In the Mirror of Genre:  Students Write this World
 
The Research Project

In the research project described here, I wanted to see what students made of texts they found on the web, and what sorts of webtexts they produced themselves based on their (albeit highly limited) exposure to these texts.  In other words, I was interested in what genres they seemed to be construing.

Communications Studies 380 is not primarily a writing course; it's a Communications History course.  After a term of discussing communications history from cave painting to mass media, a la McLuhan, Ong, et al., students start considering new media.

After some preliminary warm-up projects, I asked them to look for some "interesting" web sites and discuss how they work.  I left the definition of "interesting" largely up to them, but as starters I pointed them to some sites that use webtext in some of the non-linear postmodernist ways described by David Kolb, such as Michael Joyce's hyperfiction "Twelve Blue" and John December's article "Living in Hypertext."  Then I encouraged them to surf.

Later in the course I got them working in groups of about three or four to create their own webtexts.  I let them use a "default mode" of writing separate on-line essays and linking them to each other and to source and amplifying pages (Kolb's "caterpillar text").  However, I gave them enough time (most of a term) to work themselves into more elaborate forms if they choose to.   In particular, I was interested in whether they would produce anything that resembled the highly postmodernist forms of argument listed by Kolb.

For this Inkshed research report, I highlight four pages:

What I find interesting about these pages is that they look remarkably professional, considering that most of the students who made them had little or no experience writing web pages and received relatively little direct instruction in web text genres.

"Hypertext Fiction Review" is a remarkable synthesis of on-line 'zine genres with a healthy dose of Siskel and Ebert.  "Virtual Adventures" takes up the hobbyist and commercial page genres.  "Virtual Life" is probably the least adventuresome of the four, taking most closely the form of hard copy essays linked together, but it still pays attention to matters of visual design and balance that could only have been learned from observation of other webtexts.  "Hypertext Fiction" is a variant on this form that illustrates how quite short pieces of original text can be used as a framing text for links to other material.  Interestingly the hard copy distinction between "primary" and "secondary" sources is scrupulously observed though not named as such.

(This text also suggests the traps that students can fall into when they put glitzy background ahead of readability, but that, too, seems to be a common web genre: the unreadable page.)
 
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