This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin.
How can we use the versioning, auto-save, and undo capabilities to re-envision the ways we teach writing?
Many teachers will tell you that students perform better when they can see measurable progress. Just like the users of a software program, students want to know “where” they are in a process. Although we can’t always give students a virtual “status bar,” we do try to help them see their improvements. This is why, at the end of the semester, many writing instructors require students to return to a paper they wrote during the first few weeks of class. The goal is to help students actually recognize how much they’ve (hopefully) learned throughout the semester—in terms of content and grammar, in addition to rhetorical writing strategies.
This method of returning to past work not only helps bolster a student’s confidence in her abilities, but it can also help the student understand her individual writing process, which hopefully make her more aware of the decisions she makes as she continues to write.
When working on large projects (such as my MA thesis) I often wished for a way to see my work grow and develop in some measurable way. Yes, I was aware of my progress because the page numbers grew the longer I work. But I wanted to be able to “step back” see the changes. As writers, sometimes the writing process just comes to a screeching halt. We hit a wall (commonly known, I suppose, as writer’s block). When this happens, there’s just something inside of me that knows if I could step back and gain that kind of detached perspective, I could pinpoint where I took that wrong turn that lead to the dead-end.
There were also several instances when I came to a point in my writing and knew I could move forward in several different directions. I wanted to experiment and “try out” those different directions to see which ones worked better. This led me to copying and pasting different versions of my writing into multiple documents… which eventually became a filing nightmare, because I was afraid to trash any of them and lose something that might be valuable.
Borrowing from About Face’s discussion of “versioning,” I think something could be created that could help novice writers understand their writing process and experienced writers better analyze their writing process.
Chapter 6 describes versioning as “. . . simply [making] a copy of the entire document the way a camera snapshot freezes an image in time.” Users already have the option of changing the setting within Microsoft Word to auto-save documents at regular minute-by-minute intervals. If writers could take those captured versions of their documents and filter them according to time elapsed, amount of content growth, or number of changes made, they could essentially create a very comprehensive map of the maturation of their projects.