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

Differing Perspectives

We use the term "disciplinary" here in two senses. First, we wish to demonstrate how some of the widely accepted tenets of practitioners in the discipline of computers and writing apply to the unique exigencies of teaching digital literacies at a military academy. Second, we wish to highlight that "discipline" is a key concept at a military academy, and one that can in some way complicate those widely accepted tenets. We certainly endorse Ann Frances Wysocki, johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc's (2004) assertion that

writing would not seem so different from what it was 30 or 300 years ago, really, if all that composed it was simply the words we hear in our heads when we read or if we define writing as being able by any means to make lettershapes visible to someone else as words. But we do understand, now, that writing, like all literate practices, only exists because it functions, circulates, shifts, and has varying value and weight within complexly articulated social, cultural, political, educational, religious, economic, familial, ecological, artistic, affective, and technological webs. (p. 2)

Changes in these webs and contexts produce changes in writing, and West Point's mission to produce military officers narrows some of the contexts and purposes described by Wysocki et al. Producing officers is a process, literally and metaphorically, of regimentation. At a military academy, use of and access to technology will have idiosyncrasies that may look radically different from the practices at other institutions of higher education: as Richard Ohmann (1985) pointed out, "technology. . . is itself a social process, saturated with the power relations around it, continually reshaped according to some peoples' intentions" (p. 681). For that reason, we feel the need to detail points of intersection between the scholarship of computers and writing and the unique pedagogical needs and practices associated with teaching writing at West Point.

Our fundamental and widely held assumption in computers and writing is that, as Jim Porter (2002) put it, "technology matters to writing" (p. 75). This assumption first took shape in relation to word processing (Moran, 2003) and then expanded its scope to include hypertext, networked writing, multi-modal literacies, intellectual property, the World Wide Web, and the Internet. Education scholar Will Richardson (2006) argued "there is little doubt that the Internet will continue to explode as the most comprehensive source of information in history" (p. 125), and this rapid increase affects students at West Point as much as it does students at other colleges and universities: our cadets are part of a generation described by Marc Prensky as "digital natives," whose life-long exposure to computers has in many cases given them technological literacies significantly different from those of their instructors (Prensky, 2001 in Richardson, 2006, p. 6). Richardson further pointed out that "teachers are employing Weblogs and wikis and the like in ways that are transforming the curriculum and are allowing learning to continue long after the class ends" (p. 126), and this is true at West Point as well. However, this is perhaps less the case than it is at some other institutions of higher education: the United States Military Academy is an institution thoroughly steeped in tradition, and change can be slow in such a place, for a number of reasons.
A cadet desk in the barracks, with computer.
First among those reasons is the diversity of attitudes towards what digital technologies ought to do and what they ought to help teachers and students do. The Army's attitude toward digital technologies as a "force multiplier" (Perry, 1998) that fundamentally reshape practices is not yet widespread in West Point's largely current-traditionalist (but evolving) composition classrooms.  In fact, one anecdote has it that USMA started issuing laptops to cadets in 2002 as much to keep up with the Air Force Academy as for the sake of modernization.  Apocryphal or not, such sentiments suggest a view of technology as decontextualized instrument that leads toward a circumstance in which some West Point instructors find themselves asking, quite seriously, the rhetorical question Jim Porter (2002) posed:

How much do these computer-based writing technologies really matter in terms of their effects on writing? Is the computer changing writing in truly substantive, even revolutionary ways? Or is it simply one more writing tool, like the pencil, that aids the writing process but doesn't revolutionize it? (p. 384)

To extend Porter's question: at West Point, do we see digital technologies as instruments that simply help us do what we've always done more efficiently, and so as instruments that we simply need to learn how to use properly, or do they bear critical examination in our pedagogy and demand that we expand and re-think our perspectives?

This split between instrumental and critical perspectives (Feenberg, 2002) on technology carries with it an associated split between two pedagogical perspectives: the notion that digital technologies are things that students need to be trained to use, and the notion that digital technologies are things that students need to be educated to think critically about. As philosopher of education Christopher Winch (2000) points out in Education, Work, and Social Capital, "[e]ducation is concerned with preparation for life, whereas training is concerned with the inculcation of technique" (p. 84).  Although of a "logically different order," education and training "relate to each other in quite specific ways" (Winch, 2000, p. 84). 

For instance, in failing to conceptualize what training the students might need from him specifically—training they would not get anywhere else—in order to do what he wanted them to do in the classroom, Jeff demonstrated in his 2002 classroom what Winch describes as the "dominant Anglo-Saxon manner of thinking about these things," which "misdescribe[s]" training and education as mutually exclusive activities. Interestingly, the military environment, which clearly delineates a line between training and education (even in the USMA mission statement to "educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets"), may conceptually exacerbate the tensions between the two, implying that they exist in different domains of institutional responsibility (USMA, 2005, p. 4). 

Jeff learned from his 2002 experience of teaching with digital technologies that if he desired training to seamlessly integrate into education, he ought (at least in his own mind, if not actually on the syllabus) to craft training objectives for the class, in addition to educational ones. These objectives (following Winch) ought to, at a minimum, articulate definitions of what constitutes "confident and unhesitating mastery and application of technique"; "confident judgment" which enables autonomous appropriate application of "the technique, in what manner, and to what degree, given the particular circumstances that obtain at the time"; and the requisite "propositional knowledge" relating to the technology at hand (Winch, 2000, p. 83).

In sum, we are arguing that pedagogy and technology are deeply linked in ways that may not have been initially apparent to institutional planners who made the decision to supply every cadet with a wealth of digital technologies, and our teaching experiences—as we show in the next section—reflect that. We assert our strong support for Jim Porter's (2002) arguments that

writing is not only the words on the page, but it also concerns mechanisms for production (for example, the writing process, understood cognitively, socially, and technologically); mechanisms for distribution or delivery (for example, media); invention, exploration, research, methodology, and inquiry procedures; and questions of audience, persuasiveness, and impact. […] [W]riting technologies play a huge role—especially in terms of production (process) and distribution (delivery). (p. 386)

Access to digital technologies has made newly visible the deep integration of writing and context, and has made newly visible the tensions and stresses associated with that integration, as well.

We believe our advantaged position at West Point can be instructive in discussions of access because of the ways it shows those tensions and stresses, so some further description is here in order. Charles Moran (2001) asserted that "if as writing teachers we believe that writers are in any sense advantaged by technology, then access is the issue that drives all others before it" (p. 220), and while his remark was meant in terms of the primacy of issues, we take it in a sequential sense as well: access is a first or early concern, but when that concern is resolved, other institutional and pedagogical concerns are soon brought to light..