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Difference and Discontinuity in Hypertext

Ross Priory, Scotland (and we're just being told that the place is cursed, apparently...).
The next presentation here at ICE 3 is by Colleen McKenna and Claire McAvinia, who present thoughts on work they've done in getting students to create hypertext assignments. To what extent does some work challenge traditional essay writing, and does it make more visible the features of conventional linear argumentation? Does this work liberate the thinking of these student writers?

There's already a good deal of interest in exploring hypertext writing for non-academic text (fiction, poetry, reflective writing, etc.); however, less has been written about presenting academic non-fiction writing in a hypertext format and assessing student writing of this form. Hypertext might offer a different type of meaning-making which privileges exploration over conclusion, as David Kolb suggests. Such writing claims a factual territory rather than pointing to any one source of truth. Gunther Kress similarly distinguishes between the temporal logic of traditional academic argument and the spatial logic of the image, which predominates in screen-based hypertextual media.

Additionally, the framework of standard academic literacies must also be considered - and indeed, the academic essay has been institutionalised as a shorthand for the presentation of knowledge even though it doesn't work particularly well for a sizeable number of academic disciplines (especially in the arts, perhaps), and literacies are often geared towards it.

Colleen and Claire now introduce a second/third-year course on Communication in the Digital Age that they've taught, which addressed some such issues and required students to present their work in a hypertext format for one of the assignments. Hypertexts needed to be multimodal (at least including texts and images, but ideally also other audiovisual materials), 1500-3000 words in length (or containing at least 15 pages), and including references and links to external resources. The work needed to perform academic critique and analysis rather than just being descriptive in nature; it had to be driven by the argument rather than the design aspects of this work.

The teaching approach they used looks quite similar to what we did with Electronic Creative Writing at QUT a few years ago (but here for non-fiction, of course), and also included a storyboarding stage; it focussed less on hypertext design aspects than on the skills for developing hypertextual writing structures. The aim was to enable students to become competent and fluent in hypertext writing, and Claire and Colleen found that the more control of the medium students developed, the more liberated they were in getting their messages and meanings across. (Claire is now showing some samples of student work - for me, they bring back memories to the creative student hypertexts we published in dotlit some years back...)

Students also reflected on doing this work, and the structural choices they made in creating their hypertexts - some interesting visual metaphors here, too: references as the teleporter in Star Trek; overlapping bubbles as symbolising the different topical spheres connected in writing the text. Writing styles were self-consciously varied often from page to page, and humour was also used more frequently than it is (alas) in traditional academic writing. In terms of the arguments presented, students felt a loss of 'linearity' in their writing, and usually valued this (except for one who was a very able academic writing in the traditional style); they also enjoyed the challenge of making each individual page of the text work in its own right, semi-independent of the other pages. This spatial approach was likened to a conceptual map, a spider diagram, which enabled the reader rather than the writer to develop and evaluate the argument, while allowing the writer also to include a variety of additional material which may not have made it into a traditional linear essay.

Readers, then, were seen as more active and less 'controllable', and student writers paid more attention to this active reader position and indeed wrote to a wider audience than they would have done in traditional essays. They also valued the opportunity to include more multimodal texts (images, etc.), and felt that this conveyed their message more effectively. Students experimented with modes of argumentation, then, exploring and embracing a new rhetorical space - the were able to break out of the control which established genres like the linear essay held over their work.

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