The Buffaloes Conquer the World Wide Web

Jane Lasarenko

Department of English and Modern Languages
West Texas A & M University

This paper details the use of the World Wide Web in a second-semester, first-year composition course at West Texas A & M University, a mid-sized university serving rural communities in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles. The described project asks students to create a literary Web site in lieu of one of the more standard "literature papers."

Students of the late 1990s, like it or not, will play a significant role in the computer-based information revolution that is still in its infancy. We must help them meet this challenge and develop the critical thinking and analytic skills necessary to navigate successfully through this new venue. Computers, the Internet, the World Wide Web (WWW), and e-mail technologies can provide tremendous pedagogical tools for the study of literature and the creation of a techno-literate citizenry.

This paper describes my method of teaching the use of these pedagogical tools to my freshman-level literature/composition students at West Texas A & M University (mascot, the Buffalo), a mid-sized university serving the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma Panhandle and Northeastern New Mexico areas. Our "Buffaloes" are by and large computer-illiterate and somewhat computer-phobic. Generally from sparsely populated rural farming communities, they come to us ill-prepared for the challenges of today's technological society and quite set in their dislike of literary studies.

Walking into my classroom on the first day, students generally go into virtual shock at seeing this English classroom full of computers rather than desks. To compound their shock, I tell them that their syllabus is on the WWW, not on my desk. Using copious handouts, I provide them with the basic tools for information navigating and searching and set them loose, generally in groups of four. In about twenty minutes, they have found the syllaweb from the main university Web page. The syllaweb also provides some basic starting points for navigating the WWW, so once they've found that, they're off and running.

One of the most advantageous aspects of the Web is its potential for information acquisition and the development of critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate and use that information. The following discussion of assignments details how I have led my first-year composition students into using the WWW resources to obtain and evaluate information for a literary research project.

I ask my students to compile and produce a Web site dealing with Gaskell's "A Jury of Her Peers." To resist the immediate response of structuring their work as a compendium of links, I structure the activity as a mock trial, one that asks students to "prove" the innocence of the protagonists in withholding information about Mrs. Wright's guilt. We first divided the class into two groups: the County Prosecutors and the County Defense Team. I tell the students that they will work on the project in groups of at least three and that they may choose their group members for each aspect of the assignment.

Although generally very enthusiastic about this type of assignment, students are often at a loss about where and how to begin. Therefore, I provide a set of opening links to Daniel Anderson's American Literature site, to Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle Humanities site, and to Yahoo. From that point, however, students are on their own. Because at this stage their HTML coding skills, research skills, and design skills are negligible, I break this assignment down into several smaller assignments as discussed below.

Learning to Navigate the WWW

This first assignment is quite easy for the students to master successfully. They are asked to choose a topic of interest to them and to compile an annotated list for their classmates of sites that deal with that topic. Again, students work in groups for this activity: it provides a good "ice-breaker" for the group and nicely divides up the work load. At this point, I do not require that their annotated list be in MLA or APA bibliographic format; in fact, I do not require any particular format.

Introducing students to the Web in this manner lays the groundwork for later assignments that ask them to obtain information from Web-based sources and generates excitement about their creating their own Web site. The assignment also works well to help students overcome any initial discomfort with the WWW (or convinces those who are truly uncomfortable to drop the course). Because students are generally more comfortable with print-based instructions until well into the semester, I provide numerous handouts on how to develop search strategies, URLs to help them get started, and general information on how to use the available browser.

Learning about HTML and listservs. I first provide students with some background about HTML coding, pointing out its similarities to standard word processors. Students view the document source code on an HTML file and then compare the coding to a WordPerfect or other word processor document, using the "reveal codes" mode. Students compile a double list of codes for document formatting--one for WordPerfect, the other for the Web. Students feel less intimidated when they can see immediately that all computer programs use embedded codes to format a document.

For the next stage of the process, students search the WWW for information about HTML documents. They quickly come upon numerous guides to HTML as well as those sites that provide backgrounds, icons, and images. Students share the site information with one another via a class listserv and discuss design issues about the pages they discover.

Enthusiasm increases phenomenally at this point. They become genuinely excited when they realize they can choose their own backgrounds and pictures for the site. Pandemonium reigns in the classroom, and I'm hard-pressed to keep up with their questions and desires. A general lecture at this point about how to create links and incorporate images on a Web page is a good idea for those students who have yet to print out a beginner's HTML guide. More detailed class discussion on Web design issues is also necessary. Students love the new medium and want to include as many pictures, images, icons, movies, and sounds as they can on a single Web page.

My best students, those most interested in the project, need little help learning to make the actual HTML links. What they do need is help learning what should be linked to their site. It's not simply a question of good Web design; it cuts to the heart of critical evaluation skills. Most students want to include links to everything on the page; it's not always easy to help them "say no" to certain things. Copyright issues surface at this point as well. Often, my students don't see the inclusion of pictures as plagiarism. They have to be taught that such "information" is not "theirs."

I also need to remind them of the purpose for the site; lest they lose sight of the "product" as they become engaged with the process, we sit down to reevaluate the project. When students look for ways to broaden the project scope, I suggest that we cannot include print-based sources wholesale into the Web site, and that they should write summaries and reviews of the sources they've found.

By this time, students are discussing Glaspell's work in class and on a listserv, gathering information from library and Internet sources about Glaspell and early 19th- century America, and making critical decisions about Glaspell's intentions. Now we discuss the differences between writing for the WWW and writing a typical English paper. We discuss the value of both types of discourse, the conventions associated with each, and the varying purposes each type serves. Students become far more sensitive at this point about the effect of audience on their writing tasks.

Putting It All Together

Students are generally ready at this point to start putting the site together. Although we move on to other projects, other works, students are nonetheless responsible for continuing their group efforts to finish the Web site.

While the results of their efforts are often uneven--sometimes just plain awful--students generally recognize the value of the assignment. Indeed, the most typical response I get from students runs something like the following: that while the final Web site was "disappointing" because of the disparity among group input, the experience itself was a worthwhile academic endeavor, one that will be remembered for a lifetime. And that, for me, is the ultimate reward.

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