Let’s Talk About Tech: Revisiting the Conversation on Technology Use at HBCUs

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Jimisha Relerford is a Master Instructor in the Department of English at Howard University. She serves as director of The Writing Center and is currently a student in the PhD program. Her research interests include early 20th-century African American literature, archival studies, and composition pedagogy. 


Yes, we’ve come a long way, but, as I write in March of 2003, I see that we’ve still got a long way to go, especially if we’re going to exploit the full teaching potential of the Internet.

-Teresa Redd

Much has changed since Teresa Redd, then a Howard University professor, published these words fifteen years ago in Computers and Composition. Whereas Dr. Redd’s Howard University students and fellow composition professors were limited to accessing the internet primarily through wired connections in dormitories and computer labs, virtually anyone on campus now enjoys hi-speed wifi throughout the campus. Many students and faculty did not yet own home computers in 2003, and few could boast advanced computer skills. Current composition instructors at Howard are, in general, highly computer literate, and the vast majority of our students are high-level digital content consumers, many of them also skilled content creators. Most students own a laptop computer, and many also own tablets and high-performing smart phones. Indeed, it isn’t uncommon to walk into a classroom and see not bright, eager young faces, but students hidden behind rows upon rows of open digital devices. But in many ways, Dr. Redd’s words still apply to the experience of teaching with technology at HBCUs, specifically at Howard. We still have a long way to go before we harness the full potential of digital technology for teaching and learning in composition classrooms.


In the years since its publication, a robust body of research on technology use at HBCUs has joined Dr. Redd’s article, and much of it reiterates challenges that persist. Rather than offer a lengthy recap of those challenges here, I instead examine three “scenes” from my own experiences with using technology in my current roles at Howard: composition instructor, graduate student, and Writing Center director. (The use of “scenes” as an organizational metaphor is adapted from Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” Jones explains that the scenes are singular in terms of their being narratives of one individual’s experiences, but they are also plural in that they constitute data that can yield conclusions that are applicable to many.) These experiences illuminate the complicated relationship between students and faculty on the one hand and digital tech on the other. Taken together, the scenes show that while the conversation about technology use at HBCUs may not be an easy one, it remains as necessary now as it was in 2003.


Scene 1: Misadventures in Teaching with Technology

When I started teaching my first composition course as a new lecturer at Howard in 2015, I was excited to find that the department required at least one multimodal assignment for all first-year composition courses. With lofty goals in mind, I envisioned and planned a multimedia essay assignment, which tasked my students with developing an-all digital composition that included video, image, sound, and text elements. I’d developed the idea for this assignment after a conversation with a former colleague at Georgia State University who had used a similar video essay effectively in her composition classes. Unfortunately, I soon learned that my goals might have been somewhat ambitious. Several students required more assistance with video editing than I was knowledgeable enough to give; my colleague had assured me that she did not have to teach her students video editing for the assignment, as they relied on existing knowledge and on-campus resources.Not all of my classrooms were equipped with Smart projectors that semester, so I was limited in my ability to work through problems with students in class; my colleague always taught in a room equipped with Smart technology. Most of my students brought their own laptops or tablets to class, but a few of them didn’t own either, and at least one of them vocally bemoaned the possibly of having to spend late nights in the computer lab to complete the assignment; my colleague’s students – their entire freshman class, in fact – had all been assigned iPads by their university. Suffice it to say that I learned quickly how difficult it is to adapt an all-digital assignment from one classroom setting to another, particularly when the one doesn’t have access to the same technological resources as the other. Even in the thick of the digital age, when personal computing devices seem virtually ubiquitous, the issues that Redd raised concerning access and skill level (“the digital divide”) remain relevant for many HBCU composition students.


Scene 2: Digital Humanities…Yes, We Do That Here

My role as a doctoral student in the English program affords me yet another perspective on the relationship between technology and learning at Howard. Recently, I was prompted to consider this relationship during a conversation with a fellow graduate student about our research interests. When I mentioned that I’m interested in exploring the digital humanities for both my research and my pedagogy, my classmate’s response was, “Digital humanities? Do we even do that here?” In retrospect, I wish I had prompted her to elaborate on what she obviously perceives to be a disconnect between the program in English at Howard and the digital humanities, but at the time I was too surprised by her response to pursue it further. Later, I tried to reconcile what I know about Howard’s English department with my classmate’s words. I know that in the summer of 2016, the department hosted “Seshat: A Digital Humanities Initiative,” a 2-week program funded by an NEH HBCU Humanities Initiative Grant. The program exposed literary studies scholars to theories, methodologies, and tools related to digital humanities, culminating in scholars’ redesign of four existing humanities courses at Howard University. I know that at least one recent graduate of the doctoral program, Tyechia Lynn Thompson, undertook digital humanities research for her dissertation, an innovative study that used geospatial mapping tools to examine depictions of post-1960’s Paris in the writings of African American authors James Baldwin, James Emanuel, and Jake Lamar. And I know that in 2015, David Green, director of the composition program, implemented a full-scale revision of the first-year writing course sequence, developing courses that emphasize (alongside traditional academic essay-writing) multimodal composition, digital content creation, and web design. These developments suggest that Howard’s department of English has indeed demonstrated some investment into harnessing the potential of the digital humanities for faculty, emerging scholars, and undergraduates.


Scene 3: To Print or Not to Print…

As the director of Howard’s Writing Center, I collaborate with graduate and undergraduate student tutors at the beginning of each academic year to review and update our policies and tutorial procedures. One of our long-standing policies, which has persisted after vigorous debate among the tutors and myself, is that we prefer students bring hardcopies of their papers for tutorial sessions. The general consensus among the tutors is that reviewing a printed document during a face-to-face session with a student is more efficient and effective than attempting to conduct a tutorial session while scrolling through a digital document on a computer screen. However, last semester a student took issue with this policy, insisting that students shouldn’t be expected to bring hardcopies of their papers since “nobody prints anything out anymore.” A graduate tutor responded incredulously – surely the student prints essays and papers for her professors? The student insisted that all her assignments were submitted through email or Blackboard. This exchange is unsurprising considering that the young woman, a “digital native,” is accustomed to developing documents that are intended solely for digital consumption. Composing, revising, and sharing documents completely online is now standard practice, and, for her at least, printing paper is beyond passé. The exchange serves as a reminder that in spite of the challenges faced by HBCUs with regard to technology use, the vast majority of our students have wholly adopted the digital as a way of life. It is now up to us – scholars, instructors, departments, institutions – to decide if we will do what is necessary to catch up.



Redd, Teresa M. "‘Tryin to Make a Dolla Outa Fifteen Cent’: Teaching Composition with the Internet at an HBCU." Computers and Composition, vol. 20, no., 2003, pp. 359-373.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. "When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own." College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29-40.

Thompson, Tyechia L. “Mapping City Limits: Post-1960s Paris and the Writings of James Baldwin, James Emanuel, and Jake Lamar.” Howard University, 2016. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.