Any of you my age or older (mid 20s and up) remember a time before there were computer labs at school. A simpler time when we used things call books and wrote papers by hand on…paper. Simpler times indeed. Then came the old green and black-screened Apples (at least at my elementary school) like these to the right. Well, eventually, more and more schools and people started getting into these things call personal computers. And eventually, these computers met a girl named WAC. WAC liked to write. In fact, she loved to write. She couldn’t stop telling people about the stuff. Computers made it easier for WAC to write. But not only that, computers made it easier to tell people about writing. We’ll just say that computer and WAC made real good friends. Probably moved in together in some high-rise apartment over the valley. Went to parties. Real living the high life stuff. Ok, pause. Let’s go back to when WAC and computer first met. That’s where Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum by Donna Reiss, Dickie Selfe, and Art Young begins.
Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum (ECAC) is a collection of essays that discuss the use of electronic devices in WAC environments. Some of the essay titles include:
“Using Computers to Expand the Role of Writing Centers”
“Composing Human-Computer Interfaces Across the Curriculum in Engineering Schools”
“Teacher Training: A Blueprint for Action Using the World Wide Web”
“Computer-Supported Collaboration in an Accounting Class”
“Electronic Communities in Philosophy Classrooms”
Now, ECAC was published in 1998 so you would be safe in assuming that some of these essays are out-dated and obsolete. However, a larger portion of the essays are not obsolete because of the technology they discuss but are valuable for the concepts which they discuss. Concepts such as effective use of online resources, how to promote discussion through online mediums, using electronic communication to span gaps of universities and classes, and the use of electronic resources to make tutors more effective are all still very pertinent today. In fact, one of the essays discusses tutoring and electronic resources, and I brought up some of these things in my campus’s own tutoring lab (the Learning Center). The book reinforces and talks about many of the concepts we’ve discussed all semester. Reading the articles in ECAC helped cement these concepts within my own self. I see these things being employed on my own campus, and I’m so excited that these (to me) famous, big published ideas and programs are being incorporated and used on my own campus. As Cynthia Selfe said in the foreward of the book, “The specific computer applications described in these chapters…really matter very little because they are simply time-bound instantations of a computer world…What is important about each of the chapters in this book, then, is not the technology of computers but the ways in which the technology of writing is used to encourage thinking and learning in [electronic] environments” (xiv). Indeed, the technology will always change; however, good teaching practices rarely have to. I want to discuss some of the things in this book that caught my attention and how they relate to our class and my own experience in this course particularly to my work at the campus learning center. So, without much more verbiage, I’d like to begin. 🙂
You read the foreward/preface? …What a loser.
Yes. I did read the foreward. And you know what? I liked it! The foreward to ECAC is really helpful. The very first thing I noted in it was on the first page: “The important ECAC case studies…provided here add to our profession’s cumulative knowledge about the educational projects in which we are all involved” (ix). Hello! Take from the commons, give to the commons. Right? From the get-go ECAC seeks to provide a resource for educators and administrators that aren’t sure how to use technology effectively (some technology newer than others at the time of publishing). Here’s the thesis of the entire book, also in the foreward: “How, in other words, can we take advantage of electronic communication across the curriculum? This book provides a series of case studies that offer responses to this query” (xii). The foreward gives a brief history of WAC and computers. It skims over some of the early WAC advances at places like Michigan Tech and Beaver College. We learn that by the late 70s computers (personal computers they were called) finally became cheap enough for liberal arts departments to buy into them. Previously, computers were mammoth machines that took up entire rooms and necessitated sharing “time” on them because it took longer to run a program through them. Now they were faster, smaller, and cheaper. Selfe puts it like this:”The low cost of [computers]…their ease of use, and the availability of inexpensive and effective word-processing software that was invented specifically to support the act of writing made these machines valuable” (xi). So now the floodgates were opened. But where would this new technology take WAC? Some things we take for granted in modern educational systems were predicted in ECAC. “Networks would eventually support peer-group exchanges of drafts, online discussions of rhetorical decision making, and web-based research…”(xi). Can you say email and blackboard? I think you can! What we ended up with is a variable all-you-can eat buffet of technology at our fingertips to make composition easier and more communal than ever before. Or, as Selfe states it in the foreward, “Teachers who continued to work with computers gradually realized that technology was useful not as a mechanical tutor, but, instead, as a broadly based support system and medium for the writing and learning that students in all disciplines were doing” (xii). Selfe uses the foreward to set the stage for the book, as a good foreward should. She lets us know why the use of technology was such a world-changing thing in the realm of education. Computers allowed faculty and students alike to communicate and create at a speed and simplicity never-before imagined. I see why WAC liked computers so much. So the foreward gives us all these wonderful teasers about technology, but how could it all be used? Well, the first chapter immediately starts answering that question.
Good stuff from the get-go!
Chapter one, titled “Using Computers to Expand the Role of Writing Centers” and written by Muriel Harris, was fascinating. I work at the learning center of my own college so I was excited to see what centers were using technology for in the late nineties. The first page of the chapter uses and example of a student coming to the writing center for help to illustrate how computers can be helpful. Essentially, if the center has computers, the tutor is able to show the student databases immediately rather than the student only getting tips and then left to peruse the databases on their own somewhere else. Every one of the cubicles in our learning center has a computer in it. We (the tutors) use these computers daily during tutoring sessions. Essentially, I take them for granted. Although, in 1998 these were very new developments and only well-funded departments and labs could afford to have any (let alone one for every work station) at all. This chapter really just details why computers are a good thing to have in a center. It was eye-opening for me because many of the pedagogical methods chapter one talks about are things I do instinctively every day when I tutor. I’m not tooting my own horn, we have wonderful administrators and mentors that give new tutors these tools we need. It was interesting to see how forward-thinking these ideas were only 20 years ago.
For example, Harris brings up the point that computers can allow writing centers to have a greater outreach program than previous models. Writing centers of the time employed outreach methods such as phone-conferencing or “grammar hotlines”, satellite offices in various campus departments, and even sending tutors to residence halls or library study rooms. Computers could offer writing centers another kind of outreach in the form of email conferencing for off-campus students, online tutorials, or “synchronous conferencing”. My own learning center utilizes many of these concepts: satellite offices, residence hall tutoring rooms, email tutoring, and online tutorials. Those all seemed just run-of-the-mill everyday things for me. I never considered how forward thinking online tutorials or email-tutoring was. Our learning center, even though it is based on a small-ish campus, is a million-dollar complex by 1998 intents and purposes! This chapter opened my eyes to what all I take for granted. For example, some of our campus’s adjunct instructors use an online program that allows them to essentially video conference and chat with students in real-time over vast distances. Harris calls this “synchronous conferencing” and can only speculate about the realistic use of this technology. However, now was have Skype – a FREE video conferencing program. We have messenger services that allow us to chat in real-time. The extent to which we (WAC people, educators, what have you) have embraced technology and brought it into our daily teachings is so incredible. We’re apparently people that aren’t afraid of change (well, not all of us, haha).
Chapter 2: Prehistoric Blackboard
Maybe not “prehistoric” per say, but certainly archaic by technology timelines and standards, haha. Chapter 2, “Writing Across the Curriculum Encounters Asynchronous Learning Networks”, discusses “computer-mediated communication” which essentially would now be called learning environments most likely associated with Blackboard or Pearson’s MyComp Lab. The authors Gail Hawisher and Michael Pemberton discuss their own experiences with these “learning networks” on their own campus. The interesting part of this chapter was seeing how professors had to learn to use this new tool. One specific example is a professor who (I’ll use modern terms here to make it simple for everyone) wanted to have Blackboard discussions to aid class discussions. The problem the professor didn’t count on was: if students could interact in class, why should they do it online? No one used the Blackboard threads. An educator must consider the variables of a tool and also what they want out of their course or the lesson. There were some differences though. In one example the authors say that students chose not to use the group meeting space of the university blackboard program because it was simpler to just meet in person. However, I think currently more people want to use online alternatives to meeting on campus. I’ve completed many projects with classmates through Facebook, Blackboard, or email because it was easier to meet. People are much more on the go and are also much more connected (to the internet/digital devices) currently than people were in the 90s. Online environments like Blackboard and MyComp Lab currently give students a place to collaborate. To use a term from class, these environments are commons. A place where professors can share information, links, content, and students can share work, thoughts, ideas, and discussion. They allow writing to be a method of learning as well as communication. And that’s always nice. 🙂
Another chapter about writing centers? Really?
Yes. However, chapter 5, “Creating a Community of Teachers and Tutors”, focuses more on theories and practices in training Writing Fellows and professors for the University of Richmond’s WAC program. What Joe Essid and Dona Hickey discuss in this chapter is essential for WAC program building. In a nutshell, they discuss how their WAC programs utilizes Writing Fellows and tutors and what technology they use to help train these Writing Fellows. Collaborative theory is all important here. Their WAC program seeks to “[improve] student literacies – cultural, textual, and technological” (74). To serve this goal, the WAC program utilizes technology to encourage collaborative communication and learning within its staff. “The training of Writing Fellows emphasizes how computer-assisted environments support contemporary rhetoric and composition theory” (76). The chapter discusses how online chat sessions (synchronous meetings) and forum threads (for lack of a better term here) are used to give Fellows and tutors a time to reflect on training sessions. These meetings also serve as environments for discussing program-required readings. By removing a professor from the room (because it is an online session), the tutors and Fellows create a sense of professionalism among themselves. They enter their discourse communities. Also, email is used for tutors and Fellows to communicate with off-campus professionals and experts in fields to aid them in joining discourse communities. This communication with other people fosters a sense of professionalism as the participants learn to network, share discourse, and communicate with other members of their fields. All of these methods of training, communication, and learning seek to remove a hierarchical structure from the program. Rather than a teacher that imparts knowledge, tutors and Fellows collaboratively learn and share. In this sense, they learn to be facilitative educators and directive educators. The chapter covers many basic concepts of how the University of Richmond’s program works as well as why and why doesn’t it work. This chapter covers why technology can increase the effectiveness of a program and how it can rather than the kinds of technology to use. In this sense, it is timeless. It is educational and insightful. The topics in this chapter made me rethink the way I tutor and communicate with others, and that’s why it is awesome.
ECAC, yes, is dated. However, as the above few chapters show, there are some really insightful and key elements discussed in its pages. To go back to my opening words, “The technology will always change; however, good teaching practices rarely have to.” ECAC displays how we can, and have, used technology to increase the effectiveness of WAC pursuits. It also opens doors and eyes to see how the things we take for granted are indeed truly wonderful tools in our never ending path of education. I enjoyed it immensely, and I think you guys would too. 🙂