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"As We May Link ..."

From the Editor's Desk(top)

Mick Doherty
Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau
Editor & Publisher, Kairos  

The Name Game

Part the First: The Colon-ization of Kairos

At the 1997 South Central MLA Conference in my new hometown of Dallas, I finally was asked the question I'd been waiting to hear for almost three years.

I was speaking as part of a panel of editors, a discussion roughly dedicated to "How to Get Published and Still Finish Your Dissertation," a theme I have personally spent much time disproving. Toward the end of the Q&A session, a woman rose and asked, as best I can recall,

"I see your journal, Kairos, has a subtitle -- "A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments." What's that mean? The journal is for teachers of writing, but the journal is on the web? The journal is for teachers who teach about writing on the web? The journal is for all teachers of writing but only about writing on the ... well, you see what I mean."
I did. And I told her the answer was "yes."

The title is intentionally ambiguous, and it has been ever since Becky Rickly and I started dreaming up the possibilities of a journal like this one at a Hootie and the Blowfish concert in East Lansing, Michigan, late in the summer of 1995. That's another story, of course.

What is this journal about? Who is it for? Why is the name ambiguous? In the immortal words of Adm. James Stockdale, "Who am I? What am I doing here?" The very definition of "kairos" -- dynamic reinvention of the present occasion -- perhaps demands that we never figure that out.

Okay, vague answer, bad answer. The truth is, the journal is all of the things mentioned in the woman's question, and perhaps specifically none of them. I can't tell you for sure that I know the audience for this journal, as I have seen webtexts in it cited on syllabi for graduate seminars in rhetoric, undergraduate classes in technical writing, first-year and high school composition classes, and in travel trade publications. Bizarre. Eclectic. Kairotic.

We had a heated (online) editorial staff & board debate about this very issue -- the words after the colon in our title -- back in early '97. One person suggested we change "Webbed" to "Hypertextual," but as you will see shortly, that idea makes me (and others) ... uncomfortable.

Another kind soul thought, playfully yet seriously, that we might change the words behind the colon every issue, or even more often, to show off the kairotica of the journal itself. But Crump does that already with our cousin publication RhetNet, and we can only steal so many ideas from him before he starts to notice.

The journal is changing -- it changes each issue in accordance with its name; the staff changes, the board changes, the content changes, the interface and design changes ... look for the announcement of at least two, and perhaps up to 17, major changes at the 1998 Computers & Writing Conference (more on that name later, too)  this summer ... but for now, I suppose, only the name remains the same.

And even then, it's ... ambiguous. The reader creates her own meaning for the title.


Part the Second: Hypertext? This Ain't No Stinking Hypertext!

So at this whole "Computers & Writing" gig, Friday night I get to stand on the stage and make major announcements, one of which is the presentation of the Second Annual Kairos Best Webtext Award.

Of course, it's not really the second annual "best webtext" award, since last year we awarded the First Annul Kairos Best Hypertext Award and now we have a different name for it. So it's the second annual Kairos best something-or-other award, I guess.

Early on in this year's nomination process, a major player in the hypertext development game sent me a couple of nominations and I asked him, off the record, what he thought of the award and its parameters.

In short, he said, they sucked.

He felt we were doing wrong to the perception of hypertext if we limited it to freely-available-on-the-Web texts, as much of the best hypertextual theory-in-action is occuring in standalone platforms available on CD-ROM and other non-Web venues. Inherent in his criticism, and a deserved criticism, was that we were misnaming the award because it was a very limited representation of hypertext that we were considering.

You already know that we changed the name of the award, so you might figure I agreed with him.

You'd be wrong.

We changed the name of the award because the kind of writing we are hoping to reward is not necessarily hypertextual.  I must argue not that webtext provides a minor, and unimpressive subset of the larger category "hypertext," but that hypertextual authorship is only one of the few important things that the larger category "webtext" can allow.

Teachers of writing are learning, along with their students, about the immediacy of a potentially worldwide audience, about the incorporation of graphics into and as text, and about the interface design issues of the screen that may or may not be linear in nature. They are examining, together, the multimedia divergences of Webtext, and the instantiation of collaboration among students, among classes, among universities, even between students and instructors.

Hypertext, as brilliant men and women like Kaplan, Joyce, Bernstein, Johnson-Eilola, Guyer, Moulthrop and others have demonstrated, also has the potential to do all these things. But the focus in hypertext, to my reading and experience, has always been on the development and shaping of the writing space. The focus in develping Webtext is on effectively harnessing the many tools available upweb to create a conversation with your audience(s), intended or otherwise.

Lanham's loose definition of rhetoric -- "getting someone to share your attention structure" -- is a much stricter definition of the goal of online writing, in email, in MOOs, and on webpages of all static and dynamic types.

The very best hypertexts in the world are available from places like Eastgate -- for a very reasonable price, you can experience the wonders of afternoon: a story or Patchwork Girl. The very best Webtexts in the world -- a different genre, different sets of standards and goals -- are available for free (presuming Internet access, which of course is not free) on the Web and is what we wish to reward.

Jackie Goss' feature this issue, Reading Subrin's Swallow, is hypertextual only if we stretch to the limits of credulity the definition of the word; it is a brilliant use of a Webbed environment.

Joel English's feature on use of MOOing in student conferencing is certainly multimodal, even multinodal -- and uses multiple Webbed technologies. I would say -- no offense, Joel! -- it is simply not "hypertext." We publish these texts because they are models of outstanding writing, and resources for teachers of writing ... in Webbed environments.

<a href="link"> does not a hypertext make.

There is hypertext in this journal. And a hell of a lot more.

So unlike the journal itself, which changes while the name stays the same, in this case the award stays the same but the name changes.

Very cool. Kairotic.

Part the Third: Computers & Writing ... R.I.P.

Bill Hart-Davidson, Purdue University, Kairos Editorial Board, is one of the smartest (and genuinely nicest -- a rare combination in academia) people I've ever had the pleasure to meet. We shared a Master's degree program, and I attended his wedding in 1994 -- he's a friend. He's also the kind of guy that sometimes you just wish you could learn to hate.

Only kidding, Bill. See, every time I write something for publication, I seem to end up quoting Bill (this "As We May Link" obviously no exception!), because he's frequently right about stuff long before anyone else is. Which brings me to something he said to me in early 1994, right around the time Marc Andreesen was just getting famous:

... pretty soon, a "computers and writing" class is going to sound as silly as a class called "writing with a pen."
Of course, in the computer world where years are measured in "generations" rather than the reverse, "pretty soon" is usually a matter of months, and this is four years later, so maybe Bill was wrong, sort of. Or else he was just early.

"Computers and Writing" -- it used to be an oxymoron. Now it really is becoming a redundancy. I refer here only to the college and high school classrooms that house the teachers of writing who are the purported audience for this journal ... worldwide, cultural studies wonks will assure us, the computer is not as ubiquitous as Darth Gates would have us believe.

Maybe not all of our writing classes are held in computer labs; but rare, perhaps nonexistent, is the high school or college writing course in which at least some percentage of students aren't using laptops or campus computer labs to crank out their Week #6 assignment.

I have heard rumors ... we will see for sure later this week ... that attendance for this 14th C&W conference will be off somewhat from C&W 13 in Honolulu. Now, maybe potential attendees are just still trying to recover financially from last year's trip.  Or maybe, just maybe, the concept of "Computers & Writing" has simply outlived its cutting-edge half-life, and must go the way of the Commodore 64 into our collective fond memory banks.

Last year in Hawaii, Tony Rue, who has done a brilliant job organizing this year's conference, whispered to me that they considered changing the name of the conference even this year. Would it have made that much of a difference in attendance or participation?

How much difference does a name make? Does what follows the colon in this journal's name re/de/fine the audience and readership? Does the subtle shift from "hypertext" to "Webtext" in the Kairos award's name reflect a major paradigmatic leap?

Yes. And yes. And ...

Does "Computers & Writing 15" excite you as much as, say, "Technorhetoric '99"?

Let's think hard about the name we give our field of study ... and C&W, R.I.P. -- that's "Computers and Writing, Reinvention In Progress."

To Florida, then ...

Mick Doherty is the founding editor and publisher of Kairos. He is the Internet Editor for the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, and working toward completing a PhD in Rhetoric & Electronic Publication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.