4.0105 Halio again (130)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 23 May 90 19:06:16 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0105. Wednesday, 23 May 1990.

Date: Tue, 22 May 90 18:06 PDT

I know that Halio thing has died down, of its own weighty inanition,
perhaps, but I must send you this letter I received from a colleague at
UCLA, a Biochemist, who wrote it to the Editors of ACADEMIC COMPUTING
on 10 February and never received the courtesy of a reply. Miffed, he
sent it to me, saying that writer likes to be read by at least one
person. I answered that with his permission I would send it out to over
600 readers on the Humanist network, which naturally is unknown to the
biochemist. His arguments against the article are not only clear and
cogent and objective, but have that unmmistakeable ring of the
scientifically trained intellect, as contrasted to the various
socio-metaphorical Humanist arguments that surged back and forth for
some weeks on this network. So what follows is Professor Daniel
Atkinson's criticism of the Halio piece. Enjoy it, all! (Jascha

This is in response to the article in the January issue of Academic
Computing by Marcia Peoples Halio entitled "Student Writing: Can the
machine maim the image?" Ms. Halio's thesis, condensed and slightly
simplified, is that students consider Macintosh computers to be toys,
and use them to produce sloppy treatments of inane topics, while their
peers who use IBM machines turn in papers at an altogether superior
level of content, spelling, grammar, and style. In support of that
thesis, Ms. Halio quotes approvingly the suggestion of a TA that an IBM
is a superior writing instrument for students because it is difficult;
the Macintosh is too easy. By a logical extension of this austere
viewpoint, Ms. Halio's students would be better writers if they ground
their own pigments, compounded their own ink, and sharpened their own
goose quills. Fortunately older writers may not need to resort to such
draconian measures. Ms. Halio suggests that students' use of a
Macintosh may "arrest their writing at a less mature stage of
development." That is comforting for faculty members; presumably use of
a Macintosh will not jeopardize whatever skills we have already
developed. Of course we cannot hope for any improvement. Academic
Computing is not a scientific or professional journal, and does not
publish results of scholarly studies. But it circulates in the academic
community, and its articles should be intellectually respectable.
Recognition of the elementary principle that if the effect of some
factor on two groups is to be compared the groups must be similar in
other respects should not require any scientific or statistical
background. No comparison should be taken seriously unless there has
been a serious attempt at random assignment of individuals to the
groups; comparisons between self-selected groups are meaningless. Ms.
Halio's groups were totally self-selected; students chose to use
Macintosh or IBM machines. The questions that she says she is asking
are not answerable by the observations that she reports, and her
conclusions are not self-consistent. She wants to know, she says,
whether the products produced (by which she means the writings written
or the essays essayed) by students using a Macintosh are different from
those produced by students using an IBM. More specifically and more
importantly, "does the choice of hardware and word processing software
in any way influence the stages in the writing process as well as the
content and style of the finished products?" She seems convinced that
it does, and she suggests that teachers in schools that offer only
Macintoshes to their students should be alerted to the corrosive effect
of those machines on students' writing. Ms. Halio's own observations
refute her concern. She contrasts the shallow and inane topics chosen
by students using Macintoshes with the deep and significant choices of
IBM users; the two groups of topics, she says, were "very different in a
fundamental way." The malign effect that she ascribes to the Macintosh
is now seen to be parapsychological in nature; even before the first key
has been touched or the first word committed to the screen, the
Macintosh has already affected for the worse those students who will use
it in the future. It is clear that Ms. Halio's observations have no
bearing on whatever effect the use of a convenient and "friendly"
machine might have on the quality of writing. What they suggest is that
among freshmen at Delaware there is a perception that a Macintosh is a
toy and an IBM is somehow more respectable, and that this perception
causes those students who are predisposed to select more challenging
topics and to take more care in their writing to choose IBM's. The
quality of the finished product seems much more likely to be correlated
with the type of topics chosen than with the ease of use of the machines
the papers were composed on. At a school where all students use
Macintoshes, there will be no such self selection. Students who take
writing seriously are likely to take it just as seriously if they use a
machine that makes the mechanics of writing easy, and students whose
attitude is frivolous or shallow can be expected to produce frivolous or
shallow papers even if they use an IBM or a goose quill. Faculty
members of my acquaintance overwhelmingly prefer Macintoshes to IBM's.
Like the conclusions in Ms. Halio's article, that comment is based on
uncontrolled observation, but I suspect that it is more generally valid.
My perception that the Macintosh is strongly preferred by those who do
serious scholarly writing, if true, raises the question of how Ms.
Halio's students acquired such a different view of its capabilities.
However interesting that question may be in a sociological sense, it has
no bearing on the teaching of writing. Ms. Halio finds herself unable to
resist comment on a recent column in the New York Times in which a
Macintosh IIcx was described as perhaps the nearest available approach
to the ideal writing machine.

The author mentions the monitor and keyboard that he would include in
his ideal system. Ms. Halio seizes on those stipulations as a basis for
further denigration of the Macintosh. He had to add the monitor, she
says, "to surmount the problems with the small screen," and the keyboard
because of the deficiencies of the Macintosh keyboard. Actually, no
members of the Macintosh II family come with either a screen or a
keyboard, and no "small screen" is available for use with them. The
author was merely listing the components necessary for a complete
system. At a time when most students are woefully deficient in the most
elementary writing skills, when all too many, using ball point pens
rather than either IBM's or Macintoshes, cannot pursue an idea
consistently and cogently across even two sentences when writing an
answer to an examination question, it seems strangely ingenuous for an
instructor of writing to devote her time and concern to the
characteristics of the writing instruments used by students in her
classes. To mix metaphors in a way that Ms. Halio doubtless would
gleefully jot down for citation as an example of her thesis if it were
perpetrated by one of her Macintosh users (and to confirm her suspicion
that I am using a Macintosh to write this), I suggest that it would be
difficult to conceive of a more striking example of tilting at windmills
while Rome burns.

Daniel E. Atkinson
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of California
Los Angeles, CA 90024