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Vol. 7, No. 2: October 19, 2000

Computing, Composing, Communicating: A Conversation with Peter Sands

by Jennifer Smith

UW-Milwaukee Assistant Professor of English Peter Sands is a seasoned user of technology as a tool for teaching writing and a participant in UWM's Hybrid Course Project. In a recent conversation, he reflected on the advantages technology brings to the study of composition and literature and on larger historical issues at play in the development of writing.

In addition to being UWM's resident expert on science fiction, utopian, and fantastic literature, Sands is an advocate for technology as a teaching tool. For ten years, he's been teaching writing in classrooms with networked PC's. He uses this strategy to foster peer review of student writing and allow students to chat online in real time because, as he says, "I'm teaching them to write, not speak." This regular, off-the-cuff writing time helps students become more fluent and proficient writers, in Sands' experience. It also allows Sands to be an on-the-spot writing coach, responding to students' questions and writing conundrums while they are actually in the act of composing.

Another benefit to online activities, Sands says, is that they provide students with a permanent, written record of their dialogues with their peers. At various points in the semester, he encourages his students to go back and review these comments and their own writings, looking for signs of development and recurring patterns and themes in their work.

Responding to the criticism some have directed against students using computers as a composition tool (see, for example, Wendy Leibowitz's article in the Nov. 26, 1999, Chronicle of Higher Education), Sands dismisses it as misguided and ahistorical. These critics argue that the ease with which students can produce writing at a computer keyboard -- and run it through grammar- and spellcheckers -- has led to a certain laziness in writing. For Sands, this view misses the mark; the computer as a tool for writing is a fait accompli. There is simply no turning back this technological development. Furthermore, while people have been composing texts on computers for only a few decades -- a mere blip on the historical timeline -- the act of writing itself has always met with the introduction of new technologies. At one time, even the humble fountain pen and typewriter were new technologies. At the end of the nineteenth century, teachers fretted that the addition of the pencil eraser would cause students to be more lax with their work, spilling their words onto paper before thinking them through.

At UWM, Sands' courses include a seminar on computers, teaching, and writing. In Spring 2000-01, Sands will offer a "Seminar in Theories of Composition and Rhetoric: Computers, Pedagogy, and Culture," developed as part of the Hybrid Course Project. The Ph.D. students in this course will, in turn, design and deliver their own technology-enhanced composition courses. As Sands puts it, he wants to "seed the field" of English with new faculty who are not only savvy tech users but critical thinkers about its optimal uses and role in society.

For Sands, being a critical user of technology means not falling prey to a "science-fiction longing in which technology solves problems as if by magic." As he puts it, "throwing computers at a problem" is not a solution to educational needs. With technology must come adequate training for its users, be they K-12 teachers, students, or university professors, and a well-reasoned understanding of how technology fits into the educational process. We must not lose sight, he argues, of the fact that it simply takes time to incorporate technology into teaching. Some of the questions he wants instructors to ask themselves are: What do my students need to learn? Can technology help? What will I need to give up in order to incorporate technology? And how can I reduce time spent on mundane tasks? Instructors should also seek out both positive and negative examples of technology-enhanced teaching.

Sands' technology expertise helps him address the needs of graduate students who must make themselves attractive candidates on the academic job market. More and more, humanities teaching jobs require experience with technology or, at the least, a willingness to experiment in this area. And not only should graduate students be current on the use of technology for teaching, they should be aware of the ways in which technology can eliminate drudgery and create more time for intellectual work. As an example, Sands mentions software like TACT (Textual Analysis Computing Tools, offered by the Modern Language Association) that can perform searches on texts to uncover repeated language and semantic patterns. These searches can be revealing in terms of an author's style, and have even been used in attributing texts to particular authors, most famously with some poems identified as the work of Shakespeare.

In sum, Sands proffers an optimistic, engaged, and measured view of the intersection of technology and writing instruction. Synchronous chats, MOO (MUD-object-oriented) environments, and the ease with which new writing can be posted on the Web all open up a greater dialogue between writers and their readers. Even common e-mail -- which the professor calls "perhaps the single most transformative technology we know" in the academic realm -- makes possible a kind of easy, frequent contact between students and instructors that seldom existed before. The trick, Sands seems to suggest, is not to fear technology or reject it out of hand, but to harness its possibilities in a calculated way, keeping the best of the old ways of teaching writing while moving on with the new.

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