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Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom

Author: Joan Tornow
Publisher: Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1997
Review Published: January 1998

 REVIEW 1: David Silver

In the last few years, "teaching with technology" has become synonymous with "using the Internet" (1) Indeed, as one can see from the growing list of online courses in cyberculture, university and college instructors are introducing Internet technologies such as listservs, email, and Web sites into their courses, lectures, and discussions. How are such technologies integrated into the classroom? For what reasons and with what kind of success are they introduced? How do the students respond? How are classroom dynamics altered?

These are some of the questions addressed by Joan Tornow's Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom. Although the book is not without its faults, it is nevertheless an excellent primer on using the Net in the classroom. As one of the first book-length treatments of the subject, it also proves quite valuable to those instructors already experienced with online classrooms.

Although many visitors to RCCS are familiar and comfortable with and within computer-networked classrooms, most instructors and many students are not. Too often, the mere mention of a classroom with computers generates images of machine-like teachers and passive, automated students. Link/Age challenges this perception. Indeed, it seeks to find and highlight the human part of networked classrooms.

Tornow is at her best in what she calls "wave" chapters, brief narratives used "as tools for exploration, not explanation" (5). The best of these chapters are devoted to individual students. In "Lora," we witness a computer-weary student's first day in the lab; in "Irene," we watch a shy and quiet student come alive within the online environment; and in "David," we read of one student's resistance to and engagement with computer-mediated communication.

Complementing the individual "wave" chapters are chapters devoted to illuminate the process of online writing and group collaboration. In chapters like "The Second Paper Is Due," "Making Meaning from Memories," and "The Growth of a Student Paper," the author describes both the process and products of online, collaborative learning environments. Posting questions to one another and to the collective, students, according to Tornow, compile, challenge, and work through contingent conclusions. Interestingly, by including segments of drafts, suggestions, and final products, Tornow reveals the (often dramatic) processes of transformation undergone by students.

The result is a community. Using all the predictable sources (2), Tornow argues that such interaction and collaboration constitutes a "virtual community" (Howard Rheingold) and a "great, good place" (Ray Oldenburg). Reading about how the students work together, it is difficult to argue (3).

In addition to Tornow's humanization of the online classroom, the second major contribution of Link/Age is the author's interdisciplinary approach. As Tornow notes early in the book: "I have included observations from a wide array of academic sources, including experts in composition as well as experts in biology, physics, and business. I have also included the voices of those outside of academia, including—for example—journalists, filmmakers, and artists. This eclectic and holistic approach stems from my sense that evolving genres will tend toward just such a medley and away from the intense specialization with which we are more familiar" (10). Although this approach tends to get a bit murky at times (especially, as noted below, when delving into the more scientific realms), it serves to illustrate that online writing is not just about writing. Indeed, it represents new ways of thinking, interacting, communicating, expressing, sharing, collaborating, working, and playing.

The complexity of hypertext, hypertextual studies, and computer-networked classrooms is especially revealed in Tornow's "historical" chapters. In "A History of the Computer-Networked Classroom," the author traces the groundbreaking work of Trent Batson at Gallaudet University and Fred Kemp at the University of Texas. The chapter concludes by briefly introducing a few other forward-looking projects, including Kairos, RhetNet, and
ACW. Complementing this chapter is "E-text Comes of Age." Here, Tornow examines the work of Richard Lanham, Eric Crump, and John Goodwin to formulate preliminary elements towards a theory (or theories) of hypertext. Although the work of George Landow is strangely omitted, the chapter raises a number of interesting and challenging considerations (4).

The book, however, is not without its faults. In the "Introduction," Tornow writes, "I chose an ethnographic approach, and simply immersed myself in the class as a participant-observer" (9). Huh? Although the author certainly observes the class, it is unclear as to how she participates in it. Further, Tornow hardly attempts to explain her so called ethnographic methodologies. Further, the author neglects to tell us how and why particular subjects were chosen. While online ethnography is a new field, its newness does not excuse its practitioners from lazy methodology (5).

Further, Tornow's composition and style is at times distractingly disjunctive, a result, no, doubt of the author's attempt to fuse nearly everything under the sun, from hypertext and postmodernism to quantum mechanics and Kuhnian paradigm shifts with a smattering of critical theory, virtual reality, and network theory. Although Tornow's interdisciplinary approach is at times engaging and effective, it too often suffers from a surface-only understanding of quite complex phenomena. Serving as ammunition for the Alan Sokal camp, Tornow's connections (quantum physics and chaos theory are used, for example, to illuminate hypertext and hyperlinks) often fall short and will undoubtedly rub some readers the wrong way (6).

Joan Tornow's Link/Age is a spiraling, thought-provoking contribution to the field of hypertextual studies. At times, the book is perhaps too spiraling, especially when the author attempts to apply complex scientific principles to online writing. At the same time, it is the book's impressive breadth that provides such interesting insights and conclusions.

1. An earlier version of this book review appeared in Kairos 2.2.

2. As is unfortunately expected with scholars venturing into relatively new territories, Tornow too often regurgitates the same old literature regarding online communities. Thus, we come across Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through The Day (1991), Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993), and Shoshana Zuboff's In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (1988).

3. The only argument or problem I have with this section is Tornow's tendency to write about what works at the expense of what didn't work or what didn't work so well. As more instructors seek ways to incorporate computers and the Net into their classrooms, perhaps what is needed most is a directory or list of what not to do.

4. George Landow, a Professor of English and Art History at Brown University, has written extensively on the subject of hypertext. See, for example, George Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992) and George Landow, ed., Hyper/Text/Theory (1994).

5. For an excellent example of an online ethnography, see Nancy Baym, "The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication," in CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, ed. Steven G. Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995): 138-163, and Nancy Baym, "Interpreting Soap Operas and Creating Community: Inside a Computer-Mediated Fan Club," in Journal of Folklore Research 30:2/3 (May-December, 1993): 143-176.

6. In what is now commonly referred to as "The Sokal Affair," New York University physicist Alan Sokal tricked the cultural studies journal Social Text (46/47, Spring/Summer 1996) into publishing his essay "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," an out-of-control, jargon-laced parody of postmodern science critique. Unbeknownst to the journal's editors, Stanley Fish and Andrew Ross, the article was a hoax.

Shortly after publication of the article, Sokal spilled the beans in a separate article, entitled "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies," published in the May/June 1996 issue of Lingua Franca. Here, Sokal revealed his tactics:

Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously. For example, I suggest that the "morphogenetic field"—a bizarre New Age idea due to Rupert Sheldrake—constitutes a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity. This connection is pure invention; even Sheldrake makes no such claim. I assert that Lacan's psychoanalytic speculations have been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory. Even nonscientist readers might well wonder what in heavens' name quantum field theory has to do with psychoanalysis; certainly my article gives no reasoned argument to support such a link.

David Silver:
At the time of this review, David Silver was a Ph.D. student in American studies at the University of Maryland. He is now an assistant professor in Communication at the University of Washington.  <dsilver@u.washington.edu>

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