The Missing Link: Interventions for Enhancing Traditional Student Composition

Proposal Title: 
The Missing Link: Interventions for Enhancing Traditional Student Composition

Typical composition courses have students create documents that are inherently print-centric, designed for the page regardless of whether that physical form is necessary or appropriate. Writing for electronic environments uses the hyperlink as an essential rhetorical element of communication, and traditional documents can easily be enhanced with hyperlinks using available, familiar tools. This presentation advocates for the incorporation of hyperlinks into composition assignments and instruction.


Despite the attention we at C&W often pay to innovative, multimodal digital texts, many FYC programs teach the same type of writing today that students produced on typewriters over fifty years ago, defaulting to alphabetic, paper/essay-based compositions. Those programs follow K-12 courses that teach the five-paragraph essay structure and a bit about MLA style for formatting papers. Today's secondary education, built for high-stakes standardized testing, clings to the myth of standardized writing and holds traditional print-derived expectations for content. In communities with widespread access to sufficient infrastructure, students commonly produce papers in Microsoft Word to exist as a file submitted to an online database or a collection of physical sheets placed on a desk. The resources students use to create their document, the online database to which they submit it, and the grade book into which the teacher enters a grade each exist as a collection of linked pages, connected to one another and generally non-viable without the network.

Students should understand their documents as inherently connected. Jay David Bolter (2001) addresses the importance of the "rhetorical gesture" of "the movement" involved in a hyperlink—a "meaningful juxtaposition of…elements" (pg. 38). Students who create written texts without hyperlinks omit a rhetorical gesture of increasing importance in today's written communications. Johndan Johnson-Eilola also asserts the importance of relating texts, going "a level above abstraction" where authors "construct relationships and connections" to present a more complex set of ideas (pg. 30). By working to combine documents, students create what Clay Spinuzzi (2008) calls "assemblages of humans and nonhumans," or actor-networks (pg. 7). These networks are essential when presenting modern distributed knowledge, yet traditional student essays exist in isolation, bereft of connections to outside sources. The hyperlink tool, included in all major word processors, allows writers to connect their work with other sources. Learning to link text from one document to another provides a scaffolded means of introducing students to writing for electronic environments: They can enhance the documents they already know how to create.

Enhancing documents with a layer of metadata adds critical rhetorical depth to student writing. Composition courses should include the hyperlink an a tool in the same way that we consider language itself a tool. As Jay L. Gordon (2005) argued that teaching the technology of writing should include the technological tools used for writing, students should practice and gain facility with the strategic use of hyperlinks to enhance the goals of their writing. Rhetorical linking would encourage students to learn to avoid the display of URL text when a link could be added in its place (similar to the MLA's decision to stop requiring URLs in lists of works cited) and to select strategic words as the anchor for a link (a strategy made famous through “Google bombing” in the early 2000s and other techniques later that decade). These strategies and considerations are essential in electronic environments and can easily be incorporated into traditional composition courses using existing tools and technology.

This presentation will address the challenges and opportunities presented by the use of hyperlinks, and it will advocate for wide adoption of the incorporation of hyperlinks in composition courses. To that end, several examples of assignment modifications, in-class activities, and student products will be presented, including the results of adopting these strategies in a traditional composition course.



Bolter, J. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Erlbaum.

Gordon, J. L. (2005). Teaching hypertext composition. Technical Communication Quarterly, 14(1):49–72.

Johnson-Eilola, J. (2005). Datacloud: Toward a new theory of online work. Hampton, Cresskill, NJ.

Spinuzzi, C. (2008). Network: Theorizing knowledge work in telecommunications. Cambridge University, New York, NY.

This presentation examines an often-overlooked element of 21st-century literacy (the use of hyperlinks) and suggests an intervention to develop students' skills using existing, familiar tools and technologies (the word processor and the ubiquitous hyperlink tool).
Proposal Type: