Computers and Composition at George Mason University:
Looking Back

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 farthest reaches of the World Wide Web. Above the table that holds the "teacher's" computer at one end of the room is an LCD, from which a teacher (or student) can project images from the computer below it, and in the corner sits an HP Laserjet 5si printer. And if you happen to stop by when an English composition class is in session, you can expect to see a range of activities from students sitting around a computer collaborating on a paper to the whole class watching a demonstration of how best to navigate the George Mason University online catalogue to students critiquing or constructing web pages. (You may also happen to see a couple of students sneaking in a quick last-minute email check before the teacher tells them to log off because class is in session.) However, we have not always had such an instructional computer setting. 

"Back in the day"--the "day" being the mid 1980s-- John O'Connor charted new territory, a hearty pioneer proclaiming the revolutionary importance of word processing as a tool for helping both students and teachers write better. He worked with faculty who were all new to the intricacies of a shareware word processing package called PCWrite. Those were the 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 5 ¼-inch 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 John 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 students a technology we were in the process of learning ourselves.

Indeed, Computers and Composition has had an illustrious history at George Mason University for the past fifteen years. In fact, a cadre of Composition faculty, the majority of whom were adjuncts, led the move to integrate computers into the writing classroom in new and pedagogically sound ways. Early on, a number of us took our turn in a computer lab, teaching PC Write and then returning to our regular classes. However, toward the end of the 1980s, a self-selected group, chose to conduct their ENGL 101 and ENGL 302 classes entirely on the computer. These early adopters (Mary Lou Crouch, Joyce Johnston, Virginia Montecino, and Dorothy Raffel), characterized by Johnston as "experimental guinea pigs mentored by John O'Connor and a parade of his student assistants," not only attempted to use the new technology in ways that supported their teaching but also had to be prepared to 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 about ways of using the software not just as a glorified typewriter but as a tool that fosters generating text as well as its revision and editing. And despite the fact that many students enter our first year composition courses more technologically savvy than ever, we need to ask them to critique that technological base so that they can be informed consumers of the technology rather than consumed by it.

Uses of other applications, such as email, have changed as UCIS continues to upgraded the system. For example, John O recalls the fight to get email accounts for students in the late 1980s because of resource issues and the notion that students did not need these accounts. In addition, earlier versions of the UNIX system were cumbersome, requiring users to remember specific, decontextualized commands. However, once the system became menu-driven, email has become central to facilitating ongoing communication 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 (CAPS means shouting; emoticons express the more oral elements of this written communication; truncating of text 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 Distance Learning ENGL 302 Advanced Composition courses, which they taught in the spring term of 1996. And the practice of having course-related documents, such as the syllabus and assignments as well as student papers, on faculty web sites is increasing . In addition, the use of Townhall as a teaching tool is becoming commonplace.

Our responsibilitiy for the development of technological literacies of students in our composition courses has expanded as other campus resources have evoloved. The library research component of these courses, for example, has become more web-focussed, as access to library holdings have gone online. According Kevin Simons, the Compoistion Program Library Liaison, the library moved in 1885-1986 from the card catalogue to an electronically accesses version called ALIS (Automated Library Information Service) and then in 1990-1991 from ALIS to XLibris, a system which integrated the functions for ordering, cataloguing, and accessing library holdings. In August of 1996, the catalogue was moved to a Unix-based system and initiated Web access to library holdings. What is more, 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.