Conclusion | Getting Into the Fray; Or How to Do What--and Why


     While part of the confusion of using many of the newer computer and telecommunications technologies in higher education could be attributed to a deficit of information on the subject, this is beginning to change. Not only have colleges and universities become more dedicated to instructor training programs within their institutions, but much of the information content which had been exclusive to journals and trade magazines, such as the Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia and Internet World, has in recent years found its way into more discipline-specific publications. The MLA's Profession 1997, which includes an essay on the positive applications and benefits of using an electronic mailing list in a literature classroom, signals a change of heart for one of the largest professional associations in the humanities.(1)

     In a number of ways, 1997 marks the year that the MLA decided to follow J. Hillis Miller's advice "to make every effort to study the effects of the electronic revolution" (Profession 95 95). Not only did the organization go online in 1997 (http://www.mla.org), but it featured as many presentations on computer mediation in language, composition and literature that year at its annual convention as it did presentations on film, television and media other than print ("Subject Index to All Meetings" PMLA 1231). Like its electronic precursors, hypermedia, the once exclusive darling of information and computer science, is gaining legitimacy as both a literary and critical form as well as an area of study.

     The point is this: the rhetoric of indignation and apprehension, of regarding the instructional technologies that college and university administrators are working to implement at their institutions for whatever reasons (corporate sponsorship, legislative pressures, budget cutting, downsizing, academic surveillance, to name a few) as anti-humanist or as unestablished is no longer very persuasive in a discipline such as English. For the discipline itself shows all the signs of adopting, if not internalizing, a veritable cornucopia of computer and telecommunications technologies.(2)

     What the MLA seems to know nowadays is that to do otherwise might ultimately hurt the profession. To do otherwise would be to ignore the reality of market economies that require of their work force writing, reading and critical thinking skills, yes, but also skills that can be (or, in the best of all possible worlds, are already) adapted to an environment that is increasingly computer- and technology-oriented. Perhaps more importantly, though, to do otherwise would in effect undermine the purpose of humanistic studies, which is to gain a critical appreciation and understanding of the creative work of human beings.

     Professors who resist technological innovations in teaching because they might find such resistance somehow fashionable or because they are unwilling to face the technology learning curve need to think long and hard about their dedication to their students and to their discipline. When certain technologies are--like certain critical methodologies--in and of themselves beneficial, it seems to me that the only legitimate form of resistance is an informed argument that resists the manner in which such technologies might be implemented or used (once implemented) to the detriment of the people they were designed to assist. Resistance to the technology itself, which perpetuates an ignorance of the technology itself, is an attitude that English professionals can no longer afford, for such an attitude does little but thwart expertise, robbing the profession of its ability to be truly critical and to assess for itself what it is that technology might do for (or to) the discipline. The reality is that computer and telecommunications technologies are beginning to change the way colleges and universities do business, administratively and academically. By extension, almost every discipline will be affected, but English seems poised for--if not particularly vulnerable to--a more serious transformation. While other disciplines use language and require writing and reading in their curricula, English is the study of language itself, the main purpose of which is to render ongoing and self-conscious critiques of language's most formidable applications: writing and reading.

1. Over, Beyond and Above

     What digital technology is changing is fundamental. Not only is the English language fast becoming the language of computer and telecommunications technologies (the a priori medium of electronic media which makes up the vast majority of the zeros and ones zipping through cyberspace worldwide), but how people write and read that language is beginning to change and is, for good or ill, going hyper. The new, computer-mediated texts, characterized by a prefix that distinguishes hypertexts as "over," "beyond" and "above" (OED) other types of texts, are explicitly different texts yet implicitly similar. Hypertext, writes John Slatin, Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, "can exist only online, only in the computer"; the "new medium," he asserts, "involves both a new practice and a new rhetoric, a new body of theory" (153). Yet Slatin is unable to discuss this new medium, this new practice, this new rhetoric outside the context of traditional print or linear texts; he is unable to broach the subject of hypertextual concepts without using and modifying the old, familiar language of the profession:

"Writing," in the hypertext environment, becomes the more comprehensive activity called "authoring." (160)

Linkage, in hypertext, plays a role corresponding to that of sequence in conventional text. (161)

Like the paragraph, the hypertext node is a way of structuring attention, and its boundaries, like those of the paragraph are somewhat arbitrary. (162)

     Unquestionably, writing and reading hypertexts do require a new set of skills, but the old set of skills that makes up a good deal of the subject matter which is currently the English curriculum is also required. Thus, inhabiting the digital world is, I think, both a natural and necessary development for English professionals. How quickly professors make themselves at home there, however, may make a real difference in terms of whether or not they are truly able to help others or help themselves when they arrive.

     With a World Wide Web that cries out for the assistance of people who possess a deeper appreciation and understanding of organizing and developing written documents and a student body eager for online training in languages such as HTML or software such as Microsoft Frontpage so that they might write or "author" more of these Web documents, English professionals--particularly those specializing in composition and technical or professional writing--have their work cut out for them. And, I cannot emphasize this enough: it looks to be pretty good work. Not only has Web authoring and editing proven to be generally lucrative and increasingly in demand, but I have also discovered that many of my students interested in writing hypermedia for the Web are experiencing an equally intense interest in writing for the print medium. Whether it is the immediacy of publication or a worldwide audience or the mixed-media features of Web documents, the students in my classes who learn to write hypermedia do seem to enjoy themselves more; they definitely take more pride in their work and do a more careful job of editing.

     Like most professions, English can improve its chances of sustaining and perpetuating itself as a discipline by rising to the occasion and meeting the changing needs of the public. Perhaps more importantly, though, English professionals along with the professorate at large might gain more insight into the politics of distance learning and instructional technology in higher education and deploy that insight strategically at their own institutions. From Maine to California, college and university administrators in the United States are under a good deal of pressure to cut the costs of education.(3)

     However, automating faculty work and distributing pre-packaged learning programs to students may not be among the best of educational solutions. As more faculty come to appreciate the value of software and the decentering and democratic nature of networked computing, more revolutionary solutions to improving education and cutting costs may come to light. Why not, I have been thinking of late, automate administrative work and distribute pre-packaged managerial programs to faculty? I can think of any number of programs that might do more efficiently and more fairly the scheduling, accounting, purchasing and general representation tasks of an immediate supervisor or department chair.

     The idea is not really a new one; it is just more enabled in an electronic milieu. Since third-party U.S. Presidential candidate Ross Perot arrived on the scene in 1992 advocating the Electronic Town Meeting (ETM), government representatives have worked to improve their accessibility to ordinary citizens via interactive television, email and the World Wide Web. In January 1994, U.S. Vice President Al Gore participated in the first nationwide ETM hosted by U.S. News Online and CompuServe wherein he dealt directly with the questions and concerns of American citizens from his office computer in the White House. The ETM forum, which was televised (on the cable network C-SPAN) as well as available online made it possible for citizens from across the United States to read the comments of each other as well those of the Vice President. Despite the electronic "crackles" and a few gateway garbled messages, the transcript from the Gore ETM demonstrates a good deal of promise:

#29, Jacquelyn Close: Hello from Jackson. Would you establish a single-source repository for all environmental data and lab analyses and make that information accessible through the envisioned information super highway?

#196, Vice President Gore: Great idea. A great deal of that information is already accessible but a single-source is worth exploring. I will raise the idea in our weekly environment idea group here in the White House.

Moderator recognizes question #4, Ricardo Bunge (34).

#34 Ricardo Bunge: Ricardo Bunge from Mobile, AL. Good afternoon, Mr. Vice President, and thank you for this historic opportunity. Where (in society) do you see the Information Super Highway having the greatest impact? Business, science, etc?

#196, Vice President Gore: Schools. Classrooms. At-home learning.

("Transcript of Vice President Al Gore...." 508)

Not only do the opinions and ideas of citizens bypass the costly and often contorting middlemen of a representative republic, but the opinions and ideas of high-level elected officials are also, in return, direct and immediate.(4)

      "If 'government of the people, by the people' means anything," writes John Browning, "then government is itself a medium, a way of expressing the popular will. If people can do better for themselves, then government should be disintermediated--and this, indeed, is happening" (90). In his essay "The Question of University Governance," Aldo Scaglione, Professor of Literature at New York University, brings the idea home:

For example, we all know that deans like to act through chairs and will immediately relay to the chairs all that has come their way from individual faculty members. Accordingly, we know, deans are largely inaccessible to individual faculty members, and the more serious the matters, the more collective and more department-wide they are, the more strenuously the deans shield themselves from individual faculty members. Is this as it should be? Should we work toward an opening up of the administration--a, shall we say, higher degree of democratization? The standard objection is that time is limited, but we know that even the timetables of the United States presidents have a lot of leeway. It is quite possible that the figure of the chair is on the way to extinction and that faculty members will have to deal directly with deans or their equivalents. A number of institutions are considering doing away with departments, replacing them with divisions or similar larger structures. It might be a good thing. (80)

     "A highly intercommunicating decentralized structure shows far more resilience and likelihood of survival," writes Negroponte. "It is certainly more sustainable and likely to evolve over time" (158). If faculty want democratization to work, however, they, like the concerned citizens of any democracy, are going to have to start intercommunicating and vie for more of a voice in administrative decisions involving technology, especially if they are planning to use technology to facilitate shared governance.(5)

     Currently such disintermediation is difficult to achieve because the powerful computing and communications technologies that might facilitate a more direct democracy within colleges and universities are generally controlled by administrators and computer services departments. To short circuit or circumvent the automation scenarios that have befallen factory and clerical labor, college and university professors must empower themselves with a substantial understanding of various technologies and a real knowledge of their applications in a variety of disciplines, but especially in their own disciplines.

2. The Readiness Is All

     My own experience with the computer and telecommunications technologies that afford online hypermedia publication, acquisition and interactivity has me advocating, at least for now, a "buy and manage your own, if you can" philosophy. In the best of all possible worlds, I would not advocate doing so. Wrangling computer hardware, managing peripheries and keeping up with software quirks and licensing is hardly my idea of a good time, but what I have observed over the years is that doing so can optimize a person's technology use and understanding, and that use and understanding transfers to colleagues and within departments. The newly acquired technology skills then transfer (sometimes in rather inspired ways) into teaching and scholarship. Unfortunately, administrators who are usually in charge of technology on campuses are not always the people who know the best ways to implement or use technology for instructional purposes; many are also at a loss at what to do about engaging instructors in such a prospect. Thus a number of marvelous tools and applications go under utilized in higher education.

     The way around--and sometimes through--bureaucratic thinking is and always has been singular ingenuity. There is usually a tradeoff in terms of labor, but having and managing your own equipment and software (your own Web server, principally) will give you greater freedom of implementation and use. Although you may not want to get involved too far beyond your discipline, you will want to acquire some level of familiarity with the means by which hypermedia is served on the World Wide Web. For the means, which is essentially a robust, Internet-connected computer that runs server software, such as Webstar or Internet Information Server, can have everything to do with the capabilities and functionality of the hypermedia you, your colleagues or your students may wish to serve. If, for example, you wanted to create individual, password-protected accounts or shared virtual spaces or run Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) programs, various Java applets, audio- and video-streaming software or courseware, such as TopClass, or incorporate CGI programs into your hypermedia, you would need to have a good deal of access to the "back web" or the server itself. Otherwise you will have to work something out with your instructional or information technology people or, if there are no such people on your campus or simply too few (which is often the case), your LAN administrator.

     It may be the case that computer and technology support is becoming more user friendly. When I inquired about the listserv that is the subject of Laura Mandell's Profession 1997 essay, "Virtual Encounters: Using an Electronic Mailing List in a Literature Classroom," Mandell responded (via email): "I didn't have to run the listserv program at all; the people at my university set up class lists for us each semester" (1998). This should give us all hope, indeed, that an exceedingly positive experience of relatively few technology frustrations is possible. Mandell's experience was so positive, in fact, that she offered this additional information: "I am using a MOO(6) in a class now and hope to write something about that after it is over--even if it turns out to be a disaster" (1998). Of course, campus computer and technology support infrastructures vary widely. And I would have to guess that the support personnel at Mandell's Miami University makes itself readily available to instructors. However, this is not the case at a number of institutions. Many computer and technology support departments are relatively small. And with the boom in technology, they are seriously stretched and kept busy with a plethora of administrative concerns. Add to these frustrations the fact that computer and technology support departments and humanities departments generally harbor a good deal of mutual antipathy towards one another, and your hopes of technological innovation in the classroom might be dashed fairly often.

     The bad relations I have observed over the years are truly unfortunate, as computing is fast becoming a feature of communications and communications is fast becoming a feature of computing. Perhaps it is silly of me to hope for a quick change of heart on either side, for the rivalry is, after all, a very old one, exacerbated from time to time by the politics of government fears and of commercial competition. However, I do hope, and I hope because I see real advantages to respecting and understanding the technology of means as well as the humanity of method. Like Negroponte, I believe that the "polarity (however artificial) between technology and the humanities, between science and art, between right brain and left" will be made less severe by computers. I agree that the "burgeoning field of multimedia is likely to be one of those disciplines, like architecture, that bridges the gap" (81). But I do not believe it will happen over night, which is why "[t]he readiness is all" (Hamlet 5.2.220).

     More and more sophisticated technology is on its way, making this readiness in skill extremely important; however, we do not want to make the same mistake poor Hamlet did in trusting too much in skill. Hubris gets you nowhere in a tragedy. We must also prepare ourselves for craft, for the venomous rapier or the poisoned cup of wine--for the tough, deep cuts compelled by academic administration or the sweet, institutional takeovers by corporate America--or we do indeed "defy augury" (5.2.216). In late 1997 I remember wondering why a publishing house like McGraw Hill would team up with WBT Systems, a small Irish company that designs a popular Web-based learning system called TopClass. Within a few months I received an email from my TopClass representative, explaining rather happily that:

McGraw Hill has licensed TopClass for the delivery of their "titles" and study guides over the web. This is a very interesting and exciting development for both WBT Systems and the educational publishing sector. It has been established that Web Based Training will become part of the educational process and to have ready made content will mean that you can actually start running your classes with content straight away. (Nolan 1998)

     You might ask yourselves what a software corporation like Microsoft and a publishing house like Simon and Shuster might have to do with a small Denver-based education company like Real Education. You might also ask yourselves why their group advertisements in The Chronicle of Higher Education wholly ignore instructors and professors in their appeal but are keen to "present FREE executive briefings" to "technology/distance education decision-makers in higher education" (see Figure 4-1). For those of you who are ready to match your skill with your craft, you might consider the following challenges:

I. Make computer and telecommunications technologies a priority.

Set your sites on learning at least a new application every term--a Web-authoring tool, such as Pagemill or FTP software, such as WS FTP. Learn something about the history and architecture of the Internet as well as the culture of cyberspace. You will actually enjoy reading Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's Where Wizards Stay Up Late: the Origins of the Internet (Simon & Shuster, 1996) and cyber-oriented magazines such as Wired. Once you get passed the wild, colorful layout and design of Wired, you will discover a wealth of serious, engaging writing. For a man who admits that "[b]eing dyslexic, I don't like to read" (1), Nicholas Negroponte's monthly column in Wired is always clever, literate and intriguing, and because he is the director of MIT's Media Lab, his commentary is often geared toward educators.

II. Get involved in a technology roundtable that emphasizes teaching.

Many colleges and universities have official roundtables now, following the lead of Stephen Gilbert's highly successful Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable (TLTR) Project, one of the many technology projects Gilbert directs under the authority of the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE). Local technology roundtables are usually comprised of a small band of instructors or professors from various disciplines who want to become more proficient users of technology.

III. Attend classes and workshops to learn about Web browsers and editors as well as the many languages of the Web, including HTML and JavaScript, Java and Perl.

 Many colleges and universities now offer such courses in house. If your college or university has no such program, look carefully within the system or around the region; chances are pretty good that your "main campus" or a neighboring college is going to show a flurry of activity. Look into "teaching and technology grants" as well, for these funds might buy you the hardware, software and time you need from other duties to become more proficient with technology.

IV. Get several good books on the subject.

There are a growing number of "computer books" out there, mostly on how to operate specific software or how to write code; bookstore computer sections are overflowing these days and titles are changing fast, so I won't mention any by name. I do advise, however, that you take a little time to read a section or so of any "computer" or "software" book before deciding to make a purchase. I take care to buy books that I can read and understand (for I have made the mistake of purchasing the other kind). Too many of these books take for granted an extensive knowledge of computers, but this is changing. For me, one of the most exciting developments of cyberculture is the residual improvement in technical writing. Not only is it better these days, but it's more fun to read.

V. Consider acquiring a Web server; you will need access to such software to learn about the "back web"; you might also want to serve your own hypermedia.

If you have an Internet-connected computer at work (or at home), you can download all kinds of inexpensive, if not free, software, including server software. However, serving Web documents from your desktop is not an optimal situation. If you use your desktop computer regularly for other memory-taxing functions, you might run into problems. When serving more than a few simultaneous users, my first Web server had an annoying habit of shutting down my wordprocessing program. To learn about the "back web," it is a good idea to run the software on your computer so you can see how it works. However, I don't recommend serving important or abundant documents there. To serve documents consistently and more securely, get a designated Web server or use your department or campus Web service. If these options are not available, you can try getting free space from hosts such as GeoCities or you might purchase commercial Web space fairly cheaply.

VI. Get a computer with real speed, memory and storage space.

Finally, if you don't have one, get one. Better yet, make your immediate supervisor get you one. Make a sacred pact: you will produce if your boss produces. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to develop multimedia and hypermedia on out-dated equipment.

     Once you have the right stuff, you will then need to pay careful attention to the subtle and not so-subtle differences between teaching an actual class and teaching a virtual class, if not both and at the same time. While I believe that an increasing number of instructors are going to find themselves teaching more courses that are strictly online, I estimate that, in the next several years, the majority of us will find ourselves teaching fairly traditional, face-to-face courses that will include a smattering of electronic features, something similar to the kind of course Mandell describes in Profession 1997:

This semester, I am teaching online a literature course called The Early Romantic Period, 1789 to 1816. Teaching online can mean many things, but in this case the class still meets in a classroom to discuss literature, and we still use a printed text for most of the class readings. There are really only a few things online about the course; the syllabus, the handouts, and all the assignments are mounted on a Web page. While I give students paper copies of the syllabus, they must go to the computer to find out and then do their assignments. Their assignments are rather traditional responses to class readings. What is not traditional about these assignments is that they do not get turned in to me on paper. They are posted to the class list by electronic mailing list, so that everyone in the class, myself included, receives a copy of each student's response in the form of an e-mail message. (126)

     As with all other innovations and changes in pedagogy, it will be some time before the cumulative effects of electronic media and Web-based teaching and learning can be assessed more conclusively. We are--as we always seem to be with regard to technology--living in changing times. My advice is to be prudent--not in the connotative sense of delay but dennotatively: to avoid undesired consequences. I don't think prudence amounts to what I hear too often from my colleagues: "I'm waiting for more user friendly software." "Where's the compelling research that equates online teaching with good teaching?" "I just don't have time to learn these new technologies." "It's just too much like computer programming, and that's not what I do." "I want my students reading books, not surfing the Web." And, finally: "This may be well and good for you young people, but I don't see any point to it."

     To all of these I simply must respond (and not without some measure of sympathy): The day you wait for computer and telecommunications technologies to plateau or stabilize or for the research to amass and inform your pedagogical direction, you may find yourself getting hopelessly behind. The minute you give in to the constraints on your time and refuse to re-examine your priorities in light of coming generations, you may find yourself slipping professionally: students avoid you, colleagues ignore you. And the year you deliberately disregard the Web's instructional potential and declare yourself "too old" to go online, you may find yourself out of a job, if not with a job that, in this period of downsizing and automation, holds little in the way of its original attraction. I think we are rapidly approaching yet another point in time wherein we can choose to re-think, revitalize and reconstitute the discipline of English, or we can choose to let it to slip further from us, becoming ever more fragmented, isolated and diminished. It is my hope that the digital word can help to re-write the history of what many in English are calling the "dysfunctional relationship between literature and composition" (Schneider A14). Like no other media, hypermedia illustrates as it facilitates the interactive nature between reading and writing; it reminds us every time we navigate the Web, every time we "click" on an underscored, highlighted word of hypertext, that writing and reading are inextricably linked. It helps us understand and appreciate all over again the importance of the interrelationship between language, composition and literature.


Notes

1. 53 See Laura Mandell's "Virtual Encounters: Using an Electronic Mailing List in a Literature Classroom" in Profession 1997 (1997): 126-132.

2. 53 Some of the paper titles at the 1997 MLA Conference in Toronto included "Holistic Integration of Technology into Language, Culture, and Literature Curricula," "Postmodern Fiction in the Information Age," "Beyond Hypertext: Civilization and Its Discontents," "Pioneering the Networked Environment: Project Muse and Peer-Reviewed Humanities Journals Online," and "Synchronous Aural-Visual-Textual Internet Tutoring."

3. 53 "If colleges and universities don't behave more responsibly to control their costs, others will do it for them--with a lot less thought and consideration" said Barry Munitz, chancellor of the California State University System and a member of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (qtd. in Burd: A26). The Commission, an eleven-member panel, was appointed in August of 1997 by Republican leaders in Congress to help government curtail the rising cost of education.

4. 53 Evan Schwartz reminds readers in his 1993 Wired magazine article "Direct Democracy: Are You Ready for the Democracy Channel?" that our "Founding Fathers, in their white wigs, feared that the lower classes would vote to seize their property. So they intentionally created a representative republic, not a full-fledged democracy, to keep power out of the hands of the masses" (502).

5. 53 "For a long time, decentralism was plausible as a concept but not possible as an implementation," Negroponte argues in Being Digital. "The effect of fax machines on Tiananmen Square is an ironic example, because newly popular and decentralized tools were invoked precisely when the government was trying to reassert its elite and centralized control. The Internet provides a worldwide channel of communication that flies in the face of any censorship and thrives especially in places like Singapore, where freedom of the press is marginal and networking ubiquitous" (158).

6. 53 A MOO stands for Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) Object Oriented. It is an interactive virtual reality role-playing environment geared toward educational uses.