"Access" isn't the problem

I posted about this on this entry on Alex’s blog digital digs, and I thought then about posting a comment on Jeff’s blog too. But then I decided to just write more about it here:

Both Alex and Jeff are commenting on the Council of Writing Program Administrators statement about technology, which sets minimal goals in terms of computer/technology skills for both students and instructors, I presume because the writers of this plank/document are still stuck on the possibility of a lack of access. To quote from this document:

Although we were drawn to the rhetoric of interweaving technology with the other goals of writing instruction, we decided not to chance disrupting sections that have already met with approval from our colleagues not only in rhetoric and composition but in other fields as well. By drafting this technology section, we have kept in mind the many colleges and universities where neither students nor teachers have ready access to digital technologies or the Internet. Indeed, we know of some schools in which teachers do not feel they can require typed copy, let alone electronic submissions. Keeping these schools in mind, we have drafted a statement that we hope will give them reasonable objectives without outdistancing their possibilities altogether, leaving them alienated from our shared purposes in teaching required writing courses.

Alex points to a variety of surveys– one from Circuit City (??) and one a 2004 Harris survey– that suggest that computer saturation/access at the college-level is very high. He does agree that expecting students at the first year level to do a lot of multimedia work probably isn’t possible (and I don’t think that would be a good idea, personally), but there needs to be some clarity on the term “text.” Jeff argues that forming a national policy on the exception (e.g., someone doesn’t have access to a computer) rather than the norm is a bad idea.

Go and read both of those posts, but I thought I’d throw a couple of other things out there:

  • By the time I started teaching first year composition in 1988, writing with a computer was the “normal” thing to do. I required students to type the final drafts of the essays they handed in, and I also required students to write at least one of those essays with a computer or a word processor. I did have a few students back then who told me that they couldn’t do this because they didn’t know how to type– and I would always tell those students that this will be an excellent opportunity to learn– but I never had a student tell me back then that they simply could not get to a computer. This was almost 20 years ago, and it was at Virginia Commonwealth University, a very inner-city and “opportunity granting” kind of institution, certainly not the kind of school where one could assume that all students would show up with a laptop.
  • The problem of access is a common topic in English 516, the grad course I teach on computers and writing pedagogy. In fact, it comes up so much in that class that I might have to “ban” it as a research topic, sort of along the lines of banning topics like abortion, the death penalty, gay parenting, legalizing marijuana, God, or the one you love from first year composition. Like those generic topics in fyc, the “access problem” is a knee-jerk/easy-to-come-up-with topic, and not a lot of my past students have not been able to successfully write about it, either.
  • Here’s my own responses on the access issue when it comes up, and it always comes up (I gave a little talk about blogging recently and the topic came up, for example): first, we live in a world where something like one billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water and/or electricity. Think about that for a second– folks like us are getting all keyed up about who does or doesn’t have access to a computer, and there is a significant proportion of the world’s population who couldn’t plug a computer in and who have a lot bigger worries than Internet access. Now, what should we do about this? Should those of us who have access to water and electricity help those who don’t have access around the world? Of course, and we should as a matter of national policy help them more than we do. Should those of us with this access give it up because so many folks don’t have it? Of course not.

    Second, I think that student access at all levels (and in my experiences with English 516, most of the access problems center on the more legitimate problems of access at the secondary level) is a lot better than most teachers think. It seems to me the popularity of things like MySpace and Facebook are evidence enough of that. I sometimes have colleagues here who say they can’t do “x” with computer technology because they don’t teach in a computer lab. Well, I often teach in a computer lab, and I will agree that it is very convenient, especially for demonstration purposes. But getting students to do some basic things– blogging, participating in an email discussion, working online collaboratively on revising/rewriting something (I’m thinking here of Google Docs), chatting with each other, setting up groups with social network sites like Facebook, etc., etc.– these don’t require ubiquitous computer access.
  • Fundamentally, I think the “problem of access” is, at best, a way of avoiding some legitimate debate about the role of technology in writing pedagogy, or, at worse, an excuse for not doing something different. By “legitimate debate,” I mean the question of the role of various computer technologies in the teaching of writing. I think blogging, email, etc., are good tools to incorporate into a first year composition class, though I am less sold on things like iMovie or Flash or even simple web page construction. These are specifics where different points of view seem legitimate to me.

    But to be honest, I think that what most many a lot of comp/rhet-types are using access as an excuse so that they themselves don’t have to learn all of this messy computer stuff, and also so that a lot of comp/rhet-types don’t have to change the way they’ve always done things.

3 thoughts on “"Access" isn't the problem”

  1. I think you’re absolutely right about this:

    But to be honest, I think that what most many a lot of comp/rhet-types are using access as an excuse so that they themselves don’t have to learn all of this messy computer stuff, and also so that a lot of comp/rhet-types don’t have to change the way they’ve always done things.

    It’s just anecdotal, but most of my teaching has been at an urban community college, where the income level and degree of economic privilege of the students would seem to make “access” a huge problem for them.

    But that really hasn’t been the case. I remember one of my best students in a Comp II class. He was homeless, living in a shelter, obviously had no access of his own, but still managed quite easily, using computers in the public library and the school’s open labs, to do all the online assignments and activities.

    Of course, there can be instances in which the access issue is real, but all too often it’s an assumption (on the part of faculty) which doesn’t match students’ reality at all.

  2. “But to be honest, I think that what most many a lot of comp/rhet-types are using access as an excuse so that they themselves don’t have to learn all of this messy computer stuff, and also so that a lot of comp/rhet-types don’t have to change the way they’ve always done things.”

    Spot on. It is used to deflect attention away from the real conversations that need to occur.

  3. Sometimes I think that when people speak about lack of access, what they’re really talking about is lack of immediate access, i.e. a computer in ones own home. At least I think that this is the case when speaking of computer access at the high school level. I spoke with one teacher who has a fair amount of financially disadvantaged students in her classes, yet she maintains that access is not particularly problematic, so long as she’s careful to schedule assignment time frames over at least one week end, so students without home computers can make arrangements to use the ones in the public library. But like you, I suspect that teachers who don’t want to be bothered with having to plan this carefully will continue to trot out the “lack of access” argument.

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