Hypertext / Hyperlit / Hyperclassroom :

Humanities Instruction in the Wake of Hypertext

"Hypertext" is a word which has recently begun to make the cultural shift from technical jargon to everyday usage, and this is no surprise considering the exponential growth of hypertext resources currently being made available, on the World Wide Web, on CD-ROM’s and in other formats. Still, for all its growing significance in the mindset of our culture and, more to the immediate point, of literature students and teachers, there seems to be some vagueness about just what this new tool is useful for, and even sometimes, what it is. This is not at all due to ignorance or apathy, but is rather a condition of what science fiction author Pat Cadigan has called "the Age of Fast Information" - often by the time a book on computer issues can be printed, it is already out of date. Only the electronic media of systems such as the Internet or World Wide Web, with the capacity for immediate update, seems capable of carrying information about the electronic age, and in the world of the academy where time often seems to be at a premium, the ability to keep constantly up-to-date with such matters is not easy. Still, a number of educators have recently attempted to adopt hypertext to the instruction of literature, and have met with enough success to encourage other educators. Considering that students of literature can only be expected to be even more exposed to hypertext and hypermedia in the future, it would seem reasonable to examine what all the ‘hype’ is actually about. The present discussion is meant to familiarize the audience with some of the issues involved in teaching literature with hypertext, both as an addendum to traditional text and as a teaching tool, and how the growing prevalence of hypertext may soon be exploited in the classroom.

Before continuing, I wish to make a clear distinction between the consideration of hypertext itself as a literary form, and the usage of hypertext to enhance traditional, straight line narratives. For the present discussion, I only wish to examine the latter, that is, ways in which hypertext is being used to teach traditional literature. The status of hypertext itself as a literary mode is something which we must talk about a little in order to understand the issues involved in current hypertext projects, but is really too broad a subject in its own right to fit it into the rubric of this paper. That said, I wish to begin by examining some of the characteristics of hypertext itself, as well as some of the approval and criticism which the system has occasioned.

The term ‘hypertext’ was coined in the 1960’s by Theodor H. Nelson, who characterized it as "nonsequentially read (or written) text". Another pioneer of hypertext systems, Andries van Dam, goes on to define it as :

Both an author’s tool and a reader’s medium, a hypertext

document system allows authors or groups of authors to

link information together, create paths through a corpus

of related material, annotate existing texts, and create notes

that point to either bibliographic data or the body of the

referenced text...Readers can browse through linked,

cross-referenced, annotated texts in an orderly but non-

sequential manner.

-- Yankelovich, Meyrowitz, & van Dam

What this means in terms of both electronic editions of texts and browsing through systems such as the World Wide Web are already familiar to us. Rather than experiencing a text as a single, straight-line narrative running along the author’s determined path from beginning to end, readers of hypertext are able to rearrange their experience of text both in time and in depth. Information in hypertext is often broken down into small chunks, each item containing a series of links to other, related items, which can be followed or not at the reader’s discretion. From a web document carburetor production, we can easily move to one outlining Detroit’s economic history, from there to a catalogue of the Detroit public library, and so on, and so on. By clicking with their mouse on words or markers in the original document, the reader may expand upon the material or follow the link to related material more or less on their own free-associational path. Even texts which were originally written in traditional media, straight line narratives such as Victorian novels, the Bible, or last week’s Time magazine, when translated into hypertext are often broken down into smaller elements which invite the reader to digress from a straight-line traditional reading and take whatever sidetracks offer themselves, whether that means just a quick dip into an on-line dictionary to find the root of an unfamiliar word, or a wholesale transferal from Pride and Prejudice to an on-line dating service.

From this rather loose definition of hypertext, we may begin to see how the hypertextual paradigm is already pervading media and society outside the computer industry. Television programs and commercials bombard viewers with quick successions of images, often overlayered, which visually approximate the hypertext experience of multiple threads. Newspapers and magazines also tend more and more to contain rapid successions of smaller, linked narratives, sidebars, graphs and pictures rather than a single cohesive article, when they hold forth on a subject.

However, it is important at this point to recollect that original definition of hypertext as a "nonsequential" media, one in which the reader, rather than the author, determines the pace, direction, and focus of the storyline. A pre-scripted television program, newspaper article, or even electronic document, is not truly hypertextual. This is an important distinction - merely putting Paradise Lost on an electronic disk does not make that a hypertext edition of Milton. The experience of reading Paradise Lost is different, because it is being done on a computer, but so is the experience of reading Milton in a thirty-dollar hardbound edition rather than a five-dollar paperback. Even appending a glossary, an index, and a series of critical articles does not change the fact that our hypothetical Milton is still just an electronic edition - not a hypertext.

Several reviewers have criticized recent electronic editions of canonical works on just these grounds. Stuart Moulthrop of the University of Baltimore has particularly leveled a critical finger at what he claims are merely "Hypertext incunabula" - editions of texts on CD-ROM and in other electronic media which claim to be presenting a truly ‘hypertextual’ perspective, and which instead merely break down their source material into chunks of data, facts, and word lists to be dissected, with no greater experience of the original than any printed edition. Such editions perform no service that a reasonable paper dictionary or bibliography couldn’t perform as adequately, and may actually diminish student comprehension by reducing a novel to a series of sound-bites, animation clips, facts and figures to be analyzed without any enhanced experience of the work itself. In fact, Moulthrop suggests that this reductionistic approach to literature is an important reason that readers and educators have heretofore shied away from electronic editions.

Moulthrop and others have also suggested that, in general, the hypertext documents and services which are available today fall far short of Nelson’s original vision of truly nonsequential text. While it is true that a user of the world wide web is free to follow or not to follow any links which he or she encounter, the user is still limited by what links the programmer or author has chosen to set up. As Foucault points out, many systems which appear to offer greater freedom are actually just doing a more masterful job of hiding the ways in which they control the subjects activities and experiences. Hypertext is not an authorless text by any means, even if it does tend to share some of its author-function with the end-user or reader.

Some critics have taken this to mean that ‘true’ hypertext, in the sense of an infinitely expandable, user-determined event, can only occur in some form of spontaneous narrative, created at the same time that it is invoked or read. For examples, Moulthrop and others have forwarded computerized interactional forums such as the IRC, which is a sort of C.B. radio on the Internet, and collectively written hypertext projects currently being encouraged by the Eastgate group and other schools of computerized literature. Fascinating as these suggestions are, they lie outside the scope of the present project, and I mention them now only to point out that such objections to the currently available incarnations of hypertext do exist, indicating that, as is so common with new technology, much has been attributed to this new media which it has yet to achieve in actuality.

Still, even given these limitations, hypertext does imply a certain breakdown of the traditional relationship between author and audience. J. Hillis Miller notes that in their direct links to their source material, hypertext commentary and criticism intrude much more into the primary text than does a traditional body of criticism which lies outside that text. In reading the University of Texas at Austen’s hypertext edition of Pride and Prejudice, one cannot help but notice the sprinkling of bright blue words, which are, of course, those which are linked to other sites and material. Even if one resists temptation and doesn’t click on one of these seductive sidetracks, one is aware of one’s own resistance to that temptation. At what point, therefore, does a hypertextual edition change the experience of the original work so much that it is an entirely new work? At some point, it seems, we no longer have Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, but rather Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and the associated staff of the University of Texas literature and computing departments. Moreover, even if the reader can extract the original text from their reading and decide that that is Jane Austen, while the hypertextual additions are the work of others, this still places the reader in a position of authority over the novel they are reading. A reader who has the freedom to re-arrange words or chapters at a whim, to read the novel backwards if they please, or to delete all words beginning with the letter ‘D’, is also partaking of Foucault’s author function.

This places some additional burden on the educator, since this complicates their mediation between student and text. Luckily, in addition to modern critical scholarship, which acknowledges the role which a reader plays in the reception of a book, there are also the examples of pre-hypertext books which have experimented with placing the reader in the author’s chair. For example, Lawrence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, ends mid-scene, halfway through a sentence, inviting the reader to ‘fill in the blanks’ as it were and to finish the tale, while Shakespeare’s Prospero explicitly puts his fate into the hands of the audience during the final soliloquy of The Tempest. Of course in modern literature we have everything from detective novels to children’s choose-your-own-adventure books from which we may also draw parallels to hypertext’s subversion of authorial control.

This familiar ground is a good place to begin consideration of the practical aspects of teaching literature with the assistance of hypertext. As stated, the primary manifestation of hypertext in humanities and literature instruction has been the wide circulation of new electronic editions of traditional straight-line narratives, in Internet archives and CD-ROMs. Importantly, we can already begin to see a shift away from some traditions in an examination of what materials have been translated to this new medium. The list is by no means limited to what we might characterize as traditional canonical works, such as Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen. These are readily available, some of them already in multiple competing editions, but they are joined by slightly less traditionally grounded works: the poetry of Maya Angelou, the ‘Tarzan’ stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, and a wide array of children’s literature. There is the suggestion that, since we are already contemplating literature in a new medium, we may take the opportunity to reconsider what constitutes worthwhile literature, and hypertext, in its reliance on the reader’s choices and preferences, is an invitation for students and scholars to apply their own discretion in their choice of what materials to enshrine, to read, and to comment upon.

For those schools which have attempted to use hypertext in the classroom, this has been one of the strongest arguments in favor of their projects. George P. Landow, a pioneer of the use of hypertext in literary education at Brown University, found this to be the case when he created what is still considered to be one of the best hypertext teaching tools in existence, the Dickens Web. Briefly stated, the Dickens Web project involved translating a work of literature into a computer, in this case Dickens’ David Copperfield, setting up a few initial explanatory and historical hypertext links, and then encouraging students throughout the course of the term to add new material and links to the original database. Classes were conducted in a computer lab and students were given instruction in how to create files and link them to the collective web, both to the source text and to other students’ file areas. The Dickens Web has since been distributed, as a file template system, to several schools where it has met with some success. In particular, teachers have noted that students are much more apt to read historical and critical materials beyond what is required in class, and seemed to bring this enhanced knowledge of the literary period to their final papers. Jonathan Smith, using the Dickens Web to teach Great Expectations at the University of Michigan particularly claims that students taught with the aid of the Dickens Web produced final papers that were much more focused and much more interesting to their authors, stating that 42% of students said that they found their final research projects to be more interesting to them than usual.

However, Smith goes on to state that the Dickens Web failed to be the revolutionary teaching tool he had expected on the basis of Landow’s advertisements. Students were exposed to more material on the historical period of Dickens’ life and works, but paradoxically found it more difficult to link this material thematically to the book itself. Smith blames this on what he calls the ‘atomistic’ nature of current hypertext documents. Information is stored in such discrete cells that it seems strangely un-connected to any other material, even when the two are hyperlinked. By compartmentalizing knowledge in this way, Smith argues that hypertext may actually be a hindrance to the incorporation of text and context, book and history, into a single cohesive whole in the mind of the reader. Moreover, when students were able to make the thematic links from one element of the hypertext to another, it was very rare for them to follow an entire series of links - a fact which suggests to Smith that hypertext links can limit the breadth of vision which can and should take place during the digestion of literature. Rather than thinking about the book and its context as a whole, from which lessons and conclusions could be drawn, students were reduced to single leaps of connection and logic which broke down after a single connection was made.

In contrast to its high-tech provenance, several educators have noted that hypertext is admirably suited to the most traditional procedures of academic work. Classes at several universities have included ‘on-line’ access to syllabi, course readings, writing and quiz assignments, and even on-line classroom discussions. The advantages include immediate and constantly updated access to course materials for students, and a permanent record of topics and discussions for later perusal by both students and teachers. References to course materials can be linked directly to on-line copies of the texts - that is, if the syllabus indicates that certain articles or books are due for the next class period, links can be inset into the syllabus which point directly to those documents. Teachers have also noted that since on-line class discussions are written and logged, students have a greater tendency to think deeply about a point or question before bringing it to the attention of the class, and that discussions are more apt to stay ‘on target’ than traditional classroom discussions (Birkenstock, 150-2).

Another interesting possibility which is just beginning to be explored involves student-authoring of hypertext documents, particularly as the culmination of a hypertext-taught course. Peter Havholm and Larry Stewart of the College of Wooster have proclaimed great success in teaching the interrelationships between culture and text by having students produce sets of hyperlinked files, similar to World Wide Web pages, which relate multiple primary texts with appropriate historical and sociological commentary. However, they note that while this again exposes students to a broad array of contextual knowledge, it does not necessarily foster the critical thinking and commentary necessary to an actual deep analysis of any given text.

Throughout this discussion, I have concentrated on the ways in which hypertext is being produced and discussed in electronic format, but I would like to close by saying a little something about traditional classroom teaching and how it may be influenced by this new informational model. Most of the hypertext methodologies discussed assume a fairly computer literate student body, or the time to make them computer literate, and a technically audacious professor, not to mention the money and resources to put a computer on every desk, if not in every student’s home. However, even if this ‘Jetsons’ future isn’t immediately imminent, I believe that it is possible to foresee that the hypertextual model is already an influential one, and one which educators would do well to consider in evaluating their students needs and how they will best learn. If hypertext, and its relatives in the world of popular culture, continue to present information as non-linear, user-driven fragments which the reader may choose from in order to inform their picture of the whole, then that is how students will tend to categorize and absorb information. This is not to imply that teachers should start interspersing their presentations with random sound-bites, or begin teaching traditional narratives by reading chapters non-sequentially. However, it may be that educators will begin perceiving classroom ‘digressions’ less as an upset of traditional structured lecture, and more as an opportunity for student empowerment, and a way to encourage enthusiastic classroom participation.

Works Cited

Potter's Field