Digital Publishing at Clemson University

by Peter Kent


A father walks by his daughter's room and pauses. She is reading on her computer. Text is highlighted with colors and underlining that leads to pictures and scholarly explanations, voice recordings and chat rooms. Shaking his head, as one generation often does at the actions of another, Dad heads to his easy chair and settles in, opening his generation's version of a laptop--a portable device that allows him access to information whenever he wants. Best of all, it uses no power and doesn't require a bewildering set of skills to operate. The device is called a book. And Dad wonders if books will be obsolete by the time his daughter has children of her own.

"Books are not going away soon," says Wayne Chapman, a Clemson University English professor who lives in two worlds.

A contemporary Anglo-Irish literature scholar, Chapman's office brims with books on Yeats, Pound and Wordsworth. Nudged against his desk is a computer, the portal to his other world--a digital world, where he serves as director Clemson's Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing.

"We will continue to print books," he said. "There is still a market for them."

The market, however, is changing as a new generation chooses the tools it will use to communicate, educate and recreate.

"My daughter is more comfortable using a computer than I am," said Chapman. "And as we make new hires, we are seeking young faculty members who more savvy with computers and digital communication."

Text may not be dead, but hypertext is creating new twists to reading, writing and scholarship at the university and in many secondary schools.

Chapman brings up on his computer screen an example of how hypertext annotates passages from Ulysses by James Joyce. Many scholars rank the novel as the best work of fiction written. Students and serious readers often find it the most challenging work of fiction written.

"James Joyce's Ulysses in Hypermedia" is being directed by Michael Groden of the University of Western Ontario. Groden previewed parts of the project Clemson two years ago. The project will present Joyce's book in an electronic, hypermedia format, providing links and paths that help readers understand the world of the author and his imagery.

The project, whose target release date is June 16, 2004 (the 100th anniversary of the day on which Ulysses takes place), likely will be published as a DVD, with a substantial Web component. Ulysses in hypermedia likely could not exist in book form. The complex connections between the text and links make the undertaking uniquely digital.

Think of hypertext as a "bursting shell illuminating new pathways" through the courses of events and experiences that shape society and civilization, says Chapman. Along with pathways come pitfalls, he adds.

"The internet is an ongoing worldwide conversation creating a web of information, learning and scholarship," said Chapman. "The trouble is that there is a lot of chatter in the conversation."

Students today must learn new skills to evaluate the credibility and quality of information on the net.

"In the classes I teach, my goal is to move students from fact finding...or re-telling me what I have recently told them, to understanding," said Caroline Eisner at a Clemson conference on New Technology and the Future of Publishing. Eisner is senior consultant to the Bread Loaf Teacher Network.

"In my class, the goal is not mastery of the assigned written material but attempts at strengthening the learning processes that help us make sense of the unknown. To accomplish this, I work to strengthen in my students the 'Ten Rational Powers of Individuals.' These powers, put forth in 1961 by the National Education Association's Educational Policies Commission, are: recalling, imagining, classifying, generalizing, comparing, evaluating, analyzing, synthesizing, deducing and inferring."

There also are ethical issues--plagiarism, intellectual property and copyright infringement--which must be considered.

Digital publishing offers teachers a way to create their own textbooks, making selections from a number of sources. Publishers are catching on to the idea, providing source material from their inventories of printed materials. Chapman has spoken with one publisher about creating a unique text for a sophomore American literature course.

New printing techniques make it possible to print copies of digital books on demand, minimizing production and inventory costs.

For now, students will continue to lug backpacks of textbooks to class and home, but books eventually will go the way of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Age, becoming valued more as collectibles than as tools for daily life.