Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Introduction

I begin this journal within a few weeks of Miranda's maiden voyage in my ENGL 103 freshman composition class. Though there are several years worth of background, or more accurately, though I should have started this journal sooner, I will try to encapsulate what has let up to this point and be more consistent with my entries from now on.
My "encapsulation" will begin with a few things I've already written about this project. This first entry was written for the m-ICTE 2003 conference in Badajoz, Spain.
(multimedia & Information and Communication Technologies in Education) where I made a poster presentation of this project. Miranda was the only hypertext at the conference.


Carleton, Lee. “"A Brave New Hypertext: Ambivalence and Ambition"
Advances in Technology-Based Education: Toward a Knowledge-Based  Society
, vol. 1.
Proc. of 2nd International Conference on
 multimedia Information and Communication Technologies in Education
2003. Badajoz:University of Extremadura, Spain, 2003.

“"A Brave New Hypertext: Ambivalence and Ambition"

Introduction

The genesis of this infant project was a graduate class on computers and literacy where we discussed not only the pedagogical possibilities of using computers to teach writing but also the philosophical issues that arise with the onrush of technology.  My colleagues and I chose Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World as a foundational document for our hypertext because the novel addresses a wide variety of issues and topics of interest to students that are of special relevance to humanity in this 21st Century dawn.  Huxley’s novel is especially valuable for hypertext in its clever analysis of the technologies of consumer conditioning as well as its cogent discussion of technologically mediated experience.  The complexity and multivalent nature of these conversations allows for nearly unlimited textual linking and exploration.
 
Though I am currently working solo, I plan to retain our original group project name “Miranda” after Shakespeare’s character in The Tempest because it was she who spoke the well-known phrase “brave new world” and because this phrase reflects her essential na├»ve enthusiasm towards an unknown world – a naivete evident today regarding the inherent value and unlimited possibilities of technology.  Ellen Barton captures this concern succinctly in Literacy and Computers where she advocates a more critical perspective:
     
                  There are two prevailing discourses of technology: one is
                  a dominant discourse characterized by an optimistic
                  interpretation of technology’s progress in American culture
                  and by traditional views of the relations between technology
                  literacy, and education; the other is an antidominant discourse
                  characterized by a skeptical interpretation of technology’s
                  integration in contemporary culture and education. (56)
I also come to this project in full agreement with Purpel’s pedagogy in The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education where he writes: “given the elements of our political, economic, and cultural crises, educational discourse must focus on the urgent task of transforming many of our basic cultural institutions and belief systems.” (3) 
A utilitarian concept of education is insufficient to the needs of a healthy democracy, so we must do much more than simply promote software mastery and job-skill training. 
Huxley had a similar sense of our modern crisis and the central role of education in working towards positive solutions.  Brave New World is a novel of unique contemporary relevance. Although Huxley did not forsee computer technology, hypertext or the atomic bomb, he did understand the complex problems facing our species and the increasing necessity of technological, psychological and organizational solutions.  In the novel, a tightly organized, technologically empowered World State rises from the ashes of world war to control the chaos and manage human life from before conception to after cremation.  In 1932 the genetic engineering Huxley portrays was mostly science fiction, now it is a hotly debated reality.  The conditioning techniques described in the novel have been demonstrated by Pavlov, Skinner and others.  The ubiquitous advertising industry (our own “hypnopaedia”) deploys these techniques with an investment of $200 billion per year.  The mandate to consume, what Huxley calls “the conscription of consumption” is not only the dogma of the “free market” West, it has most recently been suggested as a patriotic duty by George Bush in the aftermath of 9/11.
Miranda will be an opportunity to simultaneously explore the uses and value of hypertext in teaching while maintaining an important, critical questioning of technology and its applications.  Evidence for favorable bias in discussions of technology is found in how easily accusations of “Luddite” are made whenever the legitimacy and efficacy of technology is challenged.  While I am not a knee-jerk opponent to technology, I am a Luddite in the sense that their original concern was for workers displaced by technology.  The Luddites were concerned with how technology affected the majority of workers rather than how it could be used for the profit of a tiny minority of owners. 
Use of hypertext and other computer teaching programs like Blackboard, make it easy to imagine the teacherless classroom of the future where “education” is standardized and controlled by the corporations who create the technology and who run the schools.  This gloomy vision, once in the realm of paranoia or science fiction, is no longer completely ridiculous.  The “privatization” of education encourages this trend with its emphasis on efficiency and profit.  And as increasing cutbacks are made to funding for public education, highly paid administrators will be happy to cut teacher costs by adopting a technology that is paid for only once, does not seek tenure and never needs health care or retirement benefits.  This scenario may not be around the corner, but it is not an impossibility.  Because of this, I believe teachers should actively engage in the conversation about teaching technology.  We need to develop and deploy various technologies according to pedagogical rather than corporate priorities, and do so creatively but with a critical perspective. 

  • Definition and Methods
While some may be familiar with the basic origins of hypertext, a very brief review might be helpful.  “Hypertext” begins with the Greek “hyper” meaning above, beyond or over so that a hypertext is a text that surpasses the boundaries of traditional text.  The concept of hypertext can be traced to Vannevar Bush in his July,1945 article in The Atlantic.   Bush’s article “As We May Think” details his vision of the “memex” (as in “memory annex”) that was a “mechanically-linked information retrieval machine to help scholars and decision makers with…an explosion of information.” (Landow 7)  One of Bush’s disciples, Theodore Nelson, was the first to coin this term in 1965 to refer to a database format where information that is related to a display can be accessed through that display in any sequence the reader chooses.  As George Landow notes in Hypertext 2.0:
            Bush wished to replace the essentially linear fixed methods
that had produced the triumphs of capitalism and industrialism
with what are essentially poetic machines…that work according
to analogy and association, machines that capture and create
the anarchic brilliance of the human imagination. (10)
Not only does a hypertext allow greater freedom and empowerment to the reader, it encourages a completely different kind of thinking than traditional linear, rational approaches to text.  The value of this is that more often than we realize, our best ideas and solutions come to us intuitively rather than as a result of conscious reasoning - our “anarchic brilliance” may hold the solution to many of our most perennial human problems. 
But there is another more academically oriented reason to value hypertext.  As a teacher of writing, I have found that freshman writers often have difficulty with “invention” – they have little practice with coming up with original ideas, questions and theses for writing.  This ability is especially important because “real-life” problems are rarely presented in convenient question form.  We must consider the information available and formulate our own analysis of the situation that supports our suggestions for solution.  A hypertext with open-ended writing assignments that place this responsibility for invention on the student can provide the opportunity to develop this skill in an exciting, information rich environment that includes audio and video samples as well as still images and plenty of text.  Hypertext is also useful for group projects where the vastness of the text can be navigated and discussed collaboratively.
In the initial version of Miranda, we used Storyspace software, but for my current version of the hypertext, I have chosen FrontPage.  I maintain the option of trying other software programs for comparative purposes as this project matures.  My choice of FrontPage is conflicted however.  While Microsoft’s domination of the market may make this software more widely accessible for students and compatible with other software, legitimate concerns about the influence of corporate control cannot easily be dismissed.  My hope is that student exploration of the Miranda hypertext will, in addition to providing opportunities for invention, awaken them to the ways technology can be used as a mechanism of control so they are more critical in their interaction with it.
Control is a central issue with hypertext and I am aware of the irony of my concern about corporate control when, as the hypertext composer, I exercise a certain amount of control over potential users of Miranda simply by virtue of which texts I have chosen to link where and in what way.  For example, Miranda includes short video clips and my choice of film segments is a form of control or influence on the reader – in spite of my desire to encourage greater reader independence, I still seek to shape his experience in some way. 
However, the inclusion of significant and linkable writing space will allow the students plenty of freedom as they navigate the hypertext, annotate it and eventually collect their various annotations into a thoughtful and coherent whole or a series of effectively linked documents.  I am still considering how I want to deploy this hypertext.  Miranda almost necessitates its placement on the Web rather than on a CD so that students could read one another’s writing and respond, however web posting could entail some copyright restrictions.  I am hoping that a password protected website will be sufficient to satisfy copyright requirements for a non-profit educational work. 
One of my original inspirations for this hypertext is Ann Woodlief’s “American Transcendentalism Web”.  Hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University, this hypertext was favorably reviewed in The Chronicle of Higher Education in November of 2002. 
Dr. Woodlief’s intricately linked, cross-referenced hypertext includes primary and secondary source materials and contextual links.  The index page includes basic divisions such as: “Authors & Texts”, “Roots & Influences” and “Criticism”, a division that is further divided into literary and historical subsets.  Dr. Woodlief has been working on this hypertext for about ten years alternately working solo and collaborating with colleagues and students in its continued development. 
The most pedagogically useful hypertext will be one that allows readers and students to add to the text by including their own writing, so Dr. Woodlief includes a “communication” page where potential submissions can be emailed to her for pre-posting review.  This allows for greater reader/writer interaction without making the text totally vulnerable to random, unrelated postings or those of poor quality.  An issue I must address in the development of Miranda is how to incorporate this writing space and what software to use.  Initially, “American Transcendentalist Web” used GUIDE but this program is no longer available so Dr. Woodlief has students write in WORD and upload it through Blackboard. 

To maximize the potential of available media, I am including audio and video clips where relevant.  For example, I have an excellent and illuminating recording of one of Huxley’s last interviews although even with modern technology, the sound quality is poor.  In the early chapters of Huxley’s novel we are introduced to the various castes of the brave new world and the mass production of human beings, so at the phrase “mass production” I have placed multiple links.  When a user clicks on the phrase, a page pops up with links to historical and technical descriptions and links to two different film clips.  One clip is from a PBS documentary about the rise of industry and one is from Chaplain’s classic film Modern Times which is an amusing yet pointed critique of industrialism and its effect on the human being.  As the designer of Miranda, I seek to empower the reader but I am not under the illusion that I have relinquished all control or guidance of the reading process.  While “hypertext does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice” it is not completely devoid of authorial influence. (Landow 36)

Hypertext Theory & Application

An interesting point about hypertext is that it expands the concept of authorship.  Huxley is the author of Brave New World but in Miranda, his novel will be joined with many, many other texts by different authors and of course, I am “authoring” Miranda, not only through the commentary and exercises that I write but also through the choices I make regarding which texts to use and where to link them.  “Composing” might be a better word.  Many hypertexts also allow the reader to interact with the text, to contribute his own notes and insights thus echoing Barthes’ concept of the reader/writer who participates in the construction of meaning.
Although Jerome McGann claims that “these documentary networks may or may
not be interactively organized”, Miranda does include significant writing space so students can record their notes as they peruse the hypertext and add their own writing to the text.  Without the possibility of significant participation in the creation of the text, there would be little to distinguish a hypertext from a simple website.  While a website is clearly a hypertext, without interactivity it cannot test the claims of post-structuralism and is less likely to stimulate critical thought in the form of writing.
It is this interactivity that most connects recent literary theory with the technology of hypertext.  The “decentering” that Derrida mentions is brought to life when the student explores a hypertext according to his own interests rather than according to the dictates of the text and its structure.  Student interest becomes the center.  This is simultaneously a new freedom and a new responsibility: he must make sense of the knowledge he has gained from his self-directed reading of hypertext.  This is where hypertext is able to encourage critical thinking and increased metacognition.  When discussing CSILE, a “networked multimedia environment” Sherman & Kurshan explain:
            Ideas and understandings become meaningful when they are
                        examined as part of the knowledge construction process.  Students
                        interact with others to explain, defend, discuss, and assess their
                        own ideas and challenge, question, and comprehend the ideas of
                        others in order to be sure of their own understanding.
This intensive and recursive process of making meaning can lead students to an increasing awareness of their own thinking that is the sign of genuine intellectual growth. 
            While I have briefly touched on the positive predictions for hypertext, it would be unwise to limit our discussion of technology to mere celebration.  The fervor with which teaching technology is pushed upon us and the extravagant claims constantly made for it should motivate us to critically examine the context in which this is all happening.  Without digressing excessively, we should not dismiss the predominance of the profit motive and influence of multi-national corporations that often subsidize the “studies” that “prove” use of technology increases learning.  In America, corporate presence and influence in academia has increased in proportion to government reductions in educational funding and our mistaken mania for “privatization”.  The ongoing conglomeration of media ownership will make it increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from propaganda as the hegemony seeks to justify itself.  As Douglas Yellowlees observes “technologies emerge out of a snarl of social, political and economic conditions” and as we explore these new technologies we must not ignore or dismiss this context. (326)
            Yellowlees also highlights the lack of agreement on what hypertext is and how it should work and he notes that:
…we have no water-tight evidence of how the mind works when
            reading and writing using conventional print tools, let alone even the
            beginnings of how it might ‘better’ function given a somewhat more
            congenial environment than a flat page splashed with ink. (330)
It may be corporate salesmanship, rather than a clear understanding of how the mind works, that convinces us of the superior efficacy of technology in teaching.  We might also remember that the potentially liberating technology of computers and hypertext are actually only available to a tiny minority of the planet, and most of that minority does not have any serious need of “liberation.”
      There are other difficulties to consider as well.  Previously I noted that GUIDE writing software is no longer available.  GUIDE’s lack of availability points out a critical problem in using technology for teaching: ongoing obsolescence.  Learning new software is often a time-consuming and arduous experience that would be of greater worth if we did not have to waste time to re-learn everything when software is made obsolete by new versions, new trends or competing products.  The same is true for hardware.  This creates a tremendous amount of waste in tight school budgets.  Additionally, many times the differences between versions of a product are relatively minor in comparison to the additional funding and time they require.  Time, for most teachers, is in such short supply that it seems valid to question this aspect of using technology to teach.  At the very least, the issue of ongoing obsolescence should encourage more funding for ongoing teacher training in technology and incentives or compensation for attendance. 
            Finally, let us not forget the fragility and vulnerability of technology.  Worms and viruses prowl the Web looking for programs to destroy and information to compromise.  The massive blackouts that occurred recently in the northeastern US and Italy remind us that our wonderful machines can be rendered useless in a moment and that we might want to be prepared with a paper-text backup if not an alternative energy supply.  Until we create a less vulnerable technology, human error, lightning and other natural disasters will continue to disrupt and destroy. 
Closing Remarks
Miranda reflects my ambivalence and my ambition.  My hypertext might be little more than fragile, if flashy edu-tainment for the educated elite, but I hope not.  I think hypertext is well worth exploring for reasons cited above, but I also want to keep technology in perspective.  I want to stay aware of the context of its creation and promotion.  I wish to keep alert to how it shapes our lives and to keep my options open in this regard.  I enjoy working with hypertext for the multiple intellectual challenges it presents and I look forward to using it in my teaching to see if hypertext really does confirm post-structuralist theory and empower students as writers. At a minimum, by writing with Miranda, my students will increase their knowledge in a variety of subjects while strengthening their critical and metacognitive skills.  This is all I can ask without exercising too much control.  However, I have a hunch that some of the brighter students will begin to ask questions about the perennial problems of human behavior highlighted in Huxley’s novel and how they might be better solved than they were in Brave New World
New technologies can be wonderfully empowering, but they need to be kept in perspective.  Considering the amount of frivolous material on the Web
(spam, porn, fan sites, pop-up ads) and the often trivial applications of our most powerful inventions, we might also remember Thoreau’s observations about new technology from Walden:
                       
"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract
our attention from serious things.  They are but improved
means to an unimproved end...We are in great haste to
construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but
Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to
communicate." 


References

Barton, Ellen. “Interpreting the Discourses of Technology.”  Literacy and Computers.
            Eds. Cynthia Selfe and Susan Hilligoss.  New York: Modern Language
            Association of America, 1994.

Landow, George P.  Hypertext 2.0 : The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory
            and Technology.  Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore.  1997.
McGann, Jerome. “The Rationale of Hypertext.” Jefferson Village.
University of Virginia. 2 October, 2003
           
Purpel, David E.  The Moral & Spiritual Crisis in Education.  Bergin & Garvey,
            New York.  1989.
Sherman, T. M. and B. L. Kurshan. “Using Technology to Support Teaching for
            Understanding.” Unpublished Manuscript: Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.
            2003.
Woodlief, Ann. American Transcendentalism Web. Spring, 1999. English Web,
Virginia Commonwealth University. 8 October, 2003


Yellowlees, Douglas J. “Nature Versus Nurture: The Three Paradoxes of Hypertext.”
            The Emerging Cyberculture. Ed. Stephanie Gibson. Cresskill, NJ, Hampton
            Press, 2000.  325-349.


One of the grad-school colleagues that gave birth to this hypertext is Clary Washington, who is now my wife and who contributes to Miranda regularly through discussion and shared materials. She teaches a literature survey entitled "The Future Is Now" at a small progressive public school, and has been pursuing future studies on her own for about ten years.
Other contributors will be included as well: Michelle Smith, UR English Graduate 2004, who is the first student researcher to add to this text. Student responses, papers and questions will also become a part of Miranda as she takes on a life of her own - constant contribution & growth are what will make Miranda different than a simple website which is also a hypertext.

No comments:

Post a Comment