Context and Background

The research behind this paper has been a collaborative effort; many of the insights are based on student research on the differences between websites and print text. In particular, I would like to thank the students from my Fall 1997 Introduction to College Writing courses and my Spring 1998 Cybercomp course. At Queens College, Introduction to College Writing is a Developmental English class that students are placed in when they do not pass the infamous CUNY Writing Assessment Test (WAT). Under recent changes made by the CUNY Board of Trustees, these minority and working-class students would be denied the opportunity to study at Queens College. Part of this paper, then, should be seen as a demonstration that the members of these two sections of English 95 were not only ready for college-level work, they had important contributions to make to academic culture and knowledge.

In Introduction to College Writing, we spent a quarter of the semester examining questions of “(human) nature and technology” and “writing and technology.” We began with a set of four questions, read and analyzed a variety of webpages, and determined that an extended research project on the differences between hypertext and print would be a valuable and engaging assignment for the future. In the Cybercomp course, I was able to offer students a chance to continue the project suggested by the students in the English 95 courses. While a number of students from the English 95 courses were enrolled in the Cybercomp course, the majority of students were new. Thus, there was a continuity of scholarly projections between courses without necessarily working with the same group of students. What I tried to stress in this environment was the work done by the English 95 sections as a foundation for the Cybercomp's more thorough, more deeply researched projects. The students in the Cybercomp course were invited to continue the research questions suggested by fellow students as well as engage in a larger project of developing a curriculum for Cybercomp. In the Spring of 1998, we were running the first six sections of Composition I had designated as Cybercomp at Queens College. A group of five faculty members were working together on questions about teaching in an online writing lab, developing a pedagogy for lab-based writing courses, and shaping a curriculum that took cyberspace as its subject as well as its method of exploring writing communication. My Cybercomp students were thus located in relationship to the classes I had taught the previous semester and in relationship to five other courses running simultaneously at Queens College. One of the extended projects in the Cybercomp course became a research paper on questions of hypertext vs. print.

This current project comes out of my work with students in these different courses and out of numerous conversations with my colleagues at Queens College (Christine Timm and Stuart Cochran) and the Graduate Center (Liza Bruna, Ian Marshall, Tim McCormack, Leo Parascondola, and Wendy Ryden). As a result, this project has been collaborative in many, many ways; I hope that the results are useful in the ongoing process of refining our ideas about rhetoric, social change, and the teaching of hypertext. I also want, and need, to thank George Otte for his comments on an earlier version of this essay; Janice Peritz for her encouragement and support of the cybercomp project and faculty development initiatives at Queens College; and Ira Shor for numerous reminders in his writing and his teaching that a collaborative, student-centered approach to learning is indeed possible (and necessary!) in today's world. In the end, I guess the most important aspect of this paper is that it demonstrates how students' diverse perspectives and backgrounds expand and remake the university into a vital sphere of social and cultural interaction.