Evaluating the Hyperessay

The problem of evaluating work done in this format is of immediate interest to me since one of my honors thesis students did her project on electronic literature. Dori Deis's thesis is currently mounted on Colby's web pages. On the one hand, I could apply the usual standards of coherence, depth of analysis, accuracy in research, etc. without regard to format. On the other hand, only some of these conventional criteria for judging theses apply. For example, how can I critique the work's continuity and transitions when the principle is multi-transitional--when, as a reader, I am responsible for how the argument will flow? The method of producing this thesis creates certain distinctive writing problems. In her conclusions, Dori herself worries that the format of writing for the web might have undermined the clarity of her writing. Other factors--like clear outlines, easy manoeuverability, and useful links--are as important as clear writing here. Moreover, I have now a visceral sense of the kind of work that goes into planning and executing a webbed argument. While I do not agree with all her conclusions, she has done more work to create this web than most other thesis students do in developing their more standard research projects.

The issue of grading Dori's thesis represents in miniature the problems which vex those who write and must evaluate electronic essays. The standard remains and will likely continue to be publication on paper. The hierarchy of value attached to print publications is well established--the refereed versus the unrefereed, essay versus book, the relative prestige of various journals and presses. But there are few refereed electronic journals--we cannot ALL publish in PMC--and Web essays may be open to a much wider audience than most journals, but the quality of the audience and the essay can vary. And how do tenure committees, promotion reviews, and salary evaluations rank such publications?

One possibility for understanding the effectiveness of such a publication might involve a record of "hits." Since it is now possible to register how many visitors there are to a Web site, such a tally could indicate how "well-read" a particular web essay is. Of course, such a count actually would include random hits and the visits of friends as well as the visits of other scholars. Another possible measure might be a Web version of the Academic Citation Index--evaluators could measure the number of links to the web essay as a measure of its usefulness. Now there are even some web sites that have been ranked as useful CHECK. Some Web sites also include forms which the reader can fill out (see below). All of these measures address the problem of discovering the influence of a given essay

Of course, all these ways of measuring influence can become moot, if the very people who are assessing the scholarship cannot read/experience the piece because of technological limitations or lack of involvement in computer resources. To give an immediate example, there are members of this seminar who cannot move through my "essay" in all its dubious glory because we do not share software platforms or comparable network access. And this group is self-selected for a shared interest in electronic Shakespeare. Perhaps Network access and availability will become more normalized, but I am not sure that the job candidate seeking to publish her scholarship should seek out the Web as the most appropriate venue. There may be more problems than solutions in Web publication.

Send any comments to Laurie Osborne and join the ongoing discussion.

breaking out of the text