Students as Producers: Using the World Wide Web as Publishing House
The use of new technologies of communication, like the World Wide Web,
can allow teachers to assign collaborative writing assignments
incorporating hypertextual principles of composition that require
students to prepare texts to publish on the Web. Two such assignments are
considered as examples of a class-wide collaborative composition project
allowing students to be the producers of a text that reflects their
concerns with issues that directly affect them.
Editor's Note: Richard Smyth has developed a hyperessay to
illustrate the use of the technique discussed below.
The presence of new technologies of communication affords opportunities
for buttressing the progressive tendencies of much current practice in
English pedagogy or reinstating traditional practices that reduce
learning to a series of technical acts and the teacher to the role of
technician. The real danger, according to Seymour Papert (1993) lies in
replicating this proclivity to technicality in classroom uses of
computers. The phrase "Computer-aided instruction" brings visions of
computer labs filled with two to three times regular classroom cap sizes,
with one teacher circulating to "facilitate." The issue vis-a-vis the
future of secondary education is "whether technology will strengthen or
undermine the technicality of what has became the theoretical model, and
to a large extent the reality, of School" (Papert, p. 56).
I hope to provide in this essay some examples of how to use technology in
such a way as to undermine the "technicality" of school. These examples
demonstrate one possibility of using the Web as "publishing house," as
Andrew Carvin writes in his essay "More Than Just Hype: The World Wide
Web as a Tool for Education." A student-centered climate of textual
production must be at the center of the reform Papert calls for, a
climate emphasizing collaborative writing, the process approach, and
intertextuality. This approach will empower students while enabling them
to publish their writing in a medium that promises no less than a global
This essay is based on my experience of having taught two courses that
integrated class-wide collaborative writing assignments, one a
freshman-level composition course and the other an upper-level English
literature course. I began each course by informing students that they
would be required to produce a collaborative intertext; the freshman text
was to be based on the Pied Piper (Hamline University's mascot is the
"Fighting Piper") and the upper-level literature course was to be based
on the Arthurian legends. There would be no class time devoted to
discussion of this project, thereby requiring all students to use an
e-mail discussion list established for that purpose. They would have to
decide as a class the text's purpose, its content, and how each class
member would contribute to the overall project. Having introduced them to
the World-Wide Web and its hypertextual principles of organization and
connectivity, I also told students that part of their task was to find
and establish links among their contributions to the class project.
The goal in each class was to write a collaborative hypertext that would
be published on the World-Wide Web. Despite the similarity of the goals,
the conditions under which each carried out the assignment was to vary.
The freshman writing class, for instance, was assigned Milorad Pavic's
Dictionary of the Khazars (1988) as its model for writing
hypertextually, and their assignment asked them to write a paper of
500-1,000 words, specifying what words linked to the texts of other class
members. No electronic text was the outcome, but they were to write as
though they were publishing the text on the Web. I would subsequently
type the texts in; they are now accessible via the Web. The upper-level
students, on the other hand, learned HTML coding and were responsible
themselves for displaying the texts on the Web. The end-product of this
class was a hypertext on the Web, whereas the end-product of the freshman
class was a stack of papers. I point this distinction out to emphasize
that knowledge of electronic publication is unnecessary to implement the
progressive pedagogy underlying this assignment. Publishing on the Web,
while significant in terms of providing a real-world audience for the
students' writing, is secondary to the experience of working together to
produce a literary text; I would add, however, that the pressure of
writing for a global audience can make quite a difference in the level of
The two assignments described above, requiring students to re-write a
prior well-known text, take steps toward a curriculum of "textual
studies" as Robert Scholes theorizes it (1990). Given that "[r]ecent
theory has demonstrated to an unprecedented extent how new texts are in
fact made out of old ones" (Scholes, 1990, p. 104), a course of textual
studies would allow students to make the same kinds of intertextual
intrusions that the authors under study had made in the process of
producing their texts. Such exercises allow students to experience the
"pleasure of the creative process" which is "the real issue of our
material" (Ulmer, 1985, p. 56), thereby providing the opportunity to
realize the power one can wield as a writer. Sharon Crowley (1985) also
affirms this effect of the textual approach if it is practiced in a
classroom emphasizing process pedagogy: "
Contemporary composition theorists have devised a pedagogy that attempts
to impart this sense of power to student writers. The point of 'process
pedagogy' is to provide students with writing experiences that will
permit them to share more than once, and in a controlled environment, the
exhilaration that results from mastering the flow of textuality"
(emphasis mine, p. 98). The ultimate model for this approach, according
to Gregory Ulmer, is that of the sciences; he bases his "experimental
humanities" upon the pedagogy of the sciences: "The textshop is a
laboratory in which the students attempt to re-produce the experiments of
the humanities. . . . In learning science, students not only read about a
given idea, they are expected to be able to reproduce the experiments
themselves, finally reaching a point when they face a problem without
solution (yet)" (1990, p. 117). Students come to realize that the texts
they read can become a source of instructions or a springboard for an
intervention into the textual network to which they, as language users,
The theories of Scholes (1990), Comley (1985, 1990) and Ulmer (1985.
1990) are helpful in that they provide examples of assignments that a
textual studies curriculum would generate. The writing of a "ghost
chapter" (a form of filling in a narrative gap), for instance,
demonstrates the activity of reading that we carry out all the time but
that is often taken for granted. Letting students imagine what transpired
within the gap requires that they extrapolate from the narrative the
implications contained therein. This exercise can represent a shift in
point of view, telling the story from another character's perspective, as
in John Gardner's Grendel (1971) or Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso
Sea (1966). Rewriting an ending, or adding an additional chapter to
the end of a completed story, are also suggestions for intervening
intertextually. Any activity in which students write with literature
rather than about literature, as in the above examples, would fall
in the realm of textual studies. Such activities become ways for students
to experience that pleasure of creating, of becoming an author(ity) of
the text, of appropriating an original text for their own purpose.
Given the consistency of Scholes, Comley, and Ulmer's pedagogical vision,
it should come as no surprise that they collaborated on a text book
(1988) whose packaging invokes a generic product, with a plain white
cover with the product title and contents bluntly stated in black and
white (or sometimes bright yellow). This book contains text; it is a text
book that is about the common denominator of all texts-the network of
language and its cultural axioms in which we are all bound. The preface
to the second edition reads,
By substituting the concept of text for the traditional concept of
literature, we accomplish a number of things. We allow for the
presentation of a wider range of material and a broader spectrum of
approaches to literary study. And we close or reduce the gaps that have
separated reading from writing, creative from critical work, and
literature from ordinary language (Scholes, Comley, & Ulmer, 1995, p. v).
And when one has read the various essays that each has written and
published individually, one can see that this "text" book grows directly
out of these publications. Chapter three, for instance, on "texts and
other texts," has a section on intertextuality that allows students
themselves to do the exercise of transforming a text (a fairy tale,
modeled after Robert Coover's transformation of "Hansel and Gretel").
There is also a section titled "Completing Texts: The Reader's Work,"
which asks students to "fill in the gap" in James Joyce's story "The
Boarding House" and to rewrite Dorothy Parker's story "You Were Perfectly
Fine" from three different points of view.
The assignments described above, asking students to create intertextual
transformations of the Pied Piper and the Arthurian Legends,
fit within the theoretical framework that Scholes, Comley, and Ulmer
provide. Asking students to publish their work for a global audience,
however, transforms this assignment, for it provides that sense of
audience that writing teachers have always wanted students to have. The
World-Wide Web, a hypermedia interface to the Internet, can be viewed as
a medium directed to the global community, in-as-much as anyone with
access to the Internet and a Web browser becomes the audience for their
work. As such, publishing on the World-Wide Web provides the kind of
potential real-world exposure that can motivate students to engage with
issues that concern them directly: for such a writing assignment; the
teacher is not the only one who is going to read their writing. And since
hypertexts are composed of interconnected fragments, a teacher can assign
collaborative projects that require students to contribute parts of a
greater whole the purpose and audience of which can be determined by the
student group, or even the whole class, itself.
In this way, a teacher can use hypertextual principles of composition to
mobilize a student-centered curriculum. In the classes that I taught,
mentioned above, students were told to discuss via e-mail what the
purpose of their intertext would be, to determine how each would
contribute, and to establish whose text would link to whose and at what
points. Workshop days were granted at various points throughout the
semester to allow for face-to-face discussion and re-orientation, but
these were meant to supplement and not substitute for the e-mail
discussion. This component of the e-mail "discussion list" is not
necessary; it was simply one of my goals in the courses to familiarize
students with the advantages of such a list. But the requirement for them
to work together is necessary and is meant to provide them with the
experience of creating a text within a community in an assignment that
overtly manifests "communal writing."
The only constraint involved their having to use an intertext-the story
of the Pied Piper in the case of the freshman class and the Arthurian
legends in the case of the upper-level course. This constraint turned out
to be liberating, however, especially for the freshmen. In a second
freshman writing course the students had the same assignment but did not
have a designated intertext to employ; as a result, they spent much of
their discussion time trying to determine what to write about, whereas
the class writing with the Pied Piper tale had only to make decisions
about how to shape and change the text to fulfill their purposes. The
story was a framework within which they could work, the boundaries of a
playpen within which they could play.
In each course students were introduced to the concept of
intertextuality, reading examples of intertextual transformations that
served as models for their own project. Assigned the "Hansel and Gretel"
sequence in Text Book (1988), the first-year students adopted the
Keillor model of shifting point of view and exploited the fragmented
format of hypertext to represent the points of view of four different
groups in the Pied Piper tale: the businessmen and town leaders of
Hamelin, the children whom they exploited in their sweatshops, an
organized group of criminals called the R.A.T.S. ("Realization of an
Accustomed Tendency to Sin"), and the Pied Piper himself. Each student
created a different character that fell into one of these groups (or, in
the case of the Piper, a different period of his life), collaborating
among fellow group members to coordinate their stories. Group leaders
from each of the four groups then reported to each other so that
everybody knew what each member of the class was doing, which facilitated
the establishment of hypertextual links between students. Much of the
work toward conceptualizing this project occurred while I was absent at a
conference. Upon return, and upon telling students that the workshop days
remaining were theirs to use as they might, the room started to buzz with
activity. They were motivated and excited because they had owned this
project from the beginning, because the Pied Piper story had become a
vehicle for their views and concerns, and because the final product would
be made public via the World-Wide Web.
And one point I tried to emphasize the potential to change the text's
instability as a finished product. If they noticed a spelling error or
typo, I asked them to tell me about it because it could be changed.
Unlike print, the nature of the electronic medium is change; the fluid
nature of the medium itself manifests a process pedagogy that does not
end. That writing is a process becomes wholly apparent in the very ease
with which one can edit a Web text. This underscores Howard Gardner's
concept of the "processfolio" that Carvin (1995) mentions in his
discussion of the Web as a publishing house.
Because the first-year students were not trained to publish the texts
themselves, they had to channel any changes through me, as I typed in the
text and therefore had final control over its presentation. But when
students are trained to do the HTML coding necessary for publishing their
own work on their own, as was the case in the upper-level course, the
process and product are ultimately in their hands. I have no control over
the contents of their text, nor do I control whether or not they permit
the public to see their work; they decide when to make their texts public
and what it is that the public sees.
The upper-level course, having read excerpts from various Arthurian
intertexts (Malory, Spenser, Tennyson, and Eliot, for example), worked
with the legends in a much more allegorical fashion, incorporating
various pre-existing Web sites into it via external links as a commentary
on the contemporary wasteland that our society has become. The backbone
of the collaboration was a list of questions the answers to which
directed readers to become involved in changing the world for the better.
Taking the world as the wounded Fisher-King, the focus was upon what
question needed to be asked (of the Grail) to heal the wound, the central
problem of Percival in one of the legends. In answering the question
"What is wrong with the land?" one sequence of screens shows various
social problems, such as war, racism, the neglect of the elderly, the
objectification of sexism, and violence, and the sequence links pictures
that represent these problems to appropriate (or inappropriate) sites on
the Web. For instance, one picture that showed a child playing with a gun
linked directly to the NRA homepage, and another showing images of
provocative women linked to the Playboy homepage. This strategy of
linking their text to the Web in such effective ways demonstrates not
only the students' awareness that their text exists among other texts and
in relation to those texts but also the students' faith in language to
work positive change, having been given the chance to employ the language
to their own ends in a public forum.
These student texts can be viewed through my home page, the address to
which is http://www.hamline.edu/~rsmyth. It is important to note that,
while the classes I discuss here are college classes, the premises
underlying the assignment can be employed at any level. I am currently
working with a group of sixth graders who will be collaborating to
produce a similar project of their own choosing, for publication on the
Web. The principles in Text Book, too, are transportable; the
beauty of this assignment is that one need not wait for college-level
students to implement it. I gave Garrison Keillor's transformation of
"Hansel and Gretel" (included in the first edition of Text Book )
to a fourth grader, and she applied the exercise to the Paul Bunyan
story, shifting the point of view to Babe the blue ox, and thoroughly
enjoyed doing so.
Ben Shneiderman (1992) calls for both "engagement," which he defines as
"interaction with people" (p. 18), and "construction," which occurs when
"students create a product from their collaboration" (p. 20). The
assignments I have described above and the progressive pedagogy that
underlies them both reinforce each of these elements in an initiative
that started as early as Freire's call to abandon a "banking concept" of
education (1970). Only if the new technologies are used as forms of
"sociomedia," which suggests, as Edward Barrett writes, "that computer
media exist for 'social' purposes" (1992, p. 1), will they participate in
the current trends to overhaul educational practice from a
teacher-centered to a student-centered curriculum that is relevant and
responsive to student needs and desires.
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Sociomedia: Multimedia, hypermedia, and the social donstruction of
knowledge (pp. 1-10). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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Morgan (Eds.), Reorientations: Critical theories and pedagogies
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(Eds.), Writing and reading differently: Deconstruction and the
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Editor's Note: Richard Smyth has developed a hyperessay to illustrate
the use of this technique. Click here to view it.