Two roads diverged . . .

Papertext as Hypertext in
Computers and the Teaching of Writing
in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History

Gail E Hawisher, Paul LeBlanc, Charles Moran, and Cynthia L. Selfe
Ablex Publishing Corporation, Norwood, NJ 1996

Reviewed by Susan Halter

I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of writing a formal review of Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History for two reasons. First, over and over, as I read the book, I saw myself--my own history as a member of the computers and writing community unfolding before my eyes, and I found that disconcerting in a book that was at the publisher before I even knew such a community existed, much less that I would some day be a part of it. And, second, I am a teacher/practitioner, not a scholar. The demands of teaching five composition classes a semester, often requiring five different preparations, effectively prevent me from doing as much reading and research as I would like (and that I sense a reviewer of this book should have done). However, I believe that there are more out there like me than not: teachers of writing whose academic credentials reflect a much stronger background in literature than in composition theory, but who have chosen to move into the fascinating arena of teaching writing, and who struggle to keep abreast of a field whose history appears to change in one-second intervals. So, if I may, I will offer a personal response that I hope invites further interest in a book which I have come to see as essential reading for those in positions similar to mine.

I found reading the book difficult the first time around. I struggled with the format, with the cleverness of the triple opening, and the authors' falsely modest (to my mind) attempts to diminish the significance of the roles they played in determining the course of the history they wrote. I didn't get it.

Five weeks later, with at least a couple of dozens of attempts to write this review behind me, I am finally beginning to catch on. I have come to realize that the book in question is a transitional text. It is a hypertext document masquerading as papertext. It is the butterfly, fully formed, on the verge of breaking out of the cocoon, stretching its wings, and taking fight. But, for now, it's packed tightly into cramped quarters, meant to hold a different animal altogether, and it's straining to break free. And I (teacher/practitioner that I am) am just now coming to see some of the problems implicit in doing what the authors attempt to do, and I think some of the reasons it was absolutely necessary that it be presented this way.

A colleague told me a couple of years ago that we were on the verge of a sort of counter-Gutenberg revolution, and the day was soon coming when literacy would be much more aligned with pre-Gutenberg orality than with what we then considered literacy. I didn't know what he was talking about--any more than I knew what to make of this book. Then I picked up a copy of Landow's Hypertext, and I began to get a glimmer of what I was attempting to deal with.

Landow says, "Since the invention of writing and printing, information technology has concentrated on the problem of creating and then disseminating static, unchanging records of language" (18). Traditional linear papertext assumes a single linear voice controlling content. It assumes permanence, fixedness. And it assumes authority. It appears to me that the four writers of A History have a particular interest in forcing its readers to abandon those assumptions. For pre-postmodern literature majors immersed in the traditional linear reading of papertext, the book becomes a battleground.

From the beginning, the text insists its readers participate in telling the history. Multivocality is one of the precepts of hypertext. Lisa Gerard's Preface and the authors' Introduction are both telling and misleading at the same time, and the ensuing dialectic between what is proclaimed to be a very personal history of a small community and what ultimately appears to be universally true of a large and growing field of theory and practice quite openly maneuvers the reader into interacting with the text.

We watch and ponder and struggle with the authors as they attempt to find a beginning for the book, for their history(ies). They suggest, in turn, three possible openings, ways to describe what they are attempting to write, focusing on each of the below, trying to keep each element separate while fully integrated with the others.

I soon found myself feeling angry at the competing voices in the text. It seemed like I was having to read a whole research library all jumbled together, incorporating scholarship, political, social, and economic narrative histories as well as personal narratives, transcripts of interviews, and even a transcript of a moo. I wanted to read the authors' commentary, but the quotations in the margins, numerous and generously full, not little notes, distracted me, and then I kept wanting to hear what the interviewee was saying. Altogether, I found it to be a very noisy book.

There's an underlying political agenda here. The writers trace the history of rhetoric and composition theory through the fifteen years in question, claiming (rightfully so) that the history of computers in writing classrooms can't be separated from that of its parent discipline. The rhet/comp arena has apparently become increasingly politicized, moving beyond the focus on process writing to a focus on how communication media affect those on the margins of society.

I think that in insisting that they are not the experts, that this history is not fixed, not all-encompassing, the writers are, to borrow a phrase, just living out the songs that they sing. I won't say that publishing a book as hypertext is not possible yet, because someone will point me right to rhetnet, which is doing just that. But the political reality is such that papertext is still the accepted medium for academic publishing. And it is still the best way, realistically, to reach a large audience. The more hypertext I read, the more comfortable I become with reading it, the more I can distinguish the voices and listen to the one that catches my attention, knowing that the others will still be there later if I need them. But A History is very clearly not hypertext: its cover and pages and ink aren't metaphors for an older technology but real, tangible entities. And, bear with me please, as not-hypertext, it doesn't work very well. Which, I believe, is exactly the point.

The point of this history is to give definition to an evolving field, a field in which meaning is being negotiated in ways we haven't seen since the printing press caused its revolution. It's one thing to argue, as the authors and their colleagues have done in other venues, that we must start seeing differently, especially in the way that we teach writing, but it's a whole other thing to demonstrate their beliefs by action, as they do in the way they present their history. It's not an easy book to read for those of us in English Studies because we love books, but it makes its point in a way that a more traditional approach to history never could.

And, yet, as I struggle to keep up with the many voices in A History (now including my own), I am nagged by the feeling that I've read this way before. Ironically, I think of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!--a novel straight out of my traditional academic background. In it, a number of characters tell and retell the story of an event, from their varying points of view, sometimes to each other, sometimes with each other. At least once, the omniscient Faulkner (impatiently, I think now) steps in to warn the reader that what is being postulated never really happened. But, he tells us, it doesn't really matter. For the purpose at hand, the story is probably true enough (Vintage 1972 ed., p.335). If you're looking for the definitive history of teaching writing with computers, one to use to bring you up to date fast, but thoroughly, put your postmodern doubts about the accuracy of any history aside and read this book. As written, it is plenty true enough.

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