in the teaching of writing to include broader access to and incorporation of computers in foundational courses such as 101 and 102.

Sound familiar? To many readers it will. And yet I want to emphasize that this sort of argument is NOT particularly satisfying to me and to many in computers and writing. In fact, I have begun, lately, to disbelieve what I have said with regards to teaching some kind of "basic discursive competency." My increasing discomfort, in fact, grew from a claim typical of the two cited earlier. This one comes from an early draft of a conference proposal:

The growing impact of computer technologies on writing and writing instruction has begun to raise some serious questions about what should be taught in a writing course. Just as Kinneavy found that teaching what he identifies as the "aims" of discourse as established discursive forms to be impractical and ultimately harmful, so are researchers beginning to question the priveleging of print-based discursive forms in college writing instruction.

How responsible can we claim to be if, even as we claim to be preparing students to write in the world outside our classrooms, we do not include computer-based discourse? And just as Bakhtin has caused us to question the value of individual writers producing drafts alone as a valid pedagogy, computers and writing advocates are challenging the very notion of producing "final drafts" at all as real-time, computer-mediated communication over local and wide area networks becomes increasingly popular. It seems that we are once again in need of a discursive re-evaluation of our teaching priorities in composition.

Product vs. Process...Redux

In this argument, it became clear to me that considering writing from the perspective of technology--or more strongly, considering writing to be a technology--radically challenges both the way we teach writing, and why we teach writing in the first place. In a graduate Composition Theory course in which I am currently enrolled, I defended the use of real-time conferencing in writing classrooms against the suggestion that they did not constitute "writing." The argument is a familar one, once again, for "computer writing people," but one which "writing people" still need to hear. It goes something like this:

If what we really want to teach in our writing courses is "the writing process," then isn't it desirable to get as process- oriented as possible? Isn't it desirable to blatantly undermine "product" conceptions of writing, as portfolio assessment apparently tries to do? And wouldn't it be even more desirable to eliminate printed products altogether? Or to limit the creation of products to situations where "published" drafts are necessary? CMC in the classroom provides for just this sort of situation.

Or sometimes it goes something like this:

What happens if you have a class in which the majority of students are business majors and you find out, with only the smallest amount of research (like watching AT&T and MCI commercials on TV), that the majority of writing going on in the business world is electronic mail and/or real-time conferencing. Do you continue to teach students to write printed essays? Or do you teach them to "write" like they will be expected to write in their professions?

In either case though, the questions are the same. What do we teach? And why do we teach it? And to return to the question that guides this essay (how do we argue our case better than we have been?), it seems that the "we" in this question is not the only ambiguity. "Our case" is not at all clear either.

In my forthcoming presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I phrase my discomfort this way:

A potent combination of theory and ideology, the instantiations of which are rapidly changing writing technologies, threaten a pair of fundamental assumptions in our field: our assumption about a basic discursive competency underlying our pedagogy, our definitions of writing, and our conception of literacy, and the corresponding assumption about our disciplinary identity--the field's committment to what Michael Murphy calls "social progress" (p. 345).

These assumptions, put simply, have been the "what" and "why" of teaching writing. And while our "work" and our "disciplinary identity" have been challenged, revised, and re-established as the field has developed, we have rarely faced, I will suggest, such a strong challenge to both "what" and "why" at the same time. The role of writing technologies in these challenges is a complex one; for the purposes of this discussion, technology is the "site" in which the issues above take a concrete form, have real impact, and appear simultaneously as benefits and threats to the teaching of writing.

Writing Ability and Discursive Competency

And while I must admit I am happier with this argument, I am still not satisfied by it. Consider what I am suggesting here:

This last claim is deeply disturbing to me as a teacher of writing and as a "literacy worker." But when I look at writing as a technology, I see attempts to deny access to the technology happening much more than I see attempts to promote free access --even in the way we argue amongst ourselves.

Do You Want to Teach Writing? Or "Print Conventions"?

In a recent response to a thread on the listserv Megabyte University, I was given an opportunity to respond to these sorts of issues when Chris Carson wrote:
I don't think it is living in the past to want to ground students
in the basics that are transferable from medium to medium
and can be executed with whichever tool.
I responded by saying:
How would you recommend that we teach the basic,
transferrable "skill" that hypertext works to, as you might
say, enable, in a pencil and paper class?  Would it be
worthwhile?  My answer is that to try to reduce the writing
technologies we use to teach writing to a set of basic 
discursive competencies is a move to conceal the
ideological, political, and theoretical contexts in which they
are situated.  It is, therefore, a move away from any sort of
liberatory notion of literacy.
What I see at stake in this sort of dispute, is in fact our connection, as a discipline, to the committment of making literacy work for people. Tuman suggests that our choice is
[W]hether or not we will eventually remake college composition, and by extension higher level literacy, as multimedia communications or surrender the central space within the curriculum that English as the embodiment of print literacy has long occupied. (p. 115)
And this leaves me with yet another version of the question I seem to keep asking my fellow writing teachers: "Do you want to teach a class called 'print conventions and culture?' Or do you want to teach writing?"

So how will we argue our case better in the future? How do we deal with the contradictions in "our" "case"? How might we work to secure that writing professionals pay attention to what writing is and is becoming? My hunch is that we will work the answers to these questions out in much the same way as I have struggled to in this essay, by paying close attention to how we frame our arguments about CMC and, little by little, making them work better for our listeners and ourselves. ¤


Bill Hart-Davidson is a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. His research interests include computers and writing and issues of literacy and technology. He will present Itching for change: The need to re-view the first-year (dis) course in composition at CCCC in Washington D.C. this coming March.

Copyright © 1995 by Bill Hart-Davidson. All Rights Reserved.

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