Computers & Texts No. 16/17
Table of Contents
Winter 1998

IT's Challenge to Literature and 'Cognitive Dissonance'

Robert Sterling Gingher
Department of English
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

This article discusses the ability of hypertext systems to clarify the effect on the reader of selected texts. The Metatale Project, based at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a web-based hypertext system for the collaborative exploration of narrative.


Like it or not, the millennium beckons us toward what Paul Delany calls the 'docuverse,' that 'large collection of electronically stored and linked documents, connected to a computer network.'1 Linked multimedia elements (photographs, images, graphics, animations, and video/sound clips as well as text) can endow hypermedia projects with immediacy and 'presence.' Carefully orchestrated technology tools can bring the beholder closer to the actual act of discovery. Moreover, when directly engaged in interactive 'discovery trails', and links which have already been carefully preselected with the course's mission, students can become purposeful, collaborative explorers.

But can 'distance learning' tools or information technology aid in cutting through the age-old, resistance to learning? Can they help us assimilate information more deeply and usefully? Over the years I have often found it useful to envision any student, teacher, reader, fictional character, author, or other mortal as saying, 'I can't hear you! I don't follow you! Shut up! Show me!' Argument: resource-intelligent media environments hold forth enormous promise for the future of education precisely because they can accelerate and deepen this process of discovery by showing instead of telling.

Acknowledging that we're fundamentally in flight from reality alters the way we read, perceive, recall, and understand. It makes us more susceptible to the power of metaphor and parable, less prone to impose our own theories and judgements. The admission urges us to look for the internal form and content of the work itself rather than take refuge in ideological, motivational, or political convenience. Our human resistance to new information invites more powerful, persuasive heuristic models, some of which new information technology makes possible.

Role of Hypertext

Optimal applications of hypermedia in local and global classrooms pose a challenge for us. Though judicious, systematic deployment of information technology may help teachers and students develop critical and relational thinking, it also encourages us, notes George Landow, to 'expect purposeful, important relationships between linked materials' (my emphasis).2 Clearly, the confusion and resentment which result from 'connectivity' for its own sake and without an overarching purpose have no place in the work of hypermedia pioneers. If anything, pedagogical innovators in the age of hypertext will have to subscribe more, not less, to a comprehensive, durable value system in their practice if they are to find IT's new tools useful.

Landow argues convincingly that both hypertext and post-structuralism originated in discontent with the hierarchies and linearities of the print paradigm.3 Nevertheless, hypermedia's inherent potential for frustrating readers will make this new discipline need purposeful hierarchy more than ever. By 'belief systems' and 'disciplined hierarchies' I mean anything but intellectually snug, procrustean refuges. Hypermedia can best serve us not through fashionable theories imposed upon art but rather fundamental and united core beliefs about the aspirations of humanity - essential 'inside tools' which, as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Conrad, Yeats, Tolstoy, Joyce, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Flannery O'Connor and others have shown us, grow out of any durable artistic labour. Such convergence in thought and priority of value regarding the aim and origin of art, and especially narrative art, provide indispensably meaningful instruments for navigating the vast docuverse.

These 'inside tools' represent the very lessons of literature and point us toward our common humanity, our real position here. But they are anathema to familiar channels of control, transient 'isms,' doctrines, or theories. What hypermedia can do is provide a strategic textual infrastructure which illuminates these tools and thus urges students away from simple binary reaction and unsupported opinion into deeper levels of critical inquiry and comprehensive value. Literature is grounded in the conflict between our intentions and desires, on the one hand, and durable value or 'truth,' on the other. This common design or purposeful 'ground' of the story (what I call the 'metatale' or 'proto-story') accelerates and enhances this emotional and intellectual development.

Cognitive Dissonance

In his theory of cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger argues that we hear, see, and remember only what we already believe to be true. Whenever we confront information contrary to what we already believe, our human receiving apparatus becomes jammed with a noise or dissonance. To clear the static we dismiss the data.4 Samuel Taylor Coleridge said the same thing 200 years ago. For him, resolving cognitive dissonance involved a 'willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.'5 Whatever the rhetoric or era, permanent learning involves concerted efforts to penetrate what Coleridge called 'the lethargy of custom'.

How can we as teachers examine, measure, and optimize ways in which the story, that most durable of all media, affects what people believe? What are the mechanisms through which the cumulative lessons of narrative permit positive transformation in readers? How might these methods be amplified in the hypermedia/multimedia classrooms? Information technology tools offer a fruitful new means to deploy the dynamics of ambush through which stories resolve cognitive dissonance. It permits us to witness close-up the separation (displacement), initiation (struggle), and return ('coming home' to see the world anew) which make for any powerful literary engagement. Increasingly my courses have deployed resource-intelligent media environments both to study and capitalize upon narrative strategies which allow 'reality' to establish a complicity among audience, shaper, and actor which overwhelm our usual conflicted resistance to critical and relational thinking. Through dynamic hypermedia applications (especially those which encourage and intensify a collaborative, interactive, visually annotated approach to understanding) we want to probe and empower developmental skills which arise from the profound influence of stories.

Metatale Project

The Metatale Project seeks to develop web templates, links and, eventually, interactive databases for examining a wide variety of literature both inside and outside the usually anthologized canon. Linked with primary and secondary resources, these learning tools enhance context-sensitive exploration of the nature and power of narrative. Narrative study is fundamentally more 'holistic' than critical systems generally allow; classes and workshops for teachers will increasingly exploit the new power of Boolean searches on the web, structural exploration of electronic text (with potential for text retrieval/concordance/analysis), audio-streaming, and videotape dramatizations of powerful literature. These tools will be arranged to accelerate and deepen our understanding and appreciation of the nature of narrative and the power of symbolic thought. Collaborative, dialogic composition through email and open electronic forums do augment the development of reading intelligence. The objective is to deploy these in optimal combinations designed to reduce substantially the learning curve of traditional modes of teaching literature.

Historically, stories, tales, and parables are powerful heuristic tools which encourage attitudes sceptical of reductive convenience. The Metatale Project seeks to use these tools optimally to stimulate the attention and motivation of both students and their teachers toward a deeply rooted values education which encourages emotional as well as intellectual intelligence ('EQ' as well as 'IQ') and values the power of stories to enable independent learning over rote content. The large, general effects of stories in human development have long been witnessed. This study investigates what happens in that liminal zone where reader and story meet, where intelligent persuasion and resolution overcome cognitive dissonance to enhance new motivation and achievement so that the beholder responds in a far more 'pro-active' way ('I hear you! I follow! Tell me more! I understand!').

In seeking to improve humanities education by applying a textual infrastructure for the analysis and understanding of stories, we want to bear in mind what psychologists and educational theorists have demonstrated about the nature of learning. Our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth evolves through four increasingly complex and meaningful levels - from (1) binary reaction, through levels of (2) opinion, (3) critical inquiry, and, finally, (4) a durable and comprehensive value system. The Metatale Paradigm accelerates and enhances this evolution from reductive, linear thinking through non-linear associations which mirror and reinforce the way the mind assimilates information in its own perceptual web. Thus, teaching technology combined with meaningful, directed exploration help us transcend convenient reductions to locate and exploit real cognitive depth - an arena where fellow-feeling and the associative energy of words inform our common humanity - that 'level four' arena where 'judgement' meets 'vision.' Since literature explores vision and our (reader-author-protagonist) constitutional blindness to it, 'cognitive dissonance' is at the heart of the 'metatale.' In cognitive crises, unfortunately, standards of judgement are temporarily transformed and the dissonance is 'resolved' by over-reactions in one direction or other.6 I am interested in the power of literature and, in particular narrative, to resolve some of that tension between the full content and complexity of 'reality' and our motivational resistance to it.


The new medium allows us to challenge habitual, linear thinking by engaging the associative structure of memory, specifically by deploying appropriate inside tools for narrative study rather than imposing them from without. The project endeavours not merely to attach new technology to conventional teaching but to augment the traditional teaching paradigm and, perhaps to some degree, even the way we think. The Metatale Project compels a traditional linear, synchronous, sequential, and exclusive pedagogy to adapt to a new paradigm - one associative, asynchronous, contextual, and collaborative. Course-driven literary hypertexts, mandated 'discovery tracks,' and cooperative, interactive exploration within the online classroom writing community and global Internet 'village' both mirror and efficiently utilize the associative structure of memory.

Ten 'cybercourses' ( with varying approaches to technological, discipline-informed pedagogy have convinced me that hybrid media technology positively affects the efforts of all stake holders, enhancing teacher productivity, student achievement, student workforce preparedness, and overall curricular cost effectiveness. The pedagogical objective here is improved education through strategic, discipline-oriented integration of technology into the curriculum.

The initial, funded phase of this project has led to an interactive seminar for students enrolled in the University of North Carolina - Greensboro's continuing education (Master of Arts in Liberal Studies) Program. During the interval between weekly classes, continuing students in various locations (Asheboro, Burlington, Greensboro, Hillsborough, Lewisville, Mayodan, Sanford, Whynot) were in touch with one another through our interactive class forum. Thus we were able to maintain 'asynchronous' communication as active explorers in our Metatale Paradigm course, discussing stories as powerful tools for understanding without waiting for the weekly three-hour seminar. Several months after the course concluded, many of these students continued to build upon the footings established in the seminar. These continuing students are intimately involved with the value-based system toward which any complete university education aspires. Stories are the perfect contextual medium for new hypermedia tools to sound. This is very good news indeed for learners bound by jobs, family, and distance, and for all of us committed to the University Without Walls.

They urge us away from reductive taxonomies, binary- or even opinion-based classifications, into critical thinking and, finally, an understanding toward which the cumulative knowledge of humanity clearly points. Appropriately, the new learning paradigm invoked by the web with its multi-disciplinary and multi-linked/hypertextual-utility, greatly extends the available avenues toward 'level-4' or values-based thinking. Hypertext exposes the limitations (and security) of the print paradigm even as it moves education away from the lecture toward a collaborative learning model. These applications will help to target needs within the burgeoning telecommunications infrastructure we enjoy - even those not currently connected to theUS National Information Infrastructure.

[Metatale Project Screen]

Fig. 1. The Metatale Project at


To summarise, hypermedia tools can ambush cognitive 'noise'; challenge reductive thinking and convenient belief/motivation systems with critical reasoning; steer students via hyperlinks toward meaningful, directed exploration of literature; promote information literacy. But only systematic reviews from 'real-world knowledge' will effectively coordinate the progress of integrating these new technologies into the humanities. These will become more and more necessary to make annual technology expenditures by local school districts count. Success will involve real vision and close cooperation among faculty, administration, and specialists. Last year Harvard University's week-long technology conference clearly showed that administration controls most of the problems technology poses for teachers. To ensure the optimal development and application of IT, provosts, deans, superintendents, and technology administrators must be willing to relinquish familiar channels of control to genuine areas of pedagogical need. The goal is not only to close the literacy gap but to improve distribution of resources in enhancing the economy and accessibility of lifelong learning through resource sharing - specifically those research and data applications with high payback potential for the humanities. Technical tools can engage a permanent meta-learning, a value system behind any language charged with meaning. At the end of the day they can help convince us to be text-accountable explorers, not just reciters. But for teachers determined to extend the classroom, our work in developing resource-intelligent media environments has only just begun.


1. 'From the Scholar's Library to the Personal Docuverse' in The Digital Word: Text-Based Computing in the Humanities, ed. George P. Landow and Paul Delany. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993: 189.

2. The very fact that 'hypermedia systems predispose users to expect such significant relationships among documents', states George Landow and others, makes documents which disappoint these expectations seem 'particularly incoherent and nonsignificant.' See 'The Rhetoric of Hypermedia: Some Rules for Authors' in Hypermedia and Literary Studies, ed. Paul Delany and George Landow. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991: 83.

3. 'What's a Critic to Do?: Critical Theory in the Age of Hypertext' in Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow. Baltimore, MD: John s Hopkins Univ. Press, 1994: 1.

4. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.

5. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Ch. XIV. (Online Coleridge's version of 'cognitive dissonance' is 'the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude' in consequence of which 'we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.'

6. Tamotsu Shibutani's studies of rumour (the story's reductive and often abusive anti-genre) originate in cognitive conflicts. See Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966. Compare what Darling Hammond calls 'cognitive dissonance' in the conflicting policies and practices which have impeded school reform in Chattanooga, TN districts. 'Conflicting Policies Throw Up Barriers to Middle School Reform.' Middleweb: Exploring Urban Middle School Reform 2 (Spring/Summer 1995).

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 16/17 (1998). Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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