Discussing Moran’s “From a high-tech to a low-tech writing classroom”

This week, we’re starting to make the last turn to the end of the semester, and I decided it would be useful to finish up with first a turn to the very concrete issue of actual computers in actual classes this week and then a turn to current issues/future issues of the so-called “digital humanities” and beyond.  To get started, this is where we’ll talk about Charles Moran’s “From a high-tech to a low-tech writing classroom:  ”You can’t go home again.” And I would recommend reading this article before you read Erin Karper’s “Make It Do or Do Without.”

Obviously, this is a “historical” piece in that Charles Moran is talking about giving up teaching in a computer lab for a semester seventeen years ago.  I think what se see here are some things that are different about computer labs and some things that are still the same. For example, one of the big differences for me with teaching in a computer lab now versus then (and I did teach in computer labs way back then) is nowadays, students don’t use the computers in the labs to do their actual writing. Back then, most undergraduates (particularly freshmen) didn’t have computers, so they would show up in the computer labs with handwritten drafts that they typed and revised in the lab.

The other reason I assigned this essay is because I actually experienced this myself last fall– well, almost. I was assigned to teach first year writing not in a computer lab for the first time in a long time.  I say “almost” because I just flat-out couldn’t do it and I got my class transferred to a computer lab. So I can relate to a lot of what Moran is talking about here with his frustrations in terms of collecting paper, the communication between students, and just the whole problem of, as he says, not being able to “go home” again.

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10 Responses to Discussing Moran’s “From a high-tech to a low-tech writing classroom”

  1. Melissa S says:

    Moran’s article was a refreshing change of pace from our typical “teachers can’t/won’t adapt to the computer classroom.” It was interesting to see a teacher struggling to go back to the traditional classroom setting. It certainly highlighted the differences between the two settings, but I was glad to see he acknowledged that he was unable to adapt or was perhaps just too reluctant to try. I think there are some gaps in this study, but that is most likely attributed to it being from 1998. I did find the difference between perceived “workplace” and “classroom” interesting, especially because I think many teachers these days would see it more as a place of distraction – this is certainly a concern among higher ed teachers & technology in the classroom. I also found myself wondering how I would feel knowing that people were reading my drafts and writings in progress. It is one thing to write & publish (completed) works in public but another to have your writing process online and public from start to completion – not everyone is comfortable with that. What I got from Moran’s article was that the computer has allowed the teacher to move into a new role, but it also seems like they have lost of some of their authority or responsibility in this move. I see the positives of this new role that Moran pointed out – being a part of the class community, learning from each other, etc. – but I know that it is also possible to have that closeness in a traditional setting. I also think it is something that is limited to a computer classroom setting – the same could not be said of an online class where the teacher is literally in control of the direction of the class. It was an interesting read but it does make me wonder how much is truly relevant in today’s computer classroom (especially now that students bring in their own laptops that aren’t part of the classroom “network.”)

  2. Jackie K. says:

    What I really appreciated about this article was the fact that, as Melissa notes, it presents an interesting “vice versa” of sorts to the usual “teachers failing to enter the digital classroom.” What I get from this is that teachers–probably like just about anyone–don’t like being forced to adapt to something that is not only a big change and a lot of extra work but is, to the mindset of some people, unnecessary. Writing can take place in a traditional classroom, and that’s great! Writing can take place in a digital classroom, and that’s great! But it’s when you try to force writing to take place through channels that are not well-suited to a particular teaching environment (or even a particular teacher), when you try to airlift strategies directly from brick-and-mortar to digital environments or vice versa–that’s when you run into trouble. I agree with Melissa, that it is possible to have closeness in just about any kind of classroom, if the instructor organizes the class in a way that promotes that closeness. And the way that happens would be (should be?) very different in the computer lab versus the traditional comp lab.

    As to having your writing process be public at all times… wow. I’m not sure that I would be a fan of that (which, I hope, to quote Moran’s little mantra from pages 7 and 8, would be OK). I think why it kind of rubs me the wrong way is that it removes some of the control over writing from the writer. As a writer, I like having the power to decide when to show my draft to other people and when to keep it for myself. And I feel that, knowing others were reading my process, I might write using an artificial process that seemed more “right” or more “acceptable.” Or I might write for my readers too early in the process, when I should be writing for myself and my ideas. I don’t know about everyone else’s writing processes, but my writing does not become “reader friendly” until quite late in the game. To anyone else reading it, it would probably look like gibberish–and that’s OK! ;) But would it be okay in a classroom where process is SO public? That I’m less sure about.

  3. It’s funny, Melissa, but I kept telling myself that it was an isolated incident-where he talks about the writing process being publicly visible from start to finish. I mean, that wasn’t the usual practice, right?!
    I kept thinking about how his much of his argument sounds like one that is made on the other side…I mean, really, he has a hard time creating a community in a room full of people? Sounds just like the argument against computer-heavy classrooms, “How can I connect when I never see students’ faces or hear their voices?”
    You can’t move around in a regular classroom–what’s stopping you exactly? You can usually rearrange the furniture, I’m thinking. The idea of the difference in the direction of attention was interesting. I can’t imagine going from students giving you their undivided attention, whereby you “know” they are paying attention, to a room where students do nothing but look at their computer screens.
    I wonder if there’s a study (I imagine so) outlining the experiences of people from the late 90s and then again in the late 2000s; it would be interesting to see both student and faculty responses to questions about the use of technologies in the classroom and how they’ve changed.

  4. Steve K. says:

    It’s interesting to read the anxiety and concern here about “public writing.” After all, what’s this class? It’s open to the world on a blog space and we’ve even had a few visitors here and there. That’s public writing, isn’t it? And that’s what happens when you write on your blog, right?

    In a very basic and fundamental way, the whole field of composition and rhetoric assumes that this is how writing works: that is, writing is a social activity and the way we learn how to be better writers is to exchange our writing with others in progress. And writing is a public activity in that if you want to communicate with anyone but yourself, you are ultimately putting the words you put together “out there” for others to read. We learn to write not by simply sending “private messages” to the teacher but by writing essays that reach to a larger audience that exists beyond the class. What’s threatening about that?

    What I have my students do in English 121 (and in classes like this often enough too, actually) is I have them share drafts with each other on Google Docs that are set up for others to edit and comment on. I think that’s the level of “public” that Moran is suggesting– actually, less than that because he was working with a set-up that was more of an “intranet,” meaning the writing was public to only other students and others on that network. In theory, everything on Google docs my students share is open out there for the whole world, though in practice, it’s a much smaller group of fellow students.

  5. Steve K. says:

    This classroom issue might seem trivial, but I can tell you from personal experience it is not. Since coming to EMU way back when, I’ve taught about 90% of my f2f classes in a computer lab, particularly 313 Pray-Harrold, and that room is a lot bigger than most for 20 students. So when Moran talks about the room to move around and such, I completely understand that. Last fall, when I was originally scheduled to teach 121 in a “normal” classroom, it was in a tiny room where I really did feel like we were all stacked up on top of each other. We could of course move the chairs/desks, but not much– it was a small room. In contrast, the computer lab we were in was huge. It had its own problems– the computers all faced the front and we couldn’t really move anything– but we at least could spread out.

  6. chelsea says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I kind of don’t feel sorry for him. Here we are, what, 17 years later? And I don’t teach in a computer classroom! Still, I think there is value in what Moran is saying – that how composition is taught in one space is not going to transfer easily into a different space, be it shifting from digital to not, large or small classrooms, large or small class size…and assuming we’re not reinventing the wheel each new semester, this can be problematic.

    One piece that stood out to me:
    “I’d say this: that when I taught in the traditional classroom, my students and I felt that the focus of the class was on their relationship to me, the teacher, not on their relationship to one anotherdespite the fact that I had created reading-and-responding groups. In contrast, in the computer-equipped classrooms the students and I felt that the focus was on the task and on groups assigned to complete the tasks.”

    I thought this was especially revealing, and possibly the most valuable of his reflections – the shift from focusing on the task at hand in the computer classroom, to the teacher in the traditional classroom. I think it is difficult sometimes for students to feel a sense of agency in a traditional space, but in a computer classroom where they are able to (and encouraged to?) work independently or in groups to figure things out, I think this might happen more organically.

    Example: today, I had my students working in stations – a citation station, a title station, a “show, don’t tell” station, etc. and they seemed confused, especially with citations. I brought in copies of The Everyday Writer, and yet my students still gathered around me, asking me to explain how to cite various sources. I think if we had met in a computer lab, they would have been more likely to take the initiative and look these things up themselves, using Purdue OWL.

    I also thought the evaluations from his students were significant in terms of describing where the focus was – he himself was evaluated, rather than the coursework, or even the course-space. Last semester I had a student do exactly that – rather than evaluating his own work, his own process, he evaluated me – I was nice, good at listening, etc. and it made me feel weird…but I wonder if, try as we may to create a “workshop” space in a traditional classroom, the focus is inevitably on the instructor because that’s a dynamic that students recognize.

  7. Danielle says:

    Jackie, I like your point about making one’s writing process public. I’m in the same boat as you here…my writing process is chaotic and, even though it works for me, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with every step of the process being made public. As a result, my public process might be more “artificial” if I knew that it would be viewable by the rest of the world and I wouldn’t like that. Reminds me of learning about and being forced to follow “the” writing process (whatever that was) in my middle school years and feeling like my creativity was stifled as a result.

  8. Jackie K. says:

    I don’t think it was so much the idea of public writing, in the sense of what you write being available to a “public”–the professor, your peers/classmates, the Internet–at least, not for me. I think it was more the sense of public process that weirded me out, and maybe I perceived this wrong when I was reading the article. The way I read it, it seemed as though Moran could access his student’s work at any time and access what they were working on at any moment–that their writing was never just their own to work on, that they could never take it away and fiddle with it and return it when they were ready for a reader to weigh in on it. Rather, a reader could peer in at. Any. Stage. Of. The. Process. And what are you working on now, little student, what progress have you made, hmmmm? (And again, I may have misunderstood this completely–that’s just the impression I got from part of the piece.)

    So, it’s not the issue of public writing that is shared. It’s not the issue of getting reader input. It was more having EVERY moment of writing be on display that would have thrown me off kilter. Even with this blog or with my blog, even with Google Docs, the writer has the power to decide when to share what they have written with others. The writer has the power to offer their writing to the reader, instead of the reader having the power to always creep in unannounced and stare over the writer’s shoulder to judge whatever nonsense garble serves as that writer’s most preliminary draft.

    I’m sure, Professor Krause, that Moran was actually talking about something more like what you are describing. Just the way it came across to me in his article made it seem like something a little more… frightening.

    Big Brother is watching you write your essay. ALWAYS. ;)

  9. Sarah K. says:

    I definitely see why it can be difficult for teacher to adapt to a new environment in a small amount of time. I feel that we should give teachers a little leeway when this kind of thing happens.

  10. Steve K. says:

    Well, there is always an element of control and authority in teaching, especially in classes like first year writing where I have found it necessary to do a certain amount of “policing” to make sure students are doing stuff like actually writing drafts instead of just cobbling something together at the last minute. So while I am not “there” looking over their shoulder every minute (I don’t have that much time), I don’t give them a lot of choices as to when they can share their writing and so forth.

    But to me, what Moran is describing isn’t any more draconian than Google docs, and really not even a whole lot more demanding or invasive than requiring students to turn in drafts and such in a paper version of fycomp. I mean, our classes aren’t invitations so much as demands for students to show us their writing process.

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