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Has the Computer and the Web Changed Writing?

January 17, 2008

I was at a session for writing instructors today; we were discussing whether we could actually teach students how to edit their writing. As we talked about our various approaches, I remembered the room I boarded in my last year as an undergrad. I remembered how small it was and how the roof sloped over the bed so I had to be careful sitting up or I could bang my head. I remembered the really small table and how I did my editing on the floor, on the throw rug, usually after midnight before the day of the class it was due.

I would have books from my university library or the local one piled on my bed. I would have recipe cards with the names of the books I was quoting from and/or using in my bibliography in a pile to the side. I would have another pile of cards with useful quotes copied out onto them fanned out in front of me on the rug I was kneeling on. Lots of blank pages and scotch tape would be in front of me too, and my rough draft on my knees as I cut it into stripes so I could restructure it. I would lay out the stripes of paper and the cards with my quotes in the order I thought would ‘work’, then I would read through the collection and rearrange it a few times, before finalizing. I would write out new bits in between and then tape the stripes or cards that fit in next on the page. I would end up with several very messy, floppy pages, carefully numbered so I wouldn’t get the order confused.

Then I would move to the small table that served as my desk, get some fresh paper, and begin copying out my essay by hand, on every other line. I hated doing the bibliography; I could never remember where the periods, commas and semi-colons went, and I couldn’t believe it was all that important. And I knew I was a poor speller but often defiently refused to look up words. (At 3:00 a.m. I often felt defiant.) I used White Out too often, and did the covering page last, often as the sun was rising. Then I had breakfast and staggered through the day until whenever class was, when I handed in my essay in person, as required. Then I crashed!

I suspect some of today’s students have a somewhat similar pattern in terms of timing. But let’s look at some of the details of their process. Today almost all students will have, or have access to, a computer, and their rough draft will be written using a word processor. They will also use the computer for research, using the web to access web sites, some available on the open web, but also some found using Google Scholar or other academic search engines. Some will use Google Scholar as a portal into their university’s online resources and journals, if their university has added their library to the Google network, and if the students have their student number and the password. Some will order books, using the deep selection available online through sites like Amazon and Indigo rather than local bookstores. Some will have books from the library, but chances are they will use the web to check and see if the book was available and perhaps to put a hold on it.

Some students will be using their del.icio.us account or some other social bookmarking application to collect their online resources and tag them with helpful labels, including, perhaps, the name of the course or the essay topic. Some of the more (web 2.0) sophisticated students may be using the research tool, Zotero, a free Firefox extension.

Even if they find Zotero too web bound for their taste, they will be writing up their notes and drafts using a word processor. Copying and re-copying text writing by hand or by typing is just too onerous. They will copy & paste, not kneeling on the floor using scissors, paper, recipe cards and scotch tape, but by using keystrokes or clicking on menus. They won’t be getting defiant about their spelling, they will just right click on the words underlined in red, and then click on the correct (we hope) word to replace it. They need to learn new skills with this new tool, like making sure that the word they chose is, indeed, the word they mean. And they will have to be taught to double-check what happened when they copied & pasted. It’s way too easy to leave a word dangling or the wrong form of the verb sitting there after the copy & paste, (especially at 3:00 a.m.!)

When they get close to the final draft, today’s students should be pushed to print their work up, read it out loud looking for typos, and doing a final proof-reading to make corrections. When they have made the corrections, they need to make sure they have the font specified by the professor, and the line-spacing. There are more things to check for in word-processing, even though it looks neater and, therefore, deceptively as if it is correct.

The title page can be done minimally, or almost graphically designed, if the student is sophisticated enough to understand that it will likely influence the prof’s attitude toward the paper even before he or she reads it. And what about the bibliography? Even if today’s students haven’t taken the time to use Zotero’s many tutorials to learn how to use it to cite, there are ways to make creating a Works Cited or Bibliography section that are much easier than I had it back in the pre-web days.

BibMe is one of the many web-based automatic bibliography-makers that makes this final stage much easier.

Getting to class and turning the essay in isn’t the same either. Some profs, sometimes, accept the essay by email, which means that s soon as today’s student attaches the final file and hits “Send”, it’s bedtime!

In the years since I was a student the phenomenological aspect of writing an essay has changed phenomenologically! Do those assigning and/or teaching writing understand that and help the students cope with these differences?

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