Reading and Writing in Cyberspace
Mark Wallace and Rachelle Heller
Cross-disciplinary courses offer students the opportunity to investigate both the subject matter of two disciplines as well as the unique area of content created by the interaction of those disciplines. In this paper the authors discuss the issues related to creating a course that investigates relations between computers and contemporary literature, focusing specifically on the possibilities of computer-generated, linked documents known as hypertext. The course concerned both the impact of computers on literature and the impact of literature on computers. The form of the essay is that of a dialogue between a computer scientist and a writer, a form which mirrors the way the course itself involves perspectives from two very different disciplines. The paper addresses the successes of the course and suggests changes for improving the shortcomings. A syllabus is included for those who might want to establish such a course.
The George Washington University course "Reading and Writing in Cyberspace," (ENG/CS 751) is a one semester interdisciplinary course for graduates and undergraduates, cross-listed in both the English and Computer Science departments. Using the Eastgate program Storyspace, ENG/CS 751 focuses on teaching hyperfiction, a type of fiction very different from that found in the traditional book. Storyspace enables writers to create multi-directional, non-linear fictions that permit multiple paths and multiple endings. In hyperfiction, readers can choose to follow a number of different story directions, usually known as loops, unlike fiction in a traditional book, which moves in only one direction from a single beginning to a single end.
While the course focused on the student creation of hyperfictions, it branched out to include many other important concerns. Cutting edge changes in computer technologies and their effect on human life, the latest developments in literary theory and postmodernism, and notions of how we understand, store, and access information were only some of the concerns broached in the course. In spring 1996, the course was taught by Rachelle Heller and Mark Wallace. Because we found the course itself to be a dialogue not only between different disciplines, but also between individuals with widely diverging points of view, we thought that the best way to discuss our experience of the course was in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue form allows us to repeat, in this article, the exchange between perspectives that was central to the way we taught the course.
I think maybe the best way to begin is to focus on the nuts-and-bolts aspects of delivering a course like 751, and then we can move on to some of the more complex theoretical issues raised during the semester. The course was certainly a great experience for me, but on the other hand, we had more problems delivering the material and the issues to students than in any other course I've ever taught
First of all, any interdisciplinary course brings in students with very different backgrounds. Some of the students had backgrounds in literature or other arts, while others were experienced in computer science. Only a few if any had strong backgrounds in both. What this meant was that it was pretty much impossible to assume any general area or level of knowledge among the students. Some of them knew almost nothing about writing fiction, others knew very little about computers--although frankly, my sense was that in general they seemed to know more about computers than about literature. I wonder if you agree with that. That difference, of course, is not surprising, consider the huge emphasis put these days on technological training. But nonetheless, as a humanities professor, I find it troubling that students seem to be more aware of the importance of technology than of their cultural history. In any case, the result of these limitations in student backgrounds was that we spent a lot of time teaching basic skills, and then jumped quickly to very advanced theoretical problems. Those jumps taught everybody a lot, I think, but they were sometimes jarring.
The other nuts-and-bolts aspect of crucial importance was the Storyspace program itself. Because of scheduling difficulties, we had to use the PC version of Storyspace, which was always failing to work in some way or other, when it wasn't crashing outright. I wonder what ideas you have on how best to minimize the difficulties of delivering hyperfiction technology to students, or thoughts on what the ideal environment for delivering that technology would be.
Let me begin by addressing the technical aspects of the course as well. The process for submitting a special topics course began almost a year prior to the course itself. In the summer of 1994 I met with Lynn Taetsch, now a faculty member of the University of Kentucky, to design the course. The syllabus for the course can be found at the end of this dialogue. The glue, we felt, that held this interdisciplinary course together was that in each case we were dealing with a non-traditional aspect of a particular discipline. In English, we were looking at avant garde literature and literary criticism. In Computer Science, we were moving outside of the computational and informational aspects of computing to a new area.
While it is unusual to offer a special topics course a second time, students in both the English and Computer Science fields urged us to do so. Based on reactions from the earlier course as well as our personal interests, the course was slightly revised. You and I did use the same basic software, though using StorySpace for Windows did prove to be more quirky than the Macintosh version of the prior year. I am not sure what to do about the software issue. In one sense it is such a common problem in computing that it almost makes me want to say "deal with it," and yet it is a roadblock for users. My suspicion is that if we were to have a lab assistant available when students are ready to use the software, that is at night or on the weekend, we might overcome some of the frustrations inherent in using StorySpace.
It is surprising to me, even after a semester together, to hear that you felt there was more computer familiarity among the students then there was literary knowledge. My take on the class was that there was a lot of surface knowledge about computers and computing--students had used them for wordprocessing and some for electronic mail--but there was very little deep knowledge. Most students did not have a mental model of how a computer works and so had a difficult time differentiating between the creation, use and storage aspects of the program. On the other hand, I expected that all students had a strong grounding in literature--reading if not writing as well.
The fact that we are both seeking weaknesses in student background raises questions in my mind about how we educate our students as well as how much more demanding for the students in an integrated course.
So, Mark, let me ask you whether you see value in an interdisciplinary course and if you do, where does that value lie?
Actually, the difference in our perceptions about student preparedness seems a pretty good starting place to discuss the values and problems of interdisciplinary courses--values and problems which differ depending on the nature of the course.
What you say about students needing more information about "mental models" underlying computing makes sense. It also hadn't occurred to me. Maybe that's because when students had concerns they wanted to discuss outside of class time, they brought computer concerns to you, and literary ones to me. I think it's interesting that we each assumed that students were better prepared in the discipline that was not our own. Maybe that's not surprising, since we're obviously trained to detect problems in our own field. Or maybe it reveals a bit of disciplinary paranoia. Maybe it shows that, because we had jobs to do, as professors we were less exposed to the interdisciplinary environment than the students who had to deal with both of us.
In fact, it may not be all that useful to generalize about what students know. Some seemed to know quite a lot already, others not so much. Maybe it's not levels of knowledge, but attitudes towards that knowledge that are at issue. That would make the problem less one of knowledge than of "social ideology"--that is, social assumptions about the nature of what is valuable and why it is valuable. Such assumptions do lead, of course, to the privileging of certain kinds of knowledge. I had the sense that students expected the computing aspects of the course to be difficult, but also believed that learning them was a necessity, although one that some of them wished they could avoid. But they seemed more surprised--even sometimes shocked and angry--to discover that literary questions could be complex also. I think that difference would probably come from their having absorbed the relatively common assumption that technology is essential, whereas literature is for entertainment. I mean "literature" here as separate from basic skills of reading and writing; that is, "literature" as the field which studies the social and historical significance of reading and writing, and what can be done with them.
The value of an interdisciplinary course is that it collides various ideas from different disciplines together to see what happens. In such a course, we definitely share different areas of expertise, and students get exposed to the issues of disciplines outside their major.
But I think more than that goes on. An interdisciplinary course also ends up exposing and calling into question assumptions we may have that would never be questioned inside our own disciplines. I recall with some embarrassment a moment when you corrected me after I said that "computers have often been constructed according to models about how the human brain actually functions," something which Jay Bolter does more or less say in Writing Space, the main textbook for the course. But you pointed out that this often quoted "fact" is simply not the case, that it was more of a media invention about the creation of computers rather than a real operating principle in the history of computer development.
Interdisciplinary courses, that is, don't simply share expertise. Rather, they make clear that academic disciplines are often very limited in their ability to give students a broad picture of the way human experience involves interaction between widely diverging activities.
I remember, early in the semester, you saying something about the interaction of the two disciplines of literature and computer science. At that time--and I'm certainly paraphrasing, so please feel free to define more precisely what you said--you referred to one of them as "dynamic and open," and the other as "technical and fixed." The distinction was more flattering to literature than it probably deserves. Yet I often had the sense that students expected computer science to be the dynamic and open field, whereas they wanted the meaning of words to be technical and fixed. I wonder what you would say now about your perception of the interaction between the two disciplines in the course, student attitudes towards them, and how that relates to your sense of the value of interdisciplinary courses in general.
Actually, you have identified a key point in interdisciplinary courses--that they are more a sequential menu of topics from each discipline than a melting pot of the two taken together. This has to impact how students feel about the course and each feature. I would like to focus on the web-based story as a sort of case study.
In the course, we had the students write two stories of differing lengths. As I understand, in a traditional course that would be measured in pages but which we called episodes as a way of capturing the features of hyperfiction as well as giving the students a way to measure whether or not they had met the assignment. Once students had worked on them, we moved to the web and worked on a scenario to place a group story, made up of individual stories, in cyberspace for Internet cruisers to read. This pushed the limits of interdisciplinary rather far as students first had to become familiar with the Internet, second they had to write for a linking environment and third they had to consider their story in light or in relation to others in the class.
From a computing point of view, students loved the Internet but that love was often focused on what they already knew about it, not what they could do with it. They were eager to cruise the Internet themselves, sometimes even losing valuable class time to see the weather at a probable vacation site. However, when it came to placing their own stories on the web, students were less inquisitive. This was hard (for them) and the payoff wasn't obvious. From a team point of view, students took what I considered an inordinate amount of time to select a venue for the story. Finally, from the writing point of view, I thought these were the best stories of the course. The web site (http://www.seas.gwu.edu./seas/projects/cs721/) has been visited often and visitors have left interesting comments, although the students are no longer in the course and it is hard to get the feedback to them.
How does this relate to the topic? First, I think that we do see our aspect of the course more clearly and more critically and therefore place more demand on ourselves for a better course. Second, because our students don't get to see the big picture, they often get lost in the picture that they see. (I think it is a major failing of higher education that makes students narrowly goal-oriented.) On the other hand, there were a few adventurous souls whose background was in either computer science or in English. I am thinking about the CS students who tried new Multiuser Dungeons (MUDs) and the student who tried to incorporate movies and other sound and visual items into his stories. As with any course there are successes. I think these successes happened almost in spite of the course, because the students, by nature, were chance takers. What do you think?
Having taken on the big picture, I would like to talk a bit about what worked and what didn't from a narrow syllabus point of view. I feel that there are some computer-based changes to be made but before I suggest them, what aspects related to literature do you think worked, and what changes would you suggest?
In order to answer that, we have to look at what the role of hyperfiction is in the history of literature. It's not necessary to use StorySpace to write traditional fiction, with well-developed characters, complex plots and time dynamics, etc. The technology of the book, whose flexibility we don't want to underestimate, serves perfectly well for that. Indeed most forms even of postmodern fiction do not require Storyspace--postmodern fiction in the main is a book-based art. The value of Storyspace is specifically that it allows one to create hyperfiction, which is a type of fiction that has characteristics impossible to recreate in book form. Those characteristics include multiple plot lines that can move in any of a number of directions, multiple possibilities for endings, the ability of readers to interact with the story by choosing (within limits definable by the writer) the direction it will take, and the ability of the writer to incorporate sound material into the text. Hyperfiction also allows the inclusion of visual material which may have features that the visual materials in books cannot contain--visuals that move, for instance.
The problem with all this possibility is that understanding hyperfiction requires some awareness of the issues surrounding postmodern fiction and literary theory. Without going into these issues deeply, let me just say that hyperfiction has a different structure than book-based fiction, but in order to understand that difference, one also has to understand some things about what the structure of book-based fiction is. And the problem with understanding that is that it requires being able to recognize that the form of book-based fiction is not natural or obvious, but rather an artificial (that is to say, human created) construction that can be changed. But feelings about the nature of story-telling often can be deeply ingrained, so much so that when you change the structure of book-based fiction, what results is something that many people will call unreadable.
In fact, that's exactly what happened in the course, at least initially. With notable exceptions, most students professed at first to greatly dislike the published hyperfictions we showed them, works by pioneers in the field like Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop. Student annoyance was only heightened by my presentation of some visual poems which reflect hyperfiction issues. They said the poems and hyperfictions were meaningless, pointless, stupid and annoying. They said they couldn't follow the plot of the hyperfictions, that they couldn't identify with the characters, etc. That is, although they didn't understand this, what they disliked about hyperfiction was precisely that it did not have the structure of book-based traditional fiction. What students seemed to want, in the main, was to read traditional stories on a computer screen. But again, the only reason for using a hyperfiction program like StorySpace is that it can change the structure of stories.
In retrospect, I think that next time I would explain to students problems of literary theory before showing them any examples of hyperfiction, or examples of those book-based genres like postmodern fiction and poetry that also pose the problem of literary structures. Showing them hyperfiction and visual poetry without preparing them for it left too many of them confused and even angry. On the other hand, the theoretical discussions were actually much more initially intriguing to many of them.
Thus, I would present the literary aspects of the course in three stages: 1) the basic techniques of creative writing, such as use of detail; 2) problems of literary theory and the historical development of literature that have led to hyperfiction; and only then 3) actual examples of hyperfiction, and of postmodern fiction and poetry that reflect the structural changes of hyperfiction.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it delays the process of getting students to write hyperfictions--we'd have to go about halfway through a semester before we even showed them what a hyperfiction was. On the other hand, most students weren't writing anything that resembled hyperfiction until that stage anyway.
In terms of writing assignments, the first assignment would concentrate on efficient use of the StorySpace technology. Not until the second assignment could we require students to write stories with the elements of hyperfiction.
In fact, there may be no way to avoid the sort of culture shock that postmodernism and hyperfiction will cause in most students. No matter in what order the material is presented, it is going to come as a surprise. Fear, uncertainty, and even anger may be unavoidable. But as my colleague David McAleavey once said to me, we can't expect a serious education to be pain-free. My three-stage plan above is at best something to try. It could turn out that actual hyperfictions do need to be presented right away.
Excitingly, I think that by the end of the semester most students did have a pretty good understanding of what hyperfiction was, and at least a rudimentary sense of how they might go about writing it. In fact several students approached me at the end of the semester to say that they wished there was a second semester to the course, because it was only now that the course was over that they finally felt ready to write hyperfictions.
I think that ideally their suggestion is right. The best way to improve the course would be to make it two semesters for those who wanted it, with the first semester about exposure and the second about in-depth writing. It's not clear to me whether a second semester would require a computer science professor; perhaps simply computer support, maybe from an experienced TA, would be sufficient. Maybe that second semester would not be a course at all, but rather an independent study with a professor, or a series of independent studies with occasional group meetings. Of course, whether academic departments would think that this level of commitment to hyperfiction is worthwhile is certainly an open question.
I wonder how these thoughts tie into your sense of how to changethe presentation of computing issues.
I, too, would make some changes but unlike you, I think I would move the theory to after the practice. I would stress facility with the technology over the issues of technology theory. For me, the discussions about cognition in the face of hypertext or hypermedia should be moved until after the students have a clear facility with the technology. The prerequisites for the course said that students had to have some computer experience but we know now that self-described experience makes for a very wide range of experiences. I would suggest that students have used word processing for at least three major papers, as opposed to short notes. While the use of electronic database or spreadsheet is not directlyrelated to the material in the course, I would add those experiences to the requirements as they offer a student more computing environment experiences and make them more computer confident. I would expect every student to have used electronic mail for some ongoing period and to have surfed the web extensively.
The initial computing activities would be to use the computer for class electronic discussions and to insure that all students were able to access the necessary programs and files. I would then move into the uses of the particular writing software. While you are eager not to have them write in a hyperfiction genre, I think their lack of dexterity with StorySpace actually impacted the quality and certainly the quantity of their writing. I think, but have no proven experience to support my thoughts, that if students wrote linear stories in Storyspace, they would become comfortable with the technology and that linear experience would NOT limit their later hyperfiction writing.
Once the technology was established, I would then move to the more theoretical aspects of computing in this hyperfiction environment. I would include such discussions as "lost in hyperspace" and "commitment to what the next link brings," to name a few. One nice fall out of this revised approach is that there might be a useful interaction between active and passive roles for our respective disciplines. For example, while the students are actively writing to learn to use the software, they are more passive in that they would be reading and observing the new literary models. Then, when they became active in the hyperfiction writing, they would be more passive in the computer domain, reviewing the various cognitive and social issues.
At the end, you mentioned that a carry-on course might fit well and that at that point there was no apparent need for a computer science professor, merely some sort of technical support person to work out the mechanics. I would say that you have identified a characteristic of cross-disciplinary courses. At some point interdisciplinary courses break down and have to go their separate ways. I, too, could see a carry on for this course but it would be to offer intense experiences into those aspects of technology and its impact that the course uncovered. Topics such as socialization of technology, the design and implementation of appropriate software and implications for design and delivery of on-line information would be included. I would say, in a mirror to your own position, that this course could be a computer science based course managed as either a second course or an independent study relying only on a professor from the English department for incidental help in expression and consultation.
I want to reflect a bit on how this course changed me as an educator, a computer science professor and as a reader. First, it is not easy to teach with another faculty member. One has to leave his or her ego at the door. Having (or allowing) another professional to observe you on a weekly basis is a highly unusual event in higher education. I learned a great deal about teaching from you; your casual but stern approach allowed the students to become comfortable with the material and to get close to the topic but not to lose track of the fact that there was a corpus of material to be learned. I certainly learned more about literary theory than I ever expected I would. While I am not about to become a proponent of postmodern writing, as least I can read a bit and find a center for myself. Perhaps the most important aspect of the experience for me was to see my academic discipline in a clearer light. Typically, I work with students and faculty who know my vocabulary and have had long experiences in computing, so that our interactions are similar to short cuts through the material rather than a careful exegesis of the area. This course made me stop and listen to myself and to see how I am heard by others. I thank you, and the students, for that.
As we close, I would like to ask you to reflect on the impact of this experience for you as a University professor and as a writer.
I agree with you that co-teaching a college level course can be a tricky experience. But for me it was also a very positive one. I appreciated your professionalism throughout the course; interactions both during class time and on the electronic mail discussion list for the course could be volatile, and I was consistently impressed with your ability to troubleshoot, to come up with quick solutions to unexpected problems of technology and teaching without ever losing your cool.
I agree also that there are limits to what we will find interesting in someone else's field; after all, we've chosen our own fields probably because its questions most interest us. Just as you may never immerse yourself in postmodernism, I'm never going to be fascinated with the nuts and bolts aspects of computer science. At a certain point the acronyms of technical systems, and things like the specific knowledge necessary to know which command to code in what case, just make my mind shut down.
On the other hand, there are aspects of your field that I find fascinating. My feeling about them ties into another aspect of the course that I enjoyed; the chance, for some moments anyway, to be a student again, to receive guided learning from an expert. As professors we are mainly custodians of the education of others, while our own continued education goes on in private, or in professional situations such as conferences where our role is not so simply that of learner. I enjoyed the chance to raise my hand and ask questions, instead of having always to play the role of authoritative source of knowledge.
The on-going course you describe on the socialization, or I would perhaps say sociology, of technology seems to me both personally fascinating and an institutionally underexplored area. The late Raymond Williams wrote in his essay "Culture and Technology" that:
A university education does involve many pragmatic aspects, teaching the skills that students will need to survive under the increasingly difficult (and frankly, troubling and contradictory) demands of a late capitalist economy. But for me the ultimate value of a college education lies in its ability to present students with ongoing questions about the value and meaning of their lives. The best educators, I feel, do not simply give students answers, and that's because to some extent we can't give them answers. Their lives are theirs, and so the answers will be theirs also. But the best educators will show students fields of exploration that can help students recognize and develop the questions that will continue to be with them.
Rarely in my university experience have I taught a course which raises as many crucial questions as this course did. How does technology impact information, and change our sense of what information is or can be? What are the reasons for using technology, or not, in various arenas? What is the role of artistic practice in relation to technology, and the role of technology in relation to artistic practice? What is a story, and what other things could a story be? What is the value of linear or non-linear models of the world? How do our understanding and expectations of the world structure both technology and stories? Could it not be said that stories are a technology, and that our use of technology depends on the stories we believe? These are only some of the questions which the course raised--both for the professors and the students.
crucial value of the course was that it extended these questions far beyond
any answers we could supply in the course itself, or in this dialogue.
Bolter, J. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsday, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991).
Williams, Raymond. The Politics of Modernism (London, New York: Verso,1989)