Hypertext: Teaching Writing as Process

by Frank Clarke, Professor of English, Bowie State University

In 1965, Ted Nelson coined the word "hypertext”, using it to describe the concept of electronically produced non-sequential writing, which did not yet exist in an applicable sense.  His efforts at the development of a practical application of his hypertext concept eventually became something called the Xanadu project. The Xanadu Operating Company was owned for years by Autodesk (a company that created cutting-edge animation software), but, in one of those “stranger than fiction” twists of fate, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu Operating Company was eventually discarded by Autodesk, and Mr. Nelson never actually produced any hypertextually-oriented software.  Nelson’s self-published “Literary Machines” is, however, still considered essential reading within the field of hypertext.  “Literary Machines” includes the text of Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think", an article published in 1945 which posits an automated "MEMEX" (memory extension) which would allow human memory to be augmented by mechanical means.  Bush’s article is considered by many (including Ted Nelson) to be the first envisioning of what would eventually become hypertext.

To understand how hypertext can be used to teach writing as process, one must first understand exactly what hypertext is.  In a very broad sense, hypertext is any text that is non-linear in nature.  Using only that as a definition is not enough.  As Dr. Hardy Cook pointed out to me in a casual conversation, if we use only that reductionistic definition, we must include things like newspapers, which can be read in a fairly random fashion dictated by the reader.   Adding the word “electronic” to the definition helps to narrow our focus.  Hypertext is electronic text that is non-linear in nature.  While this definition is more accurate, it does not begin to cover the many different masks hypertext can wear.  The term hypertext describes an electronic text composed of what are sometimes called nodes, or lexia (both terms referring to blocks of text) which may be linked together non-sequentially.  The World Wide Web is an example of a single (albeit huge) hypertext.  Here, each web page is a node, and hyperlinks are made to other pages, either within the same site or to other nodes outside of that website. When the nodes contain elements of a literary work, hypertext can be a vehicle for the creation of literary work. 

It is important to define hypertext not strictly by its technological attributes, but also by the interactive experiences of the author and reader.  In her essay, “Hypertextual Thinking”, Catherine F. Smith writes that, “From the viewpoint of classical rhetoric, hypertextual thinking may be categorized as invention or exploration and discovery (278). Hypertext provides for multiple authorship, a blurring of the author and reader functions, multiple reading paths and extremely complex works with shifting, slippery boundaries. With the inclusion of sound and graphics, hypertext and hypermedia expands the set of tools available to a writer to use in the realization of his/her vision.

Postmodernist thinker Geoffrey Bennington, who has written a biography of his friend and mentor, Jacques Derrida, divides hypertext into two classifications: interruptive and encyclopedic.  Alluding to the former, Bennington writes:

Indeed, hypertexts can just as well be presented as a fulfillment of a metaphysical view of writing (remember Derrida's early comment in 'Force and Signification' on the 'theological simultaneity of the Book', and a quote from Leibniz describing what can only be a hypertext), driven by the Idea of an absolutely accessible Encyclopedia of all knowledge. There's nothing to be rude about in that: there's a perfectly respectable and welcome use of hypertexts to make scholarship less like hard work, for example, and so to free up time for thought.

While this is an obviously appealing use of hypertext (in fact, my proposed thesis attempts to accomplish exactly what Bennington suggests), it is not what I am concerned with in this paper.  Instead, I would like to explore Bennington’s latter classification of hypertext; what he calls the “interruptive”.  Bennington envisions “…the possibility of a sort of programmed unpredictability”, and states that, “In principle, the network-structure of hypertexts should make possible… a sort of dispersive reading.” 

For the purpose of this paper, hypertext is not just text that utilizes hyperlinks to shuttle the reader, but rather a philosophy; a way of thinking that sees electronic text as non-linear and blurs the divisions between author and reader that have existed since the inception of the written word.  This philosophy is evident in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, when Bakhtin describes his vision of a dialogic novel composed of multiple voices, which he claims would be "constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other" (18).

In his book S/Z, Roland Barthes uses the term "lexia" to identify what he calls "units of reading."  This, he says, will allow the analysis of what he labels the "plural text", writing:

if we want to remain attentive to the plural of a text . . . we must renounce structuring this text in large masses, as was done by classical rhetoric and by secondary-school explication: no construction of the text: everything signifies ceaselessly and several times, but without being delegated to a great final ensemble, to an ultimate structure" (p. 11-12).

Hypertext theorists take the term “lexia” and use it to indicate a hypertextual piece of information, usually defined as the amount of text and graphic content which fits on the screen of a computer monitor. It can also be used to refer to each individual document within a hypertext that is linked to others.  In this paper I will use the latter definition.

In Roland Barthe’s essay “The Death of the Author”, he writes that a text "consists not of a line of words, releasing a single 'theological' meaning (a communication from the Author/God), but of a multidimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture" (52-53).  It’s easy to see hypertext as the realization Barthe’s vision of a text that is not ‘owned’ solely by the Author/God (creator of the text). The ability of a reader of hypertext to add to, alter, or edit a hypertext opens possibilities of collective authorship that breaks down the idea of writing as originating from a single fixed source. Similarly, the ability to plot out unique patterns of reading, to move through a text in a non-linear fashion, serves to highlight the importance of the reader in the "writing" of a text.  Each reading, even if it does not physically change the words of any individual lexia, rewrites the text by re-arranging the structure of the text, therefore privileging different pieces of the matrix.

When applied to the learning environment, the ability to move through an already existing hypertext non-linearly can be a liberating experience, but it pales in comparison to the impact that same non-linearity can have on the student-writer.  In The Sense of Learning, Ann Berthoff writes that:

…proceeding in a linear fashion is entirely appropriate when plowing a field or performing a ceremony or doing the wash or carrying out any other task in which some things must come before others, in which sequences are regulated or, as we say nowadays, "rule-governed." But when we move from any such process to learning something new, to any act of making meaning, to symbol making of any kind, these linear models will not serve.

This idea of using hypertext to more closely reproduce the “human” model of cognition while at the same time connecting readers with writers is expressed by Linda Flower as giving "a vivid image of how a cognitive network--the construct of an individual mind--is at the same time an intensely social representation and how the construction of meaning for a text can be an ongoing negotiation with the 'presence' of other voices" (p. 98)

This hyper-technology can be applied to the teaching of freshman composition in a relatively “trailing-edge”            environment.  By this I mean that the teacher of freshman composition who wishes to explore and apply the principles of hypertextuality to his or her classroom need not apply for a grant for new computers.  The implementation of hypertextual elements to one’s syllabus does not require leading-edge technology.  In fact, it doesn’t require a network, or even access to the Internet.  To paraphrase Cynthia Selfe, it is no longer a valid excuse to point at this technology as a deus ex machina.

At the University of Texas, Professor Daniel Anderson (available for your perusal at http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~daniel/hyperwriting/ has his students use hypertext to create works of fiction by multiple authors, non-linear persuasion papers (Is “papers” an obsolete term in the realm of electronic text? Probably  not… many people still call the refrigerator an “icebox”, and the new Ice Cube CD is often still referred to as an “album”), and informative writing that is both multi-nodal and written by multiple contributors.  One of the longest practicing pro-hypertext English departments is at Brown University, where Ted Nelson actually implemented some of his ideas.  George P. Landow, a Professor of English and Art History at Brown, has written extensively on the subject of hypertex, and has implanted his ideas in the classroom for years.  In 1992, writing on the subject of one way a multiple-author hypertext can be produced, he writes:

A full hypertext system, unlike a book and unlike some of the first approximations of hypertext currently available (Hypercard, Guide), offers the reader and writer the same environment. Therefore, by opening the text-processing program or editor, as it is known, you can take notes, or you can write against my interpretations, against my text. Although you cannot change my text, you can write a response and then link it to my document. You thus have read the readerly text in several ways not possible with a book: you have chosen your reading path, and since you, like all readers, will choose individualized paths, the hypertext version of this book would probably take a very different form…

Today, 8 years later, the “full hypertext system” has become a reality.  Students in even the most rudimentary of university writing labs can gain access to Microsoft’s Front Page or Adobe’s Page Mill, web-authoring program that uses a GUI (graphical user interface) to make writing hypertext easy.  Using specialized software like Eastgate’s “Storyspace”, however, is a more faithful representation of the truly non-linear, multi-nodal philosophy that is Hypertext.  Rather than attempt to describe a hypothetical classroom application, I have chosen to cite Professor Jeanie C. Crain of Missouri Western State College describing her experience using Storyspace:

Using a writing process text, I adapted prewriting strategies into six essay assignments, using the chart as a primary tool. The chart view shows the structure of nested writing spaces in a familiar tree diagram. Using the immediate trunk for instructions, I created writing spaces branching from these. Students were thus necessarily led through a complex generative process into drafting, revision, and final products. Structure and detail were remarkable in final versions. Just as important, the same strategy could be used in any instructional setting where individuals are being asked to carry out steps leading to complex documents.  Storyspace is by far the best software I have seen for teaching writing as a process.  Quickly, the teacher--having worked hard at the front end in creating a well designed procedure--moves into the role of consultant, responding to real writing problems as they emerge in the assignment. Storyspace could be just as easily adapted to written materials requiring reflection, note-taking, and feedback. (137-141)

Professor Crain illustrates the use of hypertext to teach writing as process.  She does not address many of the specific advantages of such a lesson.  A recursive method of writing, re-writing and brainstorming is easily achieved using a program like Storyspace.  The pre-writing process is one area that is often difficult for members of a freshman composition class.  Being able to add, delete and modify thoughts in a non-linear, multi-nodal fashion can be both liberating and stimulating for students who struggle in a more constrictive atmosphere.  Professor Crain also mentions that Storyspace could be used in the development of “reflection”, a post-process activity that Kathleen Blake Yancey defines as “the processes by which we know what we have accomplished and by which we articulate accomplishment and… the products of those processes.” (6)  A process like reflection lends itself to hypertext by its very lack of specificity.  Students faced with a need to “reflect” on what they have done can refer to their lexia and compile a reflective text in a non-linear fashion that is able to mimic the way the human mind works more closely than the more restrictive, traditionally linear methods.

The other application of hypertext as a tool for teaching writing process is that of more collaborative efforts like multiple-authoring.  Because hypertext does not privilege Barthe’s “Author/God” (the individual creator of a text), it would seem that developing an accurate assessment of a collaboratively created hypertext assignment might be difficult. The converse is closer to the truth. Because hypertext is constructed of lexia which is written by individual students, teachers don’t have to spend time trying to decipher which student contributed what to the final product, as is often the case in more traditional collaborative exercises. Each individual lexia comprising the final work is “signed” by its author, and thus easily identified. The instructor can analyze and assess the collaborative work as well.

Multiple-authoring projects can take many forms.  In one scenario, the instructor supplies students with a subject, like “Madness in Hamlet”, or “Maryland’s Natural Beauty”.  In stage one of this process, the students work through a recursive generative process to produce individual texts, which, in stage two become their own lexia, which they in turn contribute to the collaborative work.  Stage three might have students respond to each others lexia, creating links that tie them together on points of agreement and contention.  Another use of multi-authoring is in the creation of fiction.  In this scenario, students are supplied with a setting, and perhaps some characters.  An example might be something like: “Headstone is a town in Arizona.  The year is 1850.”  followed by thumbnail descriptions of several key characters… the mayor, the sheriff, the local saloon owner.  Students might individually create short stories that take place in this setting in stage one.  Stage two could have them create another set of stories that ties the first set together.  Alternately, a detailed description of a protagonist (the sheriff, for example) can be provided and all of the students’ individual texts can use this one character as their protagonist, eventually compling a collaborative work entitled,  “The Adventures of Sheriff Dawgley P. Dawgenstein, The Fastest Gun in Arizona.”

The concepts and philosophy of hypertext could easily be put to practical use here at Bowie State University in the freshman composition program by simply installing a program like Storyspace in the Sizemore Writing Center.  The cost would be minimal (under a thousand dollars) and the benefits could be great.  The learning curve for instructors is not very steep – programs like this one rely on a fairly intuitive graphical interface that makes understanding the program simple for any instructor already familiar with either the Microsoft Windows operating system or Macintosh.  The philosophy of thinking hypertextually may be a more difficult task than the actual use of the technology, but it would be a mistake to think of hypertext technology as daunting.  It is not Baudrillard’s virtual reality of non-existence that we discuss here, but rather Barthe’s ultimate structure.  If freshman composition students are more engaged by the use of this technology, and if it is (as it seems to be) a way to provide those students with a set of non-linear writing processes that are more accessible than the traditional alternatives, how can we justify not implementing it?


Works Cited



Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.


Barthes, R.  “The Death of the Author.”  The Rustle of Language.  (R. Howard, Trans.).   New York: Hill and Wang. 1986.


Barthes, R.  S/Z.   (R. Miller, Trans.).   New York: Hill and Wang. 1970.


Berthoff, A. E.  The Sense of Learning.   Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook 1990.


Crain, Jeanie C.  “Computers and the Humanities”. Volume 27, Number 2, 1993.


Flower, L.    The construction of negotiated meaning: A social cognitive theory of writing.   Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1994.


Landow, George.  “Reading and Writing in a Hypertext Environment”.  Brown University. http://muse.jhu.edu/press/books/landow/htreading.html Accessed 5/18/00.  Pages 6-7 in print version. © the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.


Smith, Catherine. “Hypertextual Thinking” in Literacy and Computers: The Complications of Teaching and Learning with Technology.  Ed.Cynthia L. Selfe and Susan Hilligloss.  New York.  1994.


Yancey, Kathleen Blake.  Reflection in the Writing Classroom.  Logan, Utah. Utah State University Press. 1998.

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