Digital Essays: Online Learning Module
by Dean Taciuch



The assignment is intended to generate discussion of the capabilities of digital and print media: what can one do in print that cannot be done digitally, and what can one do in digital media which cannot be done in print? The final product of the assignment is a digital essay, composed using fairly basic HTML (Netscape Composer or similar). The assignment assumes that students have already written at least one standard (print) essay.  In practice, the students who produced the sample projects presented elsewhere in this issue of *English Matters* had also written one digital essay as part of the CAS 101 EDiT plug-in course (now ENGL 209).  The plug-in gave the students the technical skills needed to create a digital text.  Resources are also available from STAR; several students made use of their facilities and training.

This assignment is intended to create a text which relies upon, not merely uses, digital media. I asked the students to create a text which could only be presented electronically.

The process of developing such an essay is multipart: the assignment involves reading various texts (including traditional print, electronic versions of print, and hypertexts); discussing the differences between the various media, and how these difference affect both reading and writing; and finally composing an essay using electronic media.

Some specific "sets" of texts


Compare fiction to Interactive Fiction to hypertext fiction. Use Norton Introduction to Literature "Evaluating Fiction" section.
Connell "The Most Dangerous Game" (477) vs Faulkner "Barn Burning"

Then go online and compare "Colossal Cave" to "Hejirascope"


Compare the text of a poem with a recording or video performance: The CD-ROM Poetry in Motion (available in the JC Media collection) is very useful for this. Further compare the performance clips with electronic poetry from the EPC's e-poetry center or the Wr-Eye-Tings Scratchpad site (see Sources listed below)

Discussion questions:

How do print texts differ from Interactive fiction and hypertexts?

Print texts are familiar, easier to read, usually easier to follow. Print texts tend to be more linear: text-based fiction tends to have clearer plots, for example

How do the e-texts differ from the hypertexts?

The etexts were created in print and digitized; the hypertexts were created in a digital format.

How do these differences affect the ways in which you can read these texts?

Many, in fact most, students are initially put off by the hypertexts and interactive fiction. The interface is unfamiliar, at least as a textual interface (as a computer interface, however, these digital media are not so strange).
The digital texts require a greater degree of interactivity; choices are forced upon the reader (unlike a print text, in which the next line, paragraph, page, is set by default).

After the students have discussed the various print, e-, and hypertexts, the final assignment of the module is to write a hypertext essay which uses the digital media integrally. That is, the hypertext essay should rely upon, not merely use, hypertext. (The e-texts can be used an examples of texts which merely use digital media.)

The primary guidance I gave my students is that the final text should not be printer friendly; if I can print it out, read it, and not miss anything, then the essay is not relying upon digital media.


Electronic texts
The Academy of American Poetry
Simply digital copies of the poems (e-text)

The Electronic Poetry Center
The main site is a collection of materials about contemporary experimental poetry, including online texts

Electronic Poetry at the EPC
The "electronic poetry" section of the EPC includes works which rely upon various digital media

UbuWeb: Visual and Sound poetry
Archive of visual and sound poetry

Wr-Eye-Tings Scratchpad
Visual poetry in digital media. Works in progress. I'm not sure how actively this is being maintained, but it is a good resource. I have two pieces there.

Interactive Fiction

Description of IF at the Electronic Labyrinth

Web-Based Interactive Fiction at Yahoo

Interactive Fiction at the MiningCo/
Web Version of "Colossal Cave"

Online Interactive Fiction
Java versions of Interactive Fiction, including a Java version of "Colossal Cave"

Leelan's Game Central
Information on "Colossal Cave" (as well as Myst, Doom, and other electronic Adventure games, most of which are not text-based)

Interactive Fiction Online Archive
Mostly java-based games


Eastgate Systems
Serious hypertext includes web-adapted samples, such as Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden and Deena Larsen's Marble Springs

Stuart Moulthrop
The Color of Television