The speed with which computers have become mainstays to most academics and their students since the early '80s leaves teachers of writing puzzled about what the future holds and how they can prepare for it. One thing is certain: computers will henceforth affect all teaching.
Students respond well to computers. What Paul Le Blanc observed among his college students applies equally to younger students. He noticed
something which I had not seen before in my writing classes: students rushing into the lab a full 10 minutes before the scheduled starting time, and lingering on after class until the next eager students forced them to vacate (1993, p. 5).
Computers serve three basic functions for writers: (1) they become notepads on which to compose; (2) they permit users, even in remote areas, to access new universes of data; and (3) they offer help in editing. So widespread is the first application that few contemporary writers compose on paper. Rather, they compose in cyberspace, transforming their writing into hard copy at the end of their composing process.
The second application has expanded so rapidly that students of all ages produce at much higher levels of sophistication than ever before. They may inhabit the farthest reaches of civilization, but they have access to most of the world's repositories of information. Rick Monroe, however, utters a cautionary note:
Because most of us do not even have the time to read the periodicals we subscribe to, it is foolish and maybe even dangerous to think we might ... “surf the tidal wave of information generated by the global electronic community” (1993, p. 94).
The third application is the trickiest. Eric Hobson considers some of the current limitations of computer programs whose aim it is to help writers improve their prose. Anyone working with recent word processing programs is familiar with two basic components of most of them: the spell check and the thesaurus.
The computerized spell check is cut-and-dried. It offers three basic alternatives: the accepted spelling of a word; alternate spellings (“programed/programmed,” for example); or nothing if the word is missing from the program's dictionary of between 60,000 and 100,000 words.
The thesaurus is almost as straightforward as the spell check. It offers various words that are roughly synonymous with a word the writer provides, but it reveals nothing about shades of meaning. Writers not adept in language risk selecting words that are connotatively inappropriate to their context. The thesaurus, nevertheless, is extremely helpful to those who understand the nuances of language.
At the level of grammatical and stylistic analysis, computers remain imperfect. Current programs can locate preprogrammed word combinations and identify them as mistakes, but, as Hobson writes,
The program can in no way “fix” the “error” because the computer has no way to understand the author's intent (1995, p. 217; Hobson's italics).
Hobson cautions that in such grammar-checking programs as Grammatik 5 (part of WordPerfect 6.0), the problems computers recognize fall into four categories: spelling, usage, capitalization, and punctuation (1995, p. 216). Having been programmed to consider erroneous a form of the verb “to be” followed by the -ed form of the verb, it considers incorrect all uses of the passive voice (Rieber 1992, p. 57). The passive voice can assuredly drain one's writing of vitality, but at times its use is appropriate. To date, computer programs cannot judge such constructions contextually to determine their appropriateness.
Jerome Bump cautions that the programs “must first `disambiguate' sentences before [they] can analyze them” (1987, p. 130). Current programs are not that advanced. Part of the problem is that we know little about the actual mental processes involved in producing writing, making it impossible to formulate the algorithms necessary for successful programming. Le Blanc contends that the need to schematize human thought “has, in effect, put the onus on humans to think like computers, instead of forcing computers to think like humans” (1993, p. 18).
Bump, J. (1987). “CAI in Writing at the University: Some Recommendations.” Computers and Education 11, 2: 121–133.
Hobson, E. H. (1995). “Taking Computer-Assisted Grammar Instruction to New Frontiers.” In The Place of Grammar in Writing Instruction: Past, Present, Future, edited by S. Hunter and R. Wallace. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook.
Le Blanc, P. (1993). Writing Teachers Writing Software: Creating Our Place in the Electronic Age. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.
Monroe, R. (1993). Writing and Thinking with Computers: A Practical and Progressive Approach. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.
Rieber, L. (1992). “Grammar Rules as Computer Algorithms.” College Teaching 40, 2: 57–59.
R. Baird Shuman is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He can be reached at Box 27647, Las Vegas, NV 89126-1647.