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Going Home Again: A Review of Computers and Writing 1999
For me, going to the Computers and Writing Conference [CW], as I do each year, is like going home once again. The computers and writing community is very often a friendly and supportive one, though, like any family, strong disagreements can cause bad feelings and sometimes even bad behavior. Still, like folks who work in writing centers, much of our work tends to be collaborative and joint-authored. Even those of us who publish single-authored works often send our material to other members of the community for comment before sending them off to editors (a common practice, of course, but very much a part of how we operate), and we pride ourselves on welcoming newcomers and helping them integrate themselves into the community at large.
Because of this closeness, getting back together each year (and also at the Conference for College Composition and Communication (CCCC), CW's mother conference) is often a reunion, at least for the people who have managed to become visible within the community one of the real issues for those of us who work in the subdiscipline of computers and writing is the feeling that we all know each other, and the cozy and real feelings we have for each other may stem from the fact that the visible community is, in fact, a closed community, and perhaps not all that open to newcomers, after all. While this is arguable, it is certainly an ongoing concern of the community, especially in reference to who does, and who does not, show up each year at CW.
"That's Trouble with a T in Rapid City ..."
So CW99 began as folks from across the country and the world began to gather over Memorial Day weekend in Rapid City, South Dakota. At first, I was a bit disappointed. The conference hotel, the Ramkota Inn (really a motel, with only two storeys of rooms), undertook a major very major, think war zone renovation program after it had signed the contracts with the conference planners. After a long journey involving a disastrous transfer at Denver (one in which there was very little scheduled time to race to the new gate, followed by a hideously long wait in the plane on the runway), I arrived in Rapid City at about eight o'clock local time, only to wonder if my hotel had closed permanently. The whole front door was closed off by construction, and there was just one small handwritten sign pointing to the new entrance. I feared the worst being stranded at Rapid City. Had I only known that there were any number of available hotel rooms in easy driving distance of the Ramkota, my heart might have rested easier in my breast, and I might have been able to avoid the worst breakfast for which I have ever paid in my life (at no less than $8.95 a serving). The bar in the hotel was a horror, too I believe that patrons were required to smoke and no filtered cigarettes seemed to be allowed. This fervent non-smoker found himself both appalled and thirsty.
Some might wonder why the committee charged with planning the conference, the Committee on Computers and Composition of the CCCC, chose such a distant location, so far from most major airline hubs. Unlike real estate, location, location, location is not the whole answer; instead, what is of concern is the facilities needed to support such a technologically sophisticated conference, even if the chosen facility will require expensive air travel.
For CW, this is a large issue always, the planning group tries to balance the cost of the conference, a direct reflection of the kinds of services and facilities needed by CW participants and presenters versus the need to keep travel expenses down. This is often a lose/lose scenario. If the committee chooses to have the conference in the middle of a high-population area, a decision that reduces travel expenses for those using major airlines, the cost of hotels, food, and facilities goes up. If the committee attempts to be sensitive to the needs of those who might attend the conference but don't have the kind of funds needed to attend and pay high conference expenses, travel expenses shoot up. Given that CW needs a certain level of technology to happen, there is little way out of this dilemma.
Wonderland: The Conference Facilities at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
Other than travel expenses and not quite world class hotels, the location for CW99 really paid off: the planning committee chose to use the facilities at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT). Conference host Michael Day was then on faculty, though he has since moved to Northern Illinois University, and SDSMT went out of its way to be helpful. It is a fine facility, funded in part by dollars from the state governor's office, and it shows. The presentation rooms offered Windows NT machines running Netscape 4.5 (then current) arranged in rows in a spacious room with up-to-date projection systems that allowed projection in both darkened and lit environments.
They also supported distance learning, including a teleconferencing system which was used to port the conference events over a PictureTel link to Georgia Tech, though the connection was difficult to use and to maintain. In fact, it was broken and not regained during the second town hall event, in which all the conference attendees gathered to discuss matters of import to the whole computers and writing community. Some of the rooms also could be linked to one another by video, and that ability was used for sessions that planners believed would have a large attendance.
The classrooms and lecture halls were often quite comfortable, and generally SDSMT had a fine physical plant, though all of the computer laboratories I saw had only row seating so far as I know, there were no perimeter laboratories which allow both teacher/student presentation and collaborative work, or pod-type seating, which really facilitates group and peer work. The classrooms were, for the most part, comfortable spaces to work in, and conference participants always had access to the Internet at all times while on campus.
However, traveling to Rapid City was a bit expensive, given that it's not at a main hub, and that's a pity since many of those working in the computers and writing field are often underemployed. Even though the graduate students that can attend are doing fine scholarly work, those attending CW tend to be the same people, year after year, conference season after conference season.
Creating an Extended Family ...
Most of the participants are white, reflecting the demographics of the Internet itself, though both women and men attend in approximately equal numbers. (If anything, more women than men were present.) Many of the folks present in session after session remarked how few Asians, blacks, and Latinos/as were present. The conference also notes and notes each year how the same people attend all the time. For the most part, the only people who can attend are those (like myself) who receive full or partial reimbursement to attend and are almost always members of our subdiscipline.
Each year, we question whether the name of our conference, Computers and Writing, is sufficient, or whether we need to open our sights and our membership just a bit wider. Indeed, this was the topic of the town hall events, conference-wide gatherings of all the participants, called "Computers R Us?: A Large Group Discussion about Who We Are and Who Our Audience Is." The moderator of the first session, Dene Grigar, an assistant professor at Texas Woman's University, led participants Michael Day, Janice Walker, Janet Cross, Alice Trupe, Cindy Wambeam, and Donna Reiss in a lively discussion about what being a member of the computers and writing community meant, who should be in it, and why we seem to spend so much of our professional lives talking only to each other. For us, the issue is simple: we sense a lack of power in being a subgroup of a discipline, English, which is itself in difficulty these days. Literary theorist Michael Bérubé has noted in The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (1998) that English departments today may face being eliminated in the face of the redundancy created by the borrowing of tools from such disciplines as sociology, anthropology, and philosophy, if they do not justify their own existence. While I do not agree with Bérubé's point, for a variety of reasons, the fact is that funding for English is always problematic. Even after allowing for the golden goose of composition courses, which may pay the salaries of faculty to train graduate students in the teaching of writing, but also those students' stipends and tuition waivers, salaries of $35,000-$42,000 per annum are common for first-year assistant professors, but only at the large research institutions. Many first-year salaries are much lower than that, especially for non-tenure-track instructors, who may make only $28,000 per annum, or less. Graduate students, of course, are cheap labor at only $10,000-$12,000 per year, and yet they may teach by far the greatest part of introductory courses in any given department and bring in a proportionately large share of the tuition dollars into the department used to allocate resources. These resources largely support senior faculty teaching a minority of courses. This, of course, is not news: but it adversely impacts the computer and writing community since we sometimes find it difficult to explain our work to search and tenure/promotion committees, department heads, and deans.
Though English may be out of power within the academy (an arguable proposition), it still holds much authority over those who work in its perceived fringes. That was the position taken by many in the first town hall: though our ability and our willingness to run computer laboratories, train faculty in the use of technology, and support computer-delivered or supplemented courses is useful to the academy at large (especially in a world increasingly dominated by for-profit delivery systems such as eCollege and Blackboard), our work is delegated to the category of "service", always the least valuable and least compensated of the usual trinity of "research, teaching, and service". Even with the depressed salaries mentioned above, we find it difficult to get and hold the very few positions suitable for "technorhets" (Eric Crump's term), and thus all too often find ourselves working as lecturers, even when we hold PhDs and have teaching experience. (This is, of course, also true for most recent holders of PhDs in English.) Some of those present at the first meeting argued for a wider definition of what we do, one that is not limited to "English". In this case, it was argued, we should form alliances with librarians, information scientists, instructional designers, computer scientists, the business world, and others who, with us, deliver informational and instructional technologies to teachers and students or otherwise use computer skills. Since the technology we help to deliver is of great value to an increasingly technologically-conscious faculty and administration, one way out of the employment difficulties we face is to play on our own terms, and not just in the traditional modes of tenure-line assistant professorships.
What's Next in Computers and Writing Research
The second (and last) town hall meeting continued that discussion: moderated by John Barber, participants Jeff Galin, Susan Lang, Joan Latchaw, Martin Rosenberg, Cindy Selfe, and Paul Taylor talked about new directions in our research. In this case, participants discussed what we might as a community work on in the future, and what research had been done and why. This session turned the concerns of the first session on its head, as it were. If the first session looked at how we might make our service count more, this session focused on how we might better research and write up our work. For many of the participants, there was a sense that much of the current research in computers and writing was not quite stringent enough for the field of English as a whole, that one of the reasons that computers and writing scholars were finding it difficult to achieve tenure was that we were often preaching to the choir and that our research was perhaps a bit soft, lacking connection to the scholarly conversations in the field. While I hesitate to name names at this point, there was a sizable contingent arguing that in fact we often publish (as editors) work that would just not be published in other, more mainstream journals in English, such as college English. I think this is an overstatement myself: much of our work is cutting edge. As a result, it may be unpublishable in the wider community, in a world in which computer use in pedagogy is simply less important to many tenured folk more concerned with literary theory and literature than with teaching students to write.
The roles we play continued to be of major importance to conference participants. The present author found himself included as a "new voice" in the profession (along with newly-hired Assistant Professor Janice Walker, Georgia Southern University) on a panel that contrasted the concerns of long-time scholars Bill Condon, Washington State University, and Gail Hawisher of the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. Moderator (and instigator) Todd Taylor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, brought the four of us together to talk about the shape of the field the participants were asked to react to a great variety of questions about the role of computer and writing specialists, the role of technology in pedagogy, the rise of commercial vendors in teaching, and other topical subjects. While the four participants had very diverse opinions, all spoke of the vitality of the discipline and the need for rigorous research. What that research was and how it was to be carried out not to mention the institutional roles of those who did the research were concerns that brought out vastly divergent opinions about what needed to be done and why. The issue of distance learning and especially the use of the only online classroom, the so-called virtual classroom, became especially heated when one of the participants a thoughtful, skilled, and respected scholar stated "Yes" when asked if virtual courses were "straight from the Devil", explaining that the fully distant course did not meet the social needs of students though it may well meet their intellectual needs learning the subject, in and of itself, was not enough for most students.
Hot Off the Presses!
I would look for some fascinating essays to appear in academic journals soon for example, Northern Arizona University's Sibylle Gruber presented a paper entitled "Culture, Identity Politics, and the World Wide Web: Moving towards an Understanding of Online Discourse Communities", in a session with Rich Rice, Ball State University, and Jacqui Cyrus, also of Northern Arizona University. Gruber's paper looked at the ways in which gender played out at a webcam community (the group of folks who gather around a webcam that transmits images of the host's life to any and all viewers); in this case, she was studying a site called GabGab, run by a New York-based freelance writer, Gabrielle A. Gabrielle, who has begun to present aspects of her life via the webcam, partially as a result of fascination with this new and exciting technology, but partially because she is partially disabled as a result of a car accident.
Contemporary issues by the uses of computers in the academy also figured large in various paper sessions; these included distance learning, tenure and employment issues, sexuality and gender issues, poetry and other forms of creative writing in cyberspace, and the role of the teacher in computer use, an issue that cropped up time and again in the list of titles. Queer issues were represented by Jonathan Alexander's "Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are,' Or, 'I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore'", a paper that also focused on webcams, this time in the context of coming out issues. Queers also appeared in a panel chaired by Margaret "Margee" Morrison of the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore; Margee is on the planning group for the QueerMOOnity at LinguaMOO (http://lingua.utdallas.edu). She presented with Harold Knight and Walt Turner of the University of Texas at Dallas, and the present author. Morrison argued that "creating a QueerMOOnity is not only an act of building a community that will serve queers around the world online, but a political act of continual consciousness raising, too". During his paper, Turner talked about the frustrations of working with other gay men and how our playfulness, especially in cyberspace, can be difficult to deal with while trying to get work done; Knight offered a radical perspective on the way words mediate the act of mooing and the act of being queer: "When we go MOOing, we become the wo/man made of words. We take risks. Of course, we take risks wherever we speak. But risks on the MOO are of a different magnitude: we are literally literally made of words. Not 'credibility in the community' or a blessing from the Straight God ..." (QueerMOONity, 1999). Indeed, the number of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals is growing at CW and may have been the true radical presence in an otherwise homogeneous population, so much so that CW2000 (http://www.eaze.net/~jfbarber/cw2k/bridge.html) is offering a queer studies strand for papers next year, a revolutionary innovation that may add a whole new emphasis to the field, and may even draw more scholarly attention to it. While we may not be a racially diverse community (yet), CW has at least one minority presence the visible queers.
"The Best Laid Plans ..."
Unfortunately, not all of the events worked quite as well as planned, or as well as the papers: many of us took a bus to the Journey Museum to see a film (Conceiving Ada, which I did not attend) and attend a talk by Misty and Tony Brave of Oglala Lakota College, "Weaving Technology with Tradition". There are many cultural differences between Native Americans and white Europeans and one of them is the rhetoric of narrative. For mainstream listeners, any number of orderings will work: chronological, reverse chronological, most important to least important, least important to most important (observant readers of rhetorical history will recognize some of these as examples of Aristotle's topoi). Speakers who follow the King of Hearts' order to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland "Begin at the beginning ... and go on 'til you come to the end: then stop" (Carroll, 1960) might want to choose some kind of order (any kind, really) that would allow means of picking and choosing important facts, and, perhaps more importantly, allow the speaker to eliminate unimportant material.
Apparently, not so the Lakotas. Tony and Misty Brave's speech was supposed to last one hour. It did not. I can't tell you how long it did last, as I finally walked out to take some medicine over two hours later. What I can tell you is that Misty and Tony Brave have apparently worked hard and long, given the number of awards they mentioned and every single detail of their working lives for over ten years. There was no end to the material: it flowed unceasingly from their mouths and the audience became increasingly restless as the speech went on and on and on. What we were later told was that this reflected Lakota rhetoric, but I suspect instead that the Braves were not prepared as well as they might have been for a keynote speech. Since they didn't know what to give us, they gave it all. Every bit of it. If it was a matter of cultural differences, then at least they should have been aware that mainstream audiences can only sit for so long and there was only one exit from the room, right next to the speaker's podium and that they would have to observe their time limit and the audience would have to have been made aware of the tendency of the Lakota rhetoric (again, apparently) to not privilege one event over another, as more important than another. By the end of the first hour-and-a-half, over half of the audience had sidled out the door, hoping somehow not to be seen by the speakers.
... Going Deliberately Astray
If that first keynote speech did not pay off, the second, "The Battle beyond the Millennium: The WEB versus the Teacher Culture. Are We Ready to Rumble?" by Texas Tech University's Fred Kemp, certainly did. Kemp, one of the leaders of the computers and writing community and founder of both Megabyte University and the Alliance for Computers and Writing, argued in a crowd of teachers! that technology had so changed the pedagogical act that the educator qua educator may, in fact, no longer be necessary, a theory and argument that got one listener so mad that she interrupted Kemp and gave a passionate defense of the teacher, a beautiful elegy of the classroom presence right in the middle of Kemp's speech.
While that educator may have been the only person to voice her thoughts, I do not think her position was at all unlike the reaction of all of us teachers in the room. Kemp was arguing for the use of CD-ROM-based material, organized by teachers for students, but delivered entirely by computer-driven sequential learning, and "assigned" by the program following student quizzes built into the program. His argument was that the traditional classroom simultaneously penalizes the bright students who "get" the material while not serving the needs of those students who simply need more time. As Kemp is aware, he has described the difficulty of the writing classroom I must drive half my students mad with boredom while I attempt to explain, once again, why the first person singular is not necessarily forbidden in academic essays or why Soap Opera Digest cannot be cited as a scholarly source. But Kemp's vision (and he is not incapable of playing Devil's advocate) is of a solitary learning experience, one that is based on a technologically savvy system including multimedia, computer processors, and CD-ROM delivery systems, but one that is modeled after the independent study and programmed learning (Remember those systems? "If you understand this material, turn to page 75; otherwise, close this book and go home".)
No CW would be complete without its talent night scholars both young and old gathered to sing, play the piano, drums, and bass guitar, while others chatted through the night. It was, as it always is, one of the best moments of all: a chance for my community to gather and party together. It is at this moment that we most feel connected to one another, and each year more of us come out to share our talents. Some are really marvelous: Cath Spann of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has a great blues voice and plays a mean piano and guitar. Some of our music is better than others, but all of it is well meant and a chance for this hard-working community to play, just once, before we all go back to work.
1. There is little point in my trying to be objective in this review I have been a member of the planning group for Computers and Writing, have taken part in debates about its location, and very much identify with the people who attend it. In very many ways, CW is one of my communities.
2. The panel's papers are available at http://www.uic.edu/~kdorwick/queermoo/index.html
Keith Dorwick is Instructional Media Planner, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. He is queer studies thread co-ordinator for Computers and Writings 2000. email@example.com
Bérubé, M. (1998), The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs and the Future of Literary Studies, New York University Press, New York, NY.
Carroll, L. (1960), The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner (Eds), Wings Books, New York, NY.
QueerMOONity (1999), "Visible and invisible: complications in representing selves in a QueerMOOnity" (http://www.uic.edu/~kdorwick/queermoo/), unpublished.