Minding the Frontier:
Teaching Hypertext Poetry and Fiction Online

By Robert Kendall
A Profile of
"Hypertext Poetry and Fiction"
Distance Instruction for Adult Learners (DIAL) Program
The New School for Social Research, New York
Taught by Robert Kendall

From the Workshop

A number of the hypertext projects that emerged from the class were remarkably successful at integrating interactive elements and fine writing into a compelling whole. The authors of some of these notable pieces here discuss their work, explain how their approaches to the genre evolved, and share some classroom experiences. Samples of the fiction or poetry (or direct links to entire works on the Web) are provided where possible.

Bill Bly
discusses We Descend (Eastgate Systems, 1997), fiction that takes us into the future to explore our relationship with the past. The Web magazine Hipertulia calls it "a profound meditation on the meaning of history and its relationship to power and human nature."
The poetry collection Wyrmes Mete (Eastgate Systems, forthcoming) provides perspectives on mortality.

Alon Bochman
was unavailable to discuss his work, but his hypertext story about college life, "The Fabulous Bloch Boys" (Enterzone, 1995), is available on the Web.

Jackie Craven
discusses "In the Changing Room" (Word Circuits, 1998), eight interwoven parables of everyday life steeped in the fantastic.

Marianne Goldberg
discusses "Be To Want I" (DIAL Magazine, forthcoming), a "performance piece for hypertext," which combines text with elements of dance to pose questions about femininity. The text was written in collaboration with Christianne Brown.

Richard Holeton
discusses Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, a comically absurdist venture into the unlikely to probe serious philosophical and cultural issues.

Deena Larsen
discusses Stone Moons (Eastgate Systems, forthcoming), which takes us into the cold realities and luminous mythologies of the world inhabited by a mother and her autistic child. The hypertext was written in collaboration with Jeanne Templeton, another former student.

Greg Lindsay
discusses "Coffee," which tells the inner story of an on-again off-again love relationship. The hypertext was written in collaboration with Rachel Laitinen.

Rosemary Passantino
discusses "Faktura" (Eastgate Systems, forthcoming), which follows an American into the art world of the old Soviet Union where she learns more than she bargained for about faithfulness in art and in love.

For more information about former students, see the Class Alumni Page.

When I accepted an invitation from the director of the New School's Writing Program, Robert Polito, to teach hypertext, I don't think either of us really expected the class to become a regular fixture of the program. It was certainly an unusual course offering even from a school noted for adventurous pedagogical initiatives. But since 1995, "Hypertext Poetry and Fiction" has run two or three times a year through the school's Distance Instruction for Adult Learners (DIAL) program. Like all DIAL classes, it takes place entirely on the Web. The eight-week session is open to anyone and can be taken for undergraduate credit.

I've long been interested in nurturing the union of literature and technology, and the class has been a valuable outlet for this interest. As the class evolves, it's encouraging to see hypertext literature gain in respectability and increase its readership. The genre may not yet be part of the mainstream, but it's no longer regarded as just the odd product of overstimulated gearhead imaginations. I like to think that my students, through their publications and other activities, have made at least a small contribution to the momentum gathering behind the new art form (see sidebar at left).

It's also exciting to be on the front lines of a revolution in education technology. Each term, the software behind DIAL's electronic classroom becomes more sophisticated, creating an ever more effective teaching environment. When I first began teaching through DIAL, the program relied upon a very primitive character-based interface derived from aging BBS technology, and my students and I were constantly banging our heads and stubbing our toes against its limitations. The technical problems proved insurmountable for some students, who were simply forced to drop out. When the New School became one of the first colleges to offer classes on the Web in 1996, my electronic classroom improved dramatically. With the switch to the Web, the technical problems pretty much disappeared, the interface actually became fun to use, and the class finally came into its own.

The DIAL electronic classroom is similar to the asynchronous discussion forums that have cropped up on many Web sites. I establish a number of discussion topics and then the students and I post our messages under the appropriate topic to carry on our business. We can include hyperlinks in our messages to broaden the range of discussion.

My class focuses on both the reading and writing of hypertext in order to impart a well-rounded knowledge of the genre. I expose students to a wide variety of hypertext poetry and fiction and assign some readings about hypertext to get them thinking about important issues concerning the new medium. They create hypertext poetry or fiction of their own, which we then discuss in class.

Reading Hypertext

Incoming students almost invariably seem excited about exploring a new means of artistic expression. Some may already have read a few hypertexts, while others may only have read about the genre. Occasionally, though with increasing frequency, I'll get students who are very experienced hypertext readers. With newcomers to hypertext, my goal is to parlay the initial excitement into a good grasp of the genre and a sustained appreciation for it. With all my students, I hope to funnel their talents as writers into the unique possibilities of hypertext. I try to infect them with my own enthusiasm.

For all their eagerness, students coming to hypertext for the first time may experience some understandable reservations when they first start to get their feet wet in it. Accepting hypertext can require some readjustments to basic attitudes about literature. It can be hard to get used to the notion of a text that doesn't have a single definitive form determined by its author. As a reader, one may be reluctant to take on responsibility for shaping the final form of a text through navigational choices. As a writer, one may be reluctant to give up control over this final form.

Delving into some of the theoretical underpinnings of hypertext can help students get a grip on it. We discuss the deconstructionist contention that all readers help create the meaning of anything they read because each reader filters a text through a uniquely personal set of interpretive skills, values, and expectations. The writing therefore becomes something a little different to each reader. Modern writers often make their writing ambiguous and open-ended to give readers more power to "shape" a text in their own image, and hypertext can be seen as merely an extension of this impulse.

This leads into discussion of nonlinearity in printed texts: for example, many different subplots may be woven throughout a story, requiring a reader to mentally piece together chronologies and chains of events. We spend some time looking for such "hypertextual" elements in printed literature that the students have read. Hypertext seems less foreign if students can understand it as a natural outgrowth of the way they've already been reading and writing. (See Richard Holeton  and Rosemary Passantino on nonlinearity in printed literature.) We also explore other models that can be applied to hypertext in some contexts: the traditions of semi-improvised oral literature, the give and take of conversation, the dynamic nonlinearity of thought processes, the often random way we absorb information from news media, and our interactive relationship with the real world itself.

Critical theory is central to the thinking of many hypertext writers, so it's important that students are at least exposed to the postmodern ideas that underlie much of the literature they'll be exploring. I'm careful to focus on the poetry and fiction itself rather than theory, though. I also caution students not to take theoretical formulations too literally, since they won't always be fully borne out by practice. For example, the frequently made claim that the reader of hypertext becomes a "coauthor" of the text can lead to disappointment at how little real control one may often seem to have over shaping a reading. "Reader empowerment" can often consist of little more than being allowed to choose more or less randomly from a set of cryptic links to move to the next section of text. There's more to reading hypertext than merely buying into a convenient theoretical trope.

I try to ground theoretical discussion in real world examples whenever I can. The only way to really learn about hypertext is to read it. I encourage students to read hypertext stories and poems on the Web, as well as publications from Eastgate Systems. Each term we focus on a particular hypertext novel. I often assign Tim McLaughlin's Notes toward Absolute Zero, which I've found to be an especially good introduction to hypertext. Not only is it well-written and accessible, it's easier to navigate than many other hyperfictions. It also obsessively develops a number of well-defined themes. This clear thematic structure gives readers something to hang onto if they're having trouble making sense of how the links and nodes themselves are organized.

Some students take to hypertext like fish to water. Other students, as they read hypertexts for the first time, may find the experience exhilarating but at the same time a little frustrating. Still others may find their initial contact with the genre a letdown. These are some of the complaints I may encounter from students: The work (or their reading of it) may seem lacking in direction or disorienting (see Jackie Craven's comments). They may weary of the frequent recurrence of nodes (that is, reappearances of text sections) within a reading. They may exhaust themselves trying to move back and forth along every path in the text trying to put together a mental image of its physical structure. They may have trouble deciding when their reading is finished.

I've found nearly all my students very open-minded about working through their problems with hypertext. I encourage people to stick with it, and usually things become easier with familiarity. I also provide them with some tips for approaching hypertext reading. I talk about ways of getting a better sense of a work's structure. For example, the development of themes often provides the strongest forward momentum in a hypertext, so I encourage them to observe how thematic relationships emerge and solidify in the work they're reading. Recurring nodes can be understood for their role in establishing or reinforcing thematic or other types of relationships. One must also be sensitive to how new contexts change the significance of recurring text. We talk about how much of the hypertext's physical "geometric" structure can be grasped. We talk about what closure means in hypertext and examine strategies for wrapping up a reading. I also offer suggestions for using bookmarks and other navigational aids that are provided by hypertext software.

Those students who don't take to hypertext immediately usually warm to it after a while. If a student isn't enjoying what he or she is reading, I try to pinpoint the precise reasons for this. Sometimes there turns out to be resistance to the writing style of a particular author rather than the medium itself. If that's the case, I try to find out more about the student' s literary tastes so I can recommend other hypertexts that might be more appealing.

When students don't seem to like the process of navigating through a hypertext, I try to help make the experience more meaningful. Sometimes navigational obstacles are an important part of a work's aesthetic. A hypertext may resist a reader's efforts to sort out its twistings and turnings for the same reason a text may resist efforts to pin down hard-and-fast meanings. Somewhat elusive or even "difficult" writing can more accurately reflect the problems of trying to make perfect sense of the world. Understanding this can help a reader appreciate the challenge of navigation. Every reader has a different tolerance level for different types of difficulty, however, and not everyone is intrigued by the same problems. A student frustrated by navigating one hypertext may enjoy a different sort of structure or interface design.

Students are likely to encounter some navigational problems that stem from current software limitations. There's a lot that hypertext systems should do but can't yet. As students judge the viability of hypertext literature, I encourage them to make allowances as best they can for software deficiencies that are likely to disappear in the future.


Writing Hypertext

While we're discussing and reading hypertext, I ease students into writing their own work. I expect each student to create an original piece of poetry or fiction in hypertext format. They can work with either Storyspace (the most popular program among those used to create hypertext literature for distribution on disk rather than on the Web) or HTML. Many students will experiment with both formats. I don't require a finished, polished product from each student, especially if someone decides to tackle a large-scale work of fiction. But I do expect at least a respectable work-in-progress. Once a project is ready for evaluation, the student will upload it to the class conference area and we'll subject it to a traditional workshop-style critique.

I must say that one of the great pleasures of this class for me has been the very high quality of much of the work that has come out of it. A number of my students--including Bill Bly, Deena Larsen, Jeanne Templeton, Jackie Craven, Alon Bochman, Rosemary Passantino, and Marianne Goldberg--have gone on to complete projects they started in my class and have them accepted for publication either by Eastgate Systems or Web publishing sites. I feel privileged in having been able to play a role in helping so much real talent come to fruition.

Not all of my students, of course, write at such an accomplished level. Some actually take their first shots at creative writing in my class, and I'm careful to provide these less advanced writers with the encouragement they need to gain confidence and find their voices. Interestingly, some of the inexperienced writers are highly skilled software professionals or Web site designers. They often provide the advanced writers with valuable guidance in hypertext design and implementation.

Sometimes when they're beginning their projects, students need help in jump-starting the creative process. They don't always know where to begin with hypertext. I try to guide them toward approaches that will let them take advantage of the unique qualities of the genre. Hypertext is a medium of multiplicity, pluralities, divergences, alternatives, variations. Life itself is full of the same. The point where these things overlap in life and art is where good hypertext is born. I encourage students to look around them and inside themselves for multiplicity, forking paths, or themes and variations, and to put them into their work. When people are faced with uncertainty, when meanings are ambiguous, when situations merit examination from different perspectives, when different experiences or the qualities of different characters interlock in various ways, opportunities for hypertext arise.

I encourage students to talk about how they see their own writing styles meshing with hypertext. Writing intended for print can contain many proto-hypertextual elements--intersecting story lines or thematic threads, techniques of fragmentation, ambiguities, and so on. These approaches can evolve naturally into true hypertext. Some students may come to feel that the techniques they've already been using in their print-oriented work are actually better served by hypertext. (See the explanations by Jackie Craven and Bill Bly of why this was the case with their work.)

Students are often disturbed by the thought that hypertext will make them lose control of their work. After spending years honing one's craft and struggling to make every sentence as good as it can possibly be, surrendering to the reader/coauthor may seem like throwing out years of training. It usually becomes clear to students, though, after reading many hypertexts and especially after working on their own, that it requires a good deal of skill and vision to create a text that a reader can successfully manipulate in as many different ways as possible.

Most students want to discuss ideas for their projects, sometimes at great length, before diving in and getting started. This preliminary discussion can help clarify their thinking and build confidence, but I encourage them to get their hands dirty and start working with the hypertext software as soon as possible. Often the best ideas can arise only in the midst of active writing, however tentative that writing may be.

Sometimes a student will base a class project on a preexisting work-in-progress that was conceived for print. I don't object to this, since some of the best class projects have arisen this way--for example, those of Bill Bly and Jackie Craven. If the approach works, it can give the student a head start and allow more time for fashioning the hypertextual details, since much of the writing will already have been done. This tactic doesn't always work, however. A work can be so entrenched in the strategies and expectations of linearity that it simply doesn't lend itself to hypertextual treatment. A fresh start is often in order.

As students work with hypertext, certain technical considerations naturally arise. I expect students already to have at least an elementary knowledge of Storyspace or HTML, or to be willing to work by themselves to quickly gain a working knowledge of their software. If appropriate, I direct students to the tutorial in the Storyspace manual as soon as possible. I'll always help students figure out the best ways to achieve the effects they want using their chosen software, but I avoid turning the class into basic training for Storyspace and HTML, since this would leave little time for much else.

We do spend a great deal of time discussing specific techniques of hypertext writing. We talk about different types of hypertext structures, ways of presenting links to the reader, and how to create maps, tables of contents, and other aids to guide the reader through a hypertext. We deal with such pragmatic matters as how to use fonts, graphics, and colors effectively in electronic text. I try to impart the principles of good software design to the students: Interface and navigational elements should be simple and self-explanatory whenever possible. Anything that isn't immediately obvious about navigating the work should be explained clearly and concisely in an introduction--unless, of course, figuring out the interface is an important part of the reading experience.

I suggest that before students present their work to the class, they read through it a number of times to uncover potential navigational problems. The importance of this careful beta-testing cannot be overemphasized. Then there are the final details, such as proofreading and formatting Storyspace files for distribution. Even though not all students plan to try to publish their work, I encourage them to take a professional approach to their writing and aim for the sort of quality that publishers are looking for. 

Once a class project is ready to share, the student will upload it so we all can have a look. Everyone is expected to read and comment on each student project. We evaluate the success of the work as both a piece of writing and a work of hypertext. There's often discussion of such familiar issues as the credibility of characters, the coherence of imagery, or the effectiveness of language. We consider whether the hypertext element adds something vital or whether the reading experience would be more or less the same if the work appeared linearly in print. If the work doesn't seem truly to benefit from hypertext, then something's wrong. Much of my critique focuses on allowing the reader more complex and stimulating interaction with the text. I can usually find ways of strengthening a work's commitment to hypertext.

Creating a polished work of hypertext suitable for publication usually requires more time than we have during the span of our course. Since many students have an eye on publication, I make sure they are aware of potential publishers for their work before we part ways.

A unique sort of camaraderie arises among many of my students, and this often develops into lasting friendships. This is perhaps because it takes a certain adventurous outlook to delve into hypertext literature and the class brings together many kindred spirits. Students often keep in touch with one another long after taking the class. Two of my students (Deena Larsen and Jeanne Templeton) ended up collaborating on their project, and this collaboration continued for years. Many keep in touch with me as well, and I give them whatever help and support I can in their continuing hypertext work. To encourage students to keep in touch, I maintain an Alumni Page on my home page, which links to the hypertext-related accomplishments of former students.

It's only fair to say that not every student becomes proficient in hypertext. Not every good writer will take to the genre, just as, for example, not every fiction writer will succeed at playwriting. Some leave the class with ambivalent feelings about hypertext, not quite sold on the medium but not ready to give up on it either. (See Jimmy Guterman's "Confessions of a Would-Be Hypertext Novelist.) Even students who ultimately decide that hypertext isn't for them, however, may find attempting it a valuable learning experience. It compels them to think about their writing in new ways, which is broadening. One student told me that she now finds Storyspace valuable for drafting and organizing linear fiction that's intended for print.

The Web Advantage

The teaching approaches and considerations I've described so far would generally be as applicable to a live classroom situation as they are to my online teaching environment. Other aspects, however, are unique to a Web-based classroom. First of all it should be said that the class probably couldn't have thrived in a live environment. The New School first offered it as a live class in New York, but it was canceled for insufficient enrollment. The next term it went online and has run successfully ever since, sometimes filling up. Enrollment clearly benefits from the class being able to tap the entire Web-connected world rather than just the New York area for hypertext enthusiasts. My move from the East Coast to California would also have posed an obstacle to further attempts at offering the class at the New School's physical campus.

Even if the class could go live, it would lack the rich diversity of students it now enjoys. I've had students from all over the US, and some from Canada, France, Australia, and Singapore. Many are professionals--often English teachers or computer specialists--who would be unable to accommodate a regular time slot for a live class in their busy working schedules.

Interacting with writers through the medium of writing rather than spoken discussion has some decided benefits. Typically writers communicate best through writing, and the asynchronous nature of the dialogue tends to encourage deeper and more thoughtful discussion. It's fitting to use hypertext for teaching hypertext, and the environment itself is probably instructive in demonstrating the utility of the medium on a day-to-day basis. DIAL's asynchronous hypertext interface has some more immediate benefits, though, by letting us maintain several discussions at different levels simultaneously. This is invaluable in helping me deal with the different levels of knowledge among my students.

Some of my students have had very strong backgrounds in literary criticism and even published critical essays (see the publications listed on my Alumni Page), while others have little real aptitude for theory. It's important not to let things get bogged down in rarefied academic discussion, especially at the beginning, or I'd risk losing the interest of some students. On the other hand, some students may be keen to tackle complex theoretical issues, and I don't want to squelch intelligent discourse. This conundrum becomes even more pronounced when it comes to technical matters. Some students may require detailed explanations of HTML or JavaScript issues, which may be completely irrelevant to Storyspace users. Similarly, my Mac users may encounter technical difficulties that are of no concern to my Windows students.

Teaching in a Web environment allows a convenient way around these problems. During a live classroom session, I would have to severely limit discussion that wasn't of interest to the entire class. Students would have to be even more careful to keep comments focused on matters of general interest and to keep them brief to avoid monopolizing limited class time. Online discussion can be more expansive and broad-ranging, since students can merely skim over material that doesn't really concern or interest them, and no one can crowd out somebody else's opportunity to have a say.

Anyone posting messages to the class conference can include links to separately uploaded external texts, and I make use of this capability frequently. If material might not be of general interest, I link to it rather than including it directly in the main conference area. I like to keep the dialog moving without getting mired in long explanations or lectures, yet there's a great deal of information I must impart to my students during the course of the class, some of it rather technical in nature. I maintain an archive of Class Resources, which includes discussions of topics that I usually cover. In my messages, I link to these longer texts, which include specialized technical discussions, tips for reading hypertexts, suggestions for coming up with project ideas, and examinations of various approaches to hypertext interfaces and structures. As issues arise that aren't covered in the Class Resources, I'll add new discussions to this archive of "cyberlectures." All these discussions are indexed, so students can refer to them whenever they want. I also frequently link to the resources for hypertext literature on my Web site Word Circuits.

Students can make use of the same external linking technique if they have messages they feel are too long and involved for the context of classroom discussion. They can upload them as separate text files and link to them from within conference messages, thus having their say without overwhelming the dialogue or pulling it too far off topic. This practice has spawned some terrific impromptu essays. In our discussions, students and I will also frequently link to interesting stories, poems, or essays that we find on the Web. On my end, this beats photocopied handouts any day. On the other end, it lets students participate in selecting readings for the class, giving them a greater sense of involvement. I've learned about some great Web material this way.

Another benefit of the virtual classroom is that it can accommodate virtual guests. Each term I have two prominent figures in hypertext join us as online guests to respond to comments and questions from students. These have included poets and fiction writers (Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop, John McDaid, Carolyn Guyer, and many others), a hypertext publisher (Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems), and the theorists George Landow and Jay David Bolter. Two particularly successful former class members--Deena Larsen and Bill Bly--have also made return appearances as class guests. Usually students will read the work of guests before they appear in class, so the guest stints can afford some unique insights into work we are studying. Travel expenses would preclude such a steady stream of notable live speakers to a physical campus, but my electronic classroom easily accommodates visitors from all across the country. It also lets me archive the dialogues with guests for the benefit of future classes.

The Web teaching environment does have at least one drawback. It can be hard sometimes to draw every student into the discussion of class projects. A successful workshop depends as much upon all students responding to each work as it does upon them presenting their own creations. In a live classroom situation, one can simply read a story or poem and go around the room eliciting comments from each student in turn. In cyberspace there's no real equivalent of making eye contact with someone to pry lose a response. Asynchronous communication can sometimes encourage procrastination and discourage spontaneous reactions. I have to be on my guard against this potential hazard and ready to play the nudge when necessary. Sometimes I e-mail silent class members, gently encouraging their participation and perhaps reminding them of their responsibility toward the group.

At least one of my students felt a desire to supplement our asynchronous discussions with live chat sessions, in the hope of generating more-immediate feedback (see the comments by Greg Lindsay). DIAL added chat rooms to the electronic campus this fall, but these are designed specifically for extracurricular socializing, not class activity. The DIAL program is committed to strictly asynchronous teaching so that no one will be excluded because of real-time conflicts. Getting students together in real time would be a serious challenge because of their diverse work schedules and time zones, but I think that perhaps a few judiciously scheduled one-on-one chat sessions could enhance the classroom experience.

Whatever the class has been for my students, it has certainly been a valuable learning experience for me. My students have brought all manner of diverse knowledge and perspectives to our discussions, many showing keen insight into the issues of hypertext. Here are just a few examples of debts I owe to some of them: When Deena Larsen took my class, she had already published some well-received hypertexts with Eastgate Systems. She shared with us a very mature vision of the medium, as well as a lot of useful tricks for getting the most out of Storyspace. Rod Anderson (see his home page) is a skilled JavaScript programmer who developed some clever scripts for his class project to track the reader's progress. His technique of storing values in cookies inspired me to take a similar approach in my own Web work. Julianne Chatelain is head of the usability program for Trellix Corporation, maker of an important HTML editor. She clued me in to techniques of usability testing that can help hypertext writers see their own work through the eyes of their readers.

From all of my students I've gained valuable insight into how people read and respond to hypertext. This is essential knowledge for any hypertext author. We make assumptions about how people will read our work, but these assumptions must always be crossed-checked against the practice of actual readers. This alone would have made the class worthwhile for me.

It's the creative output of the students, though, that drives a creative writing class. The sampling of student products here (see the sidebar From the Workshop) should make it clear what has really kept this class going.