The Sense of a Link: Hypermedia, Hermeneutics, and the Teaching of Critical Methodologies

  1. 1. John Zuern

    Department of English - University of Hawaii

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The integration of electronic media into study and teaching withinhumanities disciplines--both as innovative instructional resources and as objects of study in their own right--raises a number of important methodological and pedagogical questions. My presentation focuses on the use of interactive computer-mediated materials in the teaching of interpretive methods in literary study. I argue that computer resources can also serve as a means of introducing students to interpretive methodologies and of helping them to develop their own critical orientations. Although my own work focuses on critical practices in literary studies, my observations have implications for other humanities disciplines in which interpretation plays a central role in the formation of knowledge.
The pioneering studies of Lanham [8], Joyce [3], Landow [6],[7], Aarseth [1], and many others draw parallels among principle characteristics of electronic media and central concepts in literary scholarship. The work of developers such as Landow, Larry Friedlander, and Gregory Crane has resulted in rich hypermedia materials dealing with specific texts and literary traditions. Although the affinities between hypermedia and the theoretical foundations of interpretive practices have been well established, and while resources such as the Dickens Web and the Perseus Project naturally concern themselves with interpretation in a general sense, I feel that more attention ought to be directed toward the potential of hypermedia to illuminate and advance the study of interpretation itself. The development of hypermedia offers the tradition of hermeneutic inquiry a new and dynamic environment in which to pursue its central questions. As researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence turn to philosophical hermeneutics in order to develop computational models of interpretation, those of us directly involved with the study of interpretation might take better advantage of computer-mediated communications technology to advance our own investigations.
My discussion takes for granted that the special features of hypermedia formats--notably the possibility of linking any element with any other element within or outside of a discrete system and the reader's variously circumscribed freedom to make navigational decisions-- redraw the hermeneutic circle and disrupt the intra- and intertextual connections that have traditionally guided the interpreter's decisions about what elements are relevant to an understanding of the "whole" of the work. My argument proceeds from three claims about hypermedia and hermeneutics:
1) that hypermedia publications, with their potential to disrupt and proliferate the connections within and among texts and to expand radically the parameters of textuality, reinforce the importance of the category of "relevance" in any inquiry into the conditions of understanding, recalling our attention to the complex of ideas surrounding Husserl's "unities of sense" and Schutz's effort [10] to develop them into a theory of relevance; and
2) that hypermedia textuality makes dramatically explicit the contingency of relevance both upon the objective structures of the text and the desire of the reader insofar as the "sense of a link," the meaning of any relationship between units, is constructed through the reader's overdetermined choices within the variously constrained, but never absolutely "open," parameters of choice determined by the structure of the hypermedia text; and
3) that hypermedia, in emphasizing the contingency of relevance and posing a constant invitation and challenge to the construction of meaning, provide an ideal learning environment in which to engage literary-theoretical concepts and to come to grips with literary-critical methodologies
As a professor of literary studies responsible for training undergraduate and graduate students in the techniques of literary analysis as well as in the development and evaluation of electronic media, I am especially interested in finding ways to integrate critical practice, literary hypertext, and hypermedia authoring. My focus on issues arising from the tradition of literary hermeneutics stems from my training in comparative literature with an emphasis on the history of literary theory, and from my experience teaching in a Department of English in Hawai'i, where questions about the relevance of particular texts--indeed, of particular modes of thought--from the European and American traditions are often more pointed than they might be in other contexts.
Many students at the University of Hawai'i enter advanced courses in literature and literary criticism with a marked animosity toward Western thinking but without an especially coherent background in Western thought. Many of the questions that occupy contemporary literary theory strike students here as irrelevant. When they do find theoretical work that seems to address their concerns--postcolonial criticism, for example, or theories of subjectivity that try to account for ethnicity, gender identifications, and sexuality--they often have difficulty establishing the connections between the theoretical models and the particular objects of their inquiries. The results are too frequently forced, uncritical "applications" that overlook the tensions between the model and the individual case, contributing neither to the suppleness of the theory nor to a nuanced understanding of the literary work in question.
It is in this context, which I am sure is not really so different from the contexts in which my many of my colleagues work, that I have begun to investigate the possibility of employing interactive hypermedia environments in the teaching of interpretive methods in literary study. My own ongoing effort to develop a orientation to textuality that takes into account a number of strands of the philosophical and literary-critical inquiry, combined with my experience in hypermedia development and electronic publishing, suggest to me that hypermedia learning environments are more responsive to the ways in which people actually "learn theory." Hypermedia environments have long been recognized for their capacity to enhance their users natural habits of reading and learning [7]. We learn to think critically and theoretically through a network of hunches, false trails, serendipitous comparisons, and an ongoing, but not always methodical, accumulation of information. Kolbs assertion that hypertext applications in philosophy need to discover ways to enact complex interactions that are neither flashy juxtapositions nor simple connections of topic and comment ([4] p. 341), points to both the challenges and risks of developing courseware for the teaching of critical methods. Resource must allow learners to grasp central concepts and to become comfortable using methodologies and terms without over-simplifying or decontextualizing challenging material. Linear chronologies of theorists' lives, bibliographies of important texts, and genealogies of critical terms provide valuable points of departure, but it is through the back-and-forth play of one's own values and the concepts and values articulated in theoretical discourse that one is drawn into a productive and truly critical conversation with the works of literature, literary theory, and philosophy.
Drawing upon current discussions of hypermedia applications in learning environments ([2], [9], [5]) and examples of my own work to date, my presentation concludes with a brief examination of concrete models for hypermedia systems that can assist students in entering into the question-and-answer dialectic of literary study, strengthening their critical acumen and engaging them directly in the production of whatever relevance literary theory--and literature itself--is to have in their intellectual lives.
1. Aarseth, E. J. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.Baltimore: MIT Press.
2. Barrett, E. & Redmond, M. (Eds) (1995). Contextual Media: Multimedia and Interpretation. Cambridge: MIT Press.
3. Joyce, M. (1995). Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
4. Kolb, D. "Socrates in the Labyrinth." In G. Landow (Ed.), Hyper/Text/Theory pp. 324-344. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
5. Kommers, P., Grabinger, R. &Dunlap, J. (1996). Technology of Hypermedia Learning Environment: Instructional Design & Integration. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.
6. Landow, G. P. (1994). "Whats a Critic to Do? Critical Theory in the Age of Hypertext." In G. Landow (Ed.), Hyper/Text/Theory pp. 1-48. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
7. Landow, G. P. (1997). Hypertext 2.0. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
8. Lanham, R. (1993). The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
9. Rada. R. (1995). Developing Educational Hypermedia: Coordination & Reuse. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
10. Schutz, A. (1970). Reflections on the Problem of Relevance. (R. Zaner, Ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.
11. Ulmer, G. (1994). Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

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Conference Info

In review

"Virtual Communities"

Hosted at Debreceni Egyetem (University of Debrecen) (Lajos Kossuth University)

Debrecen, Hungary

July 5, 1998 - July 10, 1998

109 works by 129 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (10), ACH/ICCH (18), ALLC/EADH (25)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None