Responding to Student Hypertexts

If we are to help our students make sense of the new discourse conventions of the electronic word, we must find new ways of responding to the texts they write.

Of course we should respond dialogically, questioning, probing, taking part in a conversation rather than weighing and measuring. That's always been a good idea, although the new media will make it easier, more natural to join with our students in a community of discourse. These technologies will also make it easier for others besides the teacher to respond. That's old hat too, though it bears repeating. Finally, we should not be surprised to find our own responses embedded in our students' texts along with many others'.

But as we move students beyond free-form expression to more finished forms of discourse, we need ways to help them internalize the rhetoric of different disciplines and professional discourse communities. This implies that we will have to be able to respond to what they write in this new medium in ways that will help them shape themselves to it. We need to let them know when they have met or frustrated their readers' expectations of form.

If we don't know what the forms of this new medium are, however, how can we communicate any expecrations at all?

We could be completely open to any rhetorics that our students choose. That would leave us unable to distinguish discourses that actually did some work from what Kolb calls "a willy-nilly array of free associated texts". Students need to know what a well-designed set of associative links looks like, and be prepared to invest the labour to construct webs rather than balls of string.

The basic problems seem to me to be (1) how much do we want to direct our students as they explore hypertext genres, and (2) how would we know how to direct them even if we wanted to, since we aren't sure what "good" hypertext looks like?

Maybe the last question is a red herring, since we have never really settled what any "good" text looks like. But that's never stopped us from believing that our role as teachers requires us to try to find out. As teachers, we need to be able to draw on research that tells us what some kinds of good hypertext might look like some of the time, so that we can respond appropriately to our students' texts. That means that as researchers, we need to engage the tools of discourse analysis, focussed interview, possibly think-aloud protocols of readers reading and writers writing hypertext. We need studies of hypertext that mirror the studies of other genres pioneered by Bazerman and others. Otherwise any responses we give our students will be woven of thin air.

Teaching Hypertext Genres An introduction to the idea of teaching hypertext as a genre.
Hypertext rhetorical form What are the new discorse conventions of the electronic world?
Hypertext Rhetorical Functions A discussion of how hypertext forms grow out of different hypertext functions.
Teaching Academic Discourse Genre theory to explain why this matters.

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