new media pedagogy two or three decades ago

AUTHOR: Jill Walker

I’m reading old Hypertext papers and found Andries van Dam’s keynote for the first ACM Hypertext conference in 1987 (or ACM library). van Dam created the first working hypertext system at Brown University in 1967 in collaboration with several other scientists, including Ted Nelson, and also greatly inspired by Doug Engelbart. He’s also known for his important work in computer graphics. He’s still at Brown today. What particularly interests me is the ways in which van Dam used the multi-user hypertext system(s) at Brown for teaching in the humanities.

His description of the way they used hypertext with literature students struck me with its similarity to the ways many of us want to use blogs today.

Students in this “experiment” from the seventies had three exposures to the hypertext system. First they simply added their own annotations to a poem. In the second and third iterations, they had other students’ annotations and links to work with as well as the poem itself and their own work.

Michael Joyce wrote that reading hypertext fiction is primarily about rereading . I think writing in this social, hypertextual internet might be largely about rewriting. Blogging isn’t simply episodic, because we don’t simply flow with the current of episodes moving from idea to idea. When we write a blog or read a blog over time we stand with both feet planted in a river of thought as water flows around our feet; always changing yet always the same. We blog many of the same kinds of things again and again from different points of view taking new points into account. Blogging for years is an expansion of van Dam’s students approaching a poem three times, each time with new layers of annotations from their peers.

It’s useful to note that teaching with hypertext and in networks has a solid history.

Here’s van Dam’s description of the project:

So, very  briefly,  I’ll  describe  two  experiments.  In one,  funded  by  the  Exxon  Education  Foundation,  a physicist  and  I did  a course  called  Man,  Energy  and  Environment.  Students  did  a lot  of reading  of hypertext  on-line  about  the  subject,  but  no writing.  Then  we  did  a much  more  ambitious  experiment  in  the  following  two  years,  funded  by  the  National  Endowment  for  the  Humanities.  For  this  English  poetry  course  we  used  a very  large  hypertext  with  well  over  a thousand  links.  Three  times  a week  students  had  to sign  up  for an hour  each  on our  one  and  only  Imlac  graphics  workstation  and  do their  reading  and  their  commenting  on-line,  following  trails,  making  trails.  We  used  a kind  of progressive  disclosure:  the  first  time  through  they  saw  the  poem  they  were  supposed  to critique  and  analyze,  with  no references.  The  second  time  they  saw  it  with  a few  links  to other  poems  on the  same  subject  or  by  the  same  poet.  There  would  also be some  word  glosses, some  professional  analyses,  but  still  not  very  much  context.  And  they  would  be reviewing  what  other  students  had  written  on the  first  pass<!–more–>, and  the  teacher’s  and  TAs’  comments  as well,  and  then  they  would  form  a new  opinion  of what  they  had  read.  And  then  they  would  do that  a third  time,  when  they  had  yet  more  access to what  people  had  written  commun-  ally  and  what  had  previously  been  put  in  the  database.  It was  very  interesting.  People  loved  it,  despite  the  fact  the  system  went  down  a lot,  that  it was  hard  to get at it,  that  you  had  to schedule  time.  And  this  “communal  text,”  as it  was  called  by  the  poetry  people  who  wrote  about  it  later,  became  very  rich  in  additional  annota-  tions.  Electronic  graffiti,  as I thought  of them.


The  reason  I encouraged  such  annotations  was  that I remembered that when  I was in  college with  Ted [Nelson], I  would  always grab the dirtiest  copy of a book in  the  library,  rather  than  the cleanest one, because the dirtiest ones had the most marginalia,  which  I found  very  helpful.  It really  worked  here: on average, students  wrote three times as much  for both analyses and informal discourse as they  did in  the control  group, and that  pleased the faculty  who were very  much  concerned  with  encouraging  oral and written  expression. One of  the things  we found  is that people express themselves  differently.  Some people who  were very  articulate  in  a  classroom setting were pretty  silent  once they  got be-  hind  the tube. And  vice versa, so a lot of shy violets  really  became vocal  once they  got behind  the tube.  What we discovered from that experiment  is that  people could  follow  trails  and enjoyed it. But what  we  did not see was a lot of people blazing  trails.  There  wasn’t  enough  time, the interface  wasn’t  good enough,  response wasn’t  fast enough – a  variety  of reasons. So  we never really  proved a central  hypothesis,  that people can and will  blaze trails,  not just follow  them. I will  make a statement that says, despite the experience  with  Xerox’s  NoteCards system, despite whatever  other  experiences  there are out there with  programming  en-  vironment  browsers and so on, by and large the hypothesis remains  unproven  that, with  little  guidance,  people can construct  really  good trails,  really  good webs  that help them and help other readers. I think  we still  need to test that hypothesis  in  a major way. </blockquote>


See also Hypertext and pluralism: from lineal to non-lineal thinking from the same year describing George Landow’s English project in the Brown University hypertext system, Intermedia, and another project in biology.