Electronic Literature Pedagogy: A Questionable Approach
by: Chris Mott
WHY SHOULD I TEACH ELECTRONIC LITERATURE?
The first reason to teach electronic literature is practical: digital media are the most rapidly growing forms of communication, and they will only grow in their influence and pervasiveness. Most of our students are fairly skillful with electronic technology, but as we all know, skill is not literacy. Literacy includes the ability not only to perform in a given medium, but to think in and beyond that medium, to be able to critique and extend the medium. The unprecedented growth and ubiquity (soon computers will be more common in homes than TVs) of electronic technology demands an enlightened, an educated and responsible use of the media.
Further, many teachers find themselves attempting to improve their students’ understanding of academic discourse by bridging the gap between the academic world and the world of popular culture. Electronic technology is the dominant medium for popular culture. Electronic games, itunes, YouTube, and Facebook are here to stay. More than that, these electronic modes of communication add to the intensity of information exchange. Of course, our students run some risks in this intensified information environment. They might first become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they must process--although we have heard from some cognitive scientists that this generation of students has adapted cognitively by processing information more quickly, if more superficially (more on deep- versus hyper-attention later). In addition, the information comes to students without any obvious distinction in quality. We’ve all heard the anecdotes about how quickly unsubstantiated rumors spread as facts on the internet. We also know that students have a difficult time discerning good from bad online sources for term papers (some schools have even prohibited students from using Wikipedia in their papers). Surely, we in the humanities who have taught critical literacy all along are the best equipped to shoulder the responsibility of helping our students not only to understand and use, but to evaluate and create in and through electronic media.
In What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (NY: Palgrave, 2004), James Paul Gee argues that interactive media (in this case, video games) allow for much deeper understanding of characterization than the old dynamic of identification because they better mimic the mutlilayered information fields our students walk through everyday. In addition, digital texts help promote a broader literacy; the old print literacy is necessary but not adequate for the complex semiotic environment our students must learn to read (19). Finally, digital media offers a richer learning experience because of their very multiplicity: multimedia appeals to multiple learning styles.
From a literary standpoint, electronic literature poses the greatest challenge to the canon in the last thirty years. Indeed, electronic literature is the future of literature. Its possibilities are every bit as exciting as the work produced in Paris in the 1920s and at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the 1960s. To fully realize this potential, our students need to learn the generic conventions, aesthetic criteria, and cultural contexts that define the New Media. Interactivity, for example, is a radical break from print literature and makes of the reader/player a co-author, or co-producer, if you will. Thus, the role of the “critic” will change greatly from the one who approaches a text from the outside to one who “plays” it from the inside. Criticism will take on a more performative role, and students are already assuming this role in their day-to-day semiotic activities.
HOW CAN I HELP MY STUDENTS WHO ARE FRUSTRATED OR CONFUSED BY ELECTRONIC LITERATURE?
We might find solace in the old adage that any true learning hurts, and we can help our students by remembering that we have strategies for helping them to overcome the frustration and confusion they feel when unable to identify the “hidden meanings” in any literary text. Electronic literature increases the potential frustration by perhaps defying students’ sense of what a coherent text looks like and what it means to “read.” Teachers can help their students by clearly defining critical tasks—even to the point of delimiting the text in temporal terms (30 minutes rather than thirty pages; see below in HOW DO I ASSIGN READING). Students get a better sense of what’s at stake, and what to look for, if they know the historical and social context for devices, conventions and innovations. Finally, because each student’s reading experience (and text) could be unique, asking students to collaborate on their interpretations can lead to exciting insights and a more complex understanding than that produced by the student in isolation. Further, using a wiki for student learning could also illuminate, in the very act of composing entries, how radically collaborative electronic media can be, as Susan Lewak explains in her essay, “What Matters Who’s Speaking: Access, Wikis, and YOU” elsewhere on this site).
In her article, “Novices Encounter a Novice Literature: Introducing Digital Literature in a First-Year College Writing Class” (Teaching English in the Two-Year College 34,4: May 2007), Ingrid Daemmrich describes putting most of these practices in play in her introduction to literature course which concluded with electronic poetry. Before asking her students to analyze electronic literature, Daemmrich introduced her students to the conventions that define the three traditional modes of print literature (drama, fiction, and poetry). She then asked her students to analyze and evaluate electronic literature in their reading journals, and to share their responses with their classmates in whole-class discussion. Daemmrich encouraged her students to judge the qualities of good poetry and fiction, specifically attending to the “development of plot and character or memorable images and the text’s appeal to their emotions or intellect” (422). The one thing she decided to change for the next iteration of the course concerns aesthetic and theoretical context. Initially, she thought to ensure that her students’ responses were untainted by “professional evaluations,” so she chose not to “train [her] students in the complex techniques of hypertext.” Next time, Daemmrich plans to offer more hypertext instruction to avoid the general confusion that beset her students in their initial readings.
Finally, teachers can help their students cope with frustrated (print) expectations by sharing their own frustrations with electronic literature. This sort of collaboration (and collaboration will be elaborated in other sections of this essay) calls for more than the sharing of interpretations; it calls for the sharing of each reader/player’s experience, especially the emotional experience of losing one’s patience and struggling to regain an intellectual foothold in the material. The best advice in this regard comes from Katherine Hayles’ Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2008) where she notes that many readers who expect to progress through rising tension to some narrative climax are frustrated by Michael Joyce’s Twelve Blue. A more enriching approach, Hayles suggests, would be “Like sensual lovemaking,” as “the richness of Twelve Blue takes time to develop and cannot be rushed” (64). Teachers can help their students (and themselves) by slowing down, seeking moments in the text to savor rather than reading to force passages into some overarching “interpretation.” The emphasis is not on a completed plot (which, after all, is rather mundane), but on the process of pattern emergence, how the mind works to draw out connections and coherence. In Roland Barthes’ parlance, electronic literature encourages the jouissance more than the pleasure of reading.
HOW DO I HELP MY STUDENTS PROFIT FROM THE SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRINT AND ELECTRONIC LITERATURE?
Students best appreciate innovation if they know the standards from which the innovative text deviates. Daemmrich hoped that her students’ analyses would reveal to them “how digital literature reshapes traditional writing and reading,” guiding their exploration with prompts regarding the different “immersion” between print and digital literature, whether or not digital literature inspired a more “active or engaged” reader, how the narrator’s or speaker’s role might differ, the difference between print and digital “fictional spaces,” which medium struck student as more “imaginative,” and, finally, which they preferred to read (423-24). While reading preference is more a matter of taste than analytical potential, Daemmrich’s students did express a strong respect for the innovations of digital literature—even those who insisted that they preferred “old-fashioned” novels.
In Electronic Literature, Katherine Hayles provides teachers with a history, definitions, cultural contexts, and distinctive features of electronic literature. Teachers might arrange this information into a scaffold that could support an enlightening inquiry into the nature and consequences of differences between digital and print literature. One consequence, for example, is a modified aesthetic. An exercise to reveal aesthetic assumptions might have students listing some criteria for evaluating literary achievement. Teachers might help students to see where these criteria—the expectations they have for good literature—derive from the cultural history of print productions, encouraging students to imagine how a digital culture will modify and create a new aesthetic.
Lance Olsen’s 10:01 is a perfect pairing of print and electronic text that should allow students a profound experience of the difference between the two media. The work is available as a print novel in a fairly traditional format, and it is also available as an electronic text, in collaboration with Tim Gutherie, in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One. In the digital version, mousing over the characters in the theatre gives the reader/player a more temporally interwoven experience of the characters than turning pages that are already set in order. Indeed, the surprises are more surprising when happened upon by the curious cursor rather than followed through page by linear page. Of course, one could read randomly in the novel, but the very fact of enumerated pages suggests a linear design, a design wholly absent from the electronic iteration. A comparison and contrast by students between these two texts would be sure to yield lots of insights about the differences between print and electronic literature. In Electronic Literature, Katherine Hayles mentions two other print/digital pairings that might work well in the literature classroom: Stephanie Strickland’s print poetry V: Wave Son.Nets/Losing l’Una and her Web text V:Vniverse, and Geoff Ryman’s 253 that began as a digital text and then appeared in print.
In “The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event” (in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, ed. Adelaide Morris and Thomas Swiss), Katherine Hayles argues that electronic literature exists more as an event than an object, thus necessitating a more animated critical involvement. Elsewhere on this site, Nathan Brown has written a response to Hayles wherein he insists that the distinction is more a difference of degree than kind. Taken together, the essays elaborate a key pedagogical issue in the teaching of electronic literature: Would students be best served by an emphasis on electronic literature as a new kind of literature, or would students benefit from a sense of continuity between electronic literature and other literary traditions? In addition, Brown’s essay connects the innovative work of electronic poets with the experimental poetics of Charles Olson, another bridge to print literature that teachers might find useful.
Unlike print texts, one frequently finds electronic texts that simply cannot be read cover-to-cover; the physical text itself cannot be totalized. Indeed, Katherine Hayles argues compellingly that the logic of electronic narrative defies the logic of print narrative, even though print logic can appear in digital form. To elucidate this point, Hayles contrasts Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story with his later Twelve Blue. The former work offers differing plot paths for the reader, but the narrative still follows an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end pattern based on the solution of a mystery of sorts. On the other hand, Twelve Blue emphasizes the process of surfing the Web; the player finds some patterns, but these do not cohere into anything like a solution or plot conclusion. Rather, Twelve Blue encourages local insights over global comprehension (Electronic Literature, 60-4). This difference between the logic of print literature and the logic of electronic literature can lead to some frustration, especially for those students who enter the literature classroom seeking hidden messages and single answers to interpretive problems. In this respect, though, literature teachers have coped with student frustration for as long as we’ve taught literature—emphasizing close reading, local insights, and shared understanding of ultimately incomprehensible material highlights the imaginative and ludic quality of literary interpretation that students often find so difficult to practice.
HOW DO WE DISCUSS A TEXT THAT IS NOT THE SAME FOR EVERYONE?
Another practical matter concerns an old problem in the literature classroom. Teachers devote a great deal of time helping students to distinguish between summary and analysis by suggesting that students remember that their reader knows well the text under consideration, so there is little need to summarize it. Clearly, this assumption requires revision regarding electronic literature. Because elit texts are so involved and complex, so open-ended and elusive, one cannot assume that any two readers/players have experienced the same text, even the same passages. Much more than with print literature, then, students must become adept at describing their reading/playing experiences so that their analyses make sense. Students and teachers of elit do not have to reinvent the wheel to accommodate this rhetorical imperative in elit criticism—even in print literature, critics discuss little known or very new texts that defy any assumption of a common reading. Perhaps teachers could bring in examples of such critical pieces so that students would have a model for adept, pertinent summary. The class might also benefit from using a data projector so that the whole class could “play” through a passage of a text and then practice describing to each other what has occurred.
Close reading tactics still apply, but many students will benefit from the opportunity to summarize “what happened” as they experienced a piece of elit. In this case, students aren’t only describing what goes on in a piece of elit, they will also be recounting their responses (emotional, intellectual, social) as they played the piece. So, as with reader-response criticism of print literature, active reading entails taking note of a reader’s emotions (and that includes frustration at the piece), as well as his perceptions and analyses. Of course, as with print literature, students should not stop at the “what?” of their reading experience but push on to the “why?” Teachers can prompt “why?” responses on any number of levels from the technical to the material/historical, to the political.
Teachers might also ask students to employ available technology to match elit criticism with the technology of electronic literature. Our best technology now is the screen capture, but that still doesn’t capture the animation of most elit pieces. Students should learn how to “wrap” their analysis around a figure or image captured from a digital work. This will help them to share their experiences of the text, and to “build” the text together.
HOW DO I ASSIGN READING?
Time might be a better measure of workload than number of pages as pagination is rare, even irrelevant to elit. For example, rather than assigning pages 1-45 of a piece, a teacher might assign 50 minutes of working with John Cayley’s “Windsound.” Here, too, teachers might help their students understand the different temporal fields at work in electronic literature, perhaps best conceived as “an oscillation between the virtual time in the narrative universe and the time spent manipulating the text,” as Jan Van Looy and Jan Baetens put it in the collection of essays, Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature (Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2003), they edited. Thus, teachers might ask students not only to record the time they spent with an electronic piece, but the time they spent in the piece as well.
Two problems face the teacher hoping to base discussion on close reading of passages. The first has to do with navigation. Again, lack of pagination creates difficulties in pointing to a specific item in a piece. On the other hand, the way one gets to that item is part of the point of elit. The second problem has to do with the limits of the “passage.” While print literature has discrete pages, paragraphs and sentences that allow students and teachers to find convenient boundaries for their selections, some elit pieces contain animated sequences that have no simple demarcation of one from another. As with most successful literature pedagogy, students will probably benefit from a frank discussion of these distinctive qualities of elit—indeed, this discussion could become the basis of protocols and criteria that enable the students to choose their own passages (and in electronic literature this term means both the passage or path one takes through a work as well as discrete sections along the way) for discussion.
WHAT SORTS OF ASSIGNMENTS AND EXERCISES (INTELLECTUAL TASKS) ARE MOST RELEVANT AND EFFECTIVE?
Digital literature forces us to rethink our criteria for the evaluation of student work. When we evaluate student interpretations of print literature, we consider how well the student’s analysis of particular details remains true to the whole work. This criterion might be unfair, even impossible to apply to elit (as even the teacher might not have exhausted all of the possible iterations of a piece). Still, the fundamental criteria for evaluating student interpretations apply: coherent and compelling, insightful and enriching comments on some significant aspect of a piece. Students still need to formulate some overarching claim based on perspicacious observations of the material, and they must still muster material evidence to develop and support their overarching claim.
Group work helps to build a more coherent, if still incomplete, map of an elit work. Group work also helps to alleviate individual anxiety about a lack of coherence in the reading/playing experience. In one exercise, each member of a group writes a brief (250 word) synopsis (or constructs a map) of his or her reading/playing experience. The group as a whole then attempts to construct a fuller synopsis or more detailed map. Students should get an even fuller picture when the groups share their synopses/maps as a whole class. On the other hand, students might soon realize that the struggle to make meaning and not some final answer is the point of literary interpretation (see Electronic Literature, 155-6). Critics work for coherence, to be sure, but no critic presumes a comprehensive interpretation. Navigating the tension between coherence and comprehensive analysis is an important lesson for students of literature.
Teachers of electronic literature might take a page out of Katherine Hayles’ book (in this instance, the book is Electronic Literature) by attempting to create synergistic groups or pairs. Hayles found that some of her students had game experience, while others were adept at critical theory and textual analysis (124). A survey early in the term can help teachers identify the various skills of the students and to create synergistic groupings whereby those more practiced at focused, constant attention of literary analysis can complement the work of those who have stronger cognitive skills in processing multivalent sources.
To help students build the complex navigational skills they will need in some elaborate electronic texts, bring in a few simple games and ask them to work through those for, say, a half hour. Experienced gamers should be able to help their non-experienced peers: if enough gamers are in a class, they could be paired with the non-gamers; gamers could also provide a brief overview to the whole class about game strategies and goals, which, in turn, could be compared and contrasted to narrative strategies and goals.
Because navigation is such an important factor in the interpretation of electronic literature (see Jessica Pressman’s piece elsewhere on this site), students might benefit from transcribing their every move. That is, students could keep a notebook beside their computers as they navigate the piece, noting each click of the mouse, each scroll. Recording the various screens or paths that appear with each click could also help produce a record not only of the text but of their “reading style” as well. In electronic literature, a “reader’s” moves within a piece are as meaningful (or meaning-making) as any individual component of the piece. A good practice piece here might be Andrews and Masurel’s “Blue Hyacinth” in which each mouseover produces a change in the text. Keeping track of these changes in one’s mind requires a photographic memory, but a simple notepad provides a handy substitute. Indeed, students should be encouraged to keep paper and pencil next to the computer so that they can take notes, sketch narrative maps and screens, and pose questions. Paper is the perfect technological complement to digital literature.
Students of literature are not trained to take note of and discuss animation; print texts do not move independently of their readers. Yet, even the most “passive” piece of electronic literature (for example, Ingrid Ankerson’s “While Chopping Red Peppers”) is far more active than any print piece. Clearly, the movement within the piece signifies as much as words or color or sound, but students are not used to accounting for movement within a literary text. They are, however, used to accounting for movement in film. Camera movement and character movement signify in ways that students commonly discern. Perhaps, then, a good exercise to help students hone their analysis of animation would ask them to track camera movement in a film scene, then perform an analogous analysis of the shifts within an electronic literature passage.
According to Katherine Hayles one of the defining features of electronic literature is that the “text” occurs at two levels: code and machine translation. Many teachers at UCLA have instructed their students in some basic code (HTML) and had them write a source page. Students were excited by the Web instantiation of their simple pages of code; they were equally intrigued by the different translations performed by different browsers. Ultimately, these exercises helped students gain a deeper understanding of the multiple layers of signification that constitute digital literature, perhaps even allowing them to realize that “Contemporary literature is computational” (Electronic Literature, 85). To give students a better sense of the “play” that is at the heart of “reading” electronic literature, many teachers have asked students to play narrative games such as The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time so as to understand the difference between character and avatar, plot and narrative course.
Further, collaboration is one of the key themes in the world of electronic literature. Interactive fiction and drama (as Katherine Hayles explains in Electronic Literature) require that “readers” become active contributors—collaborators, if you will—in the production of the literary experience. Frequently, the “reader” appears in the literary piece as a character (complete with screen avatar) whose interactions with other characters creates the action or plot of the piece. In other instances, the “reader” actually manipulates text, changing words and phrases and their positions in the text. Hayles recalls Janet Murray’s insightful description of the risks of such collaboration where readers/users could undermine the whole narrative fabric. Murray’s critical concerns call to mind the pedagogical risk assumed by teachers of electronic literature: lack of mastery on the part of both students and teachers could undermine a coherent and complete interpretation of the piece. On the other hand, such lack of mastery by any one user could lead to the truest experience of collaboration wherein all readers depend on each other for bits of information, alternative perspectives, and unanticipated hypotheses. In this critical experience, all benefit from the contributions of each.
HOW DO I TEACH IN A MEDIUM/MATERIAL I HAVE NOT MASTERED?
In the traditional collaborative classroom, instructors facilitate the learning experience of groups of students. Students work with each other to define the goals of the lesson, to parse the tasks involved in an assignment, and, mostly, to share intellectual resources with their peers. These assumptions also undergird the pedagogy of elit, but even more radically. To be sure, students will provide each other with intellectual and experiential resources regarding electronic media (games, communication tools, networked sites, etc.), but these same students will also serve as an important pedagogical resource for the instructor. That is, while most collaborative learning activities set the teacher aside as a “facilitator,” elit places him among the students. Instructors probably cannot assume the same authority they do in a print media classroom. They will be learning along with their students, will depend as much on the experiences and learning strategies of their students as students have traditionally depended on teachers.
Such a classroom dynamic is risky. Still, teachers have taken similar risks in conventional collaborative learning classrooms—they relinquish their authority as master-of-all-information and trust to their students to develop successful methods of learning. Teachers place greater faith in the educational power of student exploration than in telling students what to know. The risk with teaching elit, then, is not different in kind; it is only more intense. Students might come to the class already in possession of more knowledge and better strategies than the instructor, but, as we learned when popular culture studies entered the college curriculum, the instructor typically offers these savvy students a more critically informed way to approach their experiences. Thus, while students might have greater intuitive, embodied or tacit knowledge of the digital world, they still need the teacher’s conscious knowledge and analytical expertise to articulate that intuitive knowledge. Here, then, teachers might act as models helping students to learn how to shape their raw experiences into well-examined perceptions.
WHICH PIECES SHOULD I TEACH?
This is a legitimate and impossible question, of course. Perhaps, though, the principle of moving from the least to the most complex should guide a teacher’s text selection. The nature of the course should also determine which texts best fit a theme or genre or period (be warned, though, periodization in electronic literature happens much faster than in print literature). The editors of the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One collection have provided teachers with a wide variety of pieces that exemplify almost all of the genres of elit. Still, based on the experience of several teachers of electronic literature at UCLA, I would suggest using shorter pieces, especially with introductory or lower-division courses. Students have felt more comfortable and taken more interpretive risks when they’ve worked on shorter pieces than when working with longer texts. Perhaps the best course would start with shorter pieces, allowing students to gain confidence before tackling a longer work.
This website is designed to provide ideas for text selection and thematic grouping by way of sample syllabi, and the text lists organized by theme and genre. Heather Wozniak’s essay proposes many fruitful connections between the gothic and electronic literature, and Kate Marshall’s essay on the trope of the corridor derives from a very successful course she taught on that subject. Jonathan Jones explicates the theme of the alienated body in Shelley Jackson’s My Body—A Wunderkammer and Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan Library. Both essays, found elsewhere on this site, could help in composing a text list as well as providing issues for class discussion. Ruth Page discusses several electronic personal narratives in her examination of contemporary self-writing, “Stories of the Self on and off the Screen.” In addition, the individual author biographies provide author websites that contain more materials to help organize your course.
The best advice here is: “dive in!”
WHAT RESOURCES ARE AVAILABLE TO HELP ME TEACH ELECTRONIC LITERATURE?
We have provided on this site essays on teaching and analyzing specific texts, as well as essays with a more general overview of electronic literature. In addition, this site a wide range of syllabi that should provide something for everyone’s interests and pedagogical goals.
In the first chapter of her Electronic Literature, Katherine Hayles provides something of a bibliographic essay, nicely summarizing the key points of most of the major critical works on electronic literature. Further materials can be found on the Electronic Literature Organization site, as well as links from the author sites listed in the author biographies on this site.