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Published September 29, 2008 | English (Language and Literature)

Students Tune In and Turn On-Line to Discover E-Lit

Zsolt Alapi, a professor of English at Marianopolis College, has spent the past several years exploring the Internet as a tool for teaching literature in the classroom. Alapi introduces his students to websites and on-line literary journals that publish contemporary, cutting-edge writing by authors from around the globe.

"The Internet has proven to be a wonderful medium for the dissemination of writing by both established authors and those newly arrived or striving to enter the world of publishing. It's thrilling to read a story by someone from Zimbabwe, Australia, or Europe with the click of the mouse," Alapi states. "My students, who have grown up using computers, find this a natural extension of their lives and find it fascinating to surf the world-wide web that has now been extended to include literature."

Students are ever more reluctant readers due, largely, to the omnipresence of the electronic world that has become such a major force in our lives. However, we as teachers can make this medium work for us, so that it becomes a natural extension or tool to teach an appreciation of language.

A critic and writer of both prose and poetry, Alapi's is a regular contributor to the website of Scottish writer Laura Hird, whose "Showcase" and "The New Review" feature new fiction, poetry, articles, reviews, and criticism by writers from all parts of the world. Hird's website, considered one of the best of the on-line magazines, also has several features that Alapi uses in the classroom. "Laura Hird's site features a "Forum" which is linked to every author's story or poem that is featured in her issues. One of my assignments is to have my students write comments on her "Forum" and to then post them, so that I and other readers can view their insights about what they have read. Not only do the students in my class participate in this, but this is then extended to all of those from around the world who post similar comments. Often, an author will respond to my students' comments and thus establish a dialogue. In this way, students actually get to speak with authors and also have the opportunity to receive insight into the writing process," Alapi states. "Furthermore, many of my students have gone on to interview authors, to present their findings to their classmates, and have been inspired to write themselves and to attempt to publish their own work on-line."

In addition to Hird's site, Alapi introduces his students to other on-line resources, among them Canada's own Danforth Review. Run by Michael Bryson, a Canadian writer, and funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Danforth features fiction, non-fiction, reviews, and links to the major Canadian literary magazines and websites, an invaluable tool for students and aspiring writers alike. One of the most interesting features of using these resources is the brevity and conciseness of the writing featured on the sites, according to Alapi. This, he believes, also helps students to edit their own work and to study different styles and approaches to writing from an eclectic group of contributors who often write for an audience with special interests. Since many of these sites are linked with blogs and journals, students can navigate them to learn about the tremendous variety of creative expression that is out there.

Perhaps one of the most useful features for teachers is that these sites offer new, contemporary fiction that often speaks to students more than the traditional cannon, Alapi feels. "While I do teach standard classics by Joyce, Mann, Beckett, Hemingway, and others, I also want students to hear what the writers of today are doing. For example, one of their favourites is punk-poet Tony O'Neill, a writer out of New York City who is also on YouTube and whose novels Digging the Vein and forthcoming Down and Out in Murder Mile have become underground cult classics, addressing issues like addiction and youthful rebellion. Students who have visited his site have had the opportunity to not only read about but also to dialogue with this amazingly talented writer. Many have written to him, and O'Neill has been kind enough to respond to them all via the web.

Two years ago, Alapi conceived of the project of editing a book featuring the best fiction by writers who regularly contribute to on-line magazines and blogs. After pitching this project to several Canadian publishers with little or no feedback, he decided to start his own publishing company, Siren Song Publishing (www.sirensongpublishing.com) based in Montreal. His first book, Writing at the Edge appeared in 2007 and is a compilation of fiction by some of the top writers from what The Guardian out of London (UK) dubbed as the "new underground". Alapi and other professors are using this text in conjunction with on-line resources in both creative writing and contemporary literature courses in several colleges. His most recent book is a collection of stories by writers who teach English and publish fiction in the Cegeps. Writing in the Cegeps (2008), edited by Alapi, is part of a project whereby these writers travel to other colleges to read from and talk about their work to students who have studied their stories. "Through this, and through the work my students do on-line, they are introduced to the notion that writers are also living, breathing, creative entities. To have someone write back to you from a different country or to have someone come into your class and speak about his or her work lends a sense of immediacy to literature, giving students the sense that it is a vital part of their lives," Alapi maintains. "Students are ever more reluctant readers due, largely, to the omnipresence of the electronic world that has become such a major force in our lives. However, we as teachers can make this medium work for us, so that it becomes a natural extension or tool to teach an appreciation of language. Just as Gutenberg created a revolution in human consciousness through the printing of books, we stand at the threshold of something that is both challenging and full of possibility-it is ours to use and explore and, hopefully, to inspire."

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