Robert Samuels. (2006). Integrating Hypertextual Subjects: Computers, Composition, and Academic Labor.
Odds are that most of us reading this journal are proponents of new media texts as part of contemporary writing course curriculums, and so is author Robert Samuels (2006), but his recent publication urges educators to carefully analyze both the benefits and dangers of incorporating technology into our classrooms.
Samuels' Integrating Hypertextual Subjects: Computers, Composition, and Academic Labor (2006), part of the New Dimensions series from Hampton Press, is at once a highly theoretical approach to critically analyzing the economic, authoritarian, and political facets of emerging technological media, and also an utterly practical guide for how to put such theory to work in the composition classroom.
In five chapters, the author outlines the crisis resulting from the clash between the existing university hierarchical structures and the "progressive model of information sharing and collaboration" (p. 45) inherent in hypertexts. Samuels sees composition faculty as key to bridging this gap between how students are socialized by the university and how they are socialized by the texts they use everyday. Although media's influence on users – and in this case students – is undeniable, Samuels argues that this influence often goes unquestioned. "I believe that students are using new communication technologies in productive and creative ways," Samuels says, "but I also believe their usage is often highly uncritical" (p. 3-4).The author thus proposes a mix of critical theory, pop culture and a "hypertextual model of integrated literacies" (p. 11) as a way for educators to encourage student reflection on technology (p. 63).
The first two chapters of the text consider trends in higher education, including the push to make large classes both interactive and also cost-effective. The next three chapters focus on the author's own classroom experiences with multiple texts (including Descartes' Discourse on Method and the film The Matrix) used to model a critical approach to hypertext production and media usage.
What distinguishes Samuels' work is not his discussion of media influence on users – since such issues trace back to Bolter and Grusin (1999) and others subsequently – but instead in his analysis of the ways new media are rewriting the rules of academic labor. The author argues that "few enthusiasts of hypertextuality have questioned what this new pedagogical model will do to the employment of writing faculty and other teachers" (p. 53) and by Samuels' estimation, if unchecked, the push to incorporate new media may endanger the professional standing of educators at every level of higher education.
One particularly interesting discussion in the text centers on the move by many universities to use online spaces to store and share instructional materials, materials that Samuels feels must be protected as the intellectual property of the faculty that developed them (p. 59). The conclusion of the book, in fact, calls for educators to unionize in an effort to secure their own places in the university. "Central to my argument is the claim that if faculty members do not learn how to protect their own interests by claiming a significant intellectual role in the shaping of students' multiple literacies, the academic labor system will continue to deteriorate and the value of public universities will evaporate" (p. 31).
For this author, one way to protect composition instructors' jobs and to secure the relevance of composition curriculum, is to foster new ways of understanding literacies. He argues that the better technology becomes, the more natural and seamless it feels and thus we begin to ignore the medium itself and stop being critical of it. This is the situation faced by educators and new media users and so Samuels proposes a new approach to distinguish between functional and critical literacies.
Combining current research in the field (Gee, 2003; Werry, 2002; Schroeder, 2001) Samuels troubles the accepted wisdom that student-centered, technology-mediated pedagogy is always best for students and for teachers. His text instead suggests that the unquestioning adoption of technology may threaten not only teachers' authority and employability, but also may send students mixed messages about what it is to write. "On the one hand, we want our students to express themselves and learn how to communicate with new technologies," says Samuels (p. 100). "On the other hand, we still need to help students write effective academic prose." For this reason, the author says it is important to assign academic writing in new writing formats. His detailed explanation of how to foster this merging of traditional and new media texts in the classroom serves as a useful guide for educators.
The author shares several of his own classroom experiences and assignments to illustrate how such a task may be undertaken. Although his specifics are helpful, I would like more information on exactly what sort of course Samuels was teaching, be it a general education course or one intended for English majors. Additionally, the final chapter of the text is interesting in that it offers some student feedback regarding the creation of a class hypertext, but the student comments are a bit excessive and may be somewhat skewed since it appears they were elicited as part of a class assignment.
Overall, the text offers a new perspective on faculty use of computers in composition and with plenty of preview and summary beginning and ending most chapters, it is a fairly quick and easy-to-follow read. Additionally, the author offers visual illustrations of his hypertextual model of literacies and although they were a bit confusing, when paired with written descriptions they offer another way to understand this new approach to critical literacy.
Bolter, J.D. & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave.
R. Samuels. (2005). Integrating Hypertextual Subjects: Combining Modern Academic Essay Writing With Postmodern Web Zines. Retrieved February 20, 2007, from Kairos: http://english.ttu.edu/Kairos/10.2/binder2.html?coverweb/samuels/index.html
Schroeder, C. (2001). Re-inventing the university. Logan: Utah State university Press.
Werry, C. (2002). The work of education in the age of ecollege. Computers and Composition, 19(2), 127-149.