A Rationale for Teaching Hypertext Authoring in Literature Courses  10/10/04 - Paper by David Barndollar

This very short (3 print pages) article presents well one argument for teaching hypertext writing in courses that are not primarily about writing. That is: The process of marking up a hypertext provides the necessary defamiliarization of the text that enables students to look at the markup structures in stead of simply looking through them. Once they are able to see the markup in hypertext, they are more easily able to see the markup in the literature which the course presumably has at its center. The rest of the very accessible article teases out the pieces of that assertion: how writing hypertext defamiliarizes, why that process is necessary, why and how we look through markup in familiar media, and how students can transfer the skills from writing hypertext back to reading and writing other texts.

I love it! It's only one argument, one rationale to which I'd add more --teaching hypertext forces an engagement with structures and scales of thinking that students can gloss with more familiar media-- but it is a rationale, and it's made well and clearly.


Barndollar, David. A Rationale for Teaching Hypertext Authoring in Literature Courses. University of Texas at Austin: 2003. http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~blogger/whitepapers/archives/000002.html. Also available in PDF form at http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/research/whitepapers/2003/030822-2.pdf

Hypertext is unfamiliar in a good way

In terms of content, the point of literature courses is to familiarize the students with the subjects, arguments, and contexts of the literature; in terms of skill-building, the point of literature courses is to teach students (new) methods of reading that facilitate understanding the literature. This typically means overcoming the students' belief that they know how to read. Using a new medium for their writing (hypertext) helps make clear that new methods for reading are necessary.

This is one case where transparency is a hindrance-- the process of creating hypertexts is sufficiently different from writing papers or essays that the students are forced to consider the way they read and write.

One thing to be careful of when using this technique, it seems to me, is that you re-associate the skills with reading when you're done. You don't want students thinking that the reading skills they are learning apply only to working with your software or with hypertext.

Transferring "markup" back to familiar texts

As McGann points out in Radiant Textuality, texts are always already marked as texts. The markup may be familiar enough in traditional print media to have become transparent, but there are conventions that give a text structure: a page in English begins in the upper left and continues left-to-right; capital letters denote the beginnings of sentences and proper nouns. Having to learn current hypertext formats and their conventions like you would a foreign language (e.g. blank line to separate paragraphs rather than indented first lines) helps break a reader out of the assumptions that make their reading a transparent process.

In a literature course, to teach reading skills, you want to indicate:

  • without markup, a text is meaningless
  • what counts as markup is dependient on the browser, not the document: readers make distinctions in texts
  • difficulty with a text is often a matter of missing some of the markup;
  • conversely, understanding markup can illuminate elements in the text that were present but invisible without an understanding of the "tags". This point reminds me of the thesis of the essay Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl. Barndollar notes that learning how to do this correctly is learning how to mark a text in the Elizabethan sense.

There's one sentence that links it all back for me for the t.org project: In fact, teaching hypertext authoring is really just teaching textuality in a practical way.... The hands-on nature of the authoring task provides an encounter with textuality that reading alone cannot.

A Good Practice

Barndollar used a MOO containing the text of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and assigned students to elucidate the references and allusions in the poem and present their work in the MOO. The connection between the hypertext and the poem became an avenue for discussing Eliot's own use of footnotes and references, and about how annotation and allusion work in general.

I want tales of woe

Barndollar says that "not only do instructors face a dearth of scholarship in the discipline, they also face bewilderment, if not outright resistance, in their institutions." This makes intuitive sense to me, but I'd love to have some anecdotal examples or case studies. I need to talk to more teachers who have taught hypertext authoring in their classes.

I do wonder whether this paper is of interest to people who are not already considering hypertext. As the title states, it's more of a rationale than an argument, more useful for defending a desired task than convincing others to use the technique.