Teaching Strategies for Hypertext in the Classroom

Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Teaching Strategies for Hypertext in the Classroom

Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University

Approaches to teaching hypertext vary according to the kind of equipment available at one's institution and the size of the class. These thoughts, which were generated in response to a recent email from NASSR-L list-member Kay P. Easson (University of Memphis), are preliminary rather than comprehensive.

  1. First hypertext class. It is important to introduce students to hypertext via an in-class demonstration prior to their first reading assignment. I have experimented with letting students plunge in cold, so that they can have the truly disorienting or defamiliarizing experience that hypertext often evokes. Generally, however, the incomprehension and dismay provoked has outweighed the few benefits of going it solo. I always devote a period to giving students a guided tour of the mechanics—logging on, navigating the hypertext, possible reading strategies (most hypertexts have several "implied reading strategies," to coin a term modeled on the familiar notion of "implied reader"). This class session comes with a strong dose of reassurance, encouragement, and validation of their anxiety and potential fears. I acknowledge in advance the bewilderment students are likely to feel and explain the ways in which the hypertext plays with these feelings, theorizes them, and (in the best cases) induces one to move beyond them. I use terms like "transference" and "working through" to get at the transactional character of reading hypertext. And, of course, most hypertexts contain pages (or "lexia," as they are more commonly called) that foreground ideas such as the "collaborative" and "intertextual" nature of reading, signification, etc. These motifs allow me to emphasize feminist themes, as well as counter-cultural or other avant-garde positions that I think will motivate the students. Here I'm trespassing on topics that inevitably come up in later classes, but some introduction to the rationale behind the hypertext helps justify the difficult experiment in reading that one is asking students to perform.

  2. Equipment. Everything depends on what is available. The best option is to hold the class in a computer lab where every student has his or her own computer, with a copy of the hypertext loaded onto the local network (or an individual copy loaded on each machine). If one has required students to purchase copies of the hypertext for the class, I see no copyright barriers to loading the hypertext on a restricted local network. Barring the availability of a computer lab, teachers need at the minimum to arrange for an LCD projector, so that they can project their computer screen up onto a monitor or screen for all students to see.

  3. Assignments. This issue is one of the hardest to resolve. In order to preserve the reading experience of moving freely through the hypertext, I encourage students to explore any reading approach they prefer (choosing among the options for navigating around the text that I have demonstrated on the first day, as well as inventing their own strategies). As a result, I assign a set number of hours that students should work with the text for each class period rather than a particular number of pages. Alternatively, one could require that students read a set number of lexia and perhaps ask them to turn in a list of the titles of the lexia they visited. Other techniques that have proved helpful include arranging "scavenger hunts," where students are assigned lists of motifs that they need to locate in the text; providing discrete paths through the text that students must navigate before launching out on their own; asking students to do reports on different aspects of the hypertext; and requesting that students keep reading journals or logbooks of their journeys through the text, which they turn in to the teacher or report on to the class as a whole.

  4. Pedagogy. Teachers will have to get used to the different pedagogical rhythm required for alternating among lecture, demonstration, discussion, and interludes for exploration or experiment. I have found discussion to be difficult, particularly when a student wants to illustrate a point. When that happens, the whole class has to take a moment to find the lexia under question. I would be interested in learning about other teachers' experiences with finding ways to foster discussion.