Students who register for an English composition course at Essex Community College may find themselves learning to use a computer instead of writing essays during the first few weeks of class.
But despite the time spent on computer training, these students still have to write 8 to 10 essays of three to five pages each during the semester. And they just might find that they've done more writing than they would have in a class without access to computers.
"I think we get more done in these classes," says Linda Hummel, an instructor of English who uses computers to teach students at Essex. "Students have more power over their words with a word processor. I don't think you have that freedom when you use a typewriter."
Once students become comfortable with computers, "Their whole method of writing changes," Mrs. Hummel says. "They can go back and take out a phrase with the touch of a button. They can start in the middle of a piece. They tend to edit more and they're more willing to pare their writing down."
And with a word processor, students can "let their minds jump around" and write things down as they think of them, she says. Writing compositions on a typewriter tends to limit creativity because students feel compelled to be organized while they are writing.
As a drafting technology major at Essex, Anita Tosti is learning to draw with the aid of a computer. She registered for Mrs. Hummel's English class this spring to broaden her knowledge of computers and to learn how to use them in different ways, she says.
"The thing that's really neat about writing with a word processor is your ability to change things and move them around," said Ms. Tosti, a 43-year-old mother of three who lives in northern Baltimore county.
"Your corrections can be made so much easier," she continued. "And you have access to a spell check that goes through the whole essay for errors. That's kind of a reassurance before you turn in your paper. The computer really makes the overall appearance of the manuscript professional."
Essex Community College has been using computers to help students learn to write for some time, according to Peter Adams, a professor of English there.
"It started because the computer is such a wonderful tool for writing," Mr. Adams says. "It has changed the emphasis in teaching writing to an emphasis on revision."
The computers are an important feature of the college's Writing Center, where students can take an English course in a computer classroom, receive tutoring in writing skills from a member of the English faculty or just do some work on a word processor in the computer lab.
About 30 percent of the composition and rhetoric courses at Essex this spring used computers in the classroom, giving students the opportunity to increase their word processing skills and learn how to write clearly and effectively at the same time.
"Word processing is such a convenient and important skill to have as a writer," said Lynda Salamon, an assistant professor of English who coordinates the writing program for Essex Community College. "It's so much easier to revise on a computer."
Writers can move paragraphs around, delete words and then get them back, reorganize, restructure, proofread and make corrections without having to retype. When a teacher asks students to revise their papers, they can just go back to the disk and play with the composition, Dr. Salamon says.
"The easier you make the process of revision, the more likely it is that students will be willing to try it," she continued. "One thing we try to teach our students is how important it is to revise what they have written. It's hard to get writers to do that. They tend to fall in love with what they have written and don't want to change it.
"I hope that our students will learn that writing is a process, not a product. No piece of writing is ever perfect or ever finished. You need to re-write and re-write and re-write."
It's a bonus for the students that as they are learning to be better writers, they are also becoming more familiar with the use of computers.
"This is a way of increasing computer literacy and taking care of an English requirement at the same time," Dr. Salamon says. "It's valuable for people to be computer literate. And writing is an important skill not only during a college career but for jobs and for anything else that a person does after leaving here."