Friday, May 13, 2005

Miranda Revisited: Hypertext Applied

Lee Carleton
English / Writing Center
University of Richmond
“Miranda Revisited: Hypertext Applied” – VSU Conference on Composition, May 2005

This presentation is an update on the presentation I did on this hypertext at last year’s conference. Since then, I have had the opportunity to deploy Miranda in four different sections of ENGL 103 (Introduction to Expository Writing) over two semesters here at the University of Richmond. While certainly not exhaustive, nor excessively formalized, the student feedback and input I gained over the past year has been both exciting and instructive for me as well as my students, and I think you may find it interesting.

A few words from my earlier essay on hypertext might help to re-contextualize the word and concept of “hypertext”:
“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.”(“Ambivalence” 2-3)
Perhaps the most important aspect of this project is its ability to encourage, and often demand, creativity and new kinds of thinking and connecting ideas – skills we desperately need and are rapidly losing. Landow’s assessment of Vannevar Bush echoes the Emersonian reminder that a galaxy of genius awaits us as we leave worn paths of thinking and knowing and forge new ones.

While “hypertext” can technically refer to any website with a “hypertext transport protocol” address, the familiar “http” at the beginning of the address, most of these do not contain significant opportunities for users to add to the content. A few websites out there do allow and encourage input in the form of personal blogging, gaming and other activities, but fewer still are those that encourage critical interaction and the opportunity to contribute to an academic discussion. The next revision of Miranda will include “Writing Space” where my composer’s journal and user submissions will be posted, thus insuring the hypertext is a dynamic, multi-vocal, omni-relevant resource.

There are several theoretical motivations at play in my use of hypertext, but the original inspirations came from postmodern theory (Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard) and the idea of tracing the source of ideas, foregrounding structure and power, empowering the reader, and authorizing her to participate more fully in the making meaning by building in a variety of reading and informational possibilities rather than a standard, linear text with structured table of contents. The web is often referred to as “cyberspace” and is derived from the Greek “cyber” or helmsman – the one in charge with the power to steer the boat, thus emphasizing the importance of self-direction in navigation a key aspect of postmodernism. Knowledge or appreciation of literary theory however is not necessary, nor is it paramount in the creation of Miranda.

A more relevant theory perhaps might be that of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan who gave us the mantra “the medium is the message” among hundreds of other words and phrases about technology and communication. McLuhan noticed that, despite its profound power, the very nature of language as a medium (discrete symbols, arranged in specific, linear ways, labeling, classification and division) has a limiting influence upon the human mind. This structure limits what we perceive, and perhaps what we are able to perceive just as it narrowly defines what is “true” or what we find believable. Finally, this structure is also the foundation of book technology. Though hypertext still contains writing (linear, logical, alphabetic, symbolic communication) it also includes other media and a whole array of choices for reading beyond what a single book could offer.

Of course, traditional book technology also has hypertextual aspects as many will point out: a reader can skim, skip around, browse the index or consult any annotations or sources listed. Hypertext allows all this and more. In addition to a web of cross-linking texts, hypertext can include audio and video clips as well as innumerable links to other supporting materials instantly.

My personal theory regarding the use of Miranda is that it can encourage a very useful, similar type of thinking in its users encouraging them to stray from established paths and to explore or make their own paths of knowledge and then to share them. I believe that the complexity of navigating (or creating!) a new kind of text focused on this brilliant and widely applicable novel helps to create Vygotsky’s pedagogical “ZPD” or zone of proximal development. This is a place of maximum learning where the difficulty of the assignment is between the easy independent, unaided exercise and tasks so difficult as to necessitate assistance.

The newness of hypertext as a teaching medium combined with my insistence on student invention (they come up with their own theses for writing) makes for a stimulating and challenging experience that pushes students to grow intellectually without overwhelming or over-direction.

The central text for Miranda is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that is divided into eighteen “pages”, one for each chapter, at the end of which are links to other chapters and questions to stimulate writing. Each page contains multiple links to other pages in Miranda, or to outside links (text, audio & video) that connect in some way to the chapter or passage in which they are embedded. To the left of each page in the hypertext is a menu bar that divides the links in the hypertext according to general categories like history, philosophy, science, and of course Shakespeare. Readers of Miranda have a wide variety of choices for reading and can glean as much or as little additional information about the novel as she likes.

Though Miranda could arguably be deployed across the curriculum in a variety of disciplines (Brave New World is surprising in its scope), thus far I have only used it in my freshman writing course “Introduction to Expository Writing” and I have collected the writings and feedback from the students of four different sections of this course over the past year.

Originally, I had intended to assign the reading of the hypertext for the final project of the semester where each student would write her own research essay from her unique explorations of Miranda. While I kept this project as our final effort, I turned it into a group project where each group would submit a single final essay, and each group member would submit her own portfolio of contributions to that final essay. I might note here that though group work is almost universally despised, the focus on and use of Miranda seemed to change this so that the pedagogical value of both the group exercise and the hypertext were delightfully enhanced.

The biggest challenge for students here was the invention of a sufficiently narrow, sophisticated and significant researchable thesis from their various readings. The final group essay is required to be at least 10 pages long, not including the works cited and works consulted pages. Though Miranda teems with web sources, I require a certain minimum number of paper-text sources to demonstrate student ability to navigate this elder technology. Paper-text sources also highlight the fact that the internet is not peer reviewed or checked for reliability like most academic books, requiring close reading and critical engagement with these amazing technologies. In fact, the disclaimer on the index page notes that even the links contained in Miranda are not pre-approved or necessarily “authoritative” thus requiring vigilant reading – a fading but crucial skill.

Though the quality of the final group essays varied a bit, it was clear from the accompanying student portfolios that a group writing project using hypertext was a valuable academic experience and intellectual stimulant. Most students were enthusiastic about using this new technology even if they complained about specific aesthetic insufficiencies they noticed while reading online instead of by book. Even this mild distaste for e-reading is intellectually valuable in that it requires the reader to reflect on her specific dissatisfaction and its cause, in this case involving a survey of pleasant sensory experiences ordinarily associated with reading a book.

For some students, the absence of a paper text to annotate and mark up was the primary problem. Other students read using the temporary highlighting available in a mouse click, while still others opened word processing software for typing notes while reading. Some students found the links to be useful and interesting and stimulating to their thinking but others found the links distracting as they read, suggesting that perhaps links should be listed at the bottom of each “page” to prevent distraction. One of my observations after eight years of teaching is the decreasing ability of the student to focus attention, a rather obvious side effect of modern media ubiquity. While it might be suggested that a hypertext offering a wilderness of links could only further stunt student ability to focus attention, several students noted that the “page” format of each chapter actually helped them to stay focused and to scroll through the reading more quickly and efficiently than if they were conscious of and flipping individual pages of a chapter.

Though the advantages derived from group work cannot be totally ascribed to Miranda, the value of this approach is clear. Written student responses to their group experience revealed that, though occasionally frustrating, interacting with group members during the project was a great enhancement to learning. Students stimulated one another’s thinking about the novel and its significance and they grew in responsibility as they negotiated their various schedules to plan group meetings, writing workshops etc.

In addition to its easy cross-curricular application possibilities, using Brave New World as the central text for Miranda helps to focus student attention specifically on the activity of learning since psychological conditioning is a major aspect of the novel. In the first chapter of the novel, we are shown a scene where a clutch of scribbling Alpha students uncritically record all that the director says without question, because “the question didn't arise; in this year of stability, A. F. 632, it didn't occur to you to ask it.” This sort of passive acceptance-learning or what might be called the “banking” system of instruction is not only pervasive today in America, it is insufficient to the needs of a functioning democracy. Students learn from this passage that education requires much more than the mere taking of notes – it demands thoughtful engagement and critical attention.

Miranda could easily be a lifelong project with no “final” completion, but along the way I am certain to revise the hypertext with additional student submissions as well as their feedback on the efficacy of this format. In line with an excellent student suggestion, I will be listing the links for each chapter at the bottom of the chapter/page to prevent distraction while reading.

I also plan to revise the navigation bar so that it remains fixed as the chapter scrolls by. The glossary is helpful, but there is plenty of other vocabulary from the novel that could be included.
Instead of a direct link to the glossary, I’m considering making vocabulary words “live” so that they only appear as a link when the cursor touches them. This could help prevent distraction while reading while enhancing the ease with which a reader could discover a particular definition.

Eventually, I plan to link many other relevant texts to Miranda, particularly Orwell’s 1984 (already online in a searchable version!) and Zamyatin’s We, the original inspiration for both Brave New World and 1984. Though I’ve noted that Huxley’s novel is cross-curricular and offers many multi-disciplinary advantages, mathematics is a key area that is underdeveloped, but in We mathematics is a central concern and metaphor for the novel. Other future links, additions or revisions might also include a page of links and commentary on current events and popular culture as they connect with the novel and its ideas. And finally, the ultimate revision would be one that included student-created media specifically designed for Miranda that simultaneously enhances their creativity, their digital literacy and their critical language skills.

Closing Comments
I highly recommend the construction and deployment of complex hypertexts as a valuable exercise in critical thinking and creativity for both the teacher and the student. While I have gained some experience with certain software programs (Front Page, Dreamweaver particularly) I am not a “technoweenie” to whom this comes easily, so I would like to encourage each of you to begin to play with this idea and the technology available to you to see how to more effectively meet student needs and stimulate student interest. A simple one-page poem can be created as a substantial hypertext with a minimum of effort compared to the intellectual growth that is stimulated in both the student and the teacher during its creation and use. While it certainly is a “brave new world” out there in terms of technology changing faster every day, teachers of English can more fully and effectively participate in and shape this world if we dive in and begin to navigate it as cybernauts instead of cyber-nots.