Technobabble: The Digital Life of Ronosaurus (Writing and Teaching with New Technologies)

Not sure how to begin the story of how I came to be sitting here with my laptop at Cafe Abir (just a moment, let me pick up my triple latte), writing a technoliteracy autobiography, but I will just get started and see what comes out. I can always fix things — make that, revise — later. After all, this changing piece of writing, which is morphing under my fingertips even now, is the climax of the story I wish to tell, the story of how my own composition process has changed because of digital technology and how that should affect the way I teach writing.

My first experience with computers were the punched cards my father would bring home from work, stamped I imagined with top secret information on the rockets and nuclear weapons my dad was helping Hercules to build. (Hercules, the engineering firm in the Salt Lake Valley, not the demi-god).

My first interaction with computers was Pong, a tennis game with simple two-dimensional graphics, released in home version when I was seven in 1975. I was not in danger of becoming an addict like my richer friend who owned the game. I preferred to keep the computer on the other side of the page, on the other side of the movie screen. Some books and movies show robots as helpful, computers as useful, but the salient image in stories about the thinking machine is that of an evolutionary clash between the old, flabby dominant species and the new, lean machine, a creation that would overpower creator and destroy humanity, as Pong and later Space Invaders, Asteroids, and PacMan were taking over my friend’s life, a friend who no longer wanted to play Cowboys and Aliens on the trampoline. Computers were not for me.

In high school, I took a workshop on computer programming and learned the basics of Atari Basic. I picked up the computer language quickly; the teacher said I had an aptitude. But I couldn’t see much use for programming, except to create a list of prime numbers, write my name in various ways across the screen, and make colorful patterns. I went back to the yellowed page and the silver screen. If I hadn’t, I might be making around one hundred and thirty thousand a year like some of my friends. That’s all right though, because words are currency, the currency that purchases the stories I love, the currency that has paid my way from university library through a used bookstore to Korea, Spain, Japan and San Francisco as an English as a Second Language teacher and onwards to San Francisco State University, a masters in literature, a certificate in composition, a class on teaching writing in the digital age, and this essay, but I am getting ahead of my story. I was talking about writing in high school.

I reluctantly began to use word processors in high school for larger written assignments to save myself from endless correcting manual errors on the typewriter, but I never used the computer for my own creative writing. Paper was the more poetic medium for creative writing, and I would write draft after draft after draft, trying to get the poem or the beginning of a short story just right. Whenever I wanted to make a significant change, I had to start again with a new sheet of paper and rewrite everything. I got stuck in a cycle of revision. In comparison, using the word processor for my schoolwork allowed me to work with a single draft that changed over time in a more fluid process of revision. If one word was not quite right, I changed it and then restructured the sentence and moved the paragraph to a new position, adding material and chopping away the dead weight. I am still overcoming my prejudice against using a computer for creative writing, but I am starting to realize the potential of a word processor in the creative process, saving many trees and many headaches.

What can I use from these experiences to teach a class on writing? First of all, the draft is obsolete, in both academic and creative writing, if drafting is seen as a process of rewriting a work anew, recreating and reforming what has already been written in a wholly new text. A “draft” these days is one point at which writing is saved or printed out. Writing now consists of changing a single, fluid text that grows, contracts and changes (as this tehnoliteracy autobiography is doing even now, if you could only see it happening as I do). Writing classes that teach first draft, second draft and final draft and do not show students how to use the word processor to revise a text are outdated.

If I analyze the ways I learned to write with a word processor, the ways that I am writing now, I can suggest some uses for the computer in teaching important writing techniques. They could hunt down vague subjects in their writing (like “they” in this clause) and replace these unclear subjects with specific, concrete terms (like “students,” no, make that “composition students”). Composition students can also look through their own work for locations were active verbs are in hiding in the form of abstractions and they can do a rewriting of the sentence with a utilization of the verb whose recovery was made. Scratch that. Composition students can locate active verbs hiding in abstract nouns (like “location,” “rewriting” and “utilization”) and rewrite the sentence utilizing the recovered verbs. Passive verb forms can be identified and reformed into the active voice. Make that, students can identify and reform passive verbs (like “can be identified and reformed”) into the active voice.

Students can add to their writing. Make that, students can work on expanding their writing, clarifying and explaining when necessary, breaking down their arguments into smaller steps (I added this later), and supporting their paragraphs with more facts, examples and details. The word processor is definitely the ideal tool for teaching students a variety of different exercises to give them an opportunity to practice removing or cutting away any unnecessary words or redundancies, any dead weight, from their writing so that they are left with only the basic, most important, core ideas of the sentence. Let’s try that again: A variety of exercises could offer students practice deleting unnecessary words from their writing. Writers may use word processors to play with structure, cutting and pasting, moving the pieces of the writing around to see how the argument changes. (This was the first sentence when I began this paragraph, now it is near the end.) Finally, teachers could encourage students to read their nearly-final drafts aloud to each other, making changes in word choice and order whenever they hear something awkward, rewriting whenever something is unclear. (I often read my own writing aloud.)

For me, the problem with using a word processor in the revision process is that I was always worried I was going to lose my work if I forgot to save the document or if my computer died. So I was constantly interrupting the writing process to save the piece and forever panicking whenever the computer froze. Also, the revision process sometimes obscured the original core of the essay, the intent or inspiration, and I found myself wishing I could go back to an earlier, lost version.

When I started the master’s program last year at San Francisco State, a friend introduced me — against my will — to Google docs. (Now listen, he insisted, this will make it much easier to write and print out your work.) I now use Google docs for almost all of my writing, including creative writing. The first advantage is that it automatically saves my documents every two minutes, so I no longer need to interrupt my writing. Since the documents are saved not on my computer but on the Google database, I don’t need to be nervous about my computer crashing either. In fact, I can work on my documents on any computer and print them out whereever there is access to the internet. Also Google keeps copies of my previous drafts, so if I want to backtrack, I can. This facility has allowed me to move back and forth among various versions, which has led to another revolution in my writing process.

Now, instead of working on one draft at a time, which I continuously revise, I work on multiple, simultaneous drafts. (Right now I am working from three drafts.) For example, when writing a paper on a novel, I might start typing in key quotes I want to analyze, then rearrange them until they follow a certain logic, a structure for the paper, but I might question that organization and open a new page, where I will organize the quotes chronologically. Then, I may open another blank document and start writing, bringing in quotes when needed. I may get stuck and go back to the version with quotes and start to respond to the quotes and work them into texts. If I don’t like where that is taking me, but I want to save the material I have generated, I open another document and start again, picking up material from the other drafts as needed, and so on.

To apply this new approach to writing, a teacher could model a multiple, simultaneous draft system, a three-dimensional structure which is worked in different versions through various phases ultimately to produce a single, coherent text. Some of these drafts could focus on the generative process: impressions, reactions, questions and doubts. Here a students would not need to worry about spelling or grammar, but would produce writing in a free and uncritical way. Students could select key phrases or sentences that worked well and gather them together on another page. Other drafts could include list quotes, facts, anecdotes, study results, and resources that the student feels are significant. On a new page, a student could practice reorganizing the material from their free writing and their research in a variety of ways, experimenting with structure, then they could try writing around these facts and observations, connecting them, and working them into larger chunks of writing. If students get stuck, they can try opening a new page and starting fresh, borrowing from what they have already written. In such a system, writing becomes much more than a linear process as students move through a piece of writing step by step. Instead they can move around freely, working first on what they are most motivated to write and then filling in the spaces.

A three-dimensional structure would not require students to move linearly through a text. They could jump to the parts they want to write first or to a portion of the paper where they have a flash of insight. (This is one of the first sections of the paper I worked on). On the other hand, writers could leave spots blank that they don’t know how to approach at that moment or add notes to themselves in brackets telling them to add a citation here or hunt for more evidence or {give another example}. In other words, with a word processing format that allows for multiple simulatneous drafts, students can move around the structure more organically, building at need, without the stress of having to produce a perfect text as they go along, step by step. Teachers could also show how it is useful to have a dictionary and thesaurus page open, even Wikipedia, for easy reference in case they need to check the meaning of a word or make sure of a date.

Another highly significant change in my approach to the writing process through digital technology has been the materialization of real readers beyond the teacher (hi, you guys!) and a more collaborative approach to writing due to such technologies as classroom forums, the class blog for “Teaching Writing in the Digital Age” and my own blog, Ronosaurus’s Metablog on Metafiction. Before this, I wrote for a teacher and pretended I was engaged in a larger “academic discourse.” I wrote letters sometimes, more often post cards, and eventually I gave into email and started to keep in touch with people that way, but I wasn’t producing much creative writing. I wrote for myself, hoping someday someone would discover my writing.

Classroom forums, when exploited to their fullest potential, allow students to direct the course of the discussion by posing questions and responding to each other. Drafts of papers may be workshopped online and, most importantly, final products may shared. Classroom forums can help teachers realize the ideal of interactive, student-centered learning, where students are not writing merely to prove something to a teacher, but to share insights and ideas, in effect to teach each other. The blog for this class has even opened the potential audience further and gives me the sense that we are producing something that may be useful for other real people in the real world. That has given me a greater sense of the significance and potential of writing.

Because of this class, I have now started my own blog, which is a revelation. I no longer need to produce large texts whole and perfectly polished, I can create piece by piece, taking the time to polish a work, or letting it go more lightly, thinking that I may revise it later. I have broken through a couple of decades of writer’s block. I am now carried away in my enthusiasm for a project on metafiction and have found myself, the careful reviser who would rewrite the beginning of a short story forty times, now a prolific blogger. I am creating not just something temporal that washes away down the river of time, but pieces, blocks of writing, that I may use for a term paper, my thesis, even a dissertation or a book. A Chinese saying says a thousand mile journey is begun with one step and my blog has made the first steps possible. I have always dreamed of being an author and a teacher of literature, but I don’t have to wait until I graduate. I am already writing and being read, if only by a handful of people, and others are beginning to join me in self-taught class (which they call a book club), contributing in person and online, helping me to create the meta-environment that I envisage.

Blogs can be used to help students create pieces of text without the stress of thinking it must be a permanent, final product, but something they can change. The blog can be a short observation, or a longer rant. It can be a research project or a mini-essay. The material may then be used as building blocks for larger pieces, mortared together to make more substantial, insightful writing. Students do not have to jump from point A (the assignment given) to point Z  (a polished essay) without taking time to explore, to experiment, to alter, to revise, to reshape, and to rewrite using word processors, a multiple-simultaneous draft system, classroom forums and blogs. Most importantly, sharing writing on class forums and blogs will give students a sense of writing for real readers and for a real purpose, making them in actuality writers and teachers in a virtual world.

Written for “Teaching Writing in the Digital Age,” taught by Kory Lawson Ching at San Francisco State University.

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