Computers and Composition at George Mason University: A Brief History
Ruth Fischer
 
These days, if you peek into the computer lab designated for the English Department, you'll see 24 Gateway 2000 Pentium 11 266 computers lined up in the shape of the letter W, each with the capability of taking students into the fart days when we didn't "do" Windows, working instead in a DOS environment on 8088 clones, most assembled at GMU, which were the first on campus to have two disk drives (but no hard drives) with students who had virtually no experience with--let alone access to--personal computers. Those were the days when a crucial part of instruction was admonishing students to handle their floppy disks with care, lest they damage them and lose their files. ("Don't sit on them. Don't leave them in the sun or anything magnetic, and, above all, do not use a ball point pen to label your disk!") Those were the days when we relied on PC Write for Students, a booklet written by O'Connor and edited by Roger Lathbury that offered the only documentation for the program until its demise in 1992. Those were the days when we'd trudge, with master PC Write disks and two clean floppies per student in hand, to a lab located in the basement of Thompson Hall or a trailer next to the PE buildings or a trailer behind the West Building to teach o troubleshoot the wide range of hardware and software problems that plagued the newly evolving system. And, in addition, to teaching the technical aspects of computers, such as how to turn on the machine, negotiate the keyboard and manipulate the software, they had to construct a curriculum that used the technology to support the development of writing and critical thinking skills. And they had to be willing to share some of their authority as teachers in classrooms in which students often knew more about the quickly evolving technology that they did.

As stated in the Department of English Guidebook for English Composition 100/101/302 and 200-level Literature Courses 1999-2000, one goal for composition courses is "To prepare students for diverse writing demands in college and the workplace by teaching . . . newly-emerging technologies for research and writing" (12). The instructional focus on different aspects of computer/information technology has changed over the years as students have become more experienced with computers. We no longer have to focus on teaching a word-processing software, for example, although we often have to remind students an among members of a class (teacher/student(s) and student/student). Email as has also raised issues for composition, such as the potential effects of anonymity on tone, conventions (all CAPS means shouting; emoticons express the more oral elements of this written communication; text can be truncated with abbreviations), and awareness of various audiences. 

Several composition faculty have also used synchronous discussion software, such as Norton Textra (which became Norton Connect), in their computer-based classes to foster online discussions. In fact, Montecino and Raffel beta tested this software. This process allowed more students (and especially those who did not like to speak up in class) the opportunity to contribute to these discussion. Students were also able to submit papers online for peer and teacher feedback.

As access to advancing computer/information technology have increased on campus, so have the innovations. Crouch and Montecino received a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences to develop the first Distmore, the GMU libraries were one of the first in the area to begin using CD-ROM databases in a networked environment. As more database products became available over the Web, the library installed a proxy server, allowing remote access to restricted databases. These shifts toward online access have required shifts in how composition faculty address questions of the research process.

Today the Composition Program hosts its own webpage, allowing faculty access to updated information about the program as well as new ideas for teaching.