hypertext and the reader

Sunday, November 16th, 2003

Steve Masi in the Online Introduction to Literature course writes:

I like how the hypertext brings up past readings. Like for example when you click on the term ideology you will find a link about the story Hands. Bringing up past stories helped to correlate the similarities between Hands and The darling. . . I feel I have gotten much better reading hypertext formats. I remember the first month I printed each passage out then read it in order to comprehend what I just read. Now it is so much easier reading the hypertext going back to a word document and taking notes. This is so much easier than reading a text book.

I think that Steve’s quote, which was written into the hypertext review section of the online course, illustrates a lot about new and traditional expressive forms. (Note, writing “expressive forms” is not an attempt to sound pedantic; I’m just trying to be “inclusive.”)

A lot of teachers at many levels plug up their ears when they hear the term “text book.” These days text books try to mix and match just about everything that can be done with print layout to appeal to the senses of students, to make illustration and connection. The result is sensory overload and confusion, a turning of the printed page into an overcooked stew. I read the text books that my daughter brings home and cringe at how “helpful” text book writers and publishers are trying to be. Yikes! These texts are a far cry from the medieval and renaissance illuminated manuscript.

Here’s another example of a problem with text books. In the text book I use for Intro to Lit the book is kind enough to print William Blake’s poems in a different form than they were actually displayed for his audience–as intricate text and image pieces, whose images feed the meaning, and vice versa. All we get is the text portion: so I ask the student in that course–are these really Blake’s poems? It’s a question that really goes to how we have been presented with Blake’s poems without his permission. It’s a question about form. It’s a problem that develops from how we think about creations and how we think about learning. It’s a question about the business of the distribution of ideas.

Steve writes, “I remember the first month I printed each passage out then read it in order to comprehend what I just read. Now it is so much easier reading the hypertext going back to a word document and taking notes.” Steve and others in the course, without my help, have figured out a new way of using, organizing, controlling and playing with the course content. What I’ve done is write a distinct hypertext for each author, such as Robert Frost, that can link to other lexia (a chunk of text) dealing with another author, such as Shakespeare, so that I can have students “reread” and “review” relevant ideas. I can understand the student’s confusion at the start of the course when they read digital, hyperlinked pages. They want to print out each lexia, which disrupts the grammar and logic of the links between them. This is the logic of print, perhaps needed or wanted for works that have been placed onto the network in their original form, such as a short story. But then they acclimate themselves to the new environment and use initiative to figure out another way of dealing with the hypertexts, which are designed to be read on the computer not printed out. For me, this is the power of hypertext in eduthought, edupractice, and student interaction; teachers can write hypertexts that reflect what they think needs emphasizing not by providing indexes, footnotes, or packing text and image and image boxes into a finite page–all of which adds weight to a kid’s backpack–but links in a digital hypertext essay: links that loop back to another lexia, links that branch in a direction that the student can either ignore or follow; they can even write their own if they have the time and add it to the one that’s in the course. This is also the power of the computer environment. Steve and others read the hypertexts with their wordprocessors open; they click all over the screen, one window to the next, each with its different demands and commands. Fundamentally, they’re figuring out how to use programs in tandem (taking control of the digital environment a little more?); and, of course, they could even do this with a pad and pen, but they’ve chosen another way that works for them that I think has much more power than a yellow underliner. In a hypertext, not all possible paths can be followed, but that’s a design challenge for teachers and students. Neither is hypertext a panacea for overcoming teaching, learning, and text book problems. Hypertexts take a lot of work and time to write and I’m continually being taught by the student what does and doesn’t work. There are limitations in that the paths in the hypertexts have been of my choosing; but they can always be changed and redesigned to meet the needs of the “reader.” “I think series of links would be good here.” Great.

Steve claims that reading the hypertexts is easier (more precisely, has become easier) than reading a text book. I’d have to defer to his experience, but I’d rider this with “the hypertext is different than reading a text book” and leave “better” as a matter of studied opinion, since I’m not going to publish an article confirming that students learn better from hypertext than from print texts; I’d argue that we learn differently from them. From my point of view as someone who has been in higher ed for a fairly long time, I think that the text book has become victim to writers and publishers who are trying to do too much with the spatial qualities of the book page, crunching colors, maps, photos, text, and empty margins (which, of course, no student can use because they don’t actually own the books), all of which, I assume, adds to the cost. Maybe this is a presumptuous charge. It is, I know, anecdotal.

The idea goes back to the spaces and stages we use to make meaning and to invest empty surface with life and a human touch.


2 responses to “hypertext and the reader”

  1. maureen says:

    Usually when a textbook proves problematic is is due to poor organization or a lack of details…

    I am not averse to textbooks, but I see what you mean in regard to hypertext..how it brings the text “alive”…

    We do something like that on a more primitive level in my History of Art class…

    We have a text, but we also view slides… So, we don’t just read about the Parthenon..we actually get too see it [visual aid], and that helps especially if you have to identify details like metopes, entasis, pediments and whether or not a certain temple is Doric or Ionic…

    Maybe we could say that hypertext includes more “dynamic” footenotes….Hmmmm…

    Visual aids in combination with text helps students understand and retain material… It becomes less “dry”…

    Hmm, perhaps someday in the future there will not be any “textbooks” to buy..We will just logon to a certain site where we flip through a hypertext book before each class…

    Fascinating….

    Most Graciously,

    Maureen
    *A Mayde in her own little woode…

  2. Jason says:

    I don’t know. There’s still something to be said for having a book in your hand. While the example given, of the inserted images next to the Blake poem, is horrible, that’s just bad execution. With the relentless press of the technological age transforming society at a breakneck pace, books are one thing I’d hate to see disappear. After all, it’s pretty hard to curl up in bed at night and thumb through an e-book.

    Jason