Typewriter Composition

Thing number 74 that I love about my job: that I get to teach the class "Writing Technologies." Unlike other "writing for the web" courses, this class has the potential to open up much more broadly into inquiry into the technological production and distribution of text.

So in the spirit of blogging things that seemed "to work" this past year, here's a recipe for teaching what I call Typewriter Composition.

The point of Typewriter Composition is to generate ideas about what it means to interact with a machine when we compose (not just type), to historicize the word processor, and to create what I think of as visually charming typewriter-texts.

Wendell Berry's "Why I'm Not Going to Buy a Computer" is one place to start, as Berry is both a kook and argues cogently for Typewriter Composition. The Story of My Typewriter, by Paul Auster (text) and Sam Messer (art) is an even better one. And I should note that before teaching about the typewriter students have done work on clay tablets, pen-and-ink, pencils (Dennis Baron's "From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies" is great on these topics) and the printing press. Typewriters, I think, only make sense in those techno-contexts.


1. Inquiry groups research various aspects of the typewriter as writing machine. One group explores the invention of the typewriter and early versions of the machine (such as the Hansen writing ball) in the 19th century; another group explores key layout patterns and the Qwerty layout in particular; another group researches the advent of electric typewriters; another group hones in on the IBM Selectric; another group finds out how typewriters are currently marketed and sold.

The research is then distributed to the rest of the class via presentation (both in class and online). I like each one of these topics, but oddly the most productive seems to be the last one, as it breaks down the common notion that word processors have replaced typewriters.

2. Typewriter examination, which is exactly what it sounds like: I bring four or five typewriters to class and students figure out how they work. By the end of the class period, students should be able to know how to use just about every feature on a typewriter, comparing manual and electric machines. (This may sound like a waste of time, but most students I've done this with have never used a typewriter before.)

3. Typewriter composition, which is really great at the U of I since our undergraduate library still has a corral of six IBM Selectrics. In this project, students write about the readings, their research, and their personal techno-histories relating to the typewriter as writing machine. Visually, crossouts and odd mistakes (like typing off the page) are assets as this is all about composing, not just typing, on these machines.

Pay Off:
For me, the main payoff in Typewriter Composition is in historicizing the word processor in terms of both the physical interface and the software we write with. Typewriter Composition is inquiry based, experiential, and productive of meta-writing (typewriter composition about typewriter composition), and as such works nicely with contiguous units about pen-and-pencil composition and computer composition.

In a course where students are learning to code in html and css to write for the web, encounters with typewriters as writing machines and the production of typewriter-texts create opportunities for digital archiving of both experience and text.


  1. Sounds like a cool unit/course. Another thing all students should have to do (all grad students at U of I do have to do it, or used to): fill out the special field exam forms on the electronic typewriter in the English grad office. It took me three copies of the form to get it right (and was still pretty ugly).

    I taught an intro to writing studies class this semester, and I often lamented that (for obvious liability reasons) I couldn't bring in wooden planks and wood-burning pens for my students to see what sorts of compositions that writing technology might lend itself to. But it just never occured to me to lug two or three typewriters in. There's always next time . . .

  2. Argh! Yet another reason I wish I could register for Fall *now*! As someone straddling the line between the TV generation and the Internet generation, I've actually used typewriters, old card catalogs, and I still remember being very excited when we got Prodigy at home and pluncked our way through the ugly text screens and bulletin boards that passed for the internet in those days.
    I'll be in the GSLIS program this Fall... how does UIUC work? Are some classes like this already full? I hope not. Thanks for the description - sounds like a wonderful course!

  3. Lance -- wood burning pens!? You crazy! (Okay, no wait: that gives me an idea ...) :)

    Sara -- the class isn't full yet, and it would be awesome to have you in there, but I'm guessin' you'll be pretty busy with those GSLIS classes. Prodigy! I forgot all about that one.