Accepted Papers

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Difference and discontinuity – making meaning through hypertexts

Colleen McKenna & Claire McAvinia
University College London & National University of Maynooth

"It does disturb the standard writing practices … I definitely felt that in the hypertext I could not carry on writing like I did in an essay… ” – Student participant

Much of the research into writing in digital spaces has focused on transcripts of exchanges generated in online environments (threaded message boards, synchronous and asynchronous chat, etc.) Although such writing represents a departure from more conventional “essayistic literacy” (Lillis 2001), one could argue that there is still a certain element of linearity in terms of the way in which the expression of knowledge is organized that is afforded and privileged by such systems. On the other hand, when it comes to analyzing hypertext writing, there has been much written by theorists about fiction and professional, published, academic writing (for example, Landow, Kolb, Bolter and Ingraham); however, there has been rather less said about how student writers are experimenting with academic hypertext.

This paper considers how hypertext assignments might disrupt the narrative of undergraduate writing and offer new opportunities for expression. We will look at meaning making in online texts with particular reference to constructions of argument, voice, multimodality and temporality. Drawing on students’ hypertext assignments from a course taught by the authors in communicating in digital spaces,  we will examine  students’ use of text, sound, image and animation to engage with academic subjects.

Specific questions that will be addressed include how do students explore a topic in a hypertextual space without recourse to some, more conventional, rhetorical devices? How do they create an argument or narrative in such work? How does such writing disrupt or challenge more ‘linear’ approaches to knowledge making? Is there a ‘fluency’ in writing hypertext associated with their technical competence? To support our thinking about these questions we will refer to David Kolb’s work, particularly his assertion in relation to philosophy written in a nonlinear format that “[a] text can make a claim on you even if it does not support a particular proposition or present a particular abstract structure of argument” (Kolb 1994).

Another question we aim to explore is the extent to which the “challenge” of hypertext to the dominant essay genre might be empowering and even liberating to students. In his book, Learning to Write, Gunther Kress, considers the acculturation of school children into types of writing valued by schools, and he concludes that the prescribed genres come to ‘control’ their writers to an extent:

the learning of the genres involves an increasing loss of creativity on the child’s part and a subordination of the child’s creative abilities to the demands of the norms of the genre. The child learns to control the genre, but in the process the genre comes to control the child. Given the cognitive and social implications of these generic forms, the consequences for the child are immense. (Kress, 1982)

To this end, we will also consider whether hypertext writing might subvert the dominant forms of meaning-making in higher education and whether they offer spaces for “play” perhaps in the way meant by Winnicott. Here we’ll refer to Bakhtin and to research by Phyllis Creme and Celia Hunt on learning journals as alternative, playful forms of academic writing. Reference to student descriptions of the ‘playful’ nature of their work in hypertext documents will also be made.  For example, we will analyse a ‘playful’  hypertext assignment which employs metaphor explicitly in its exploration of Multi-User Domains (MUDs) and uses a MUD mansion floorplan as a visual and thematic organising device for the document, with each section being accorded a different room. Additionally, the text, most notably the introduction, intermittently imitates the language of MUDs along with other discourses – some conventionally academic and some not.  Furthermore, the site introduces sub-motifs – drawing on tropes from Star Wars and Star Trek. From the latter comes one of the most striking elements of the assignment : the teleporter page which replaces the traditional references section.

Methodologically, the paper will draw on examples generated by students, their commentaries on the hypertext writing and interviews with them. In terms of theoretical perspectives, it will consider work on academic literacies (Roz Ivanic, Theresa Lillis, Mary Lea),  new genres in online writing (Lea and Robin Goodfellow), hypertext theory  (Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin and George Landow), non-linearity and philosophical argument  (David Kolb), and multimodality (Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen).


Bakhtin, M. M. (1988) The Dialogic Imagination ed. M. Holquist, transl. C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bolter, J. D. (2001) Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bolter, J. D and Richard Grusin (1999)  Remediation: Understanding New Media. Massachusetts:MIT Press.

Creme, P and Celia Hunt (2002) ‘Creative Participation in the Essay Writing Process' , in The Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp.145-166.

Ingraham, B. (2000) ‘Scholarly Rhetoric in Digital Media’ Journal of Interactive Media in Education

Ivanic, R. (1998) Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kolb, D.  (1994) ‘Socrates in the Labyrinth’ in Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. G. P. Landow (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,) ,pp. 323-42

Kress, G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge.

Kress, G. (1982) Learning to Write. London: Routledge.

Kress, G and Van Leuwen, T (1996), Reading Images: the Grammar of Visual Design.  London: Routledge

Lea, M. (2001) 'Computer conferencing and assessment: new ways of writing in higher education' in Studies in Higher Education Vol.26, No.2, pp.163-181

Lea, M. and Goodfellow, R. Goodfellow, R & Lea, M (2005) 'Supporting Writing for Assessment in Online Learning' in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education Vol 30, no.3 pp 261-271

Lillis, T. (2001) Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire. London: Routledge.

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updated 31 January 2007