Monday, November 24, 2014

Word processing, c. 1987

In Fall 1986 and for a semester or two thereafter, I taught first-year college composition, “freshman comp,” with word processing. I was the first person in my English Department to do so. My enthusiasm waned when I saw no evidence that word processing made for significant improvement in students’ writing. If anything, it seemed to offer a too-easily-taken shortcut to a finished essay, without the large-scale rethinking and revising that might best take place on paper, with the aid of arrows, asterisks, staples, and tape.

In April 1987 I wrote up some thoughts to share with colleagues about freshman comp and word processing. Here’s an excerpt, with a word or two changed:

Computers are no quick solution to the problems of our freshman comp students. A computer cannot tell a student that a thesis is too general or that an essay lacks specific details and is illogical. A computer cannot spot punctuation errors (programs that claim to do so, such as Sensible Grammar, in reality find mere typos, like a space before a comma). There are word-processing programs that can catch some spelling errors, but they cannot tell when “to” should be “too.” The claims made for computers as thinking machines are enormous, but real intelligence can lie only in the hands on the keyboard. God knows we have all read inane, jargon-ridden, stultifying prose produced with the slickest of word processing programs. My claim is more modest: a computer — used intelligently — makes life easier.
Twenty-seven years later, I think that these observations still hold. Nothing can yet replace writerly scrutiny of grammar and spelling. I still see no evidence that word processing has made for better writing. And it amuses me to realize that while many an English Department still houses a “computer lab” (a classroom filled with the hum of machines), the prospect of writing in a word processor has come to feel faintly quaint. With so many minimalist apps available, the work of composition can happen in distraction-free environments far more congenial than Microsoft Word. And anyway, writing is not word processing. Margins, fonts, and pagination are matters of document design, not writing. I design documents all the time, but I cannot recall when I last wrote in a word processor.

Related reading
“Don’t be a brute” (Writing ≠ word processing)
Grammarly, WhiteSmoke (Unreliable witnesses)
On “On the New Literacy” (“I’m not persuaded”)
Writing by hand (“A draft is a draft”)
Sandeep Krishnamurthy, A Demonstration of the Futility of Using Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check

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