learning with hypertext in the seventies

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, Iíll 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, and the teacherís and TAsí 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 ìcommunal text,î 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 wasnít enough time, the interface wasnít good enough, response wasnít 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 Xeroxís 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.

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.

21. March 2005 by Jill
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