"Rhetoric and Technology in the Next Millenium: An Asynchronous Interactive Rhetoric Computer Conference"

June 15-30, 1998

Reviewed by Greg Beatty

The Federation of North Texas Area Universities's asynchronous conference on rhetoric and technology was useful in a several ways. First and most pleasantly, the conference's successes demonstrate the possibilities both for the online conference and for inter-institutional organizing in these days of tight budgets. Second, and unfortunately, in its weaknesses the conference actively demonstrated the currently incomplete readiness of the academic profession to guide highly productive discussions in this forum. Third, in the content of the papers, and in the conference's progress from the previous year, the event serves as a marker of the current state of the art in the intersection of scholarship with hypertext.

Let me address these points one at a time, beginning with the positives. First, simply placing the papers for this conference of modest size on the Web multiplies their potential influence. The Web gives the papers a curious permanency; I'm still accessing these papers five months later, long after live presentations have faded to faint memory. In many cases stretches of discussion were quite rich, and the extension of the conference into the form of a listserv shifted the focus, making it far more synergistic. Individuals could and did introduce outside information without detracting from the core presenters.

The most useful discussions I took part in were those that attempted to hammer out organizing metaphors for Web-space and cyber-identity. Participants in the discussion of agora vs. rhizomatic spatial organizations, or of avatar vs. p.o.v. were well- and diversely-informed. All seemed committed to testing the limits and uses of metaphor in this brave new world.

As a glance at the website will show (http://www4.twu.edu/federation/rhetoric/98contents.html ), the conference was organized along interesting and multiple lines. Papers were grouped by topic, by method, and by degree of hypertextuality. In some cases, via simple linkage, papers were "presented" as part of more than one panel. Since the conference was asynchronous , one could attend all eight panels without missing anything. One could attend, that is, if one got successfully joined to the various listservs, which brings me to the negatives. I registered weeks ahead of time, paid my fee, and signed up for three of the eight listservs. The conferences "started" on the fifteenth; my required password arrived on the eighteenth, after the discussions were well underway, and I was only joined to two of the three lists. A minor glitch to be sure, but a range of this sort of delays and interruptions contributed to making the discussion particularly virtual, as did the minimal netiquette required by the conference organizers (no list of attendees, no biographical sketches, etc.). The conference closes with a similar lack of ceremony, leaving each participant alone in cyberspace to get from the conference whatever s/he could.

The papers themselves were symptomatic of the current state of hypertext scholarship. Certain papers had multiple links--that led only to the footnotes at the bottom of the page--while in others the machinery of the webpage was left curiously exposed (some with 5-6 lines of text highlighted, leading to a far briefer reference, others simply marked ). The most interesting aspects of the conference itself were the signs of change. There was an entire panel devoted to Anglo-Saxon, and another devoted to Milton, both of which used new technologies to produce new insights into ancient texts. The conference website continues to post the papers from the previous year's conference, which had a less focused structure in which the papers were less sophisticated in their use of hypertext and theories of cyberspace.

Since many of the papers were from scholars in the North Texas area, this tells us that geographic location and older forms of interpersonal connections will continue to influence the directions of professional advancement and disciplinary growth, even in these new media. At the same time, it also signals, as a number of scholars of cyberspace have pointed out, that the solutions to the challenges of cyberspace will for the most part not be produced by the institutions that had been at the forefront of previous ages. The humanists at Harvard and Yale won't be blazing trails into cyberspace. They don't have to. The scholars who will be leading the way will be from Wayne State and City University, and, as we've seen, from the Federation of North Texas Area Universities.