Creating the Reader-Viewer

Engaging Students with Scholarly Web Texts

Anita M. DeRouen

It is late April, 2012. I am sitting in a small seminar room in our college library, eager to see the results of my Rhetoric of New Media class’s engagements with their final project: a digital rendering of their final scholarly essays in the course. I am pleased with their results, chalking any misgivings I may have about their choices up to my own inadequacies as a teacher and the challenges of designing a new technology-focused course on a campus that often feels it would be more at home with the mimeograph and a fleet of IBM Selectrics.

The projects are varied: one student, interested in issues related to privacy and intimacy, renders her paper in the form of a Facebook wall.  A business student turns his essay into the static Constant Contact newsletter; another student creates a dynamic video presentation of her data. Every project plays with existing forms, shaving and transforming the content to take advantage of the affordances of the new medium, but each proceeding in the same linear fashion as the original essay.

The project that excited—and challenged—me the most belonged to Mo Wilson. Mo, then a sophomore, used Tumblr to render his analysis of Kreyshawn’s then-ascendance up the ladder of musical success through the lens of Richard Lanham’s Economics of Attention.[1]  The page was difficult to follow—like all Tumblr pages, it is a loose collection of curated images, words, and sounds. While there is something akin to linearity present, the reader who comes upon the page will have to cobble together an idea of the central arguments of Mo’s project, the expected linkages and linguistic turns signaling the significance of one idea or the shift to another unseen in the gutter between the various posts that make up the rendering.[2]

Click to open full version: Mo Wilson, "Kreayshawn: The Attention Trap."

Click to open full version: Mo Wilson, “Kreayshawn: The Attention Trap.”

Click to open full version: Mo Wilson, "Kreayshawn: The Attention Trap."

Mo Wilson, “Kreayshawn: The Attention Trap.”

What I found most exciting about Mo’s project was the difficulty it presented to the reader. Where does one begin? At the top? At the bottom? How does one “read” the videos and the GIFs and to what should the reader attach significance? As I turned over the challenges posed by the text, I realized that it could be read “as is.” Perhaps the savvy reader could use a framework like Lanham’s rules for creating an attention trap to muse on why a cluster of words and moving images helps us to understand Kreayshawn’s success. Not all readers are savvy, though, and it’s easy to imagine another reader—a fan, perhaps—coming across the site and not quite knowing what to make of it.

Mo’s project intrigued me because it challenged my classroom practice. By selecting the Tumblr platform, Mo had chosen a site designed to “trap” attention; Tumblr pages provide endless opportunities to scroll deeper and deeper into a blogger’s patterns of curation, and accessing site-wide content through the tag search features is a surefire way to kill many an idle hour. He also chose a site that relies upon reader association for making ideas—if any are intended by the site author—cohere. As I reflected on the term, I realized that as a teacher—teaching, of all things, a course focused on the rhetorical challenges and opportunities presented by this new set of media tools and platforms—I had focused on writing in a way that failed to give equal weight to the demands placed upon the reader. Planning the webtext—like any text—requires that the author do so with an eye toward communicating effectively, even when experimenting with new forms. Because I hadn’t taught my students how to read the texts they were encountering, I hadn’t made them as aware as I could have of how to read, let alone craft, a scholarly webtext that would best share the quality of their thinking. Here I share what we know about the challenges of reading webtexts to better understand the shifting literacy environment we currently occupy. By so doing, I hope to encourage faculty to pay closer attention to the connection between effective reading and effective writing and to help students become adept readers and creators of useful attention traps.


We tend to think of the reading portion of the literacy enterprise as the “already gotten,” while writing is the “always to be gained.” For example, Donald Leu et al note that, as written, the Common Core Standards (CCS) for writing are more progressive and aware of the need for sustained and explicit attention to developing student literacy in the areas of technology.[3] They go on to state that this is not the case for the standards pertaining to reading, a continuation of the under-recognized deficiency in our cultural model for literacy education. In my writing program administration (WPA) work, I have found myself constantly addressing the issue of student reading struggles with writing teachers who come to understand the relationship between the two components while trying to teach that even more elusive third element—critical thinking.

Add to that complexity the new challenges posed by multimodal platforms and approaches to writing—challenges we in the academy have largely been able to dodge so far—and the need for more explicit attention to the reading side of literacy development seems more urgent. We have been talking about hypertext and multimodal composition for quite some time; we should pause for a moment to consider the effects of hypertext and multimodality on reading.

In 1990, John Slatin wrote of hypertext’s potential value and weakness:

Perhaps the greatest value of hypertext is its ability to link enormous quantities of material that, in a conventional text environment, would be kept separate, perhaps even in different buildings, so that things which someone perceives as being related do in fact become related. [4]

The relationships between ideas—the connectives, transitions, qualifications, and other frameworks we use to “glue” ideas together—can easily go missing (or be multitudinous) in a hypertext, and so, as readers, we must be more and more aware of the various ways in which we are being led to put them together.

As readers, we always make our own roadmaps. Some are just harder to draw than others. We need to help students become what Frank Serafini calls a “reader-viewer,” a term that “expands the concept of reading to include multimodal texts, graphic design elements, and visual images”.[5] We also need to be more aware of the challenges placed upon our comprehension skills—adopting the role of reader-viewer means, as Mary McNabb notes, “continually [facing] decisions about which hyperlink to click on next and why” and “[being] forced to make associations among lexias and create [your] own narratives as [you] go”.[6] These statements about reading and the web may seem obvious, but the lack of attention to the changing realities of what Donald Leu and Elena Forzani term the New Literacy in the Common Core Standards for reading should alert us to an imbalance in the way that we culturally consider and teach the enterprise of literacy.[7] It is not enough to draw student attention to these new modes of communication as spaces for creation of content; we need to attend to their development as reader-viewers of the content as well.

An area of particular concern is the academic or scholarly webtext. I draw attention to this genre because it is a place where I believe we can do more work to advance the study of literacy in the multimodal environment. The bulk of the work being done in multimodal literacy is conducted in the K-12 setting and is conducted with texts that are fairly informative.  Scholarly texts provide a particular set of challenges for undergraduate readers. Karen Manarin details her experiences teaching and researching the strategies that undergraduate students use in reading texts.[8] She notes a disconnect between student perceptions of themselves as readers and faculty perceptions of the students’ ability to read in the manner that they are expected to. Manarin asked students in two first year critical writing and reading courses to maintain a log of the strategies they used in the non-fiction reading they were doing for the course.[9] What she found was that students seemed to lean overwhelmingly to personal connection and imagery as the primary comprehension strategies, even when the material in the course was specifically selected for the difficulty of utilizing these approaches. When faced with challenges requiring new strategies, students tend to go with what they know even when they have been equipped with new things to try. We need to challenge our students’ views of reading.

Reading comprehension is complicated and, like writing, should be considered in terms of both process and product. In a review essay, Paul van den Broek and Christine Espin present an Integrated Model of Reading Comprehension (IMREC) in an attempt to bring together what is known about comprehension to better instruct and assess students of reading.[10] The desired product of comprehension is a coherent mental representation of the text, “that is, the text elements (events, facts, and so on) are interconnected through semantic relations and form an integrated whole”.[11] Readers build these representations through a variety of activities including inference and connection to background knowledge; this is what Walter Kintsch (1998) terms the “reader’s situation model of the text” as opposed to the textbase itself and the surface model or “visual-perceptual representation of the text.”[12] Like the paper submitted for external review, the product of reading comprehension is a more clearly definable goal. The comprehension process is more complicated. Van den Broek and Espin offer three overall observations about the process of “coherence-building”: that readers constantly seek equilibrium between their understanding of the complete text and their “limited attentional or working memory resources”; that readers employ automatic and strategic processes; and that readers will use multiple strategies in a variety of combinations to understand any one text.[13]

The second of these observations—that “strategic processes must be learned,” is of most value to this discussion; as van den Broek and Espin note in their discussion of automatic processes, the act of repeatedly engaging in explicitly taught strategies results in the creation of new automatic processes. The more practice we have reading a particular genre of text, the more adept we become at building coherent situation models of them. Attention to process—and drawing our students’ attention to the processes of developing their reading skills—should result in readers who better understand the demands of a world where literacy is now a deictic skill and who are well equipped to grow and shift with it.

Returning to Serafini, we get another insight into the changes demanded of readers in this new environment. Reading is a social activity, with readers adopting particular roles in relation to the author and the text. As texts shift from singular to multimodal forms they increase in processing complexity, shifting readers from four traditionally understood social practices (or “resources”) in the first column of the table below to a new set of roles conceived by Serafini.[14]

Traditional and Multimodal Reading Roles or Resources

Reader as: Reader-viewer as:
code breaker navigator
text-participant interpreter
text user designer
text analyst interrogator

These reconceived roles require a great deal more from readers of webtexts, readers for whom the entire enterprise of reading—particularly in a new knowledge area—is already fraught with obstacles to their coherence-building activity.

Literacy studies focused on the acquisition of content knowledge in print and hypertext reading have repeatedly shown that the largest factor affecting a reader’s understanding and coherence-building is the amount of prior knowledge of the subject matter readers bring to bear.[15] In particular, novice readers (those with the least amount of prior knowledge in a particular content area) need more in the way of explicit, coherent scaffolding to help offset the cognitive load of coherence-building in a new area. To put it another way: the more explicit the roadmap for the reader, the easier it is for the reader to make it to the writer’s destination.

Our traditional mode of presenting scholarly work—in the case of this essay, the peer-reviewed journal article—has provided a challenging, but stable, means for students to engage with scholarly work as they explore disciplinary content. The IMRAD structure, for example, governs many texts in the sciences (Introduction, Methodology, Results, Analysis, Discussion), providing an excellent scaffold for novice and more advanced readers alike. For the novice reader, the sections signal rhetorical shifts in the writing, freeing readers to focus on the content of each section without having to ascertain the relationship of the section to the coherence of the piece. For the advanced reader, sections act as shortcuts to the information they seek.[16]

Moving the academic text from the static space of the journal or the print book to the dynamic web changes the game. As I shared my thinking and work on this project with colleagues, I often got blank stares when I stated that we needed to be more explicit in our teaching so as to prepare students to deal with scholarly webtexts. No doubt, my colleagues were visualizing the electronic version of a traditional print journal article, and wondering why on earth I thought students needed special training to read those (I do, a point I’ll return to later). When I showed them what I meant, taking them to see something like Johndan Johnson Eilola’s “Polymorphous Perversity and Texts” essay on the KAIROS website, they got the picture. These are not your advisor’s journal articles, but they are indexed in the database right alongside them. When we as teachers and scholars embrace the possibilities inherent in what Johndan Johnson-Eilola calls the “polymorphous perversity” of text in this new environment, what does that mean for our students?[17] It means they’ve arrived in a new space that is, in essence, the old space with shifting architecture, the scholarly equivalent, perhaps, of the shifting staircases in Hogwarts.

We have to teach them attentiveness not only to text as object to be looked “through” but also as object to be looked “at.” And so we return to Mo, my student with the webtext, and Richard Lanham’s Economics of Attention, wherein we learn the difference between looking “at” and looking “through” and are challenged to “be able to relate judgments of [style] to judgments of [substance], to put style and substance into relationships that are as complex as human reality”.[18] When reading a scholarly webtext, the style of the thing—the visual landscape, or, to bring our conversation back to Kintsch’s model, the surface model of the textbase—can be of as much importance in developing the reader’s situational model of the text as the textbase itself. Whereas we can more readily see the textbase and the surface model of the text as nearly indistinguishable in the traditional model of scholarly publishing, the webtext presents a less-stable and less readily discerned textbase.

Take Johnson-Eilola’s “Polymorphous Perversity and Texts” for example. While the opening image is followed by several paragraphs of linearly-presented introductory text, the textbase is really found in the (reader’s) sum of its parts—the path that the reader takes through the thirty lexias linked through the boxes in the graphic at the top of the page. Clicking the hyperlinks in the introductory text will take the reader to certain of the thirty lexias—or not, with several of the links actually pulling the reader off-site, away from Johnson-Eilola’s text entirely, perhaps never to return. This is, perhaps, an intentional pushing of the reader into the sort of perversity that Johnson-Eilola explores in the webtext, but for the novice reader guided to this text via their university library’s electronic search (indexed in ERIC under subject headings like “Computer Uses in Education,” “Written Language,” and “Writing (Composition)”) the potential value of the text to their research and education may be utterly lost in the very perversity the author seeks to explore.

I don’t mean to criticize Johnson-Eilola—or any of KAIROS’s contributors or, for that matter, any scholar seeking to explore all that the web has to offer for communicative expression. What I hope, instead, is that I’ve enkindled in you, dear reader, a bit of a sense of the urgency and magnitude of the literacy problem our students are facing and will continue to face as our tools for communication allow for the building of more sophisticated and multi-faceted representations of our scholarly understandings of the world. Even if I never teach a student to craft their own multimodal webtext, I feel obligated to equip them with a more explicit understanding of themselves as always-developing readers and a more thorough grounding in strategies for reading across modalities of textual presentation.

The good news is that we already have the tools to do this. Jacqueline Urakami and Josef F. Krems, for example, found that providing novice readers with advanced organizers for texts where causal relationships may be missing (texts like Mo’s Kreayshawn Tumblr, for example) created enough scaffolding to help them build more coherent representations of hypertexts.[19] Webtext authors frequently build such scaffolding into their texts, as Mo did, but readers may not always know to be on the lookout for them.[20]

Another possible tool is the reading log, which Manarin found useful for monitoring the strategies her students were using as they worked through the increasingly complex reading assignments in her first year course; it’s easy to imagine the reading log maintained through any number of electronic spaces where students would be able to include their marked-up screenshots of particularly challenging lexias.[21]

Perhaps some of the strongest tools in the toolbox, though, are ones not necessarily meant for undergraduate eyes. Allison Warner’s webtext, “Constructing a Tool for Assessing Scholarly Webtexts,” presents a set of assessment criteria for web scholarship. The criteria incorporate expectations for print scholarship with regard to issues connected to coherence (like “content,” “arrangement,” and “documentation”) while extending those criteria to document design concerns (like “form/content relationship,” “link strategy,” and “multimedia incorporation”).[22] Cheryl Ball explores the pedagogical challenges of teaching and assessing the scholarly webtext and offers, if not a reusable scaffold for such assessment, a compelling discussion of what’s at stake when we bring student writers into contact with these modes of production.[23]  By sharing criteria of this type, we can draw student attention to the correspondences and differences between various modes of presenting scholarly work, thereby helping them to see both print and multimodal offerings as part of the larger enterprise of scholarly texts.

I’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do as instructors to encourage our students to develop their reading skills to better engage all types of scholarly materials they may encounter. We do not know what tomorrow will bring or what tomorrow’s writers will create. What we can do to equip our students to meet the challenge, though, is to “talk about reading as a series of choices students can control.”[24]

About the author: Anita M. DeRouen is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Writing and Teaching at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS. She extends special thanks to Mo Wilson for the use of his project in this essay (and for just being an all-around delight to teach!). Anita tweets intermittently, occasionally curates, and sometimes even blogs.

How to cite:

Anita M. DeRouen, “Creating the Reader-Viewer: Engaging Students with Scholarly Web Texts,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/derouen.

See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.[25]

  1. Richard Lanham, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  2. Mo Wilson, "Kreayshawn: The Attention Trap," April 2012, http://kreayshawntheattentiontrap.tumblr.com. Note: The list of Andy Warhol's rules for creating an attention trap in the left sidebar of the image/page are taken from Richard Lanham's essay, "Economists of Attention," in The Economics of Attention on pages 53-54.
  3. Donald J. Leu, J. Gregory McVerry, W. Ian O'Bryne, Carita Kilii, Lisa Zawilinski, Heidi Everett-Cacopardo, Clint Kennedy and Elana Forzani, “The New Literacies of Online Reading Comprehension: Expanding the Literacy and Learning Curriculum,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 55, no. 1 (2011): 9.
  4. John M. Slatin, “Reading Hypertext: Order and Coherence in a New Medium,” College English 52, no. 8 (1990): 881-82.
  5. Frank Serafini, “Reading Multimodal Texts in the 21st Century,” Research in the Schools 19 no. 1 (2012): 27.
  6. Mary McNabb, “Navigating the Maze of Hypertext,” Educational Leadership 63, no. 4 (2005): 76.
  7. Donald J. Leu and Elena Forzani, “New Literacies in a Web 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, …∞ World,” Research in the Schools 19, no. 1 (2012): 78.
  8. Karen Manarin, “Reading Value: Student Choice in Reading Strategies,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 12, no. 2 (2012): 281-97.
  9. Reading strategies vary, but at the most basic level we might consider whether or not the student approaches all texts in the same manner--reading, for example, from start to finish as opposed to conducting a preview of the reading to determine where to place his or her focus or to understand what components comprise the text and how they relate.
  10. Paul van den Broek and Christine A. Espin, “Connecting Cognitive Theory and Assessment: Measuring Individual Differences in Reading Comprehension,” School Psychology Review 41, no. 3 (2012): 315-325.
  11. Ibid., 316.
  12. Walter Kintsch, Comprehension: A Paradigm for Cognition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), quoted in van den Broek and Espin, 316.
  13. van den Broek and Espin, 316-17.
  14. Serafini, 27.
  15. Franck Amadieu, Andre Tricot, and Claudette Marine, "Interaction Between Prior Knowledge and Concept-Map Structure on Hypertext Comprehension, Coherence of Reading Orders and Disorientation," Interacting with Computers 22, no. 2 (2010): 88-97;  Dennis S. Davis and Carin Neitzel, "Collaborative Sense-Making in Print and Digital Text Environments," Reading and Writing 25  (2012): 831-856.; Mary McNabb, "Navigating the Maze of Hypertext," Educational Leadership 63, no. 4  (2005): 76.; Danielle S. McNamara and Amy M. Shapiro, "Multimedia and Hypermedia Solutions for Promoting Metacognitive Engagement, Coherence, and Learning," Journal of Educational Computing Research 33, no. 1  (2005): 1-29.; Thiemo Muller-Kalthoff and Jens Moller, "Browsing While Reading: Effects of Instructional Design and Learners' Prior Knowledge," ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology 14, no. 4  (2006): 183-98.; Andrew B. Pactman, "Developing Critical Thinking for the Internet," Research & Teaching in Developmental Education 29, no. 1  (2012): 39-47.;  Ladislao Salmeron and Victoria Garcia, "Children's Reading of Printed Text and Hypertext with Navigation Overviews: The Role of Comprehension, Sustained Attention, and Visuo-Spatial Abilities," Journal of Educational Computing Research 47, no. 1  (2012): 33-50.; Pradyumn Srivastava, Shelley Gray, Marilyn Nippold and Phyllis Schneider, "Computer-Based and Paper-Based Reading Comprehension in Adolescents with Typical Language Development and Langauge-Learning Disabilities," Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools 43, no. 4  (2012): 424-437.; Min-chen Tseng, "Comparing EFL Learners' Reading Comprehension Between Hypertext and Printed Text," CALL-EJ Online 9, no. 2  (2008), http://callej.org/journal/9-2/tseng.html.; Jacqueline Waniek, "How Information Organisation Affects Users' Representation of Hypertext Structure and Context," Behaviour & Information Technology 31, no. 2 (2012): 143-54. (2012); and Jacqueline Waniek, Angela Brunstein, Anja Naumann, and Josef F. Krems, "Interaction Between Text Structure Representation and Situation Model in Hypertext Reading," Swiss Journal of Psychology 62, no. 2 (2003): 103-111.
  16. While we should strive to make students aware of their role as rhetorical designers, it can be difficult to reinforce and extend that idea when their academic engagements across the curriculum tend to privilege these long-standing forms. Webtexts of the sort referenced in this article have great potential to disrupt our notions of scholarly writing, but we must manage student experience of that disruption alongside the mainstream expectation.
  17. Image of traditional print journal article, 1978, uploaded by author to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=32; Johndan Johnson-Eilola, “Polymorphous Perversity and Texts,” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 16, no. 3 (2012), http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/16.3/topoi/johnson-eilola/index.html.
  18. Richard Lanham, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 180.
  19. Jacqueline Urakami and Josef F. Krems, “How Hypertext Reading Sequences Affect Understanding of Causal and Temporal Relations in Story Comprehension,” Instructional Science 40 (2012): 277-295.
  20. Author's image of scaffolding in Mo Wilson's "Kreayshawn," uploaded to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=999.
  21. Author's sample of a marked-up screenshot of Johnson-Eilola's lexia, uploaded to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=998.
  22. Allison Warner, “Assessment Tool for Scholarly Webtexts.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 12, no. 1 (2007), http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/12.1/topoi/warner/tool/webtext-assessment-tool.pdf.
  23. Ball, Cheryl, "Assessing Scholarly Multimedia: A Rhetorical Genre Studies Approach." Technical Communication Quarterly 21(2012): 61-77.
  24. Manarin, 293.
  25. DeRouen, "Engaging Students with Scholarly Web Texts," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/engagement/derouen-2013/.