Cindy Selfe's Snapshot for E-Symposium

The Complexities of Historical Study

by Cindy Selfe
This field of computers and composition, we have said (among ourselves and to others) is a young field, a nascent discipline, an emerging speciality. It has been around only a few short years, just barely more than a decade. Teachers are just now beginning to learn what computers can do. Members of this community are only starting to recognize the more complicated implications of technology use in classrooms; as a community, we have so little history to learn from. These are some of the words that motivated this book they seemed true at the time they now seem less true.

When I began this project, the task of documenting the history of computers and composition studies, seemed relatively straightforward and nicely focused a small field, with many familiar landmarks and inhabitants, less that fifteen years old. I believed that gathering historical information would provide a relief from the analyses I usually engaged in studies of current issues that changed their shape so rapidly they made me dizzy most of the time. History seemed somehow more stable and less tricky, better documented and less subjective, more accessible and less volatile than the kind of work computers and composition specialists generally engaged in.

But history, I soon learned, was also maddeningly elusive. The more artifacts we gathered as descriptive of a certain period in composition studies and in computers and composition studies (the areas of the history that I was most involved in writing), the less substantial seemed the results and the larger loomed the gap between what happened and what our colleagues stories told about what happened. It became clear to me, and to the rest of the group, that neither artifacts, nor the stories that surrounded them, would ever represent the whole of the time period adequately. They would never form a fully textured fabric. History, in other words, could never be as rich and full as life.

This should not have surprised me (and us). Hayden White, James Berlin, and Howard Zinn have noted that historians should never undertake a project thinking that they can tell the whole story of history, or even believing that they can tell historical stories objectively. Rather, these scholars remind us, the study and the re-creation of history is always incomplete, and there are always interests at stake (e.g., historians' interests, a community's interests, cultural interests, etc.) that help shape the partial nature of the particular histories that scholars collect. In this sense, the project of writing a history is as much a project of understanding the here-and-now, the what-may-be-happening-and-why, as it is of understanding the then. Zinn (1970) writes,

   To be "objective" in writing history, for example, 
   is as pointless as trying to draw a map which 
   shows everything or even samples of everything 
   on a piece of terrain.  No map can show all of 
   the elements in that terrain, nor should it if 
   it is to serve efficiently a present purpose, 
   to take us toward some goal.  Therefore, different 
   maps are constructed, depending on the aim of 
   the mapmaker.  Each map, including what is 
   essential to its purpose, excluding the irrelevent, 
   can be accused of "partiality."  But it is exactly in 
   being partial that it is most true to its particular 
   present job.  A map fails us not when it is untrue 
   to the abstrct universal of total inclusiveness, 
   but when it is untrue to the only realm in which 
   truth has meaning some present human need." 
   (p. 10-11)

What I have re-learned as I wrote (and I suspect the others, too), by looking through the particular historical lenses that we chose, is how complex political, social, and cultural articulations have influenced, and continue to influence, the particular ways in which computer technology is used within our educational system and within the classrooms of English and English composition teachers. But even this knowledge is partial. The complexities of the stories, the histories, make it almost impossible to draw specific lessons, make specific predictions, or take particular action in one direction or another. The nature of what I have learned, instead, suggests that, informed by the stories of history and our own unfolding understanding of the world in which we operate, we have already begun/been making different kinds of decisions about technology, thinking in different and subtle ways about computers, seeing our field from different perspectives moment by moment, day by day, on all sorts of levels even as we write history, history has been/is writing us.

What this means to me in terms of the statements that opened this section is that computers and composition, although it is a relatively young field, is, nonetheless, already informed by a lengthy and complex history; already located in rich and influential patterns of historical developments in education, composition studies, and the computer industry; already old in terms of cultural influences and relationships. In this sense, the project of re-discovering history is never a new undertaking, and, importantly, one that is never finished.


Cynthia L. Selfe
Humanities Department
Michigan Technological University
1400 Townsend Dr.
Houghton, MI 49931

Telephone: (906) 487-2447
Fax: 906/487-3559

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