Collaboration in Hypertext

We now realize that the solitary author is largely a romantic fiction of relatively recent origin. Whether literally co-writing a text in "real time" or simply working with composing practices steeped in intertextuality, writers collaborate with others whenever they produce texts. As Lunsford and Ede demonstrate in Singular Texts, Plural Authors, collaboration is the natural mode of the work world. In the world of the academy, intertwined texts have tended to be seen as symptomatic of intellectual dishonesty rather than intertextuality, but even here these practices are belatedly becoming seen as a natural mode of composition.

Electronic media are well suited to collaboration among students (Lunsford et al, "What Matters Who Writes?") Even the simple word processor makes collaboration physically much easier. Discussion lists and electronic conferences are even more natural media for collaboration as they eliminate the need for physical proximity. Electronic texts get replied to, embedded in others' replies, and finally so hopelessly confused that no-one has any idea of whose they once were. Though to some in this "late age of print" this looks like intellectual dishonesty. the more daring "technoprovocateurs" (Eric Crump's phrase) argue that this is exactly what should happen. J. Paul Johnson claims:

In the technoprovocateur site, academic literacy seems more a matter of participating in literate networks than of expressing individual thought. What texts result from the networked activities there might betray more of a Bakhtinian dialectic than an unanswered, unassailable argument. What services are offered seem designed to disrupt the notion that the proscenium classroom is the only valid context for writing. And what constitutes knowledge and literacy seem more social constructions of competing ideologies and contexts than they do prescriptivist ontological givens.
("Writing Spaces")

Hypertext ups the dialogic ante even more by making certain types of collaboration technically much easier--so easy, one might argue, that they become the natural mode of operation in the medium. The biggest problem for any collaborative writing team is to blend both voice and ideas so that the result is a unified document rather than a dog's-breakfast. A hypertext should not be a dog's breakfast either, but it need not--indeed probably should not--be a univocal document. Students can take different views on a subject, bring different information and different ideas to the mix, and work on structuring links that will lead the reader through it at various productive angles that juxtapose alternative views. As Hager puts it, in hypertext

The rhetoric's focus is on the act of constructing knowledge rather than representing that knowledge. This act is achieved through a dialogic activity among the authors (writers and readers who add and link text) of the hypertext. . . . They not only write the text and mentally "talk" with the text, they also physically write to an evolving textbase.. In fact, they co-author the ever-changing text.
"A Rhetoric of Hypertextual Inventio" 110)

This can be accomplished by students literally "opening up their writing spaces to others" (Hager 113) by allowing others to insert responses and comments into their text (a function not well implemented on the WWWeb but a commonplace of many standalone hypertext systems). But it can also be done somewhat less "invasively" by simply linking various individually authored nodes together. The variety of voices that represents an untidy dog's-breakfast in print is nothing but heteroglossia in hypertext.

The resulting exploratory rhetoric could be considerably more productive than the artificially imposed consensus of a unifed document. A lot depends on how closely you see rhetoric as tied to argumentation.

Thus far there is little true "hypertext" in this format. Most student work on the net consists of libraries of what are essentially print-like texts on line. Even extremely progressive on-line writing environments such as the On-Line Writery at Missouri fall into this category. But hypertext is still an extremely new form. Landow's Victorian Web probably comes the closest, but most of the material on that web is also either authored by Landow himself or in the form of an anthology of short student texts that are linked hierarchically, referenced "from above" through an index rather than being extensively cross-linked.

Is this a sign of an incunabula form? Or does it suggest that hypertext is best used to assemble discrete units of self-contained text rather than to compose hypertext "essays" like this one?


Intellectual Dishonesty A mild digression on some of the problems created by collaboration in hypertext
The clickable classroom The beginning of my speculations on what impact hypertext may have on the classroom.
Exploratory rhetoric A discussion of the kind of rhetoric that might work best in hypertext--that is, what students might produce when they collaborate
Johnson's "Writing Spaces: Technoprovocateurs and OWLs in the Late Age of Print" A link out to a survey of on-line wriitng labs as sites of collaboration.
A link out to my "Ownership of Knowledge" article, which argues at length that electronic text deprivileges ownership
A link out to Lunsford et al,, "What Matters Who Writes?"
A link out to the Hypertext Gallery of Student Writing at Missouri.
Landow's Dickens Web, perhaps the most extended and certainly the most famous example of student/faculty co-authored hypertext

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