Closing: Hypertext and the Discourses of Our Society

In the Introduction to College Writing courses, we grappled with questions of how technology shapes reading, writing, and education; we tried to determine the usefulness of studying hypertext as a system of communication. In the process, we produced formal and informal essays, written in constrained and in relatively unconstrained forms of discourse; we worked in small groups and developed collaborative essays as well as more traditional “individual” assignments. We also moved toward a definition of hypertext based on its uses and its usefulness: in theory, hypertext was non-linear communication; in practice, hypertext was using the computer to present texts, pictures, and sound. Although we did not fully understand the most effective ways to present material in a hypertext format, we realized that our target audience will affect how one's presentation should be organized. My students convinced me that learning about hypertext--in my course or any composition course--is less important than learning about rhetoric; but, they have also convinced me that using hypertext and studying websites they select can lead them to “see writing in terms of power, how it conceals itself and how it announces itself.”

Their conclusions led me into the Cybercomp project; they convinced me that teaching hypertext in a college composition course was essential for helping students locate themselves in relation to (and perhaps transform!) the powerful discourses of American society. Technology, particularly computer technology as a new mode of communication, offers--at least at the moment--a chance for our students to contribute to the shaping of their education.

It is important for those of us in the academy to remember that a diversity of discourse involves not only reaching across department lines toward interdisciplinary studies--something I believe the Computers and Writing Community is doing fairly well--but it also involves our insistence that the doors to the university remain open to students from a plurality of backgrounds. If we focus only on composition, on the beautiful forms of what we are saying, information technology may be used to increase the inequities in our society. However, if we rise to the challenge, if we insist that universities remain open centers for learning, then we may discover that insights into rhetoric, authority, and computers are not private property but are communal undertakings. It is in this revelation and in the putting into practice of collaborative methods of inquiry that reach across the academy (from professors to graduate students to undergraduates), that we may begin to imagine a new type of American community. We may explore the possibilities of genuine democracy.

I want to end with two quotations one you'll recognize as a student's conclusion about hypertext: “It cannot replace the ideas from old books, instead it must transform them.” The other is from W.H. Auden. And although Auden was talking about Yeats and poetry, the distance between Auden's words and the student's analysis of hypertext are not overwhelming. Auden writes: “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” I hope that in our electronic classrooms, we may modify the words of dead men into a practice of living; we may transform the teaching of writing into a practice that does not inscribe the inequitable social (and rhetorical) forms of the past but rather glimpses a new rhetoric, a new social space.