Computer Literacy: It's a Two-Way Street

Copyright 1998
John Stenzel
1250 words

This piece appeared in volume 6, no. 7 of the UC Davis IT Times. I've been thinking about other places to get this published-- please e-mail me any comments, or (better yet) suggestions for likely markets (I'll give you a finder's fee if your tip pans out!). Hope you enjoy it.


Computer Literacy:
It's a Two-Way Street


I'm an English teacher who's also a computer professional, and wearing these two hats brings some odd connections. It's student-conference time, and as my colleagues and I go over drafts explaining our comments and grades, it seems as if our students (and many faculty) want us to provide quick fixes for poor writing. We quickly tire of the same old questions: "What is it that you want?" "So what you're saying is..." "How do I fix this paper?"

There comes a time when we're tempted to snap: "Well, write better! Defend a thesis, answer a question worth asking. Provide concrete evidence, and don't pretend that a half-hour of Web browsing constitutes sufficient 'research.' Have the verbal agility to work and re-work your prose instead of standing pat with the first and final draft. Write clearly, so that your ideas emerge because of your writing, not in spite of your writing. Get it? That's what'll get the better grade!"

We refrain from glibly answering this way; nevertheless, too many people do tend to think of writing improvement as a fix-it job, somebody else's responsibility. "Take your paper to a tutor at the Learning Skills Center," they say, as if a once-over from anyone, even a professional editor, could magically transmute last-minute dross into A-grade gold.

But now listen carefully the next time those same writing instructors ask a computer question. "My @#*&! computer quit working. . . . Just make it work. . . Just fix it." In my three years as the Coordinator for the Computers in Composition program, I heard plenty of these comments directed at myself, and I directed my share at various computer professionals. Only recently, though, did it hit me, the common ground between flawed writing and inadequate computer skills. My colleagues use computers to do their jobs, but their understanding of computer technology is just as superficial as their students' knowledge of language or logic. One thing's sure: the much-ballyhooed "bridge to the 21st Century" won't get built until there's a much more solid foundation on both sides of the computer-technology canyon.

The vast majority of computer users treat technological literacy the same way students treat writing and critical thinking skills: intimidated by the complexity of the undertaking, and wary of admitting our ignorance, we divest ourselves of responsibility and entrust our computers to "the experts." The systems themselves have become complex enough to justify our reluctance, and it flatters our sense of importance to say "I'm too busy to learn to ask questions intelligently, to take even a little responsibility for the tools that I use in my job." Far easier to dump everything onto overworked and understaffed tech support people, who are so busy solving problems and putting out fires that no time remains for long-range planning, intelligent spending, thoughtful training, and preventive maintenance.

Just hang around a help-desk for awhile and you'll see what I mean. Faced with "My computer crashed and I need to print my paper!" a well-trained staffer will carefully walk the panicky user through a series of questions, establishing what programs were running, what system conflicts might have occurred, and whether a backup exists. But users who don't see any reason for this interrogation will become just as hostile as the student writer confronting a different kind of literacy gap. Sad to say, a poorly-trained, unimaginative, inarticulate, or simply exasperated employee will short-circuit the process, offering partial or nonsensical solutions based on inadequate evidence.

We need to educate ourselves as consumers and shapers of this technology, but who will train faculty and staff to answer--and to ask--technical questions in a comprehensible way? As systems get more complex and more powerful, the interconnections get subtler and more difficult--but we have less and less time for real literacy training. Frequent upgrades and lack of backward compatibility guarantee that everyone is kept off-balance, and encourage a helpless "hands-off" attitude. We end up having to trust specialists who barely comprehend the basics of what we really do, let alone appreciate the combination of imagination and craft and application and creativity that comprise "quality" or "rigor" in our disciplines.

Many barriers block communication and stifle literacy. Some technically savvy folks would rather keep the convenient power relationships as they are, than change the status quo and actually try to communicate with their clients. Overscheduled faculty resist training in the basics, and our Summer Institutes tend to emphasize the sexy high-end stuff rather than the gritty day-to-day realities. More perniciously, too many professors loftily dismiss such expertise as beneath them or beyond them, much as they brag about not being able to program a VCR or jump-start their cars.

But no matter what we are told by Bill Gates or the vendor of the non-functioning system you just bought, we're still a long way from "plug and play"--it's much more a matter of "plug and pray." Like "early adopter" faculty who have committed to new technology and selectively forgotten its pitfalls, too many administrators and computer professionals tend to ignore the depth and consequences of the more global problem, and disdain their less-sophisticated colleagues' laziness or lack of commitment. Computer tools require more training, more resources, and more patience than our society seems willing to admit.

As in many other areas, these problems are not solvable simply by making more information conveniently available on the Web or throwing more undersupported computers in schools. Lack of information is not the issue: it's integration and application and evaluation, it's respect for rules, vocabulary, interconnections and interactions, it's learning the language of technology and speaking it fluently enough to make ourselves understood.

Designers and managers and technical support coordinators must take a breather from their headlong pursuit of bleeding-edge technology, and understand their constituents' needs and situations at the deepest level. Administrators and decision-makers have to face a brutal reality, that technology training can't simply be an add-on, yet another item in a job description: no less than a change in institutional culture is required if we are to make full use of the tools available to us.

All around me I see people divesting themselves of responsibility, cutting themselves off from the hard work of integrating new tools and practices into their professional lives. As writing instructors, my colleagues want their students to appreciate and respect the complexity of the writing process, and we resent it when students or faculty see our task in terms of "just tell me what to fix."

I would argue that in the Information Age the knife cuts both ways: people on both sides of the technological divide have to take more responsibility for learning and teaching, for understanding complex chains of cause and effect, for troubleshooting and precise description, for accurate analysis and creative synthesis. Technical people cannot rest complacent in their superior knowledge, nor can consumers of technology remain blissfully ignorant waiting for someone else to "fix the problem," expecting the fixers to drop everything to help when things inevitably go wrong.

Most academics have mastered difficult disciplines, kept thousands of facts and theories and methods straight; making computers work for us is not beyond our abilities. Sure it's going to be hard for deans and English teachers to learn this stuff, and for tech people to think clearly and speak understandably, but I don't think we can continue to let the gulf between users and techies expand unabated. Until we meet each other at least halfway, we will continue to suffer the consequences of frustration, lost productivity, and ignorance. Like bad writing, this problem has no quick fix.