Having the Right Stuff Is Only the Beginning: Technological and Institutionaal Challenges at the United States Military Academy

The Army You Have, Not the Army You Want

In a news conference on Wednesday, December 8, 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a soldier, "[a]s you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want" (CNN). As instructors at the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA), the two of us—Jeff and Mike; one an Army Lieutenant Colonel, the other a civilian professor—are  fortunate to have the instructional technology that many composition instructors want. Every cadet is issued a new laptop with a full suite of office and educational software, an external monitor, and an external hard drive for backups. As Charles Moran (2001) has pointed out, "there are haves and have nots among us and our students" as far as computers go (p. 205), and at West Point, we are among the haves, to the point where we worry not about making do with slim resources, as Rumsfeld suggested, but about how to most effectively use the wealth of computer resources we are fortunate enough to have. The resources themselves, however, present a set of fresh challenges in the ideologies they reveal about technology at various levels, including the highest levels of the institution administration and its relationship with the Army and the Department of Defense, as well as the level of the Dean's office and the Academic Program, at the departmental level, and down to the levels of individual instructors and students. These resources also represent challenges in the divergent and sometimes conflicting attitudes about the proper uses of technology at all those levels. This article explores those two sets of challenges and their implications for teaching composition at West Point. While the circumstances of teaching composition at a military academy are in some ways unique, we have much in common with those who use digital technologies in teaching composition elsewhere. We believe the practices and scholarship associated with the computers and writing community have in useful ways shaped and developed the ways current and future Army officers think critically about composing and technology, and we suggest that other scholars and instructors may gain some insight from our struggles and challenges.

The divergent attitudes toward digital technologies we describe in this article are not limited to conflicts in goals between administration and instructor, or between instructor and student. The two of us, Jeff and Mike, sometimes find ourselves differing significantly in our attitudes and beliefs about the best practices associated with digital technologies and teaching writing. For that reason, we offer our separate accounts and then share our observations and experiences with teaching composition with computers, in the hopes of illuminating from different points of view some of the complications that arise from the introduction of technology in the composition classroom—complications that can create friction between students and teachers, and between teachers and institutions. These complications can be exacerbated by the absence of a comprehensive organizational framework in which to emplace the technology, and by the absence of careful forethought by teachers and administrators about specific and material classroom practices with computers. However, we also assert that access to emerging technologies—in the very complications we describe—can make visible competing pedagogical priorities, and thereby help instructors to become more critical and reflective practitioners.