Currents: An E-Journal
The Nearness of You: Students and Teachers Writing Online.  Ed. Christopher Edgar and Susan Nelson Wood. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1996. 
Currents in Electronic Literacy  Spring 2000(3), 

  1. The story of computers in the writing classroom is, in many ways, a tale of fantastic possibilities and mundane problems.  Global democracy exists side by side with incomprehensible error messages; instant communication comes with crumbs in the keyboards; the road to the information superhighway is littered with unformattable disks. 
  2. I can think of few books that capture the flavor of that first year of working with technology as well as  The Nearness of You, a collection of essays compiled by Christopher Edgar and Susan Nelson Wood.  In many ways, Edgar and Wood themselves walk the line between the power of electronic technology and its frustrations.  "We felt the need to answer the skeptics who doubt that technology really can be a positive force in education," they write in their Preface, "The fact was, however, that the two of us were rather skeptical ourselves"(x).  The two of them hesitate to claim that computer technology will work some sort of educational magic -- "we did not want to reiterate the claims certain policymakers have made -- that if schools buy computers and make students 'computer literate,' educational standards will instantly be met and surpassed"(x) -- and claims of social and cognitive revolution are altogether outside their purview.  Instead, the book focuses on the day to day trials and triumphs of those "adventurous teachers" who have had "the courage to dive in, and the widsom to see that the quality of the work was the important thing, not the hardware and software"(x).  Within that context, they claim, technology properly used can work miracles in education by "bringing students and teachers together, eradicating distance, [and] helping students learn more effectively"(x).
  3. The essays that they have collected here show that the road is not always easy or obvious, but the results are worth it.  Although the book is primarily geared towards the teaching of writing -- especially creative writing -- in the primary and secondary schools, teachers in all kinds of classrooms can benefit from the experiences these essays describe.  The book contains some basic essays on how to use the World Wide Web, what Multi-User Domains (MUDs, MUSHes and MOOs) are and how to use them in the classroom, and how to avoid "netiquette" violations like flaming and SHOUTING in e-mail messages (as well as how to avoid more serious legal problems like libel, sexual harassment, software piracy, and intellectual property theft).  But even more advanced instructors can learn from clever games like Karen Ferrell's "Writing Roulette" (where students switch computers to complete each other's stories in order to learn what it takes to craft a successful beginning, middle and end), Beverly Paeth's description of how she turned a basic skills class into a writers' workshop, and Bill Bernhardt's savvy group work techniques.  The book provides advice for instructors with different levels of resources as well.  Although many of these essays come out of projects that received special funding -- the Kentucky Telecommunications Writing Project (KTWP) and the Bread Loaf Rural Teachers Network (BLRTN) figure prominently here -- the writers are aware that not every student has that sort of access to technology, much less to the skilled professionals needed to make it work, and they are savvy about the politics behind getting (or not getting) the technology and about the problems of working with fewer computers and less knowledge than one might ideally have.  The first essay of the book, "Less is More," shows how students working in groups with five students to a work station can actually accomplish more than students working individually at their own computers, Beverly Paeth describes how she undertook her own teacher training, Carol Stumpo and Emmy Krempasky talk about the politics of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, and Robin Lambert talks about how to set up an exchange program that uses professional authors comment on students' work (one practical tip: Authors should be paid.).
  4. But more than a primer of teaching tips, this book provides (as one might expect from a group of essays that centers on creative writing instructors) a series of stories -- narratives of initiation, narratives of struggle, stories of getting funding and learning to load programs, and personal, heartfelt descriptions of the results.  "I first discovered how using computers could benefit my own writing in the early 1980's," "I had been away from education for eighteen years while I stayed home to raise two sons,""Julie was new in our eighth grade class,""Lloyd was thrilled with the results."  Although not strictly scholarly, these experiences give the book an unfailing air of authenticity.  Lesson plans don't always work; computers appear out of thin air at the whim of the adminstration; correspondents don't always respond; teachers occasionally require hours of technical support just to figure out how to open the word processing program.  All of this provides a heartening corrective to the rampant technophilia that sometimes characterizes this field.  But it also performs a different sort of work.  In some ways, this book enacts in print the dynamic it describes online: it brings together teachers from different backgrounds and allows them to enter into a conversation.  For the first time teacher, it provides reassurance that someone else has gone through the same struggles and survived; for the more experienced instructor, it provides an opportunity to see what other teachers have tried and how it has worked. 
  5. It is exactly this sort of connection that makes The Nearness of You valuable.  Although it sometimes has the feel of an internet chat room, it has the same kind of value -- bits of useful information, accompanied by the feeling that there is someone out there somewhere who has experienced the same sorts of things that you are experiencing right now. The Nearness of You is exactly what Coleridge imagined literature to be: a friend.  I would highly recommend The Nearness of You to anyone teaching in a computer classroom for the first time, and for anyone interested in picking up ideas on using computers creatively in the classroom.  It's not a scientific text by any stretch of the imagination, but for teachers practicing in the field, it provides a dose of reality seasoned with optimism and hope.
  6. Melynda Nuss
    The University of Texas at Austin
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