Too Late to Learn? Helping the Reluctant With Technology

Creative Daydreaming, from

Creative Daydreaming, from

Everyone has at least one friend, relative, or colleague who is not yet competent in even the most basic computer tasks: creating a document, e-mailing, browsing online.

It’s hard to imagine an academic with poor computer skills. And yet, they aren’t that rare. I know, because I work with them. One correspondent doesn’t know how to open an attachment to an e-mail. Another asks me to convert the edited chapters of his book to an old version of Microsoft Word. Another asks to dictate her page-proof corrections over the phone. One author still sends his manuscripts in WordStar, for pity’s sake. (You have to be a best seller to get away with that, by the way; others must submit work in an approved format.)

I understand the frustrations and inefficiencies of wrestling with technology. Nothing has sent me closer to the brink, and I still struggle with my attitude. This week my colleagues and I must learn a new markup technology for the manuscripts we prepare for typesetting. I am beyond grumpy about this. On the training agenda I see a blur of items that mean nothing to me. “Item 1: Review WFDW concepts.” Googling WFDW takes me to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. I see a possible connection with opening a can of worms.

In “Ten Reasons People Resist Change,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter summarizes with great insight reasons that apply well to our resistance to technology. “More Work” and “Ripple Effects” pretty well explain my suspicion of WFDW, but Kanter suggests other, more serious insecurities and fears: of uncertainty, of loss of control, of incompetence.

And yet there are compelling reasons—especially for the elderly—to be able to navigate and communicate online. Obviously, it will allow them to work longer into their dotage and to maintain contact with younger friends and relatives, but beyond that it opens a world of help and entertainment and solace. I’m convinced that computer skills can significantly improve the quality of life even in the face of gradually failing faculties.

Because impaired vision and hearing and motor skills are practical impediments to computer use, the earlier a person acquires the skills, the more likely they will be able to continue and adapt them as needed.* If you have a friend or relative or colleague who struggles with the most basic computer tasks, and whose only real impediment so far is a lack of motivation, consider encouraging them. Determine which type of skill is of most use or interest, and coach them in it.

If I could wish just one computer competence for everyone, it would be for everyone to learn how to use e-mail or social media to send and receive photos, documents, and links to Web sites.

My second wish would be easier: for everyone to learn how to conduct online searches. In helping someone master this, I would make Google** or another search engine the home page of their Internet browser; I would make sure that either the browser icon or the Google icon were visible on the desktop; and I would show them how to type queries into the box. I would help them find sites they are motivated to visit (travel, business, health, or hobby sites) and then show them how to bookmark their favorite pages and create folders for organizing them. I would show them how to look at their browsing history and—since privacy is sometimes a debilitating concern—how to delete that history.

Since scholars are a minority, a wish that everyone would learn to use MS Word to produce flawless manuscripts must fall to third place. But if I were the queen of academe, here are the minimum word-processing competencies I would bestow on my subjects:

—How to indent paragraphs, either by using a tab character or by setting the “ruler” or by applying a “style.”

—How to add an embedded footnote or endnote using the automatic feature, and how always to add notes that way, rather than by typing some of them in manually.

—How to track changes when editing a document so someone else can review it.

When they are comfortable with word processing, writers have the flexibility to edit and improve their work. The stress of writing for publication is reduced; relationships with editors and publisher are enhanced. What’s more, well-prepared documents are more likely to appear in print the way they are intended. The less time a copy editor has to spend to clean up a document, the lower the risk of her introducing errors and deleting things, and the more time she can spend on actual editing. The work will benefit. The reader will benefit.

And once I figure out the WFDW, I might have time to go fishing.


*To complain about the use of they as a singular, you can go here or here or here.

**I like Google because its home page is spare and simple, and it prompts a single task: to type a search term. It also has a menu at the top that includes Google Maps and YouTube—two extremely useful Web sites for information and amusement.

Carol Saller, a senior manuscripts editor at the University of Chicago Press and author of   The Subversive Copy Editor, is a former Lingua Franca blogger.

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