November 9, 1997
NY Times / CyberTimes
November 9, 1997
College English Departments Embracing
In English composition students
are instructed in Web page design
and graphics, and learn to program
in HTML. Class discussion also
often take place online.
By LAURIE J. FLYNN
At Georgia Tech University, when Prof. Richard
Grusin says, "Step into my office," he doesn't
necessarily mean it literally.
As head of what was formerly the university's
English Department, Professor Grusin often
conducts office hours in virtual space,
"meeting" with students in a chat room designed
to resemble his office. He and the students
speak to each other through avatars, electronic
doubles that even look like them, through the
use of photographs that have been scanned onto
By holding virtual office hours, Grusin said,
students and professors can meet late at night,
or have unplanned meetings whenever students
find they need help.
Call it a remedy for freshman jitters. But to
Grusin, it's preparation for the written world
of the future, which will take place in
cyberspace as much as it already does in print,
"It's indicative of the way English departments
are changing generally, all over the place," he
And the notion extends beyond simply changing
the venue for teacher-student meetings. At
Georgia Tech, where the English Department has
changed its name to the Department of
Literature, Communication and Culture, the
impact of technology is not only anticipated,
but it determines the way virtually every course
In English composition, this means learning not
only to write traditional explanatory prose for
print, but to write material suited to being
published on the Web rather than in print.
Students are instructed in Web page design and
graphics, and learn to program in HTML. Class
discussion also often take place online.
"Our goal is for all Georgia Tech students to be
taught how to express themselves electronically,
not just in words but in images," he said. "What
it means to teach students to write today is
very different than it was just 10 years ago."
For that reason, all new students are required
to have a high-performance PC, and nearly every
dormitory room and classroom has an Internet
connection. Classrooms are wired so students can
collaborate electronically as they're working.
The virtual appointment software, provided by
The Palace, is just one part of an overall
technology program that the department calls
Georgia Tech may be one of the only college
departments to take a cue from the online gaming
industry to apply virtual reality to help teach
freshman English, but the college is not alone
in incorporating new media into the rest of the
teaching of writing.
At Michigan Technological University, freshman
composition courses now have an electronic
component as well, including teaching the subtle
and not-so-subtle differences between writing
for print and writing for digital form, said
Prof. John Slatin, director of the Computer,
Writing and Research Lab in the university's
Division of Rhetoric and Composition. But just
what those differences are is the "$64,000
question," Slatin said. At present, MTU faculty
and students are figuring it together.
The only thing that is clear is the growing
importance of digital information. "It seems not
unlikely that importance of print-based material
will continue to shift," he said.
Slatin says both professors and students make
heavy use of e-mail, and engage in text-based
chats as a supplement class discussions. The
reliance on e-mail, however, seems to be
increasing the amount of face-to-face discussion
between professors and students, as students,
particularly freshman, become less intimidated
about interacting with faculty.
The department also uses a network of two dozen
PCs to teach writing in class, enabling easy
revisions and collaboration and also quick
answers to questions that come up. If students
are unsure about the meaning of some material,
or need additional research while they're in
class, they can search the Web for an answer.
Likewise, the University of California at Los
Angeles announced in mid-July that it will make
home pages available for every course in the
College of Letters and Science, and at the very
least, provide an online syllabus and a chat
room for student discussion. Likewise,
Northwestern University plans to soon use the
Web to replace at least some of the lecture
components of introductory humanities courses.
Slatin said it should come as no surprise that
English Departments, regardless of what they're
called today, appear to be embracing digital
technology early, rather than later. It started
with the word processor in the 1970s, which
enable writers to make easy revisions for the
"I don't know where it will go from here,"
Slatin said. "The tricky part is, while we're
teaching this we're learning it ourselves."
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