Review of Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom

Utah State University Press
Joan Tornow
264pp; paper

Reviewed by Joan Latchaw

Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom defines linked homepages as a "labyrinth of information and ideas" and computer users as "idea hamsters." Joan Tornow, the author, might herself be described as an idea hamster, as she nimbly moves from quantum mechanics to paradigm shifts, to a brief history of computers and writing, to postmodernism, to ethnography. She obviously has a broad knowledge of philosophies, composition theory, critical theory, computer technology, network theory, virtual reality, and competing pedagogies. I was often intrigued by various metaphors (wave/particle, crisscrossing landscapes, open systems, paradigm shift), insightful analyses of online student dialogues, and an engaging style.

I could even imagine different audiences for this informative text, if readers are willing to make some hypertextual leaps. Teachers interested in, but inexperienced with, computer technology might enjoy and be inspired by chapters like "The_Room_in_the_Basement" (2), "Lora" (4), "Participation_in_Discussion" (6), and "Yo_Hugh!" (11). Link/Age has a narrative charm, sometimes bordering on the poetic. The lower sanctum of UT's library, the site of Fred Kemp's first computer lab, is described in almost mystical terms:

The walls were a smudged and faded chartreuse, except for one which was a burnt sienna. They were bedecked here and there with recklessly placed posters, freebies from various computer hardware and software companies. When the teaching assistants had prepared the room for class, thirteen panels of fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered overhead. Four fans on stands created a steady breeze of white noise. The monitors of the computers selected for use that day emitted a sapphire light. They seemed to hum, in anticipation, the siren song of the nineties. (14)
The narrative qualities, interspersed with research and theory, are indeed, a siren song--sometimes seductive and Utopian, sometimes warning and skeptical. Yet the composition is disjunctive.

Many chapters resemble an ethnography in descriptions of Hugh Burns' online classroom at the University of Texas, in glimpses of particular students and their exchanges (Chapters 4, 7, 9, 14), in discussions of gender and genre issues emerging from this new discourse, and in follow-up interviews (Chapter 27). The book, however, is not an ethnography, though it claims to be one: there is no clear theoretical framework but a collage of various, and sometimes, competing perspectives and metaphors. No methodologies are presented. We have no idea how and why subjects were chosen. Stephen North would have critiqued the study in harsher terms than it deserves.

Some teacher/scholars might be intrigued with the more theoretical and analytical chapters: Introduction, "The_Shifting_ Paradigm" , "Developing_Community" (18), "E-text_Comes_of Age" (20), and "Students_Battle_the_System_ (and_the_Genres?)" (24). This readership may leap over some of the more prosy sections and chapters, focusing on the theoretical framework. Tornow uses the shift from Newtonian to quantum physics to explain the shift in sensibilities from modernism to postmodernism, from traditional genres to "polymorphic" forms of conversation and writing, and from traditional classrooms to MOOs, MUDs, and other online communications. While she acknowledges that scientific metaphors can be misapplied and should be used cautiously, Tornow often uses them to justify her own writing style. ". . . the narratives are wavelike in their attempt to describe an ongoing experience, whereas the theoretic sections in a sense 'pin down' the experiences and make them hold still like things while I analyze them" (5). I have no objection to this method, except that the theoretic sections stand alone and do not "pin down" experience or frame the analyses. This is why I say readers must make hypertextual leaps.

Ironically, this volume might be much more effective as a hypertext document. As a reviewer, I made extensive marginal notes, referencing earlier sections that resonated with particular issues and concerns. For instance, in "Making_Sense_of_E-text" (10), Tornow compares network and traditional classroom discussions, a subject she continues from earlier chapters and raises in later ones. Interesting speculations on student motivation, the role of humor, and different ways of reading are offered in Chapter 10; however, no conclusions are drawn. I found myself searching for those places I marked in other chapters which could allow me to piece together an argument. Linking these cites would allow readers to think associatively but critically. Another example of hypertextual leaping occurs in the discussion of underlife, specifically addressed in "Underlife_and_Identity" (13). Some of the best insights and analysis of student dialogue and the role of underlife occur in this chapter. "While some language is clearly inappropriate, students benefit from talking in ways that they choose. Slang, for example, is part of youth culture and can be a critical ingredient in the struggle for identity" (104-5). The underlife issue is picked up again in "Net_Working_in_the_Workplace_of_the_Future" (15) and could have been integrated in the earlier chapter. While networking in the workplace had some interesting ramifications, it had little application to the ethnographic focus of the book. If sections of this chapter and other seemingly irrelevant chapters could appear as hypertextual links, the book might not seem so fragmented. Chapter 9 features Todd, one of Burns' students, and includes many of his posts and responses to them; Tornow comments that the online environment worked for Todd. But the chapter is sandwiched in between two theoretical chapters and adds little to either the ethnography or the theory. I realize that fragmentation is part of the postmodern condition and hypertextual formats, but, as Ron West, one of my colleagues, points out, there is still an overall structure fundamental to any hypertext. That structure is missing.

Interestingly, the book attempts to replicate online communication. Readers of this review will note the underscoring between words in chapter titles and the book itself. Numbers of chapters appear above the titles, following the @ symbol: @1, @2, @3. Although it is a popular trend to create neologisms and decorate text with symbols (such as < > surrounding chapter headings), to do so without a semiotic purpose lessens the effect. Editors might be using such touches as a marketing device, but authors should become involved in these decisions, especially since the integration of text and images is an increasingly important issue.

Despite Link/Age's lack of structure and sustained inquiry, it is a book worth exploring, particularly for teachers integrating computer technology into the writing classroom. Hugh Burns' interaction with students, his responses to student writing and his participation in the online discussion were wonderful examples of student-centered learning. Burns operates with the sensitivity and respect process-oriented teachers proclaim as an ideal. The many student dialogues recorded here are insightful, especially when Tornow analyzes them. I wish she had done so more frequently, as some chapters are almost all dialogue and no commentary. Reading the book raised more questions for me than it answered, which may be kindling for further research. Do computer networks sometimes disrupt community? How might writing change if computers are seen as idea generators? What kinds of new genres might emerge? What are the implications of exploring synchronous communications through water metaphors, such as ebbing and flowing? Perhaps it was because of the fragmentation that I was inspired to ask these questions. There are enough ideas in this text for other researchers to design more rigorous studies. For instance, the discussion of research on Email rhetoric provides a solid background for further exploration. Finally, the bibliography is extensive and up-to-date, representing perspectives from science, philosophy, critical theory, and composition. Tornow is an engaging writer as she weaves her narrative with insightful theoretical and analytical threads. Perhaps other compositionists will take up these threads and weave a tighter tapestry.

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