Below is one of the essays I wrote as part of my comprehensive examination in hypertext theory for my doctoral program in English at Michigan State University.
Other Essays on Hypertext
Hypertext and Reading
Hypertext and Narrative
How would you design a syllabus for a course on hypertext and hypertext theory? Imagine that the course will be for graduate students on the M.A. level. Explain how you would structure the course and the readings you would select. Include in your answer rationales for the readings and other assignments your students would do during the course. However, spend most of your answer explaining and supporting the point and purpose of the course.
George Landow (1997) believes that hypertext theory promises an instantiation of critical theory, that it embodies a convergence of the two. For this reason, and more, a course devoted to hypertext theory would be of value to students who are focusing their studies in cultural theory, English, education, or rhetoric. The following syllabus is a description of a course that would be designed to meet the needs of students in a number of different disciplines.
Smith and Curtin (1998) argue "that because students are immersed in a time of ever-increasing technological development, it is possible that their methods of thinking and processing information differ from those of past generations. In their view, the pluralism of identities and perspectives emerging today and the increasing domination of computer technology directly affect the structures of educational systems. They warn that the very institution of education as we know it is challenged by these cultural shifts and that a total reassessment of curriculum and schooling is necessary.(xxix) Tuman (1992) says that the countering force of literacy can no longer be located in the individual writer "and the letters he or she may dare to open only in the privacy of the heart, away from all forms of prying technology." Hypertext challenges us to write documents where we share agency with the reader, where we diffuse, perhaps, the authorial power that has traditionally been assumed in print culture.
Hypertext theory falls within a broader body of postmodern theory. It is an example of the rhizome metaphor. It challenges us to abandon conceptual systems based on the idea of center, margin, and linearity and invites us to consider instead connectedness, decenteredness, and multi-linearity. One of the purposes for a course in hypertext theory would be to, of course, explore those larger cultural trends. But a course of this nature would also be designed to de-mystify the technology and help students realize that it can become a space for significant scholarly work.
Technology seems to be moving faster and faster. Many see the computer as something to fear, as a force that is driving change. They fail to see that cultural changes are the real force and that computer technology is only a part of that, a representation, perhaps, of larger cultural changes. Hypertext technology is "capable of capturing both the hairbreadth movements of individual human consciousness and the colossal crosscurrents of global society (Murray, Hamlet 9). A course in hypertext theory would hopefully help students place it within a larger historic transition and engage them in the sense of play that computer technology can bring with it.
Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, second edition, by Madan Sarup, 1993, University of Georgia Press, 206 pages.
Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth by Ilana Snyder, 1997, New York University Press. 137 pages.
The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkerts, 1994, Fawcett Columbine. 231 pages
Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era, edited by Ilana Synder, 1998, Routledge, 260 pages.
Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet H. Murray, 1997, The Free Press, 324 pages.
Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, by George P. Landow, 1997, Johns Hopkins University Press, 353 pages.
Hypertext and Cognition, Ed. Jean-Francois Rouet, Jarmo J. Levonen, Andew Dillon, and Rand Spiro, 1996, Erlbaum. 175 pages.
GOALS OF THE COURSE
The broad goal of the course would be to give students a working knowledge of hypertext technology and the theoretical base that is growing as a result of that technology. Included in that broad goal would be to give students a broader theoretical context in which to view hypertext theory, mostly in the area of critical theory but to also give them a look at how cognitivists are theorizing the ways in which hypertext is used. In order for students to gain a working knowledge of hypertext, they will be expected to create hypertext documents, and, indeed, will be expected to complete two hypertext projects-one small ones and a larger final project.
In addition to that, students will be expected to participate in a class list serv in order to discuss their readings during the week. This list serv discussion would serve two purposes, actually. The first would be the obvious function of placing students in a position of thinking deliberately about the text they are reading that week, and putting their thoughts into a textual format. And in doing that, they can share and debate the issues that come up in the course of their readings. Placing students in this position allows them to participate as part of a network, a key aspect of hypertext theory. The network paradigm is central to hypertext (Landow, 1992) and one of the ways to get a sense of what it is like to work within that paradigm is to participate in list serv discussion. Moran and Hawisher (1998) point out that computer mediated conversations bring with them new possibilities and spaces where gender roles and hierarchies can be "flattened,' and where previously marginalized voices may be heard. Certainly class list servs can provide a space for those who do not care to participate in classroom discussion to reflect and contribute to the growing body of knowledge among students. For students who have experience with list servs, the class list serv will not present any problems. And for those who have never participated in computer mediated conversations, the classroom list serv will provide an entry way into the rhetoric and social conventions of computer mediated conversation (CMC).
However, there is another reason for including CMC in the course. There is a wonderful social "closeness" that can happen on a list sever, a collegiality that brings disparate voices together for a common purpose--to learn, to practice using new discourse styles. In short, to bond. Whether that happens in a classroom list serv would depend on the classroom, of course. But for those students who have never participated in such an activity, the list serv will pave the way to other list servs and other topics, and hopefully other chances to "bond" with individuals they connect with.
I would like to include one other form of computer mediated conversation in the course-synchronous computer mediated conversation in either a MUD (Multi User Domain)or MOO (Mud Object Oriented) format. MUDs and MOO's call upon users to develop still another mode of communicating, one that is fast paced and in real time. It could be that students would gather in a MOO for a class period rather than physically coming to class. Or students could physically come to class and then break into smaller groups that met in different MOO's.
SCHEDULE AND PUROSE OF TEXTS
Assuming the course is 15 weeks in length, we would progress in the following way. The first book I would like students to read in Sarup's text Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism. This text would provide students with an introduction to not only post structural and postmodern theory, but modernism and structuralism. Landow (1992) believes that hypertext is an embodiment of critical theory. In order to understand how that happens, it is important to have a grounding in critical theory. Students will be able to approach the other texts in the course with a better understanding if they have some knowledge in critical theory. The Sarup text nicely introduces such theorist as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and Baudrillard, all voices frequently referred to by Landow, Delaney, Synder, Lanham, Bolter, and Joyce, as well as others.
Sarup's chapter on Derrida and deconstruction begins with an explanation of sous rature, or under erasure, Derrida's term for explaining his notion that the sign is a structure of difference, something that is only half "there," half present In a broad sense hypertext embodies Derrida's concept of sous rature because it is never all present, and meaning sometimes has to be postponed or suspended. Also, hypertext can disrupt our concept of textual stability. The Sarup text does a nice job of preparing students to think about Derrida's emphasis on textual openness and intertextuality both within the boundaries of a given text and outside those boundaries. Such explanations will help students later when they begin reading hypertext theory, especially those chapters in Landow where he connects Derrida's ideas to the hyperreal textures of multi-linear electronic text.
Both Derrida and Foucault place novels within a larger cultural context and understanding a little of Derrida and of Foucualt will help students as they read Birkert's book which is highly critical of electronic text in general, including hypertext. Sarup's chapter about Foucault will help students begin to think about issues of power and causality, which will also help them when they read Birkerts. These are important issues in hypertext, especially when thinking about the placement of ideas, of hierarchy and authority in text.
When thinking about hypertext and its impact upon culture, it is wise to think of Foucault's questions about how particular practices came into being. Sarup does a nice job of explaining this. Sarup also goes into a nice discussion regarding meaning when he discusses Foucault's retelling of a murder trial. The chapter also does a nice job of preparing students for Foucault's view of text as a network of links, a key concept in hypertext theory. Sarup is also careful to provide criticisms to Foucault's work
Sarup's chapter on post structuralist theory, especially when discussing the work of Delueze and Guattari, provides a good overview of their theory of nomos or rhizomatic thought. The rhizome metaphor is used extensively when talking about hypertext theory and is a very appropriate one because rhizomes are non-hierarchical. Anyone who has planted iris knows that the rhizomes spread outward from a center forming an everwidening, sometimes uneven, continuation, until there is no real center. Each new rhizome is as strong and nutrient filled as the one connected to it. And should the rhizomes become separated, they are capable of creating new, equally as strong, webs of growth, sometimes linking back to the web of rhizomes it was separated from.
Such is the case with hypertext, of course, which is why hypertext theorists are so enamored of the rhizome metaphor. But not only does Sarup give a good overview of rhizomatic thought, he links that to the Delueze and Guattari's theory of smooth and striated spaces. This explanation can help students deal with the argument that hypertext can inhabit both spaces. To the cognitivists, who approach hypertext in a different way, hypertext needs to become more striated, more rule bound. To such theorists and Landow and Bolter, hypertext is the instantiation of D&G's smooth spaces, spaces that do not have to abide by traditional textual conventions.
Delueze, as well as Foucault and Derrida, speak of decentered knowledge, a point that is dealt with again and again throughout the Sarup text, not only in the chapters dealing with those theorists, but in the chapter that discusses Lyotard and his attack on "grand narratives." Again, the concept of boundary, or the blurring of boundary, is a recurrent theme in hypertext theory. That we can create a web of documents all linked to each other, a web that could include information written by the web maker or documents written by other unseen writers, challenges our notions of textual boundaries and authorship. Lyotard's theory is that the nature of knowledge will change under the pressure of technological change. Sarup provides an overview of Lyotard's theories regarding this as well as Lyotard's examination of two "master narratives," the political, activist master narrative than helped bring about the French revolution, and the Hegelian, totalitarian master narrative that Lyotard attributes as one of the elements that brought about Stalinism. In terms of hypertext theory, students will need to think about how technology and hypertext specifically is writing a new master narrative.
The next book students will be expected to read is Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth by Ilana Snyder. This book provides a wonderful introduction to hypertext theory. It is easy to read, short, and summarizes most of the major concepts regarding hypertext theory. Snyder touches on the roles Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and Lyotard play in articulating many of the concepts that weave their ways into hypertext theory. She also introduces Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist into the theoretical web of information. Barthes is often categorized as a structuralist and as such was not included in Sarup's book on post structuralism and postmodernism. Snyder's references to Barthes provide students with enough background information so that when they read the Landow text later in the term, they will have a better understanding of Landow's references to him.
Indeed, the Snyder text provides a nice gloss of many of the hypertext theorists-Bolter, Joyce, Lanham, Landow, Johnson-Eilola, and Moulthrop. The reason for including the Snyder text, rather than an edited text like Landow's Hyper/Text/Theory is that the Snyder text provides a rich fertile soil in which to plant the rhizomes of hypertext theory. Students who know little about hypertext theory will be able to begin a network of knowledge about the field, and because the text really only captures the big ideas regarding hypertext theory, students can begin working with just those big ideas. They can begin linking many of the theoretical concepts in the Sarup text with those in the Snyder book.
After the Snyder text, I will ask students to read Sven Birkerts' book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts book is really an argument against electronic text and a resistance to the influx of electronic communications. Birkerts book is a nostalgic call for a return to what he terms "the stable hierarchies of the printed page-one of the defining norms" of a what he believes was a more literate time. The purpose for including the Birkerts text in the course is to not only provide a balance, but to give students a look into the arguments against hypertext and electronic text in general. The Birkerts text may give some students comfort in their own unease over the rapid changes technology is bringing. For students who feel uncomfortable with technology, Birkerts may provide a focus for their arguments. On the other hand, Birkerts may help students who find his arguments reductive and perhaps elitist by using Birkerts as a foil or straw man in their own evolving arguments for hypertext.
The next book students would read is Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. This book would provide a nice counter-argument for the Birkerts text because it whole-heartedly, almost gleefully, embraces technology as a vehicle for narrative. Indeed, Murray begins her first chapter with a quote from Birkerts, and then seems to almost joyfully infuse her text with so many things that Birkerts would disapprove of--Star Trek, video games, and even amusement park rides. Murray celebrates technology while also acknowledging that it can be unsettling and even scary. In many ways this text is a celebration of pop culture. But Murray is also an academic and her chapter about agency, which discusses Deleuze and Guarttari's rhizome, can further students thinking about that particular metaphor and how it applies to our culture and to hypertext, especially hypertext fiction.
But Murray also asks readers to consider the notion of author and text, and to look at such phenomena as MUDs and MOOs, and then consider ancient oral narratives. And she asks readers to think about the ways in which these two, as well as many other aspects of electronic text and ancient practices, are inherently similar.
The next book students would read is Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era. This book is edited by Ilana Snyder and includes essays by many of the well know hypertext theorists including Jane Yellowlees Douglas who not only writes articles about hypertext but is also a published hypertext fiction author. Another author included in the book is Gail Hawisher who has written and edited a number of publications on technology. Johndan Johnson-Eilola is also included in the book. He writes extensively about hypertext technical communication. Also included is Michael Joyce who is also a hypertext fiction author and a thoughtful voice regarding hypertext as a genre. Included in the book is Cynthia Selfe who is founder of the Journal on Computers and Composition and has written many articles about technology and literacy.
Page to Screen in many ways is another rebuttal to Birkerts call to return to books and book culture, not that we will leave those behind in the near future. Page to Screen asks its readers to reconsider the nature of text, the definition, perhaps, and encourages us to broaden that definition and reminds us that writing can never be separated from technology. It is a good book to include in a hypertext theory course because it asks us to examine literacy practices and the implications computer technologies will have on pedagogy and the physical nature of classrooms.
The next book is probably a classic in hypertext theory and any course of this nature must include at least one of George Landow's books. Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology examines in depth many of the issues that have been touched upon in the preceding books in this course--the nature of text, the role of the author, and the relationship of hypertext theory to critical theory. After reading the other texts in the course, students should be ready to read Landow's more in-depth analysis of these issues. This is a second edition of an earlier text. And though Landow celebrates technology he does so carefully, acknowledging that though technology empowers those who use it and create it, it also marginalizes those who do not have access. And Landow always situates hypertext theory within the broader context of critical theory.
The last book in the course is, to me, a controversial and troubling one. Hypertext and Cognition comes from a different discourse community, that of the cognitivists. It approaches hypertext not from a cultural perspective but from a scientific one. And as such, I think it is important for students in a hypertext theory course to know something of that discourse. My hope is that students would read this text with some resistance because it focuses so narrowly. But the book has interesting contributions to make, primarily in the area of hypertext writing and consideration of the reader. And though I disagree with the theoretical base from which the book is written, I think students can learn something. And, because much of the book deals with reader disorientation within hypertext webs, I think it is a valuable book to place at the end of a course where students will not only be reading about hypertext, but creating their own hypertext web.Certainly reader disorientation is something that all writers need to consider, not just hypertext writers.
Students will generally be given two weeks to read the assigned texts. During those two weeks students will respond to their readings using the class list serv as a kind of learning and response journal. As mentioned earlier, this would give students who have not participated in this kind of electronic discussion experience with the conventions of list serv conversations, and perhaps more importantly, it would supply a forum for students to express their concerns and their thinking as they read. Students will be expected to post something to the list serv at least once a week. My role on the list serv would be to draw students out, to ask them to explain something or to pose questions. The list serv would play a vital role in the course because there would not be as much time during class to discuss the texts and the issues that arise.
At least one hour of each class session would be spent in a computer lab. Initially students would learn how to use simple web editors like Netscape Composer. Those students interested in learning html codes could do so and a mini-workshop could be established during lab time for those students who wanted to learn html--hypertext markup language. I would like to rely on students teaching students for the html workshop, since my own knowledge of html is limited. Certainly students who want to work extensively with web design will need to know html but in a theory course, it is not essential.
However, in order to wrestle with the theory and its implications, students would need to create hypertext webs. In addition, students will be expected to "collect" on-line articles dealing with hypertext theory. Each students will be asked to find one article/website and write a brief description of it that would include the way in which the site was laid out and a summary of the information included in the site. Students would sign up for a class period during which they would give a very brief oral presentation (5 minutes) about the site and provide a handout for students that contained the information and the url. All urls would be kept on the class website.
The first hypertext project would be due at the end of the fifth week of the course and would involve one concept that individual students selected as important in their reading. Students would be expected to take a concept discussed either in the Sarup text or the first Snyder text (Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth) and expand upon it. For example, if a student decided to expand on Delueze and Guattari's concept of rhizome, his or her hypertext web could include information about postmodernism in general, modernism, a definition of rhizome, an explanation of the rhizome metaphor, background information on Delueze and Guattari, and other concepts the student found interesting and relevant. The web could be a simple one and students would be required to create a minimum of 10 lexias or writing spaces in edition to an opening page that would launch the reader into the web. Lexias typically do not contain a great deal of text, perhaps half a screen on an average.
In addition to the web, students would be expected to provide a two page analysis of their experience in creating the web. This would be brought to class and shared with others, either in whole class discussion or in small groups, depending on the size of the class. Students would be expected to discuss what they learned, what frustrations they had, and what they would do differently. The purpose of the analysis would be to provide a space for students to think deliberately about their experiences with electronically linked text, and to give them a space to reflect on strengths and weaknesses of their own webs and hypertext in general. It would also provide students with a chance to learn from others' experiences. Students would then be asked to place their responses in their webs and provide a link on their opening page.
The main purpose of this first hypertext web would be to simply give students the opportunity to electronically link text. And although this web would be small and simple, it would give students an idea of the non-hierarchical aspect of hypertext writing. And it would help make them conscious of the fact that hypertext webs have no real beginning and ending, merely an opening. For the first time, perhaps, students would experience what it is like to deliberately write a document where they at best share control with the reader. It is not that this does not happen in "regular" text, but hypertext challenges our notions of authorial control.
Landow (1996), points out that the function of both reader and writer "become more deeply entwined with each other than ever before" (90). This happens, of course because the reader takes a more deliberate role in the act of reading. This occurs because the reader is perhaps more consciously aware that he or she can make decisions about where to read next. And while these choices are always available to readers, hypertext makes these choice more apparent. This happens because hypertext tends to reduce the autonomy of the author.
Michael Heim (1987), in writing about the affects of word processing on the writing process points out, "as the authoritativeness of text diminishes, so too does the recognition of the private self of the creative author" (90). And although that authority is actually an illusion, one of the important concepts students will experience with this initial web will be the knowledge that their webs will be read in a way that is different from what they imagined. No longer is a reader compelled to read a beginning. Other than an opening that is usually provided in hypertext webs, there is no beginning, no middle, and no end. Hypertext webs are like moebius strips that wind in upon themselves and never end, yet provide a "new" surface depending upon how they are turned. The other purpose of the initial web is to give students experience with what the theory says. The act of constructing meaning through creating a web will simply bring the concepts closer to students.
The second web would be due at the end of the course. A portion of their web would be due, however, at the 10th week so that students could get feedback regarding web design, and have the opportunity to discuss their developing project with other members of the class as well as the instructor. Because hypertext encourages conscious choices, it is appropriate that students in a hypertext theory course would be able to exercise choice as to how they wanted to showcase or present their growing knowledge. For that reason students could make a choice as to what to do next for the course. And they literally could do their webs on any subject they wanted. They could model their next web on George Landow's Victorianism Web at Brown University which originally used as its opening Tennyson's poem In Memoriam. Students could select a poem to annotate. They could expand on their first webs, if they chose. Or, students could write a piece of hypertext fiction. As they had earlier, students would be expected to include a reflection on the processes they used during the web construction and to ground those reflections in the theory they had been reading. Students would be allowed to build the web in any direction they found compelling. In other words, they could expand their web and include any information dealing with hypertext that they found interesting or important.
In class students would have learned how to use color and images to facilitate reading and the newer part of the web would demonstrate students use of those textual elements. Color and graphics are often used as "organizing features" in hypertext. They become visual cues that help readers construct meaning. For example if all lexias dealing with the rhizome contained the same graphic and used the same background color, readers would begin to associate those two elements with that category. Every time they clicked on a lexia that contained those they would know that page discussed rhizome. As much as two thirds of the class time would be spent in a computer lab where students could workshop their emerging webs.
In a sense, the classroom itself would become a network of individuals sharing and learning from each other. Students would work on their webs, but they would also spend time searching for and reading on-line documents about hypertext theory, as well as looking at websites and discussing how those sites are organized and what textual features help or hinder readers. Students' final projects would become part of a larger web.
As each project was completed it would be added to a class website. Included in this web would be sites dealing with hypertext theory that students had found in their searches. The class website would in essence be a webfolio that would showcase their work. This would give students a wider audience for their work and provide a resource for them when the course is over.
Students would be assessed on their participation on the list serv. Twenty five percent of their grade, indeed, would be a participation grade. The first hypertext web would also be worth 25 percent of their grade. Students would be assessed on the number of lexias, their understanding of the concept they chose to elaborate on in the web, and their reflection regarding the processes they used to construct the web. The final project would be worth 50 percent of a student's grade and would be assessed on the student's understanding of the chosen topic and the textual features that made up the web-graphics, use of color, fonts, and other features that might assist a reader in constructing meaning from the web.
Curtin, Pamela and Richard Smith. "Children, Computers and Life Online: Education In a Cyber-world." Page to screen: Taking literacy into the electronic era. Ed. Ilana Snyder. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Heim, Michael. Electric Language: A philosophical study of word processing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Landow, George P. Hypertext: The convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Moran, Charles and Gail E. Hawisher. "The rhetorics and languages of electronic mail." Page to screen: taking literacy into the electronic era. Ed. Ilana Snyder. New York: Routledge, 1998. 80-101.
Tuman, Myron C. Word perfect: Literacy in the computer age. Pittsburgh, PA:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.