September 1996

Root Page of Article: Scenarios for Computers in Composition , by Maureen Burgess and Lori Mathis

Web Reading Section

by Maureen Alana Burgess

In the Spring 1996 Quarter, Lori and I ran a workshop focused on teaching students to think critically about the computer applications/resources that they were using in the classroom, particularly in reference to the World Wide Web. Many instructors were interested in exploring the WWW with their students, but were anxious that it primarily was a medium geared toward a short-attention span and superficial engagement, one which would take valuable time away from other reading and writing assignments. At the same time, more and more students were stating that the Internet, and specifically the WWW, was something that they wanted to learn about in their CCL courses. Instructors were turning to us, asking for practical assignments as well as a theoretical framework for incorporating the Internet into their writing classrooms.

We began the workshop session by noting the importance of first teaching students the basics of Internet exploration so that they feel confident with the medium; this first step would include an introduction to the Netscape browser available in our labs and features such as search engines, bookmarks, and navigational tools. The next concern then is how to teach students to effectively use these tools to find valuable information. We outlined a rhetorical paradigm for a textual analysis of a web page (adapted from James Kinneavy's rhetorical triangle)[LINK 4], based on the five categories below. We asked our instructors to consider the following questions, both in selecting potential Web sites for class analysis and in designing an evaluative writing assignment for their students:

TEXT: What constitutes a web page and its boundaries? How do you talk about elements like organization, transition, or style in this medium?

READER: What happens to the concept of audience on the Web? How do you analyze the audience of a page?

WRITER: How do you imagine and construct a web author from a page? What "clues" can be read on a web page that build an image of the writer? In what ways is this construction important?

CONTEXT: Who has access to and experience in reading and writing web pages? Who designs the software and hardware, and how is it designed? How does this construction impact one's reading? What is the rhetorical context for a particular web page? How is this context revealed?

MEANINGS: How do the various symbolic modes of a page--images, sound, links, and words--interact to create messages? How do we teach students to build meaning from and interpret purposes for web pages?

In order to evaluate this model and help teachers design their own, we asked each teacher to write about the questions she asks herself in her own reading of print-texts, and how she is adapting her reading strategies to the Internet. Then we looked at a Web site that one of my students had focused on in an essay, and the participants analysed the page using their "standard" reading questions. Afterward, we discussed as a group the kinds of adaptations in their reading processes each participant had made in reading a Web hypertext. The teachers immediately voiced concerns about the nature of reading on the web, its differences from the more bounded nature of the printed text, and how students might begin to read the material as "serious," either in terms of a critique of popular cultural forms and/or in terms of research into scholarly resources, communities (such as listservs and MUDS/MOOS), and publications. One instructor asked how the Internet can be a valuable tool for a literature classroom, while other teachers debated whether students can learn useful strategies for their own writing from such critical reading exercises. In response to these concerns, we turned to a presentation of a specific assignment that I had taught which focused on the Internet.

Analysis of Personal Representation on the Web

This assignment followed an opening unit in a second-level writing course focused on "The American Experience" in which the students learned the basic navigational functions of Netscape Navigator and began to collaborate on a set of criteria for evaluating the sites they visited. We were reading autobiographical print-texts in our class, and had begun evaluating strategies of self-representation in relation to individual and cultural "traumas." We defined trauma in this context as a rupture in the processes of subjectivity, either on a individual or national/cultural scale. For example, we read two narratives dealing with slavery in the United States, as well as the autobiography of Mikal Gilmore, Shot in the Heart. I asked the class to investigate how such stories, which were primarily about personal experiences of localized events, frequently invoke, implicitly or explicitly, a story of national dislocation. We considered how the act of writing itself, as well as publishing or finding another way to communicate one's experiences, often appears in these texts side-by-side with a concern that writing or speaking out is never enough, is never adequate to the task of living with trauma.

As a way for the class to explore how these issues might play out in their own or their peers' lives, we turned to Web and the recent surge in personal homepages. While we were careful not to equate one kind of traumatic experience with another, and most of the students did not choose a homepage that even could be explored within that particular paradigm, we did decide that there was a relationship between the processes of representing the self in a multimedia environment such as the Web and the modes of writing the self that we were reading in our books. As we were reading texts focusing on the nature and content of "testimony" as a genre, it seemed appropriate to study a forum to which a significant number of people, although still a minority, have access. For their focus, the students had to select a "Personal" homepage and evaluate how this author manipulated this particular medium in order to create a distinct on-line persona. I asked the class to consider what effect graphics had upon the site, what kinds of hypertextual links the author included, the kind of story (life-history, careerist, cultural, etc.) the author seemed to be telling, organization, and so on. Some students chose to work on a group's homepage, and analyzed the politics and processes of group representation, with a consideration of how the Internet enabled and/or hindered such a process. Others focused on personal pages that they selected for a variety of reasons, ranging from a page done by a student at another university with a similar major, to a student who selected a page from the WELL by a man who included poetry and stories rather than a more traditional autobiography. [Link 6]

In our workshop for instructors, we looked at a sample student paper as a way for teachers to gauge what kinds of questions students generated through this assignment about the Internet as medium and culture, as well as to recognize the interpretative difficulties some of my students had in evaluating hypertextual media. The rest of my discussion here will focus on the challenges which this assignment created for some students, as well as the value it ultimately held for many of them. I discuss the various stages of the writing process in the order that our class approached them, beginning with the selection of a working thesis and then the development of a critical paradigm for an analysis of hypertext. The assignment weaves together strategies for reading hypertext as well as writing about that reading experience, and I try to cover both of these elements below.

A. Establishing a Thesis

Before they could settle down to their essay writing, my students needed to practice outlining what the main purposes of a site were, and how the author met those goals specifically in light of the hypermedia in which s/he was working. As is often the case when writing students begin their first drafts, many students had difficulty narrowing their foci, and this problem was exacerbated for some by the "unorganized" nature of their selected sites. In individual conferences, we would discuss the author's design decisions, such as one author's pseudonym of "Bob Spam" that poked fun at the Web itself. One helpful question that I asked some students was how a person's story would change if she tried to convey the same message about herself in an autobiographical, printed essay, for example, or in a TV video. A possible exercise that I might use in the future would be to have the students write a pseudo-autobiography in linear text form based on their reading of a personal Web site. Such comparisons can help students to recognize the assumptions they make when reading a "bounded" print text, and thus better understand the choices that they make when they write as well as when they read.

B. Critical Paradigm

Once students had selected their sites, we had to decide which content and design elements each writer wanted to analyze. A number of my students assumed that they were not experts on technology and culture, and, therefore, that they could not critique a person's Web site. This raises a familiar concern in composition studies, as students often bring ideas about authority and expertise to their writing which undermine their approach to evaluating a given subject. This problem was transformed in my class; the additional focus on computer technology, with its own modes of "literacy" and competence, intimidated many of them, and required that we practice such web-analysis as a class so that students could develop strategies for reading the medium with which they felt confident.

Most of my students, mainly sophomores and juniors, had only fleeting experiences with the WWW, but were acutely aware of the debates over its functions and content, from new commercial markets to concerns over child exploitation on the Internet. In our class discussions they debated with depth and conviction issues such as Internet censorship, and whether the Net is a valuable resource or just another entertaining, but rather substanceless form of popular culture. When we began work on the personal Web representation assignment, however, my students frequently adopted two stances: one--a relativist assumption that self-representation is just that--subjective and cannot be evaluated; two--an awareness that the web-author knows some technological skills that they may not, such as HTML, and hence they cannot evaluate the final project as a text. The question for instructors thus becomes, to quote Michael Joyce (1995) [LINK 7], "Can we lead readers-learners to discover that these activities--engaging, evaluating, and enabling--are both the natural consequence of using the computer as a mode of inquiry and also the essence of teaching and learning in the humanities?" (154). What potential, therefore, does the Web hold for teachers to make intertextuality explicit, i.e. to show students how self-representation relies as much on what they as readers bring to the text and the medium as on the author himself?

Since a Net site is still usually a read-only site, we could not begin to unpack the hypertext through read-write exercises on-line; such exercises would make the writing space more open to student intervention. When I next teach this assignment, I think it would be fruitful to use a WYSIWYG [What You See Is What You Get] web editor, such as Adobe Sitemill, to allow students to experiment with reshaping the page in an unpublished environment. Without such interaction, students often have difficulty seeing how a web site might be different from TV channel surfing. Still, I found that in their explorations of a hypertextual mode of writing the self, students began to see how their own choices in reading the site, their own interests that led to one click or another, shaped their interpretation of it. It is here that some students begin to develop their own strategies of reading with and resisting hypertext in ways that will enhance their critical eye overall.

We next moved from developing reading strategies for hypertext to writing about what we were reading on the web. Stuart Moulthrop and Nancy Kaplan (1994) [LINK 8], writing about their case-study of teaching hypertext fiction in an introductory literature class, note that, "knowing the nature of resistance, we anticipated that our students might turn against our technocritical agenda as well, pursuing strong readings of our social text' by offering their own counterresistance" (228). I taught this assignment in relation to autobiography so that students could compare how authors wrote their personal narratives in different ways, and how writing a story for a book or for a Web site impacted the story that was told. As for the Web as an autobiographical medium, one of my students asked whether the hypertextual structure of the Web might make it easier for readers to "move away" from a site that presses a troubling or unhappy experience on the visitor/reader. She argued that the book has more authority and was thus a better medium for voicing significant personal experiences. Other students worried about the kind of technological environment that surrounded such self-representations, arguing that it might denigrate certain kinds of traumatic experiences. We approached these concerns from a position influenced by Jay Bolter (1991) [LINK 9] who argues that, while all texts, electronic or not, have inherent hierarchies, the essence of textuality is its continual subversion of these constraints. He writes, "a hierarchy is always an attempt to impose rigid order upon verbal ideas that are always prone to subvert that order" (22). Electronic writing, especially hypertext, in Bolter's view is, "both a visual and a verbal description...not the writing of a place, but rather writing of or with places, spatially realized topics" (25). I proposed that my students consider how the proliferation of the personal homepage is related not only to the relative ease of publication on the web, but also to the spatial environment of hypertext which might seem less constraining to people. The question for the class then became: what do people gain from publishing their stories and images and art on the Web? What do they risk? Who reads these stories and how do they process them?

This idea provided a frame for a number of students' initial drafts, one which helped them to begin to envision the strategies that Web authors can employ to engage readers. Some students began to ask why an author did or did not include a photo of himself and whether it came on the first or last link. They began to interrupt the intended reading path of some authors. They considered the use of graphics versus text, as well as the kinds of sites an author linked to, such as favorite Web sites, to imagine how this author reads the WWW. At the same time, students also focused on the site's written word, with an emphais on how the story was reshaped, or even enabled, by hypertext--i.e. what words the author "hot-linked" and where that took the reader; the breaks that the author made, often signaled by a hypertext "button"; whether the author linked to other voices on a given subject or seemed to want her voice to stand "alone." In these ways, students evaluated what kind of story the author chose to tell about him or herself, as well as considering the Internet's impact on and relevance for that story.

C. Completion

Students wrote these short essays with the above questions in mind, and many tried to interpret their Web sites at two levels: content and basic design. One student wrote about the MTV Web site, describing the site's content and its author's gestures toward an interactive community (such as their use of CU/SeeMe technology and on-line conferencing); he ultimately critiqued the site as another mode in MTV's commercial attempt to market itself as the hippest kid in town, while still leaving its visitors in a fairly passive position. Another student wrote about an individual who set his Web site against current overvaluations of physical beauty and commercial gain, and described the author's use of poetry and images as a strategy to represent the self in its "purest" (i.e. most "private") form.

The strength of this assignment, I found, was that it helped students to visualize the nature of textuality as it applies to both print and electronic genres; students began to see how writers are in dialogue with other people, as well as how writers imbed transitions, and even contradictions into their work. They developed a more critical vocabulary for discussing textual modes of representation that often carried over into their discussions of each other's written work and the print-texts we were reading. For example, we did on-line revisions of their work in group conferences for their next essay, and a number of students seemed clearer about how to create transitions in their essays and how to establish primary and secondary foci. They were more comfortable talking about these issues with their peers and could pinpoint specific places in their essays that might need work. Several students incorporated anecdotes into their essays as a way to reinforce their ideas; I would attribute this move in part to their experience with reading Web sites which crossed those traditional academic boundaries between the personal and the political. In general, hypertext made more apparent the various stages and decisions that authors make in constructing any text, which helped my class understand the value of approaching writing as a process rather than as a "one-shot" deal.

But all was not rosy, of course. A few students never got over the hump of figuring out how to talk about hypermedia representation, let alone any mode of self-representation, and their papers wandered from descriptive statements to vague comments on links and graphics.

D. Conclusions

In his book, Of Two Minds: Hypertext, Pedagogy, and Poetics, Michael Joyce (1995) asks: "Can we use hypertext to produce a new sort of 'book' intended to involve readers in producing books of their own? Can we move beyond the recording of reading and decision making, which some hypermedia programs do, to let learners discover the consequences of different interpretive strategies, including our own?" (153). This question asks us as teachers, designers, and users of humanities educational software to see hypertext as a medium that foregrounds our students' role and needs in shaping their own modes of interpretation. At the same time, Joyce cautions that "it is easy to think that, because learners can move through a body of knowledge in new ways, they know where they are going" (43). The Internet provided my students with a wealth of examples of private attempts to "go public," to write one's story for an anonymous reading public, and to claim technology as a personal metaphor, as a way of expressing humanity rather than closing it down. At the same time, its hypertextual nature disoriented them and forced them to find new models of interpretation at a time when a number of them were still establishing a critical approach to the printed word. As a class and as individual writers, we had to work hard to grow more comfortable living on those boundaries that already shape our lives in the late twentieth century--the personal and the public, the familiar and the unfamiliar, technologies we know (such as print-text and typing) and technologies that we have yet to learn (such as writing for the Web).

This assignment was a first step for my class in exploring the growing world of cyberspace and hypertext. Later in the quarter, we followed up our focus on reading and evaluating hypertext with an experiment in writing a hypertextual essay. Without this second step, I fear that many of my students would have been unable to continue developing an awareness of their own hierarchies of knowledge, and associational patterns of recognition, that shape how they read and write. For in the end, my students completed this first assignment by writing a "linear" text--their essay--that was secondary to the first--the Web site; such a result may reify for composition students the traditional borders that structure knowledge and writing in the university and the workplace. Thus hypertext still leaves humanities instructors with the age-old challenge of teaching students different ways to read and write culture: how do we read/write and why? How do different individuals and communities construct knowledge and how do they present themselves to others? How do you read such representations and what stories might you tell, if given the forum, the voice, and the skills?


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