I had an unfortunate experience today in the writing center. For obvious reasons of protecting student identity, I’ll keep some details out. This specific session is not really important except as the McGuffin device for my larger observation.
A student arrived at the front desk at 4pm and wanted to get an appointment to have a paper tutored. We were, unfortunately, fullly booked until at least 5pm. As we’re supposed to do, I attempted to prod out what the paper was, who it was for, and what the student wanted to work on. He didn’t know the instructor, the name or course designation of his class, and all he said was that he wanted to work on his “bibliography.” I book the appointment for another tutor at 5 because I’m scheduled for a one-on-one session with my recurring student from 4-6.
5 rolls around, and because my usual student didn’t come in today, I decide to just take the other tutor’s appointment because she’s in the middle of a lengthy, productive session that’s going to run long. I’m going to rename the original student – the one who wanted a 4 but had to take a 5 – to Michael.
As I sit down with Michael, I attempt to again get some information on what he’s there for. It turns out that “bibliography” means to check his MLA works cited page. Like many professors do, his instructor has provided an augmented style for source formatting, and of course, the instructor trumps style. I also see that the instructor has linked out of his assignment sheet (a raw URL in a Word doc) to a third party site (not a school or the OWL) to find formatting guidelines for the websites. When I saw it later, it looked to be the same as MLA.
It’s a small paper with only 4 sources, and it looks like he’s gotten one of the citations – the solitary book, in a format provided by the instructor – down okay without too much need for correction. Things derail as we get to the other sources, unfortunately, as he tells me his paper is due at 5:30 (It’s now 5:15), and I see he’s pretty much nowhere near MLA guidelines for his three web-based sources: he’s only listed raw URLs. Michael also chooses now to want to take a look at the body of the paper, and ask how to integrate an in-text citation. Knowing that the amount of time we have left combined with reasons I’ll get to a little later means that we simply aren’t going to get his sources fixed in time, I try and steer him to what we can fix. That’s the in-text stuff. This is common in appointments like this; when, for whatever reason, the student is up against a close deadline with more to fix than time permits, we do triage. I try and get here with polite inquiry, explaining that he’s going to have to do a lot for one task: look up the name of an author, if any exists; the name of the page; the name of the website; date of publication, if determinable; and his date of access — three times in 10ish minutes.
Michael doesn’t take well to this, and complains that three times before he’s been to our writing center, and each time he’s left it frustrated. I saw this coming through body language and tone, so I’m ready. I play nice and concerned, and reassure him that I only want to help him fix what we can because time just doesn’t permit for it all. I give him the public-consumption version of the “we just didn’t have time – maybe if you came in earlier” advice.
Michael: Well I tried to come in at 4 pm and you wouldn’t fuckin let me.
Michael (shoving paper and laptop back into bag): This place is fuckin ridiculous. Are we done?
Roger: If you are…
Michael slams chair, looks expectantly at me.
Roger: I’m… sorry we couldn’t help you more.
Michael: Me too. Fuckin waste of time.
Michael storms out. I sit there for a good five minutes, feeling guilty. Man, I had a feeling at 4 that my scheduled student wasn’t gonna be here today and she wasn’t. I just knew it. I could’ve gotten this guy in and we could’ve done an hour long appointment for 1 page, and I could’ve fixed… I stopped my line of thinking because, despite my guilt of letting someone walk out in no better a state than they entered, I knew there were factors outside my control that brought us to this point. The biggest, of course, was that Michael brought in an unfinished paper 1.5 hours before it was due and expected to get an appointment immediately.
Here’s the dicey part, and at great length, my point: Michael’s computer illiterate. I know to some who read this (the three of you), that’s instantly a valuable detail that augments everything you just read. Whatever you may feel about the legitimacy of stereotypes about which groups of people are computer illiterate, there are some groups that are prone. Michael was a classic case. Interacting with his laptop was slow and uncertain. Finding his assignment sheet was slow and uncertain. Finding his document was slow, uncertain, and littered with several false starts. Opening a website was slow and uncertain. His Word document was an unformatted single block of text. Typing was slower than hunt-and-peck.
The entire time I was working with Michael was characterized by silent patience while he interacted with his laptop, punctuated by one or two sentences of conversation, then continued waiting. Had a computer savvy user had the same amount of time and work Michael did, we’d still have had a close call because we started so late. Michael made some unfortunate choices in timing, yes, but he had ten times the uphill battle of most other users.
So what’s the solution to this? There’s no doubt that computers are extremely close knit with the college experience now, and even more so writing. However inelegant, is it time we add another placement test for first time students: the computer literacy test? As it stands now, I believe UM-Flint strongly encourages an optional remedial course to some groups, but it’s not a requirement. Would Michael have been better off had he been mandatorily shunted into that class in his first term? What’s the definition of computer literate? How many students like Michael slip through this crack and are forever handicapped by their lacking skillset?
Understanding the nature of the computer illiterate/uncomfortable/novice, whatever term you prefer, is hard for me. I simply am not, mostly by virtue of my interests, but also by virtue of my generation. Am I a hacker? No. Am I a software developer? Not even close. I do know how to use a computer – any computer, I’d wager – and perhaps most crucially of all, I know how to tell when I don’t know enough and how to remedy that.
What about the Michaels?