Mattthew G. Kirschenbaum
Department of English
University of Virginia
January 1996

ENWR 101 Section 6: Retrospective Report on Teaching Computer-Assisted Composition

What follows is my report to the Department of English on my experiences teaching ENWR 101 in Bryan Hall's electronic classroom (Fall, 1995). Readers are encouraged to browse both the ENWR 101 Section 6 class homepage and our final project, a collaborative hypertext entitled Once Upon a Time in the Eighties; in addition, see my "Once Upon a Time in ENWR: The World-Wide Web as a Publication Medium for Student Essays." Teaching Conerns (Fall 1996).

Last summer when I found out I would be one of seven instructors teaching a computer-assisted composition class--"cybercomp" as we came to call it--I had assumed what we were going to be doing was cutting-edge, almost unique. Writing this now, in January, I know differently. Computer-equiped classrooms and writing labs have opened on dozens of campuses nation-wide (the University of Texas at Austin offers just one example). Student hypertext projects, such as the one I describe below, now seem commonplace (see the projects listed on the Teaching with Technology and Writing for the World pages). Diversity University, a MOO-based "virtual campus" that allows students to converse with anyone else logged into its network space has been increasingly active of late. It will take time to sort throught the pedagogical implications of these various new mediums and methods, and I would not wish to say that we should embrace them uncritically. But I do want to say this: much of what I describe in this report is fast becoming the rule, and not the rule's exception.

Those interested in this last point should read the attached summary of the Claremont Graduate School's 1995 Campus Computing Report.

I've compiled below a list of questions and answers others might find useful. I'm also always happy to discuss anything I've written here in more detail. E-Mail me at or get in touch through the Department of English in Bryan Hall.

What level of computing ability does a first year student need to function in Bryan 203?

At the very least, the ability to perform basic file management tasks in a Windows environment, and basic document construction and editing with WordPerfect 6.1. Ideally, students should also understand how to use a World-Wide Web browser (including its search functions), and be comfortable reading and writing electronic mail. These skills are not, of course, essential to learning, but they are essential to using this particular room's resources to something like their minimum potential.

On the first day of class I asked students (who did not know in advance the specialized nature of this section) to raise hands in response to a few questions about their familiarity with computers. Out of fourteen first-years, all claimed experience with a word processor, most on a Windows-based system or a Mac. Approximately half of the class had browsed the Web before. Several had already opened E-Mail accounts and were merrily exchanging messages with high school friends at other universities. I made clear to my less electronically-adept students, as I want to make clear here, that none of the above skills are complex or arcane. All of them can be acquired with a few hours of instruction, some patience, and some practice.

How did the computers alter class activities during workshops?

Workshops are the heart of an ENWR section, yet I have never thought my own were especially successful. I've been dissatisfied, for example, with the randomness inherent in workshop scheduling: students are assigned a date on which their paper will be workshopped at the start of the semester and when that day arrives, that particular paper must be workshopped regardless of the class's collective learning needs at that moment in the semester. Other papers, which might offer better demonstrations of a certain concept, rule, or technique, must be put aside in order to accomodate the fixed schedule. Moreover, students are workshopped once, or at most twice under this system.

This past semester, I tried several experiments with workshop structure. Generally, I divided the students into work groups (as few as three, as many as five) for every workshop session. These work groups were small enough to allow every student to have his or her paper workshopped for every assignment. But there are two compromises: first, students receive comments from a smaller group of their peers, and second, the work groups must function under my rotating supervision as I migrate from one to another. Consequently, students must be mature enough to work productively while unsupervised for part of the workshop. From the experience of myself and several other instructors who experimented with small group workshops, students are capable of handling this responsibility more often than not.

The computers facilitated this alternative workshop structure through electronic document transfer--permitting much greater flexibility than xeorx copies for students in distributing their work--but there is no logistical reason why such an experiment couldn't be tried in a non-networked classroom, given careful planning.

Of much greater importance, however, was the manner in which access to the computers blurred distinctions between draft and revision. Students were able to begin the revision process during their workshop, and received feedback from their peers as they developed and composed new ideas on-screen. As a result, these "hands on" workshops seem to represent a significant step towards better integrating the draft and revision process, both practically and in the mind of the student writer.

How did the presence of the computers alter class activities on non-workshop days?

Sometimes not at all. We had many sessions in which the computers were dormant and discussion was conducted around the table.

On other days, however, the computers proved especially valuable, particularly the projector attached to the instructor's machine at the front of the room. This provided us with an "electronic blackboard" on which I could display (for example) the text of a student essay that exemplified some point that I wanted to make (students were required to bring all their work to class on disk every day). The projector also allowed us to experiment with collaborative writing. After settling on a topic or objective, class members would call out phrases or whole sentences, which I would transcribe onto the computer that was attached to the projector. Not only was this a fun way to break monotony, but by "thinking out loud" as I typed in contributions, I was able to comment on some of the finer points of style and the writing process.

What textbooks did you use?

The Bedford Handbook for Writers, The Internet Yellow Pages, and Every Student's Guide to the Internet. With the possible exception of the Bedford Hanbook, I would not assign any textbooks at all if I were to teach the class again. On-line style and grammar guides (some of which are collected here on my course home page) offer material nearly--though not quite--comparable to the Bedford's. The Internet Yellow Pages is totally suplerfluous given the Web's readily accessible on-line directories (such as Yahoo), and the Guide contained nothing that couldn't have been taught in a very short time (and was quickly outdated besides).

Conspicuous in its absence from the above list of texts is a Reader. Almost all readings for my class were drawn from material available at one or another of the Web's roughly 100,000 distinct sites. I am convinced that the quality and diversity of material available on the Web (including the contents of literary archives such as Virginia's Electronic Text Center's Modern English collection) is more than sufficient to render the need for a reader or xerox packet obsolete. (Go here to look at my on-line assignments and readings.) Those students who, like myself, find it difficult to read large quantities of text from a screen always have the option of printing it out.

What kinds of papers did you assign?

In addition to the final project (described in a separate section below), and the usual diagnostic assignment and personal narrative, I contstructed two assignments around specific issues raised by electronic media. The first dealt with the question of "cyberporn" and First Ammendment rights on the Internet, while the second asked students to think about the implications of a shift from print-based to electronic-based reading and writing. These two topics helped make students aware of the broader social transformations that are the context for much of our activity in Bryan 203, and also lent a certain amount of thematic continuity to the semester.

What did the final project involve?

A four-to-five week class-wide effort which combined the requirements of the standard library assignment with a collaborative hypertext published on the Web. The project, entitled Once Upon a Time in the Eighties, required each student to research an historically significant trend, event or personage from the eighties, write and revise the assignment three times (not twice), and, at the student's discretion, incorporate images, sound clips, links to each other's papers, and links to outside Web sites that related to their work. Once Upon a Time in the Eighties was reviewed by Point Communications Corp., who rated it a "Top 5% Web Site," and was also contempt's "link of the week" for April 7 - 14, 1996. We are also listed under Yahoo's picks of "Cool Sites." As a result of this kind of publicity, the site now receives better than 150 hits per day.

In my opinion, the crucial dimension a Web project adds to student writing is a sense of audience. Every class runs the risk of becoming mired in a cycle whereby papers are simply shuttled back and forth in a closed loop between student, instructor, and the other members of the class during workshop. The Web offers the potential for breaking out of this cycle, particularly if the student work is in fact actually published by being listed on appropriate sites and servers, and indexed with the Web's search engines.

The multimedia capability of the Web can also produce some interesting effects. Integrating links, images, and in one case sound into their texts helped students perceive their work as a coherent rhetorical statement rather than simply a 600 to 800 word exercise.

Students also learned how to conduct research on the Web, using its search engines to find (or at least attempt to find) material relevant to their individual topics.

As for technical production, I spent a bit of class time teaching students the basics of HTML, and took care of some of the trickier markup myself, behind the scenes.

What hardware and software should be added to the room?

To turn the classroom into a true networked writing environment, software such as Norton Textra's Connect should be installed on all machines. This would allow for seamless document transfer from one individual computer to another; the current "drop box" arrangement was simply too involuted for students to use. MS Word on all the machines would also permit greater flexibility, as we experienced consistent conversion problems. Finally, I'd suggest removing the games from all the machines (except, of course, the instructor's!).

All instructor's teaching in the room should be given access to accounts on the department's Web server in order to facillitate the production of course-related Web materials. A system should also be developed for reliably archiving PowerPoint lectures and other resources as they are developed by individual instructors.

And what did your students think of all this?

From the beginning, they knew that the class was of an experimental nature. Most accepted the presence of the computers quite readily, and were remarkably flexible (and patient) throughout the semester as some ideas worked better than others. The collective reaction was clearly positive. At either extreme, however, I encountered two equally undesirable responses: the student who is "technophobic" and believes that the proximity of any kind of technology must distract from learning, and by contrast, the student who is far more interested in techno-gadgetry than the actual subject matter at hand. It was in achieving a balance between these two responses that much of my own learning for the semester took place. I have no hesistation in saying that this was the most successful ENWR section I have taught here at UVa, and I cannot now imagine going back to teaching composition in an analogue classroom.

If you're reading a printed copy of this document, please look at the on-line version at /mgk3k/enwr/report.html which contains active hyperlinks to course materials and various other Web sites.