(Several) Exercises for the Classroom  4/22/05

I've been reading through the "Reconfiguring Literary Education" chapter in Hypertext 2.0 and the wonderfully expansive margins of my copy are accumulating ideas for teaching with hypertext today.

Landow presents experiences from actual classrooms, but even this revised edition came out in 1997. The web was only beginning to explode. IM was unheard-of. Wikis didn't exist. Blackboard was founded as the book went to press. Some of what he suggests is eminently possible now. Some of it is as remote as Intermedia.

I've come up with some excercises inspired by Landow's writing which might teach students the skills that Landow discusses, critical thinking and rhetorical skills which hypertext work particularly develops. By and large these are skill-building exercises which could be used in any discipline at the high school or collegiate level.

Make Links

An early and easy excercise would be to go through two texts (at least one of them thoroughly marked up with clear anchors) and have students forge at least 15 links from one text to the other. They cannot rewrite the origin text, merely select text for linking. Optionally, students should also make 5 links out to other texts or to the web. Beforehand, students receive notes about what makes 'good links'.

This could be done in a wiki with some ease. It could be done in Tinderbox even more easily. I haven't thought about other tools.

Goals - Students will:

  • understand what makes a good link
  • be able to create links in the class software
  • compare the structure of multiple texts
  • find correspondence in the content of multiple texts
  • make correspondence between texts explicit in a hypertext

Evaluation is based on:

- whether the links are there

- the grammar of the text chosen for the origins

- the aptness of the destination

- whether link names (or 'titles' in html) describe the connection or destination

Annotate Links

After learning to make links, it's worth teaching students to annotate their links. The simplest form of this is choosing or phrasing the link text carefully. Richer hypertext systems let you annotate links with labels or even lengthy text of their own.

One way to do this would be to lay two texts side by side, and to present an existing link (this could be done on paper). Ask students to give that link a label, either of the 'tooltip' (3-5 words) sort or of a longer sort. Another excercise would be to give an origin text, a description of a destination, and to ask students to choose good link words from the origin text. A third excercise would be to present a small 'concept map' and ask students to label the connections (probably in tooltip format). It would be a good idea to have at least one excercise involve multiple links from the same origin text to highlight the importance of signalling (contextualizing) the destination.

Learning to do that can teach students to:

  • write smooth and informative transitions between topics
  • practice idea-mapping
  • critically examine existing links and transitions in texts

Evaluation is based on:

  • displayed comprehension of the significance of given links
  • clearly contextualizing or signalling the destination of a link

Questions for further discussion:

  • What do labeled links help with?
  • How do we label "links" outside of (the web, hypertext, the software)?
  • When might we not want to label links? What would that do to our reading process?

Elision and Depths of Engagement

One value of hypertext for students is, ironically, the ability to hide information. When we talk or write to a student, we usually present our information with our audience in mind-- leaving out information that isn't of interest, or which might confuse, or which they already know. Being able to frame your thoughts in the context of your audience is a powerful skill.

One way to practice that skill is to take a relatively small topic, and preferably one which the students know a bit about already. Have them create a simple set of texts on the topic ...perhaps in the form of a five-paragraph essay. Then have them write three alternate 'middle' paragraphs: one set, and then another, for different audiences. They might write variants for someone who knows almost nothing about the topic (defining all their terms); for someone who knows more (requiring research and skipping the basics); or for someone who is interested in a different but related field.

Goals - Students will:

  • present information for different audiences
  • elide to make a text more accessible and useful
  • examine their own knowledge at different depths of engagement

Evaluation will be based on:

  • coherence of the writing despite (paragraph) substitution or elision
  • appropriate contextualization of the writing for the (assigned, chosen) audiences

Engage the Discipline's Discourse

Students are always part of a much larger discourse, that of the discipline they are studying. Impressing that fact upon them is a key part of empowering them as learners, of helping them take an active role in their own learning.

- The simplest way to do this is to have students create a list of current materials about their discipline - a 'works cited' focused on recent publications. This is still one-sided, though.

- The next level is to annotate that list with their own responses. As they agree and disagree, they are establishing their own voice regarding the material.

- Linking among their own discussions and responding to each others' work is one more step, and sets up a community of discussion in much the same way that classroom discussion can.

- 'Publishing' that discussion (to the web, or as a 'zine, etc.) gives students more agency yet: now they are authors.

- Finally, try to get an 'expert' or two in the field to respond (via email, letter, forum posting, wiki edits)

I think that a wiki can be an excellent tool for this excercise. It easily accomodates each level, and very clearly presents the growing site as:

  • a true publication at almost all times
  • an organic work in progress
  • part of a larger whole (the internet)

Goals- Students will:

  • engage the public discourse in their discipline
  • present their own voice in the public discourse

Evaluation is based on:

  • aptness of their chosen sources
  • quality of links to and from other texts
  • proper engagement with the questions of the field

This is pretty certainly the most complex of these excercises, and assumes the "make links" and "annotate links" skills. To get high marks for the aptness of their sources and of their writing to the discipline students would benefit from the "depths of engagement" lesson as well.