Rhetnetcomputers & writing
history symposium

Paul LeBlanc's snapshot --

Some reflections on writing our history

Part of my responsibilty as a co-author of the history text was to write the sections on technology or the technological context, as we put it in the book.

As you will eventually see, these sections review everything from new microprocessors to memory to networking technologies. As probably the most pedestrian thinker of the four of us, such nuts and bolts work was well assigned. One of the most immediately apparent dynamics I encountered was the way technology's history in the last 20 years was out of synch with the pace of historical change in our field. I suggested the epigram for chapter two, the "O brave new world..." line from The Tempest, because Prospero's response, "Tis new to thee.", seemed to capture so well the sense I had about our field's embrace of technology. That is, that we have always been far behind in our uses of technology (though far ahead of our peers in English), yet the evangelical fervor that was necessary to bring technology into composition required us to position ourselves in the role of pioneers and prophets.

Historical change in the computer industry can be measured in months at this point and as we moved into the sections on the nineties, it was getting harder to step back and say with any confidence what was an important technological development. For example, will PCMCIA cards really pan out or will they give way to some other form of flash memory? It was easy when discussing the importance of the Mac and its GUI interface or the standardization of networks, but I cringe when I think of my own past writing that talked about hypermedia and hypertext. The world has shrugged, accepted linking as a part of what everyone simply calls "multimedia" and evidenced no major change in the way it thinks of information -- anyone who spent time as a kid leafing through encyclopedias for a sixth grade report feels comfortable with links (Okay, I know there are more significant issue as at work here, but more so within the realm of literary criticism and any more claims about the death of the book seem a bit over the top now, don't they?).

While the dizzying pace of technological change continues unabated, I am struck with a feeling that the C&W sub-field has had little impact on English. My sense is that technological change in the culture at large and in academic institutions has filtered into English departments and driven much more of the move towards the integration of technology than the work of our field. The fact that English faculty generally discovered the advantages of word processing in their own work has probably had more to do with their acceptance of computers and composition than all of our good research and efforts. Technology as a theme for the most recent 4-Cs worked because the whole of the culture is grappling with technological change, not because we have some how cleared a hurdle as a sub-field of composition. I must be careful here -- it's not that I hold my work or the work of others in C&W in less esteem; the research and critical analysis that we as a group have conducted and continue to perform is valuable. That said, my sense is that an English department is more likely to turn to us for advice on what kind of lab to install, what kind of software to buy, and for training than for our research. As a result, the C&W conference stays about the same size with the same faces in general, excepting the grad students who inhabit whatever campus is hosting the event, and C&W books don't sell well (trust me as one who has painful awareness on the latter; my own authorial failings aside, I know this to be true in general). In light of the above, the work of our field that deals with equity (Mary Louise Gomez comes to mind), access (Bill Wright's efforts on behalf of rural teachers), and connecting previously unconnected writers (Anne Hill Duin's work with college and high school writers), seems more important to me now than things like my own work on faculty-based software development (a phenomenon that has largely vanished), for example.

Perhaps what I am voicing is frustration that C&W has steered away from the functional and practical, in my view, and towards the more abstract, theoretical, and fanciful, when our best (or at least most valued) contrib utions lie with the former. It's a trend I think is occuring in composition in general, for what it's worth.

Here then lies an interesting question: when the labs are installed, and the software is purchased, and our colleagues trained, that is, when computers are merely part of the fabric of composition, what happens to C&W? Will we have performed a useful function and then become a small sub-field that does what...?

There is no Typewriters and Writing subfield, after all. Or do we define ourselves too narrowly?

Perhaps networked systems, multimedia, video-conferencing, and other technologies make writing a smaller part of a larger communications mix. For example, the rhetorical intricacies of Lotus Notes, which now allows shared communication databases, voice to text messaging, and soon video, may require broader training than we who have been trained to examine textual interactions alone are able to bring to bear. If you were advising an undergraduate considering grad school, a person interested in technology and communication, would you recommend comp/rhet? Let me rephrase, if someone was inetersted in comp/rhet because they had an interest in technology and writing/communication, would you advise that person to apply to comp/rhet programs? I ask the question without a sure answer for myself, but I've spoken to enough C&Wers who are considering other avenues and I see the limitations of our current programs to wonder.

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