Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom: A Response and Review

Utah State University Press
Joan Tornow
264pp; paper

Reviewed by David Silver

In Kairos [2:1], Joan Latchaw provides readers with an interesting and, at times, critical book review of Joan Tornow's Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom. While I agree with some of Latchaw's points, I must take issue with others. Thus, the following essay serves a dual purpose: to respond to Latchaw's review and to offer an additional review of Link/Age.

In her review, Latchaw is quick to acknowledge the strengths of Link/Age, noting especially the ease with which the author blends "various metaphors (wave/particle, crisscrossing landscapes, open systems, paradigm shift), insightful analyses of online student dialogues, and an engaging style." Further, Latchaw seems to appreciate the way in which Tornow's prose jumps and leaps, thereby reproducing the local links and hyperlinks found in hypertext.

Yet while Latchaw acknowledges Link/Age's strengths, she devotes most of the review to what she (and I) believe to be the book's two major shortcomings: a misrepresented methodology and a disjunctive composition. Thus, Latchaw notes that although Tornow represents her work as an ethnography, it is not:

The book, however, is not an ethnography. . . .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.
Further, Latchaw critiques Tornow's disjunctive composition, a result, no, doubt of the author's attempt to fuse nearly everything under the sun, from hypertext and postmodernism to quantum mechanics and Kuhnian paradigm shifts with a smattering of critical theory, virtual reality, and network theory.

Latchaw is correct to point out these two significant shortcomings. In the "Introduction," Tornow writes, "I chose an ethnographic approach, and simply immersed myself in the class as a participant-observer" (9). Huh? Although the author certainly observes the class, it is unclear as to how she participates in it. Further, Latchaw is fair to critique Tornow for not attempting to explain her so called ethnographic methodologies. While online ethnography is a new field, its newness does not excuse its practitioners from lazy methodology.

Similarly, Latchaw is correct to critique Link/Age for its disjunctive composition. Although Tornow's interdisciplinary approach is at times engaging and effective, it too often suffers from a surface-only understanding of quite complex phenomena. Serving as ammunition for the Alan Sokal camp, Tornow's connections (quantum physics and chaos theory are used, for example, to illuminate hypertext and hyperlinks) often fall short and will undoubtedly rub some readers the wrong way.

Yet while Latchaw succeeds in pinpointing the book's two major shortcomings, she fails to note Link/Age's two major contributions to the larger field of hypertextual studies. These contributions include Tornow's humanization of the online classroom and the barrel of disciplines that she uses to tackle the newly emerging field.

Although many Kairos readers are familiar and comfortable with and within computer-networked classrooms, most instructors and many students are not. Too often, the mere mention of a classroom with computers generates images of machine-like teachers and passive, automated students. Link/Age challenges this perception. Indeed, it seeks to find and highlight the human part of networked classrooms.

Tornow succeeds in the portrayal by offering what she calls "wave" chapters, brief narratives used "as tools for exploration, not explanation" (5). The best of these chapters are devoted to individual students. In "Lora," we witness a computer-weary student's first day in the lab; in "Irene," we watch a shy and quiet student come alive within the online environment; and in "David," we read of one student's resistance to and engagement with computer-mediated communication.

Complementing the individual "wave" chapters are chapters devoted to illuminate the process of online writing and group collaboration. In chapters like "The Second Paper Is Due," "Making Meaning from Memories," and "The Growth of a Student Paper," the author describes both the process and products of online, collaborative learning environments. Posting questions to one another and to the collective, students, according to Tornow, compile, challenge, and work through contingent conclusions. Interestingly, by including segments of drafts, suggestions, and final products, Tornow reveals the (often dramatic) processes of transformation undergone by students.

The result is a community. Using all the predictable sources, Tornow argues that such interaction and collaboration constitutes a "virtual community" (Howard Rheingold) and a "great, good place" (Ray Oldenburg). Reading about how the students work together, it is difficult to argue.

The second major contribution of Link/Age is the author's interdisciplinary approach. As Tornow notes early in the book:

I have included observations from a wide array of academic sources, including experts in composition as well as experts in biology, physics, and business. I have also included the voices of those outside of academia, including—for example—journalists, filmmakers, and artists. This eclectic and holistic approach stems from my sense that evolving genres will tend toward just such a medley and away from the intense specialization with which we are more familiar (10).
Although this approach tends to get a bit murky at times (especially, as noted earlier, when delving into the more scientific realms—see above), it serves to illustrate that online writing is not just about writing. Indeed, it represents new ways of thinking, interacting, communicating, expressing, sharing, collaborating, working, and playing.

The complexity of hypertext, hypertextual studies, and computer-networked classrooms is especially revealed in Tornow's "historical" chapters. In "A History of the Computer-Networked Classroom," the author traces the groundbreaking work of Trent Batson at Gallaudet University and Fred Kemp at the University of Texas. The chapter concludes by briefly introducing a few other forward-looking projects, including Kairos, RhetNet, and ACW. Complementing this chapter is "E-text Comes of Age." Here, Tornow examines the work of Richard Lanham, Eric Crump, and John Goodwin to formulate preliminary elements towards a theory (or theories) of hypertext. Although the work of George Landow is strangely omitted, the chapter raises a number of interesting and challenging considerations.

As Joan Latchaw notes in her review, Link/Age is a spiraling, thought-provoking contribution to the field of hypertextual studies. At times, the book is perhaps too spiraling, especially when the author attempts to apply complex scientific principles to online writing. At the same time, it is the book's impressive breadth that provides such interesting insights and conclusions.


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