7(3), August 1990, pages 7-22

Towards the Metapersonal Essay:
Exploring the Potential of Hypertext in the Composition Class

Anne DiPardo and Mike DiPardo

When we first set about designing a hypertext application for use in the composition class, we were eager to see examples of what other writing teachers were doing with nonlinear text--a desire that gradually gave way, as reality seeped in, to the discomfiting sense that we were entering largely uncharted territory. While we encountered a great deal of enthusiastic speculation (and not a little visionary zeal), it wasn't long before we grasped that hypertext's alleged power to transform composition instruction--whether by supporting familiar goals in fresh ways or by suggesting a whole new approach to reading and writing--remains for the most part unexplored. While products that make it easy to create hypertext are increasingly available, many writing teachers seem unaware of the challenges and opportunities looming on the technological horizon.

Ted Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext" (1974), sees it as a generic concept denoting "nonsequential writing of any kind with links of any kind" (1987, p. 38). The label is indeed general, encompassing texts that are minimally or maximally nonlinear, which present information hierarchically or nonhierarchically, which are tightly or loosely structured (Jonassen, 1986). The beginnings of hypertext are often traced to Vannevar Bush's pioneering work several decades ago (1945/1988), with more recent examples including Brown University's INTERMEDIA, Xerox Par's NOTECARDS, OWL International's GUIDE, MIT's MEDIA LAB APPLICATIONS, and Bolter, Joyce, and Smith's (1989) STORYSCAPE, a vehicle for exploring nonlinear narrative on the Macintosh (see Joyce, 1988, and Jones, 1988, for general overviews of hypertext software; STORYSCAPE is described by Douglas, 1989, and by Joyce, 1988).

Then, a few years ago, Apple Computer began including the relatively accessible and wondrously flexible HYPERCARD with all new Macintosh computers, and hypertext achieved an unprecedented ubiquity--or, at least its potential did. Using as its controlling metaphor the notion of stacks of index cards, HYPERCARD rendered the task of orchestrating networks of ideas and information newly convenient. Hypertexts can be created in HYPERCARD by linking text entered on two or more cards; later, these nonlinear, often richly branching connections can be explored at the click of a button. When a reader clicks on a highlighted word, phrase, or symbol, a pop-up window offering related information may appear, or a new network of text may be accessed. HYPERCARD applications, called stacks or stackware, can also include pictures, animation, and sound. (Hypermedia is the generic term for such combinations.) Applications beyond the most basic level require that users learn HYPERTALK--admittedly a programming language, but well within the reach of the technologically unsophisticated.

HYPERCARD's availability and accessibility place a new power in the hands of educators everywhere that is, teachers can design hypertext applications for their own classrooms, thereby adapting technology to fit their particular priorities and philosophies. Still, while the new technology shines with democratic promise, rendering possible the dream that teachers can take an unprecedented role in shaping how computers are used in their classrooms, comparatively little has been done for teaching English with HYPERCARD. There are exceptions, to be sure--perhaps most notable are Glynda Hull's recent efforts to create multimedia databases for use by underprepared college writers (Hull, Greenleaf, & Wayman, 1989; Hull, 1989--but for the most part, student writers (and their teachers) are still using the Macintosh lab for word processing alone.

Because so many educators still find even the relatively user-friendly HYPERCARD so different and so new, opportunities are needed to get acquainted with the program, to explore its possibilities, and to consider how it might be adapted to fit educators' ideas about teaching and learning. In this process, examples of how others have harnessed HYPERCARD's potential are a valuable means of illustrating its adaptability and sparking new ideas. In her introductory text on HYPERCARD, Carol Kaehler (1988) recalls hearing a certain phrase among Macintosh users just discovering this new technology: it begins, she tells us, "I'll bet I could. . ." (p. 35). Such imagining can begin in isolation, of course, but as social constructionists remind us, individual thought is richest when fertilized by others' approaches and ideas--or by others' first grapplings, as is still largely the case with hypertext applications for the writing class.

Now that our stackware, "Towards the Metapersonal Essay," stands as an example of how HYPERCARD's potential can be harnessed in support of one teacher's goals, we wish to emphasize the singular--for we believe that our project's power lies not in its suitability for broad use but, rather, in its very idiosyncrasy. Deeply informed by notions about discourse that have grown out of Anne's experiences as a writing instructor, our project is teacher-designed and theory-driven. It is, we hope, an example of the kind of projects other teachers might undertake--probably, in many instances, with some degree of technical assistance.

Our project was produced collaboratively, by two people just learning HYPERCARD--one a writing instructor with vast resistance to anything technological, the other a professional computer analyst who approached HYPERCARD with eager excitement. Together we explored and experimented: swapping ideas, arguing out disagreements, negotiating between our different visions and our different sorts of expertise. In the end, our interactions came to represent for us a much larger issue. Experts from the world of computers and the world of education need to learn to engage in productive dialogue, to honor the differences in their points of view--in their language, even--and to find ways to integrate their strengths.

Because "Towards the Metapersonal Essay" is so ostensibly informed by one teacher's biases, we begin with a discussion of the conceptual frame that inspired this essay. We then explain what our stackware does and describe our vision of how it might be used in a classroom environment. Finally, we end with some thoughts on the meeting of educational theory and computer technology embodied in ourproject,onhowthismeetingparallelledourownprocessofcollaboration, and on what our work might suggest to other educators interested in experimenting with hypertext applications in their own classrooms.

The Theoretic Frame: Discourse as a Dialectic

For some time, a debate has raged among teachers and theorists concerning the rightful place of the personal narrative in secondary and college-level composition classes. Flower (1979), for instance, names the narrative framework as a hallmark of "writer-based" prose. This prose locks the writer into a "blow-by-blow" account of the individual discovery process rather than allowing for a more abstract discussion of "implications and logical connections." The narrative is said to sidestep the need for analytic thinking, "burying ideas within the events that precipitated them" and thereby obscuring "the more important logical and hierarchical relationships" (p. 25). But meanwhile, an opposite view prevails. "No one tells us," complains Harold Rosen (1984), "why language development should not include as a central component getting better at telling and responding to stories of many different kinds" (p.6). Nor are we told why one's stories should be put aside like "childhood toys" to make way for what we are told is the "greatest intellectual achievement of Western civilization": expository prose (p. 26).

Rosen's is, of course, a minority view. In Bruner's (1986) terms, our culture has long preferred "paradigmatic" to "narrative" modes of knowledge and the scientific or technocratic abstraction to the stuff of lived experience. It is hardly surprising that the sort of knowledge and discourse favored in most composition classes reflects such a bias. Notwithstanding the often eloquent dissent of those defending the personal essay (Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod, & Rosen, 1975; Emig, 1971; Elbow, 1973, 1981; Macrorie, 1970), most writing teachers locate the center of their task in promoting facility with academic writing in all its various guises, a goal which seems to lead necessarily toward the expository (Rose, 1983). Though many would perhaps sympathize with Moffett's (1981) ideal of discourse fusing "personal experience, private vision, and downright eccentricity with intellectual vigor and verbal objectification" (p.130), finding ways to support such a synthesis is another matter, especially given the pressure to prepare students (and rapidly, at that) to write passable essay exams and term papers. And so it is that the ideal and the possible have parted ways: "private vision" might be nice, but in most classrooms the higher priority is placed on "verbal objectification."

In an article that charts the enduring discord between teachers who endorse personal writing and those more interested in the impersonal, Robert Connors (1987) strikes a potentially powerful, but rather vaguely delineated, compromise. Setting aside such disagreements, Connors, like Moffett, argues the need to nudge students toward the "next step." Connors also notes the need "to go beyond merely personal accounts, either outside into encompassing the world in discourse, or inside into shaping our personal observations into the touching, deeply empathetic and finally metapersonal stuff of which the greatest writing is made" [italics added] (p. 181). We agree that the particularities of what we've done and felt, inform in significant ways the more abstract, generalized avenues of inquiry we pursue in our academic and professional lives (DiPardo, 1990). As Harold Rosen (1984) argues, "inside every nonnarrative kind of discourse there stalk the ghosts of narrative"; conversely, "inside every narrative there stalk the ghosts of nonnarrative discourse" (p. 12). Certainly one of the major challenges before any teacher, but especially a teacher of writing, is to locate those dynamic points of connection where experience gives rise to inquiry--to meet students on their own turf, yes; but also to guide them to a vision of how their own worlds connect to the larger human experience. Often obscuring this mission is the schism which holds fast in the minds of many: abstract, reasoned, serious exposition on the one hand; mere anecdotes on the other.

At first glance, the computer seems an odd antidote indeed. To progressive educators interested in supporting the writing process, computers have seldom connoted such integration. Computers have been embraced as invaluable for word processing, but are otherwise associated with drill and practice (Becker, 1984; Littlejohn, Ross & Gump, 1984; Sheingold, Kane, & Endreweit, 1983); with efficient, linear thought (O'Shea & Self, 1983); with science and mathematics (Hawkins, 1987); with exacerbating our tendency to split the self into thinking and feeling components (Turkle, 1984). But meanwhile, the advent of accessible products and systems for making hypertext is promising to transform our old conceptions of how computers might support teaching and learning, especially in the English class.

According to its enthusiasts, hypertext provides a means of representing the "unbroken web" of human knowledge and problems "in a more natural way" (Drexler, 1987, p. 224), allowing us to "keep ideas hitched together in ways that better represent reality" (p. 222). While many such endorsements focus upon how hypertext can make reading more flexible and informative, certainly parallel benefits could be imagined for writers. Nonlinearity might allow a closer match between writers' thoughts and their written words by supporting a recursive looping back and forth among multiple possibilities and among multiple aspects of an issue, including private and public dimensions, and both personal story and abstracted exposition. While much of this is yet to be documented by systematic research, to the eyes of many, the emergence of hypermedia shimmers with promise.

But meanwhile, neither are the objections hard to anticipate: "Yes, but my students already have trouble writing traditional, linear texts effectively--as they juggle the many demands and constraints of the writing process; why add yet another ball to keep airborne?" (see Flower & Hayes, 1980 for a more elaborated discussion of this viewpoint). True, students still struggling with the form of the written word may be willing to sacrifice for a time something of the richness of meaning; to settle for passionless, unreflective words welded into rigid, formulaic formats. But as they begin to grasp the challenge of using writing as a way of making important connections with others; as they begin to feel that useful tension between the wondrous ideas in their heads and the grappling for words; as they begin to engage in the struggle to make communicative sense of personal meanings, then different, more complex needs arise. Hypertext is no magic wand, but it certainly seems a container well-suited to the burgeoning networks of a writer's richer thoughts. What its staunchest advocates believe may yet be a possible dream: that by serving as a uniquely appropriate vehicle for reflective, nonlinear exploration, hypertext just may encourage this exploration.

Our Stacks: "Towards the Metapersonal Essay"

Fascinated by hypertext's potential to support writing instruction, we began work some months ago on a HYPERCARD application that addresses the idea that expository and narrative discourse represent poles of a dialectic (DiPardo, 1990). This application is intended to encourage a richly social, richly collaborative classroom environment (on collaborative writing using microcomputers, see Dauite & Dalton, 1988; Dickinson, 1986; Hawkins, Sheingold, Gearhart, & Berger, 1982; Levin & Boruta, 1983; Levin, Riel, Rowe, & Boruta, 1985; Riel, 1985). We envision students brainstorming the assignments together: one entering ideas at the keyboard while another thinks aloud. Where they become stuck, they are aided by pointers and tips stored in accompanying "help stacks." With works-in-progress collected in a classroom databank, responses to rough drafts could be ongoing, abundant, and varied. (Pop-up windows are provided for this purpose.) Finished products could be easily compiled into a classroom magazine and accessed, along with samples of professional writing, by future groups of students. Links could be provided to highlight similarities among key features of these essays. For instance, a link could highlight the similarities among the ways in which writers navigate between their grounding in personal experience and their more generalized discussions of issues and concerns. Finally, students could maintain an ongoing, collective "idea log" to help stimulate thought about future essays and engage in written dialogue with one another. Modeled after Ann Berthoff's "dialectical notebook" (1981), the idea log looks like an opened spiral notebook; a student could use the opposing pages to record different aspects of reflection on a given subject; or, one side could be used to note an individual's thoughts, the other side to register classmates' or teachers' responses (See Appendix, Figure 1).

We have designed a series of assignments that encourage students to explore the relationship between personal experience and public inquiry, with the final goal of integrating the two into the "metapersonal" essay (See Appendix, Figure 2). In all, our stacks include five writing assignments: a personal story ("Narrative" tab), an expository text that will be linked to this story via numbered buttons ("Two Track"), a set of two hypertexts with shifting emphases ("Nar-Exp"), and a final assignment that asks students to integrate the narrative and expository strands they have been exploring into a linear essay ("Metapersonal"). In addition to helps, exercises, and sample essays that guide students through each of these assignments, the stacks also contain a file of pictures (the "LifeScenes" tab) to help inspire essay brainstorming; notes may be recorded in pop-up windows, then referenced later for pasting onto assignment idea cards or into actual essays. The "Suggestion Box" is a space in which students may leave ideas and complaints, and the instructor can respond. In addition to brainstorming and revision tips included with each of the individual assignments, the "Help" tab offers context-specific technical assistance. The help provided will always be appropriate to whichever stack ("LifeScenes," "Narrative," "Two Track," etc.) the student has selected prior to clicking on "Help" (See Appendix, Figure 3).

The first assignments ("Narrative" and "Two Track") introduce students to hypertext and encourage initial exploration of the connection between the story and more abstract discussion. After completing the narrative assignment, students are asked to consider what more generalized issues or ideas their stories suggest and to explore these in an expository essay. By clicking on the narrative essay button displayed alongside the expository essay card, a student can call up his or her narrative, which will be displayed in a scrolling pop-up window at the bottom of the screen (See Appendix, Figure 4). Once the expository essay has been completed, students are asked to place numbered links where similar ideas or themes are addressed in both the narrative and expository texts; when both essays are displayed on the screen, selecting a given number in either and clicking on the appropriate "find" button will locate the corresponding marker in the accompanying text (See Appendix, Figure 5).

The next set of assignments, "Nar-Exp," asks students to create hypertexts of a sort that will be familiar to users of OWL International's GUIDE. The first assignment asks students to write another narrative, this time with buttons linked to pop-up windows containing expository asides; the second essay will be a work of exposition on a similar topic, this time punctuated by narrative pop-up windows. These pop-up windows can be created by simply selecting a word or phrase from the primary text and clicking the hypertext ("Nar-Exp") button displayed along the right side of the screen; the selected word or phrase will be automatically bracketed in the text and will also be displayed at the top of a scrolling pop-up window. Later, a reader can view a pop-up window by selecting a bracketed word or phrase in the primary text, then clicking the hypertext button (See Appendix, Figure 6).

Finally, having explored at length the relationships between their public interests and personal experiences, students will be guided toward writing that integrates the two into exploratory (Zeiger, 1985), recursive, metapersonal prose (Connors, 1987). As hypertext becomes a more ubiquitous option across the curriculum, we look forward to providing a choice between hyper- or linear text for this final assignment. For now, we envision the earlier forays into nonlinearity ("Two Track" and "Nar-Exp") as ways of exploring connections that can be integrated into students' linear texts--nonhypertexts still being the academic norm, at least for the time being. Of the five assignments, this one is accompanied by the sparest of instructions, and there are no exercises or prompts. Eventually, we hope to compile a bank of student essays, richly interlinked with buttons to aid in the process of analyzing and comparing the writers' strategies. We also look toward collecting written and oral writers' protocols to help illustrate how other students have approached the various demands of these writing tasks.

Our hope is that the earlier assignments will make students more conscious of their navigations between personal and public interests, and that this awareness will encourage them to compose linear texts that are at once spirited and inclusive, both personally engaged and attentive to a reader's needs and interests. We hold that our best writing (and thinking) always dances between the private and public; and while hypertext can make it more salient, it is the dynamism of this dance that makes any writing--including linear, academic discourse--both powerful and engaging.

Our project, then, supports old goals in new ways. We present it not as the last word on hypertext--it is, indeed, minimally hypertextual, ultimately guiding students back to linear text--but as a model of how the emerging technology can be integrated into the individual teacher's pool of resources. What hypertext will mean to the writing class will be determined in large part, we believe, through grass-roots efforts like our own: by teachers tinkering, experimenting, observing, and sharing. We hope to be hearing in the new decade about lots of teacher-designed hypertext projects--projects with tales of inspiration and development that are perhaps similar to what we have presented here, but no doubt informed by different ideas, and realized by different paths.

On Navigating the "Network of Knowledge"

While teachers create overarching instructional environments as their philosophies, theories, and personalities dictate; too often computers are hastily added rather than gracefully integrated. Because educational software has so often amounted to little more than electronic drillbooks grounded in archaic, behavioristic ideas about teaching and learning (Becker, 1984), Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI) signifies to many teachers a mechanistic, Skinnerian approach--packaged lessons conceptualized, designed, and controlled by someone uninformed by real students, who cares little for the human diversity and social atmosphere of real classrooms.

While the emergence of new technologies like HYPERCARD provides teachers the opportunity to become more closely involved than ever before in designing classroom software, it is good to consider the adjective "relative" that generally precedes the claims of "accessibility" in connection with HYPERCARD. HYPERCARD newcomers pressed for time, or resistant to things technological, often find learning it a formidable challenge--or, at least, more formidable than its more effervescent enthusiasts allow. Until the technology is made still more accessible, most new users of HYPERCARD--especially those with scant computer experience--will need some degree of technical assistance. Even so, HYPERCARD invests teachers with a new power to actively participate in the design of innovative classroom software.

But meanwhile, just how to adapt HYPERCARD in ways informed by the vision of educational theorists and the experience of practitioners remains a somewhat open question. In bringing together our own technical and educational knowledge to create this application, we have had an opportunity to explore first-hand the challenge of achieving a graceful synthesis. While we can scarcely claim that we consistently mastered that challenge, we have learned much about our hidden biases and untapped talents, about our different ways of approaching and talking about technology, and about what it means to be open to new, uncharted possibilities. What creative imagining and technical realization we were able to muster came only after a long, unsettled period of groping and wondering--an incubative period in what has called been called "potential space" (Winnicott, 1964).

To locate that space for themselves, teachers need relaxed, supportive opportunities to experiment with and to explore emerging technologies like HYPERCARD. Certainly, teachers need to receive technical support when necessary, but perhaps more importantly, they need to consider together how these technologies might fit into the overarching conceptual frame of their classrooms and how they might fit the sometimes idiosyncratic goals and passions that inform their own teaching. Somewhat paradoxically, along with the increasing individual freedom to create software, there comes an increasing need for collaboration with colleagues; our best thinking, as we have argued here, is inevitably a blend of the private and public, of one's own ideas and the input of others. Especially in this exciting but still unfamiliar territory, there is a heightened need to swap ideas, to reflect upon disagreements, to share what has worked and to worry together over what has not.

Our collaboration in creating "Towards the Metapersonal Essay" presents a microcosm of such a process. As we moved among multiple possibilities in producing this application, hammering out compromises, trusting in ourselves and each other, letting the task gradually pull us into rapt engagement, we perhaps learned most about how to learn collaboratively. Early in our reading about hypertext, we were reminded of some famous words of John Muir's: "When we try to pick out anything by itself," he observed, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe" (quoted by Drexler, 1987, p. 222). Muir was of course describing nature, but as Drexler points out, the words aptly describe HYPERCARD's ability to richly represent the "network of knowledge." As we melded our two very different sorts of expertise towards the creation of our stackware, we appreciated Muir's remark anew-- not only as an apt description of what HYPERCARD can help capture, but as the quite human process by which we together realized a small sliver of its potential.


Many thanks to Glynda Hull for her encouragement and wise advice during the initial phase of our project. Thanks also to the two anonymous C ~ C reviewers, whose comments contributed substantially to the final version of this manuscript. ~

Anne DiPardo is currently completing a doctorate in language and literacy education at the University of California at Berkeley; Mike DiPardo is a systems analyst in Computing, Media, and Telecommunication Services at Sonoma State University, in Rohnert Park, CA.


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[Figure 1]

Figure 1. The Idea Log

[Figure 2]

Figure 2. The Introductory card

[Figure 3]

Figure 3. A card from "Nar-Exp" "Help"

[Figure 4]

Figure 4. Narrative and expository essays in "Two Track"

[Figure 5]

Figure 5. A hypertext in "Two Track"

[Figure 6]

Figure 6. A pop-up window in "Nar-Exp"