Electronic publishing is part of what Mark Poster calls a cultural shift from "print-wrapped language" to "electronically wrapped language" (11), and it is here to stay. But just what is inside the wrapping? What does this shift portend for academic publishing and for culture in general? This question has been the subject of lively debate, in the course of which, we contend, some significant misconceptions have arisen. Electronic text has been put on trial in disquieting ways, for many of the same reasons that printed text was, in its infancy. Responses to electronic text tend to be shaped by several metaphorical narratives which reflect and amplify these misunderstandings. These narratives, in turn, influence the institutional reception of electronic publishing. After a brief overview of electronic publishing, we examine the details of some of these narratives, look at their origins, and consider the implications of using them; finally, we discuss the institutional realities that have resulted, in part, from the ways in which electronic text has been described, and suggest some new ways of thinking about the future of the medium and our role in determining that future.
Electronic journals require the subscriber to have access to a computer with a modem (or to a terminal), and to have an electronic mail account (a computer mailbox, in effect). These accounts are usually on mainframe computers, but commercial telecommunications companies (AT&T, MCI, Sprint) also supply electronic mail services for a fee. Academic institutions usually provide a mainframe account for sending and receiving electronic mail at no cost to the user. Different journals publish in different ways: some send their subscribers whole issues, others send individual essays and dispense with "issues" altogether, still others send only the table of contents with abstracts for the issue. Postmodern Culture, the journal that two of the authors of this essay co-edit, is distributed in this last manner. Once subscribers receive the table of contents for a new issue of Postmodern Culture, they request the items they want to read or else ask for the whole issue as a package. When the requested material arrives, subscribers can read and discard it on their mainframe account (another copy will always be available on request), or they can download the material to their personal computers and read it, store it, print it, and search or otherwise manipulate it there. Subscribers can request times from back issues at any time and can automatically receive updated versions of works in progress. There are no special hardware or software requirements for doing any of this, and Postmodern Culture also offers diskette and microfiche subscriptions, for a fee.
Over the next few years, the most pedestrian of economic reasons are certain to flush scholarly publication out of its roosting place in wood-products and into the electronic ether. Faxon, the major U.S. subscription agency for research libraries, predicts an average ten percent increase in serials prices for next year; at the same time, library budgets are shrinking because of our nation-wide recession. It will soon seem counter-productive to print archives, data banks, government and business documents, and much scholarly material. Today we still produce limited numbers of books whose physical well-being must be guarded at archival institutions around the world; we must have these objects shipped to us, or travel to centers where they are collected. Compare this to a situation in which all books would be available to anyone with a library card, where a library, rather than housing a given number of volumes, would provide both searchability and access to all books in the library network (see Lande). William Gardner, in "The Electronic Archive: Scientific Publishing for the '90's," and others responding to that essay (Mani, "Megajournal"), have discussed the electronic archive/database as a future possibility, but it may not be far from being a reality. Ted Nelson's Xanadu, a "worldwide open-hypertext-publishing network," is under development by AutoDesk, an innovative software company which has already invested several million dollars in the project; the first Xanadu stands are scheduled to open in California in 1993 (see Engst, Tidbits 30, a special issue devoted to Xanadu). Present technology already allows users to search library card catalogues and existing text databases via a telnet connection. The SPIRES facility at Syracuse University, for example, permits remote users to search a complete archive of all the mailing of HUMANIST, a moderated discussion group from Brown University, sorting the database by author, column, subject, date, or text strings in the body of the messages. These searches can be combined and restricted in various ways, using a full range of boolean operators.
Electronic resources such as these promise to transform the world of scholarly publishing in the next decades, and though electronic text may not replace print any time soon, it is likely to dominate where information storage, retrieval, and manipulation are more important than the aesthetic qualities of the text -- though even the aesthetic appeal of electronic text is steadily improving as computer equipment becomes more portable, more legible, and simpler to use.
The contradictory descriptions of this new form of text delivery -- as either a messianic or a monstrous birth -- are a result of the outmoded ways we have conceived of and responded to the medium so far. Certain kinds of statements about the medium come up again and again, statements that rely on and implicitly reformulate ideologically charged narratives. These narratives function as a conceptual blinders that keep us from seeing the electronic medium for what it is and for what it may become. Both proponents and detractors of electronic text use these narratives to suggest that the social effects of the medium are hard-coded into it, that the changes it may make are changes it must make. By the same token, both proponents and detractors of the medium tend to measure its implications using the yardstick of print: they doubt that electronic text can be "real" (permanent, important) if it does not exist in space, or they claim that because of its infinite reproducibility it will do away with the notion of an original, authoritative text; they worry that the ease with which electronic text can be disseminated will make it impossible to protect intellectual property and that the ease with which it can be revised will make it impossible to ensure textual integrity, or they hope that the dialogic possibilities of the medium will erase the boundary between writers and readers. When it comes to scholarly publishing in this medium, they as, "will it count toward promotion and tenure?" and not whether it will be read and used by colleagues in the profession, or they feel certain that the medium itself will somehow revolutionize scholarly practice.
Those who have grappled with the implications of electronic text have tended to narrativize their hopes for and resistance to the networked future in terms that recall movie matinees or yesteryear. We would like to point out three such narratives:
Each narrative foregrounds the new medium, but in doing so discloses a nostalgic impulse that hardens the old paradigms rather than allowing new ones to form. In fact, the irony of the claims made in these narratives is that although they are explicitly or implicitly based on a comparison of e-text to print, the same claims were once made in comparing print literacy to oral discourse. Our primary purpose in this essay is not to decide these claims, but to point out that they predate the "new" situation which ostensibly calls them up, and to suggest that it therefore makes more sense to regard electronic text as continuous with older forms of textuality and literacy than to celebrate or revile it as a completely new moment in the history of human communication.
Learning to navigate within and between programs is an exhilarating challenge. It used to be the humanists' texts that sometimes got mislaid, but now humanists can, temporarily, lose themselves. (43)The implication, when we talk about losing ourselves in the net, is that electronic communication dislocates the user from his or her physical space; in some version, this experience produces in the user a loss of self and an inability to separate self from the other, subject from object. The self is lost, new worlds are found. The new reality, like virtual reality, absorbs you. The self in this world strains toward the limit of Deleuze and Guattari's "Body without Organs" (e.g., 20), or as Mark Poster puts it, "the body . . . is no longer an effective limit of the subject's position. . . . communications facilities extend the nervous system throughout the Earth to the point that it enwraps the planet in a noosphere . . . of language" (15).
Although this response to electronic literacy seems modern, it echoes an ancient hypothesis advanced in the Phaedrus concerning the intrusion of print literacy into the oral culture of Classical Greece. According to (Plato's) Socrates, written discourse in an embodiment of its author: thus, in what is more than cute metonymy, Socrates refers to the copy of Lysias speech as Lysias himself (Phaedrus, section 228e). It follows from this that print literacy will have a disastrous effect on the integrity of the self, since it will cause the absorption of the reader into the writer: when Phaedrus declaims Lysias's speech as his own, he becomes Lysias. The proof of this, for Socrates, is that although Phaedrus does not actually agree with many of Lysias's notions, he is willing to declaim them as his own. Socrates tries to keep this fusion from occurring and insists on the distinction between Lysias's and Phaedrus's opinions, but this separation of reader and writer is not easy: Phaedrus is in love with Lysias (section 279b), or at least in love with Lysias's rhetoric, and when he reads Lysias's speech he experiences the ecstasy -- the dislocation --and worship which are reminiscent of the lover's attitude to his beloved (section 255d, and see 234d). Through reading, Phaedrus can sound and think like Lysias, but the dialogues suggests that this is neither a holy nor a true love. In fact, Phaedrus has been so absorbed in Lysias through reading that he cannot see the flaws in Lysias's reasoning, which Socrates finds obvious and unacceptable (section 235e).
Georges Poulet has described reading in remarkably similar term:
Reading . . . is an act in which the subjective principle, which the I calls I is modified in such a way that I no loner have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another. . . . It is important to note that this possession of myself by another takes place not only on the level of objective thought . . . but also on the level of my very subjectivity. (44)Decried by Plato, celebrated by Poulet, and now identified as a distinguishing feature of postmodernity, the loss of identity is an ontological problem that is neither new in the information age not unique to electronic literacy.
[The Net] extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and though which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace. Cyberspace, in its present condition, has a lot in common with the 19th Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse . . . hard to get around in, and up for grabs. . . . To enter [this silent world] one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. . . . It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas.Here we have slipped comfortably into the worn boots and leather fringe of cowboy individualism. For this narrative of the hacker as "legally ambiguous" gunslinger -- a sort of Clint Eastwood for the keyboard -- assumes that cyberspace produces a new place in which to work out socio-political issues.
But print literacy too --in its origins -- is "unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous." Writing systems of various sorts develop in the context of both sacred mysteries and accounting schemes -- twin bases of culture (e.g., Chadwick, Walker). And because the technology of print writing is ultimately connected with the religious and economic fundamentals of culture, it too poses practical , moral and social questions. On of the most serious of these is whether technology should be restricted to particular professions or social classes. Historically, different cultures have answered this question differently: in the ancient world, the democratization of print literacy in Classical Greece contrasts sharply with the restriction of print literacy to the priestly class in Egypt during the Old Kingdom. The protestant Reformation spurred on translation of sacred texts and general literacy. Even in this century, we have not solved the moral and social implications of print literacy. UNESCO has sponsored literacy campaigns, but some have argues that the impetus for universal literacy was inherently economic and guided by the autonomous benefits of literacy (Berggren and Berggren, and see Street). Print literacy, then, is just as ambiguous as electronic literacy in the issues it raises and the political responses it elicits.
Still in the Old West, but just outside of the cowtown, we find a related set -- that of the pioneer, steadfastly colonizing the promised land. Here the manifest destiny of e-mail will be either to realize or to destroy the dream of the autonomous individual mastering nature with the iron plow of reason. Steve Birkerts, writing in the Information Technology Quarterly, speaks in these terms when he worries about the supposed non-linearity and achronicity of electronic communication, and though he begins by characterizing the shift toward electronic communications a movement into "terra nova," he soon turns to worrying that this new land will absorb the pioneer without a trace. Who is this pioneer, one wonders? Even by Birkerts's account, it is a romantic individualist who stands out as "a solitary self before a background which is the society of other selves." Who is going to be left out, pushed out, reservationed, in the colonization of the new frontier? Not only the uneducated or the illiterate, we suggest, but those who (for economic and/or political reasons) are denied access to the "global" information society -- to computers, telecommunication, and the networks. But the problem Birkerts sees is that people are being enveloped by, rather than excluded from, the net: "one day soon," he warns, "we will conduct our public and private lives within networks so dense . . . that it will make almost no sense to speak of the differentiated self." This, as we have seen, is an old fear, as is Birkerts's concern that the pervasive electronic media will shorten our attention span and lead us to abandon difficult literature and thought. Socrates said the same thing about print in the Phaedrus: enfeebled by literacy, Phaedrus cannot memorize a speech unless he has a printed copy of it before his eyes, and he cannot even remember the details of an old (orally transmitted) legend (sections 228-30, 274-75). Again, the irony here is that Plato, one of the progenitors of the literary tradition which Birkerts sees himself as defending, feared print -- Birkerts's refuge -- in the way that Birkerts fears electronic text.
Birkerts bases his claim about the effects of electronic literacy on a model of reading which many cognitive psychologists and psycholinguists discarded in the 1970s. Fore example, his claim that electronic communication will induce passivity and muddled thinking (because it is less :linear: than print) is based on the common but now often discarded notion that the reading process is essentially linear, and on the equally questionable assumption that logic itself is linear.:
The order of print is linear and bound to logic by the imperatives of syntax. It requires the active engagement of the reader, for reading is fundamentally an act of translation: ciphers are turned into their verbal referents and these are in turn interpreted. (Birkerts)Birkerts distinguishes, as linguists do, a letter level, a word level, and a semantic level, in written communication; he also recognizes that reading is an "active engagement." But this notion that the reader proceeds unidirectionally from letter to meaning is wrong, Ever since Rumelhart's "Toward an Interactive Model of Reading," reading specialists have held that the act of reading is not a step-by-step progression from visual cipher to textual meaning. Even Gough, who had argues for a linear model in 1972 ("One Second of Reading"), later rejected this idea:
This model is wrong. . . . The claim that we read words letter-by-letter from left to right is one such claim: it is almost certainly wrong. ("one Second of Reading: A Postscript.")
Birkerts takes his armchair psycholinguistics one step further when he asserts that
others may argue that there is little difference between following words on a pocket screen or on a printed page. Here I have to hold my line. The context cannot but condition the process. Screen and book may hold the same string of word, but the assumptions that underlie their significance are entirely different. . . .
There is not psycholinguistic evidence to suggest that the process of reading suddenly changes when it is conducted in a different medium. Although there may be cognitive differences in the processing of different kinds of script (alphabetic vs. syllabary vs. logographic; cf. Mann, and Tzeng and Wang), when this factor is controlled, reading is reading -- and that context the strict page/terminal distinction is misleading.
the concept of living "mythically" suggests far more than simply being more interconnected, or being able to send messages to each other more quickly and easily than we could last year. It means living in a form of consciousness in which knowledge does not exist outside of the knower, embodied in a physical text, but instead is lived dramatically, communally performed as the myths of oral man were performed. This, I argue, will be -- to some extent already is -- one of the effects of internalizing the electronic writing space. (L1. 408ff.)Electronic communication, on this account, is immediate and therefore dramatic, performed: it is not . . . well, textual. Further on Brent says:
I am not claiming that electronic text will unilaterally undo almost three millennia of exposure to literacy. I am suggesting, however, that some of its psychological effects can be understood in part by referring to the state of consciousness that existed before writing in general and the printing press in particular made it possible to separate the knower from the known, to see knowledge as a commodity than can be owned, traded, rented, and accumulated. (L1. 600ff.)This statement articulates with unusual clarity what is in fact a fairly common response to electronic text, both from the techno-optimists and the techno-pessimists. In this vision, electronic text will return us to a state which antedates the subject/object split, to a time before there was "nothing outside the text," to a "preliterate" world: the result will either be a golden age of intellectual community or a dark age of intellectual anarchy, depending on the storyteller.
Brent's prediction rests on the assumption that there are great intellectual differences between literate and oral societies, an assumption shared not only by Plato but, more recently (in support of opposite conclusions), by Walter J. Ong, who contends that the literate are cognitively superior to the illiterate. Research on cognitive ability in literate and oral societies conducted since Ong made this claim has raised serious doubts about his position. Some linguistic fieldwork supports the view that it is not print literacy but institutional schooling that accounts for whatever cognitive difference there may be between literates and preliterates (Scribner and Cole 131-32, and see Goody). Brent argues that electronic text will help return us to preliterate innocence, but evidence suggests that the division of the self which he wishes to overcome is produced not by literacy but by the institutions that provide it.
There are several lessons in these narratives. First, they are all backward-looking and nostalgic, whether they look to the futuristic space fictions of our youth, the cowboy/pioneer of an idealized cultural past, or the prelapsarian innocence of a mythological beginning. By adopting this attitude, they simultaneously underestimate what is undetermined in our future and forget what we should have learned from our past. Second, these narratives consistently commit either the fallacy of progressivism, in which New always means Improved, or the fallacy of nostalgia for a lost Golden Age, in which with every step we find ourselves further from some imagined past in which we were happy, wise, and free. These fallacies, in turn, arise from and rely on questionable assumptions about print and electronic literacy, assumptions that are presented as new and exclusive to the electronic medium, but which are in fact so old as to have greeted the advent of print culture. Finally, the different practical roles which these narrative responses make available to us only serve to underscore our lack of consensus about intelligent future action: in effect, they highlight our fears and desires rather than distinguishing useful choices and possibilities.
While academics and theorists speculate about the inevitability of the next revolution or of a new democracy of information, the move into an age of electronic communication is being managed by others, in ways which may well reinforce and exaggerate disparities of power between the rich and poor, first and third world nations, educated and uneducated. Other outcomes are possible, but there is little hope for an improved future without a clearly thought-out, pluralistic, and egalitarian response to new conditions.
In light of the preceding discussion about metaphorical narratives of electronic a text and the intellectual fallacies that inform them, we would like to suggest that a fist step in the direction of a more productive response to these new conditions might be to discard the notion that we a re exploring and discovering when we experiment with electronic text. The concepts of exploration and discovery suggest that we find what is already there; we might better conceive of ourselves as inventing what will be there. Thinking in these terms allows us to take a proactive rather than a reactive stance.
Existing practices are sure to affect the way academic writing develops in the arena of networked electronic publishing, just as the integration of electronic publishing into those practices has the potential to alter the way we think about intellectual property, peer review, professional advancement, the function of the library, and the status of the text. In considering the future of electronic publishing we need to remember that the adoption of new practices in scholarly publishing -- however, feasible, logical, and attractive those practices may be -- depends in part on habits, and in particular on the institutional rewards and constraints which perpetuate those habits, more than it depends on technological factors. Where institutional rewards are concerned, we should consider carefully the incentives or disincentives for using this new medium to practice and disseminate scholarship in innovative ways.
Authors in the humanities have traditionally been rewarded for working, thinking, and writing in isolation. This is not the case in many scientific fields, and it need not be the case in the humanities, especially when the networks provide an ideal tool for collaborative authorship among researchers who may never meet one another. But in the absence of institutional rewards, even those who want to publish in the electronic medium may be reluctant to take advantage of its possibilities. Therefore, if we wish to see changes in our practice, we must invent new ways of acknowledging and evaluating more complex -- and sometimes more informal -- modes of authorship.
On the other hand, there is no need to reinvent in the new medium what already exists and still works: where more formal modes of authorship are concerned, electronic publication should be seen as continuous with, and equivalent to, publication in print. The legitimacy of scholarly publishing is a matter of the peer-review process and not a function of the medium in which peer-reviewed work is distributed. As Mike J. O'Donnell and Abraham Bookstein say in their proposal to establish The Chicago Journal of Computer Science (a juried electronic journal), readers of scholarly publications need to have
a high confidence that they are all reading precisely the same article created by the author and accepted by the editor, and that this acceptance is an accurate certificate of the value of the article. The basic protocol of publication in a scholarly journal -- the author freely chooses to submit an article, the editor takes the advice of several independent and anonymous referees, insists on revisions if appropriate, then accepts or rejects the article is independent of the medium. There is not reason to change that highly successful protocol in converting from print to electronic network publication. (O'Donnell)Resistance to juried electronic journals can only be attributed to a sort of superstitious faith in "hard copy" and a similarly superstitious dread of "virtual text," or to the fact that a printout of an essay published electronically looks and feels more provisional, less authoritative, and less certified than a typeset offprint or a bound volume.
Ted Jennings, writing to the Association of Electronic Scholarly Journals discussion group, raises another issue one sometimes confronts when discussing electronic publication with authors -- the superstitious fear that there will be increased opportunities for plagiarism in the absence of "'frozen' print accompanied by one 'owner's' name." However, these questions are not (or ought not to be) as troublesome in connection with electronic journals as they are regarding electronic mail in general, because electronic journals appear regularly and bear copyright (Bailey).
As for the creation and proliferation of electronic journals, unless university administrators recognize that editing an electronic journal is no less demanding than is editing a print journal, and unless they are willing to support the editors or electronic journals, as they do to the editors of print journals, few editors will volunteer. This support may be difficult to elicit when the medium of the journal in question is perceived as ephemeral, inimical to property-rights, or even preliterate, among other things.
There is another, more practical problem facing would-be electronic journals: cost-recovery. In order to establish new e-journals, and in order for existing print journals to transfer their operations into the electronic medium, we will have to develop some way of recuperating the costs of production. Many who are currently involved in academic electronic publishing of academic journals are working hard to make for-profit e-publishing a reality. The networks themselves are scheduled to be "privatized" in about five years, at which point -- if we haven't figured out another was -- we will find that electronics publications are just as expensive as print, if not more so.
In each of these situations, the values which inform the narratives of exploration and discovery are at work in determining the structure of institutional (and economic) rewards -- we privilege the individual effort which results in someone laying exclusive claim to new territory. It seems unlikely that academic institutions will be able to do without the concepts of authorship and ownership any time soon, but perhaps we can move away from the notion of scholarship as private property and toward a more collective model of intellectual production. "Can [electronic publishers] record and document and certify 'you heard it here first' and at the same time disseminate what passes through our conduits without restriction as to later use"" asks Jennings in his note to AESJ. In answer to Jennings, we would say that yes, they can and should do both things.
We would encourage electronic journals to combine the familiar with the revolutionary: with O'Donnell and Bookstein, we would recommend that e-journals use a familiar protocol for establishing the professional legitimacy of what they publish. The copyright form that Postmodern culture uses is one in which the author, as the "owner" of the piece, grants the journal permission to publish; the journal's copyright statement expressly permits the recirculation of individual items as long as credit is given and no fee is charged to the user.
In the spirit of that approach to copyright, we would like to see certain aspects of the system of intellectual property changed while we still have an opportunity to change them. Since, where academic publishing is concerned, the producers and the consumers are one and the same body of people, there is no need for profit and no reason to involve a middle-man. We do now have a five-year window of opportunity in which to develop and put in place something like an information consortium, where research-producing universities would subsidize electronic publication of that research, would contribute it gratis to the consortium, and would have access, free of charge, to all the research produced by other members of the consortium. In order for this to happen, universities will have to face up to the responsibilities of becoming publishers, and will have to develop some formula for balancing contributions to and use of the consortium's holdings; they will also have to find some way of providing for the use of those resources by non-members, probably a system involving some fee structure. Even so, such a non-profit electronic publishing entity would, we think, be able to provide its data at more accessible rates than current for-profit publishers do. Finally, we would like to see academic institutions acknowledge the value of more informal contributions to scholarly dialogues: the impediment here is not one of record-keeping or of identifying authors, but simply of requiring that peer evaluations take such contributions into account. If we can do these things, we will have effected a very positive and concrete change in the way we use, value, and reward intellectual labor.
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