The Breakfast Table

From Clay to Silicon

I find, as you suggested, that computers are having an impact on student writing. More and more students compose at the keyboard, and some are even becoming comfortable editing on-screen. Students spends lots of time using computers, and right now that means they’re writing and reading a lot, since using the Web and sending e-mail requires lots of writing and reading.

In the bookstore yesterday I was looking over Clifford Stoll’s new book attacking computer use in education. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t summarize his stance, but on one page he was complaining that students spent too much time interfacing via computer, to the detriment of face-to-face experience. He cites a teen-age boy who boasted of spending his entire summer vacation online and quotes one 13-year-old girl who insists the only way to meet boys to is log on. I think Stoll’s probably overestimating how much time teen-agers spend wired, though I do see that computer technology often blinds us to the possibilities of using more traditional technologies. I remember once a colleague who came running into my office complaining that his e-mail was down and he needed to get some vital information from a colleague several states away. While we scratched our heads figuring out how he could e-mail his colleague from my workstation, a third friend came up and suggested, “Why not use the telephone?” We hadn’t thought of that!

I would argue that all writing is a technology, and to emphasize the technological aspect of writing I have my students spend an hour writing in an old, unfamiliar technology. I give each student 4 ounces of children’s modeling clay, a wooden skewer, a length of ¾-inch dowel, and a writing assignment. Their task is to fashion the clay into a writing surface, then do the writing assignment using the clay and the wooden stylus. When they are done, we talk about how this was different from the more conventional writing technologies they are used to: pencil and paper, computer (few seem to use typewriters anymore). As Sam Johnson might have put it, writing on clay really concentrates the mind. It forces you to think about elements of writing that have become more or less automatic in a more ordinary setting. Here are some of things my students find: You look at writing differently if you have to prepare the surface. Inscribing on clay means you can’t use cursive very easily, or even rounded print characters. Clay’s not easy to edit. And it’s not that easy to read the final product. You can’t put a lot of writing on four ounces of clay, and you can really only use one side, so you have to make all the space count. Clay could get heavy if you had to carry around more than a few “pages” of it. And clay allows you to play with document design in ways you might not with pencil and paper.

Will computer use improve student writing? Not necessarily, although there’s some suggestion that writing a lot does help, and students are writing more with computers than they were before, so far as I can tell. It’s certainly easier to revise on a computer: Students tend to forget that “cut and paste” once involved literal scissors and glue, a laborious process that I used to get me through a dissertation almost 30 years ago. I myself can write for longer stretches using a computer, with less physical and psychological strain, than when I was using an electric typewriter. New writing technologies have their downsides, inevitably. There was a complaint voiced in the New York Times when typewriters were coming into favor in offices that the typewriter depersonalized the written word, since the reader seemed further removed from actual contact with the human element in writing. To some extent this was true, but it was also a bit silly, since before the typewriter there was a great emphasis on people developing uniform, depersonalized handwriting to ensure legibility. The computer allows us to revise, true, but in that process I see that we lose what I call the “archeology” of the text, the stages through which it passes from first to final draft. I used to miss that. Now I don’t.

But here’s something to ponder, and let it be my farewell to this chat, which I’ve found interesting and hope that the readers over our shoulders did as well: The next generation of text processing with computers promises sophisticated voice-to-text programs. Is the keyboarding of text only a temporary phenomenon, then? Will we, or our children, be talking their essays into microphones, composing peripatetically and out loud like Wordsworth “writing” his poems, or bosses dictating letters to secretaries in 1950s TV sitcoms? I trust that that will still count as “writing,” though I imagine some technophobes will insist that it is not writing since the composition will be untouched by human hands. In any case, Jesse, I leave it to you to have the last word.