How to read hypertext: media literacy and open access in higher education
The neoliberal idea of knowledge assumes a product that professors allocate to students in somewhat digital units. In this chapter I contest that notion strongly, showing its shortcomings in practice, and argue for a more analogic approach to be used as a counter, one familiar to all, that higher education is about fostering critical thinking. Instead of teaching just things, we need to teach ways (note the plural) of engaging the world in complex, meaningful, and useful terms. One such way of thinking is via media and mediation, and oftentimes students
come to the university savvier than some of their teachers. This situation has led to strong pockets of resistance to some facets of new media that have blocked a diﬃcult but necessary solution to the interlinked set of problems facing both authors and presses in academic publishing today. As historians of slavery have long known, such resistance need not be the majority position, nor even a strong minority, in order to be eﬀective. If the university is to continue to matter in the twenty-ﬁrst century, professors,
students, and administrators alike will need a particular form of media literacy. Let me begin with a simple but seldom discussed example: literacy in hypermedia. Little gets said about reading hypertext beyond its metaphorical relationship with surﬁng and that it is somehow “user-directed.” Most of the literature concerns its production, often with an emphasis on “keeping” the reader, preventing her or dissuading him from leaving a particular text for another. The most successful websites, rather than tricking readers to stay, encourage them to go away (and as a result, come back) often. The writerly philosophy of possessing the readers and reining them in is ineﬀective at best, but still somewhat harmless at worst, as myriad well designed sites that are blithely skipped through attest. Once the open system of massively linked hypertext that is the web reached a
critical mass of usefulness, the possible paths through it began to approach inﬁnity. No-one could possibly predict or account for all the possible routes through the
web: it has become, in Ted Nelson’s word, intertwingled. What the “go away often” sites realize is that hypertextual reading is in the mind of the reader, rather than on the web page, and the readers, not the writers of hypertext, decide the route through it. The primary way readers take control of the hypertext on the web is via indexical searching with key word in context (KWIC) results on sites epitomized by Google. Indexical searching has moved the locus of the link from the page to the mind. Now if I am reading a web page and have an associated thought, I do not have to rely on an author already having planned for that connection by providing me with a link. Browsers have incorporated this in search bars that make the process of following through on a new association as seamless as possible given the above-mentioned time and search issues. Hypertext authoring has focused on somehow thinking of all the possible connections beforehand, or somehow controlling “paths” through the hypertext, but – as those who have had an idea that a web page has not foreseen know – this is impossible and unnecessary. Of course, search engines catalog words (and increasingly phrases), rather than
ideas, but there is enough correspondence between the two to make this sort of searching inﬁnitely more productive than wading through paths someone has already thought of. Just ask Yahoo!, whose tree-like browsing model of searching by category and subcategory yielded to the freeform likes of Google. The tree, as we will see, is not the problem, just its location. New readers of hypertext often complain of disorientation, and this is usually
attributed to poor design.1 It is rather a problem of readerly expectations and attempting to approach a massively linked, non-linear, multiple-authored system as a linear text. The skill set needed is by the reader, not the writer. With the coming of age of “digital natives,” people who have grown up using computers and the internet, the problem has faded a bit. The issue at stake remains, however. College professors teaching computer science as well as composition, whether in a dedicated class or as an integral part of a course, focus almost exclusively on production and writing. Everyone is assumed to know how to read, and seldom is any critical engagement with speciﬁc requirements of hyperliteracy brought to bear. But even when digital natives read hypermedia, they may do so without a particular strategy for learning and thinking critically. This is where hyperliteracy becomes an important skill, one closely related to the main thing a liberal arts education is supposed to teach – critical thinking.