We’re celebrating our thirtieth anniversary this year! The Computer Research Lab (CRL), as it was initially called, was informally founded in 1985 when Professor Jerry Bump and a handful of extremely industrious graduate students armed themselves with power drills, duct tape, and a vision: by linking a makeshift “computation lab” with a classroom, they aimed to bring technological research and development together with the teaching of rhetoric, writing, and literature.
They drilled holes in the walls, ran wires, and developed software that allowed students and the instructor to communicate with one another online, both synchronously and asynchronously. In short, they created one of the first networked classrooms, and the implications for writing and for teaching were profound.
The CRL was one of the first labs of its kind in the country, and it remains one of the most innovative and well supported. In our age of technological ubiquity it may be difficult to imagine just how innovative their vision was in 1985, nearly a decade before the first graphical browser (Netscape). But there was nothing like it in the humanities at the time. Not anywhere, not even close.
The CRL got its W around 1993, becoming the Computer Writing & Research Lab, and our beloved John Slatin (1952- 2008) became its first formal director. In the beginning, John donated his seemingly endless time and energy to the CWRL’s mission, which he formalized and wove into the fabric of what is now the Department of Rhetoric & Writing.
The Lab, John insisted, should remain situated at an intersection of rhetoric, writing, and technology, and it should dedicate itself not only practically and theoretically but also pedagogically to what we now refer to as “digital literacies.” Under John’s direction, the CWRL turned the Department of Rhetoric & Writing into the site for cutting-edge pedagogical research in the field.
Over the years the technological landscape has shifted considerably, moving off the desktop and into pockets, purses, and backpacks. Computers are still everywhere, of course, but the proliferation of small tech mobile devices—cell phones, smart watches, tablets, digital recorders, wearable cameras, recording pens—have altered and exponentially expanded the pedagogical and intellectual possibilities of the Lab. To better reflect its current focus, in 2009 the Computer Writing & Research Lab was again renamed, becoming the Digital Writing & Research Lab.
In 2015, our thirtieth year of operation, we still run our own (now virtual) servers and manage five technology classrooms, each with 24 high end computers, and an open lab devoted to undergraduate and graduate students working on technology-enhanced assignments outside the classroom. Alongside the Director, we have a full time program coordinator, a full time systems administrator, three graduate student assistant directors, and graduate student staffers.
In order to support instructors in our classrooms, staffers in the DWRL are introduced to lively conversations trending in the digital humanities and get hands-on training with a wide variety of digital resources, including computers, A/V equipment, a vast array of multimedia software appropriate to the rhetoric classroom, content management systems, online pedagogical resources, multiple devices, and other digital tools.
Our staffers mentor instructors in the Lab’s classrooms, participate in various skills workshops and in a research group, blog about their research and mentoring, proctor classrooms, and work toward the completion of the DWR-Certificate (launched in 2012), for which they create a digital portfolio that showcases the valuable professional skillset they’ve developed in the Lab.
Our staffing model has shifted this year, downsizing from about twenty-five staffers working seven hours per week while also teaching to nine staffers who devote a full twenty hours per week to the Lab. This “downsizing” is, then, simultaneously a double gain: it has given us an additional forty or so dedicated hours per week and has allowed us to sharpen our focus and commit to an approach that is as devoted to depth as it is breadth.
You’ll notice, for example, that our updated website now hosts all of our content in a single stream, that our general research areas have been explicitly articulated, and that our mentoring task has been more carefully defined. You’ll also notice that we are still positioned at the intersection of rhetoric, writing, and technology, and that we’re still dedicated, thirty years later, to practice, theory, and pedagogy.