So the first two and a half weeks of the semester have gone by, and I've survived, more or less. Most of my students have as well. Sure, there were quite a few drops once people actually started reading hypertext, but the tough ones have hung in there, and are taking this stuff on its own terms. I just got done teaching “Hegirascope” and “The Medium is the Message” with a couple of brief detours to “Reagan Library” and William Gillespie's “Sequence.” The nature of my confession is this — I find myself falling prey to many of the same frustrations in teaching hypertext as many of my students feel in reading it. As I was showing “Reagan Library” I felt a great deal of anxiety — in my role as teacher, I thought, I should be able to say something coherent about this work, although the work itself is largely about the incoherence of mediated communication. And while I can competently discuss “Hegirascope” and “Reagan Library” as media — I can take apart the interface a bit, try and parse out some of the decisions that Moulthrop made about the structure and navigation apparatus of the work — I have a hard time discussing the work as *literature.* I find myself wondering things like: “How would Stuart teach this? Has he ever tried? How much confusion can I possibly expect students to productively embrace?”
While I've been surrounded by, inundated with, electronic literature over the past four years, as a new media studies teacher, this is my first trip to the plate. I understand how to teach print lit, how to take a story apart into its constituent parts, how to guide a discussion through various theoretical filters to read the story from different perspectives. I also know how to teach writing, how to guide students towards their creative or expository voice (or) path. These same pedagogies don't always easily cross over to teaching electronic lit.
And Marshall McLuhan — I have a love/hate relationship with the guy. His writing style, while exhilirating as poetry, is frustrating as criticism. I do think that reading him helped me to understand McLuhanite Moulthrop a little better. But I'm not sure that teaching Ted Nelson and Marshall McLuhan on the same day is the best idea. I'd imagine that the two of them together in the same room in person would be little like watching a Nebraska football game with a roomfull of Husker fans: exhilirating for the first ten minutes and then scary.
I think I've at least made clear to my students that where some of these texts cause them anxiety, they are not alone. The texts that we read are pushing against boundaries of various kinds, in some cases productively. But there is a conservative reader hanging out in my head, who wants Marshall to just slow down a second and state his point clearly before he starts slinging all the out of context quotations at me, who wants Moulthrop to walk into the room and tell my class what he thinks is important about “Reagan Library,” to explain what precisely he wanted to do with the piece. Occasionaly the “poles in my face” cause my head to ring. Some of Moulthrop's work, like some of McLuhan's, is not only incoherent, but incoherent purposefully. That's hard to explain.
Having said that, “Hegirascope” is still probably one my favorite bits of e-lit. The very conscious sense of play, the consciousness of what the piece and its techniques are probably doing to its readers, appeals to me a great deal. He's got wit, Moulthrop, and is living proof that I'm not the only living soul attracted to writing metafiction like a moth candleward.
Sometimes I wish that every hypertext was written like The Unknown: I understand the decisions that the authors made, the process through which they arrived at those decisions, and the relationship between the form and content of the novel. I know why the links do what they do in the way and to the extent to which they do them. I can't say the same for many other hypertexts. I can only speculate, a spelunker in my helmet with its dim lamp, at the head of a long line, headed down.
Gillespie's “Sequence” was however a nice way to end the class. Observations in a row, a nice, easy, straight line, expressing the frustrations mentioned above, arguing against itself for its old friend the book. Sigh. I wonder how long Gillespie would stay in the room with Nelson and McLuhan.
Okay, back to my dissertation.