April 28, 1998
The site for American Studies @ The University of Virginia (http://xroads.virginia.edu/) began, frankly, in disgruntlement, dissatisfaction with my discipline, my department, my university -- and primarily with myself as a teacher. I do American Studies. I was actually trained In the English Department at Stanford as a Colonialist. But Colonial American Literature is an area in which there isn't a lot of what is conventionally understood as 'literature.' Out of necessity, we have to consider a variety of other kinds of 'texts,' histories, sermons, polemical and political literature, even gravestones and primers. Over the years, I've gradually worked my way forward in time until this semester I'm actually teaching a course in the 1930s. But, as I've gone along, I maintained my interest in American intellectual, social, cultural history as well as my conviction that understanding how our own culture works is a primary responsibilty of the American university. And I've maintained my conviction that cultural process is the intersection of a multiplicity of kinds of texts, is a kind of hypertext if you will.
And, gradually I became convinced that one of the distinctive problems with American Studies as a field is that it's an interdisciplinary study that sits inside of a highly disciplinary institution whose administrative structures -- and particularly the political, economic, and intellectural structures they give rise to and perpetuate, are in many ways inimical to studying the whole, complex process that is our culture. In addition, historiclally, most AS programs have been born on the wrong side of the blanket, created more by political and personal dissatisfaction with local and transient circumstances than by a sense of genuine intellectual or methodological distinctiveness. As a result, American Studies has never developed a strong, coherent, and widely agreed-upon methodology or theory or practice; in the end, it looks more like a lifestyle movement than an academic field.
A related problem has been that American Studies has been housed largely in literature and history departments, because that's where most of the disaffection takes place, and where the deparments are large and inefficient enough to accomodate these minor rump movements. So we've spent a lot of time being historians and literature people trying to learn how to think and teach interdisciplinarily -- without much success. Behind the mask of the interdisciplinarian, behind the rhetorical mask, there was ususally just a lit professor or history prof.
In part, as I've suggested, this was an institutional problem, the limitations imposed by patterns of training and the conventions of promotion and tenure processes. But it was also a consequence of the medium in which American Studies was practiced -- print. It's extremely difficult to get a building or a painting inside the covers of a book --the production costs are just simply too high. And so American Studies tended to concentrate on things that could be acquired for analysis -- in print -- and disseminated for discussion -- in print. In the computer, however, buildings and paintings and oral history, and bonus marchers can be incorporated cheaply, easily, and well. If you want to talk about de Tocqueville's visit to Albany, New York on July 4th of 1831, it's difficult to do more than just talk about it -- Tocqueville didn't have a video cameras with him so we're not going to recapture that, but a lot of the stuff from mid- century on was captured -- in photos, engravings that were increasingly featured in magazines and newspapers, in films, radio programming,and television -- increasingly allowing us to look at processes as well as objects.
In additon to this expanded range of kinds of materials for teaching and learning, the computer also allows us to place them in complex interrelations;the machinery allows you to create, not just linear structures but multilinear, and polyvalent structures -- at least in my judgment, exactly the kind of interconnections that operate in society. In other words, the computer offers us a tool which, in its remarkable ability to model very complex structures, mirrors the complicated social and cultural processes we want to study. So it was as much a disgruntlement with the tools traditionally used in American Studies as with the field itself. In effect, We'd been trying to find a way to ship elephants in grapefruit boxes and it just wasn't working very well.. The elephant was just too big to get in that box, and you usually wound up killing it, cutting it up into box-sized chunks, and hoping that, somehow, the person on the other end would be able to re-assemble the poor beast.
I was also disgruntled with graduate education at the University of Virginia. We were in the very doubtful business of warehousing the largest stock of unemployed -- and unemplyable -- Ph.D.s and ABDs in the United States, perhaps in the world. And we seemed to be in the business of manufacturing more of them, an extremely questionable objective, I felt. One of the underlying causes for this situation is that the costs of this kind of doubtful, unproductive practice are not borne by the university or by the faculty members themselves. Both are largely insulated from the market impact of producing large numbers of unicycles when nobody wants to ride a unicycle. The actual costs are shifted onto the students who, in lost time and lost opportunity costs and in direct out of pocket expenses end up paying for that policy. The people who apply to the U of Va are not dumb --they're often very well trained, very bright young people, and I wanted to find a way to find a way to help them find places in an American society that is desperately short of well-trained, smart, capable energetic people.
The third thing that I was disgruntled about was the quality of undergraduate education. What most disturbed me was the way in which the curriculum was organized -- often in ways that struck me as simply counterproductive. That is, it tended to produce transcripts rather than education, diplomas rather than knowledge or the ability to apply it. It's very difficult, particularly in an English department, to point to ways in which the curriculum is incremental, clearly directed and designed to shape, improve, and develop students in a clear, coherent, and articulable way. And, lacking these things, its very difficult to actually demonstrate the effects of the curriculum, to assess them in the current terminology. Instead, we provide a kind of smorgasbord -- rich, varied, and expensive. And we unleash students on that smorgasbord in the faith that they will be able to create for leave the table with ...a healthy meal? Maybe. But probably not. So I wanted to try to find a way to organize the education of undergraduates for whom I was individually responsible in some better fashion.
Each of those three disgruntlements are interconnected in that they are each grounded in the ways in which we teach and learn. And the new technologies seemed to address all of them in a coherent fashion. In part this is because any new technology allows, or requires, re-thinking of the ways in which we have been -- largely unconsciously -- shaped by them in the ways in which we construct reality. All new technologies in my understanding initially do two things: first, they offer us an opportunity to use them badly and wrong, that is, they are seen initially as a way of simply doing some old business faster and cheaper. Eventually as we come to know them, they turn out to be a way of doing something entirely different. As an example, take the development of the technology for casting large iron objects in the nineteenth century. Initially, this is seen as an opportunity to improve building construction by casting mock mock Gothic or Romanesque storefronts in modularized pieces that can be shipped from, say, New York to Cincinnati or St. Louis, saving the costs of importing stone and of the artisans who shape and assemble it. Instead, you can simply put up a frame structure and bolt the cast iron to it. Eventually, of course, we come to understand that cast iron is actually better used inside the building than outside, as structural memberr rather than a decorative/imitative surface. But it takes a while for that to become clear.
The second law attending the introduction of new technologies is that when new and powerful technologies come along they change absolutely everything -- social and economic structures, power relations, probably even the ways in which our brains acquire and process information. That, of course, is the argument by Marshall McCluhan and Father Ong about the consequences of the printing press, and of others about the moldboard plow and the clock and gunpowder. In our own time, we see its trace in all the discussion about Web access --who gets it, who has a right to have a key to a computer in a library, is the library then responsible for a child who plugs into an adult site and what happens when parents come, who's going to do the filtering and so forth.
That's obviously a part of that transformative power of technology, its fundamental tendency to escape traditional structures -- institutional and conceptual and emotional -- to flow around them like water around a bridge abutment, give us kinds of 'extra-legal' access in ways that never originally intended. And in so doing, they have the inevitable effect of transforming those original structures. So that's why I thought this might work.
All of this seems much clearer in retrospect than it was at the time. When John Blackburn joined the first group of Masters candidates in American Studies, I didn't really have a clue about what was supposed to happen. At most, I had just enough sufficient brass to enlist five other students in a course of action which began by explaining to them that I didn't really know where we were going or how we were going to get there. Fortunately, they had sufficient -- whatever it was -- it may have been courage -- to stay with me while we went out together to figure it out. Parenthetically, this turned out to be one of the critical reasons for the success of what followed; the very uncertainty about how to use this new technology began to transform the classroom into a learning community, a group of students and learners So in the years at their expense these are some of the things that I have learned.
Through our application of new technologies to American Studies, the learning process becomes active, collaborative, aggregative, and transformative.
The first of these, "active" is indicated by the motto at the top of the home page for AS@UVA, the web site for American Studies "We DO American Studies". What I mean by this is that I don't teach American Studies, and they don't learn American Studies. I do teaching and they do learning. I also do learning and they do teaching. Most importantly, though, we DO it. Throughtout, this is an active process in which we, the student and I, inhabitant a workshop peopled with individuals at different stages in their apprenticship, from raw beginners to journeymen and where my job is to guide the learning procss by defining fields of inquiry, providing resources and access to the tools and techniques by which the inquiry can be pursued. Rather than standing up here as I am now and providing them with answers, my job is to help them shape good questions.
Now, when I begin a course, what I do is really set up a problematic environment into which students and I then go in an attempt to sort it out, and to find out how to make meaning of a set of questions about that environment. This semester I'm teaching a Masters course and the topic is America in the 1930s; in the undergraduate course, students are working on Technology in American Culture. And in both courses we've had to define our major terms, e.g., what we mean by "technology," what we mean by culture, what people say are the usual patterns for talking and thinking about these concepts, can we construct some more or less plausible paradigm for going at this problem, and can we define a series of test sites into which we then go to test it how, to see how powerful it is an explanatory model. Instead of telling them what the answers are, laying out master narratives, explaining to them what it is that they need to know in order to pass the final examination, my job is in fact to try to set up problems for them to solve.
The second part of this proceedure is that the students' work is the construction of hypertexts. There are various kinds of hypertexts. Most of the texts at AS@UVA are digital texts, some 40 of them. And any one group's task, initially, is to move some text from print to the computer. The texts are selected because they are texts that almost everybody in American Studies refers to or uses in some way or at one time or another and for texts which would be more useful for teachers everywhere if they were available in digital format. For example de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is a classic text for social scientists, politicians, historians, art historians... a text that's often alluded to but --and again my disgruntlement is showing -- much less often actually read let alone understod. I've watched the theory wars of the 80s and 90s in my discipline and others, and I think I've learned very little from them except that often people were talking about things of which they had no actual knowledge, that is that they were talking about books they had not read, but had only heard other people describe and characterize in secondary literature. This phenomenon spread quickly because it was so much easier than having to actually know the material, because so many people were engaged in it that no one would want, let alone be able, to call someone on the practice. And in the end, you had people who weren't within three removes of the thing they were talking about, talking about it in terms that were authoritative and convincing -- and profoundly ignorant. .
So part of our mission is to make some of these texts easily accessible and available, and to make each text more usable by mounting it with a search engine. Instead of having a standard print index with its usual historically inflected selection of 'relevant' topics, you can query the text yourself, even constructing your own hierarchies of relevance and significance.
We now have about 40 different texts in different stages of development. When they come on line they are immediately useable to students and faculty as searchable texts. Over time they begin to accumulate this array of explanatory and contextualizing material that transforms them into uniquely useful hyper-con-texts.
We also have hypertexts that are built around objects rather than texts. For example, we have a large projecton the National Capitol building where the idea there is to read this museum which is itself a kind of sacred object, which houses a virtual gallery of sacred objects and national icons. We hope, again over time, to find out where this stuff comes from, who put it there, what its original purpose or meaning was, how that has changed over time, and how the objects, in their interplay both within the building and in relation to other sacred national sites across the country write and re-write a kind of official text about what it means to be an American.
So that's what we do. The first principle was we DO American Studies, which means allows me and my students to be active in the ways we go after learning. This suggests that it's also collaborative, that is, that each of these hypertext projects is the work of people who collaborate in at least three different senses. Sometimes they collaborate on individual projects, but its always collaborative in the sense that any one class is working on a common project that will be seen in its first iteration as that class's work. And it's collaborative over time. One of the certainties in any university is that you can be fairly confident is that if you get a student in his freshman year he'll probably be gone by his senior year, and you'll get a new set of freshmen in, and that they will move in orderly fashion through the institution. Whatever happens, they will move through it, and they will go away.
In this process, students are segmented, disconnected from each other, course from course, class from class, and graduates from undergraduates. But these projects go over a considerable period of time. You have, then, a very large group of stakeholders. In this Democracy in America project, you've got people who are now working for Microsoft, who believe they have the right to talk about the quality of what goes in from the undergraduates who are working on it at this point. The 4th years have a right to look at what the 3rd years are doing, and the 3rd years feel responsible to the people who have enabled them to do whatever their next stage was. So it's a way of setting up in this virtual space a small learning community, but which has a ripple effect out into other learning communities of people who can be synchronous or asynchronous participants.. They've been there and gone on, thy're now doing something else, but they're also still there, still connected. By the way, For an alumni association it is a great way to keep a handle on your alumni, and to get them to feel connected.
So it's collaborative in complex ways. It's aggregative, that is, it draws on the fact that most faculties teach in 16-week units, and they're done. I think its unlikely that you're going to get larger, more imaginative kinds of projects unless you find a larger box, a larger field in which to play. By doing it this way, I'm know I'll be able to watch these undergraduates for two years because they'll be working in this space, first in my class and then in other people's classes. It also forces me to be more patient -- all in all not a bad thing. Right now we're coming up on final exams and I know that I'm going to have a dreadful sense of incompleteness again this semester because the projects won't turn out quite as I had hoped and imagined. But, there's always next semester, and I can come back in with a new group of students and start fixing this thing up, and repairing what went bad, helping students take advantage of our collective mistakes and building on what proved to be successful. As long as I'm patient, as long as I realize that the event horizon, is 3 to 5 years out, not just this semester, I can help students do more productive, more professionally responsible, more useful kinds of work.
So far I've touched on active, collaborative, and aggregative; now to transformative. My students believe that they're actually doing something. One of the ironies of this virtual medium is that it suggests that the medium they're in now, which they call actual, is really the virtual one and the virtual one is more nearly actual. That is, they sit in a course for 16 weeks, listening, taking notes, preparing exercises that will be seen only by a professor and that somebody will certainly throw into a dustbin at the end of that period. And their primary goals are (a) to survive, (b) to survive with dignity, and (c) to excel. In terms of their transcripts, their piece of the institutional credentialling process. Here they can't do that, I'm not the person that they have to be most interested in, because this goes out in public, this will be seen by other students, by their parents, by perfect strangers. The student who can do shabby work and then go home and what a sunofagun I am is really out of luck. He's going to have to find some other way, because mom and dad are looking at his work and they know what they see. And students also get reactions from the audience that the whole class is addressing, college students and teachers and educated adults. That's who they have to talk to: they have to figure out the best means of getting this information into their heads, why they should need to know it in the first place. And the change in audience changes them: it gets their attention, lets them believe that they're actually being historians or being students of American culture. And they are! Their work is used in classrooms from Taiwan to Toledo, by students and teachers alike. So, what they do isn't some perpetual imitation of something that promises to prepares them for something that they'll never actually do. It's the real deal and it's here today.
The second kind of transformation is occuring at the institutional level. I know very little about Washington and Lee, but The University of Virginia is a highly atomistic, highly individualistic kind of place, each student locked in his own psyche, preoccupied with his own career plans. It is particularly difficult to get students to talk about academic matters outside of class. The class stops at 10 minutes before the hour, the discussion stops at the same moment and they go off to talk about other things. It seems, at times, as if education happens in the classroom only and that the rest of the world is for everything except education. Using the computer tends to break down this set of temporal and spatial boundaries. They are working on projects, on problems that actually engage them; they know these are important in some way beyond that of the other academic classes, they are working in each others line of sight and noone wants to seem dumb or a slacker. And they talk to each other.
Since I've long thought that one of tne of the most underutilized educational resources in any university is the students, I like this very much. The institutional presumption, the structural presumption is that when they have been through the degree process, at that point they can begin to teach, but many of the people are already bright, already well trained, and perfectly capable of doing peer to peer kinds of instruction. The technology simply gives me a way to utilize that asset.
Finally this process of exploring the uses of the new technologies has also and invitably transformed me. For 25 years I have been doing pretty much what I'm doing at this moment, standing in front of a group of people whose eyes I could see but whose brains I could not penetrate, telling them about stuff. Please understand, this was stuff I deeply believed in, stuff I thought terribly important for them to know and to understand. The way I was going about it was to share with them my passions and, perhaps, mywisdom. And I'd like to think that I wasn't entirely unsuccessful, but I couldn't prove it in terms I now consider respectable indicators. With these technologies I see clearly what the students are able to do, in terms of the skills that they have learned, in terms of the research capacity that they have developed, in terms of their analytical power, and in terms of their logical and descriptive powers. And I can ask you to do the same. There are some projects that are better than others. But, by and large -- as responsible, capable, useful, humanistic learning and research -- I think they stand up.
So that's the litany of things I think I've learnedl: active, collaborative, aggregative, transformative. If true, perhaps useful.
Steve desJardins: I'm just trying to get the process straight here. It appears that you've set up some central thing which is a text or a map or something or a picture, some set of information that you want them to study, and to...
Alan Howard: Not always ... what I told John's class is, that basically your job here is you're a cartographer. I don't know what the Internet is going to be like, and I don't know what the Web's going to look like. In fact, it looked like a lot of superhighway with no off ramps, no destinations, no johns by the wayside, nothing. What you're going to do is to figure out what's there and what we can do with it --provide some examples of the ways we can work in this space, and I've done something like that every year --that is, I will set them an area, like the 1930s, and I will set out a series of readings that are basically cartographic kinds of exploration. This is what the current scholarship on the New Deal seems to be. This is what the current scholarship on race and gender in this area seems to be. These are the people who are writing in this period, this is what the movies look like... and from that, in the first half of the course I try to derive general... do we have narratives.. is The Depression a decade, what does it even mean to talk about decades ...in the 17th century they talked about lustres, which were 5 year periods, because they thought that that was the natural division of time, lustres and millennia, you know. Those two boxes were what they wanted... does it make any sense for a historian to even talk about a decade as being a unit of time? And while they're doing that, they're generating course readings, I'll give each of them an essay, they'll go out and digitize that, I'll give them books to read that look like they're promising, they write book reports, report back to the group on what they found in this book. I provide resources, but this course will run 3-5 years and gradually over time they're also building their own place. So it's a kind of pioneering activity. Go in, define an area, then the students' job is to help you build that thing, and then rebuild it, and then rebuild it again.
Steve: so you give them some object of study, say the 1930s, and essentially provide them with some information, and they're trying to create a Web site that as best as they can explores that concept...
AH: 'As best they can' represents that decade as an object of study or as an explanatory system. Their job is to explain it ...it's really important to me because my students at Uva are extremely highly socialized in education: they may not know jack, but they do know how to work the educational system, and they know that the first thing you do is scope out the professor and get a profile on him or scope out a discipline, find the language in that discipline... and that's why I get these parades of ignorance clothed in jargon, because they're giving their best imitation of me, and it's appalling and embarrassing. I've tried to escape that by saying no we've got to talk to these other people, we've got to talk to your parents... I've got ACE profiles, I know how much their parents earn, I know what their degrees are, and we've got to talk to these people, most of whom have graduate degrees, advanced degrees. So you've got to figure it out and also how to explain it so it actually gets into somebody else's head.
Steve: this still comes in a 16-week course, right? You talk about going over several years; I mean what actually happens? Do they still register for courses?
AH: The project is a set of virtual rooms, new rooms can be added to the building... it looks like an Alaskan house out of the 1960s, where somebody's gone off to the wilderness and is building his house, first this room and then this room and eventually get the plumbing in and the wiring comes and the family comes along and you start adding rooms on... always not done. Always in process.
The undergraduates are working now as I said on technology and American culture, and they're the first ones in. What they finish off with will be presented in a kind of magazine format. Last semester was the first I had this group of undergraduates, and what we determined to do was that each student had to find a cultural object, some significant thing in our society, something that people see every day, automatically recognize, but do not necessarily understand. And their job was to find that object and then go explain it. So an example of this would be ... in Charlottesville next to the bus station by the courthouse is a statue of Lewis and Clark with Sacajawea down at their feet. So one of the students took that as an object... where did this come from? And she went down to the Albemarle Historical Society and started researching it and comes up with a narrative of its generation, put it back in time, explain who the people were, what their original intentions were. It turns out, this was a guy from New England, he'd made a lot of money, decided to move to Va because he had money now and didn't have to work, and wanted to build credentials for himself, find his heritage here in the south where his people had never been, and was desperately fishing around, and Charlottesville was a difficult place to do that inside a social environment that wasn't always hospitable to that endeavor, and so decided he would do a number of public goods, and one of them was the construction of this statue.
So this class will build another one of these things that are a group of projects thematically and conceptually organized together, presented in a kind of news magazine format so you can begin to see the intersections between the different projects.
Jeff Overholtzer: about the mechanics of how this works ... students in the class working collaboratively on I guess a set of pages that coalesces to form one page and plugs into the total master American Studies site. Do students submit the file to you and then you put the whole thing together, they publish separately?
AH: the university has a provisional one year life to student computer accounts . I don't want those accounts to die or go away when they graduate... so students build them in the UNIX system at the university. As soon as they are ready they are then brought into the American Studies server, where I make the box into which they fit. As long as they're at the U of Va they exist in two different copies, one in the student's account, and one in this common area. When they go away the student account dies and the common area persists. And one interesting phenomenon, which is not quite on your point --I have people who've been gone for 3 years who are still tinkering with projects. Still they have some kind of investment in making those things good; the half-life for student engagement in a course is something shorter than 3 years...
Jeff: when John was there you just turned them loose and said go figure this out, but nowadays you have some sort of workshop for the students to give them some basic tools
AH: I think I'm the only humanities teacher that also has a lab section, so I run them through a lab in their first semester of the AS program so that they get basic HTML, PhotoShop, plus basic protocols for moving files around and aggregating them, basic editing techniques for going back and developing their own work... they're learning those basic skills
Jeff: they get that as they enter the program
AH: One of the problems for me as a teacher is that the technology is moving rapidly enough that particularly at the MA level where I have strictly professional ambitions for them ... the MA program is a terminal MA that leads to Edmark, Microsoft, Kennedy Center, Smithsonian Institute, places like that. I have to keep the training level continually moving forward, so that they can use things that their bosses have seen in PC Magazine as possibilities, and when they go in there somebody is going to expect at least in part that they know how to use these whiz-bang things they've read about. Less pressure to do that with the undergraduates, but there's still some
Ruth Floyd: Do you teach that lab?
AH: Yes ma'am.
Ruth: how did you pick up those skills?
AH: Slowly, stupidly, by trial and error, mostly error.
??I take it you don't want to change that?
AH: Actually, no. The U of Va is rich in a lot of resources, and I try to exploit those as fully as possible. I don't know who I'm talking to, but as in many colleges and universities there's a caste system between the professoriate and the support staff. This seems to me to be an extremely wasteful way to do business, because it makes less use of a lot of talent. There are a lot of people who are in technical positions, as in our library, for example, who are teachers, and I go out and find anybody I can who is willing to do that and use them wherever possible. My decision to keep doing this myself, though, this part of it is that it has a kind of boot camp quality, where everybody's going through it together and there's a lot of community formation, and I want to be helping that to happen, and also because I can do asynchronous teaching with that. That is, I can take a student who seems to be getting it clearly, turn him over to a student to get a better grasp of skills by explaining it to a second student. It's difficult to do that in a 1 1/2 hour plot somewhere in the library...
Steve des Jardins: This should obviously translate to a lot of different fields. What I'm curious about is (1) has anybody else in the humanities taken on this approach, (2) has anyone in the sciences taken this on?
AH: I have some people in Chemistry who are trying to do it this year. They're more accustomed to this sort of thing, they're used to working in groups, they've got labs running in a lot of their courses, so they understand how that can work. They're also more likely to be persuaded by the kind of hands-on learning process that goes on here. I think the further you get towards philosophy and literature, the humanities, the less their own experience supports that, and the less clear it seems to them how they might do this thing.
The university now has its first technical faculty appointment, a tenure decision last year, to tenure somebody whose primary credentialling was electronic work and electronic teaching --that's a kind of hurdle for us. I have two other colleagues in the American Literature section who have begun to work with me now and next year I'll turn the American Studies introductory seminar over to one of them, I'll become his lab rat, I'll do the support in that class, and that way he'll get himself in line to do that. Another professor has a big Mark Twain project that last 3 years bringing students in working on Twain texts. Global, some movement, and I think we have two new young appointments that are likely to fit in, so that would be 5 or 6 of us, but it's ?? and it's slow, and it's against the logic of the system, against the culture a lot
??Since you're tenured ... would this be recognized by the university?
AH: You're really asking what it'll be like in 6 years... The department has already made that decision in this single instance. Now obviously that's a position that's been taken on speculation, rather than a policy. What will happen now is that they will watch him to see whether in their collective wisdom that was a good judgement or a bad judgement. So it's contingent in those two ways. One I think will become easier over time finding our place, we've got a kind of demonstration model there, see if it works. I think that the demonstration model is going to work. He's now downloading this into classes, he's doing a course on popular literature in America in the 20th century and he's trying to use popular literature as a way of getting students to understand what the culture is that supports popular literature, who are they, what are their values, what are their concerns and how does the literature reflect that? And so the first iteration of his course includes assigning to each student a book off of the Top 10 list in every decade to go do basically what I'm doing with these cultural objects --where do they come from, what does it mean, who's reading it, what do people think about it, in what way was it reflective of its time? So I think he's turning technical aspects into what seem to me to be interesting and useful pedagogical projects.
Steve: I recently encountered a model for ... there is this problem as people start to do serious scholarship, pedagogical research has it all overlap on the Web, then come tenure time what do we do with that it's not papers in a peer-reviewed journal or some books, and the model they'd given was literally to let people do this and then periodically peer review it, ask somebody please access this Web site, give us your opinion on this...
AH: People who are doing this don't know quite what it is they're seeing, and know how to evaluate. So part of the answer is to build protocols for evaluating or exploring and evaluating what it is that you see. You will have to train them. You will have to train the senior faculty to know how to read this different thing and to evaluate it. And they won't particularly like that because they will have to think about this. Now if they don't think about the way they read now very clearly or consistently, but their not reading and thinking about that is of such long-standing tradition that nobody questions it. Repeatedly what I find in questions that people bring up about these new media can be simply turned around to the old media. And what you find is the questions were never asked of the old media, because they were so deeply imbedded, so deeply entrenched, that they didn't need to be questioned, their authority was assumed. So people in my department asked questions about ...you're going to have things on here that are not the best books in their field. And I said yes --me and Alderman Library. But it is the lack of authority in this medium plus the lack of legibility --the lack of knowledge of how to understand it that immediately makes these various invisible problems or assumed authority suddenly visible, but they're the same question, same problem. You surely do not want to go through this library taking out all the stupid books. Educating the people who are going to make these judgements --at the beginning I think that means going outside of your own house, going to people you respect for other reasons, and asking them to speak on this. And there are people in many humanistic fields who are tweeners, people who have a reputation and are respected in conventional and traditional kinds of scholarship, who are also knowledgeable, and it's those people I think who can bridge the gap and help your own faculty understand better.
The other response is that the faculty who are coming up have to be aware of what it is that they are asking people to see in their work. They have to do a better and more impressive job of preparing their material for viewing than they would otherwise. Normally in my department what you get is six copies of ... offprint of three articles. Maybe a book. That's the way it's done. Everybody assumes that everybody can read a book. They have to understand that the evidentiary problem is certainly shared, they have responsibility and they have to try to find ways to make this thing legible to their colleagues as possible, and that means planning ahead.
Ruth: issue involved in copyright?
AH: It is a problem, but it is a problem largely for the university's attorneys, who are in something of a swivet about this matter. In doing this over 4 years I've had one complaint by somebody because one of my students had expropriated something that he didn't want to have us.... and so we killed it... a librarian who had some Web materials out on an almost invisible collection of Jeff Davis papers, and we cited it, cited him, gave a plug back to the library, and told people 'you ought to go see this, there's lots of interesting research material that not everybody knows about' So I thought it was in his interest that we turn some custom his way. He didn't like it, we removed it.
I've had one publisher make a complaint, and the default position is "constrain to domain", to treat it as if it were a reserve book in the university library, where only the university community can get access to it, not everybody can take it away, and so we constrain it to the university domain because the only people who can get it are staff, faculty, students...
We have a project here on Robert Johnson, the black blues musician from the 30s, and we got a call from the attorney from the Robert Johnson Foundation... his take was I think much enlightened. He said he believed that Robert Johnson deserved to be better known, a subject of legitimate academic interest, and he believed that his own interests were best served if he were better known by academic inquiry, and thank you very much.
Those are the three reactions I've got. This site is about 1.3 gigabytes of material, and we've tried to stay outside of the copyright zone as much as possible. We're about to come up with an exhibit on Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, an early 19th century 9 volume pre-Audubon with beautiful watercolors of American birds. That comes out of our Special Collections, which we own. It is clearly out of copyright, nobody can fault us on that. We try to work in those areas where the material is either clean and clear, or if it isn't that we've found a way to deal with the copyright problems short of being silenced by the threat of copyright infringement.
That last brings me to something that I also wanted to mention. One of the things I like best about this is that this is a way in which I can display the quality of U of Va students. By and large it shows them off ... one of my students did a digital copy of Parker's Oregon Trail... we found an 1890 edition with illustrations by Frederick Remington. Those Remington illustrations are in a very limited edition... assets which the U of Va had, and which can be known and used by as many as 3 people a day. Those Remington illustrations were getting about 150 hits a day. Some part of me really likes to take undervalued assets and find some way to make them more valuable.
I think that in terms of both the students and the resources of the library, this is a way of doing that, and I think very slowly the university is coming around to accept that as a possibility. This site is averaging about 40,000 hits a day. That's 1.2 million a month, for a bunch of kids, 19-22. That's not too shabby. And the university gets a lot of cultural capital out of that.
Steve: how do you maintain quality control?
AH: I'm the managing editor of this operation, but it's not really terribly different from what I've done all my life. Papers are not written, they're rewritten, so I always have draft schedules and redraft schedules built into my regular coursework. This now becomes a little bit different in that we go through very public draft revisions, in which all of the other students are looking around and saying 'this is what I think you need to clean up... this needs to be a little better... this is not working...' and so they can help me with that, and then I get final draft privileges. I get quality control and if it doesn't work I just hide it somewhere or I set contingencies --if this is going to appear in the context of this group's work it must be brought up to standards that are consistent with the rest of the group, these are the things you need to do if you want it published.
Charlie Hitlin: Who does the technical support?
AH: Largely moi. The problem was that I had no machinery when I began this with 4 remanufactured 486s from a failed computer sales operation in Charlottesville... I took the stoutest of them, reworked them a bit, and set them up as a peer-networked lab. I felt I needed to have a server for the program in order to familiarize students with the kind of environment they would be going into after graduation -- and most of them would not be going into Unix-based systems, the typical network program for universities. For that reason and because I had no money to purchase a Unix server system, I was compelled to look at Microsoft Windows NT. Since then, NT has proven a robust and flexible system but, at that time, there were no other NT machines in the College of Arts and Sciences. There were some NT servers -- in the Darden School and the Law School, but when I tried to get support in the college, I was told that NT was not going to work, that I was being perverse, a bad actor, and that they weren't going to have anything to do with me.
Since then, things have changed: I have a Teaching and Technology Initiative grant this year which has provided me with funds to upgrade some hardware, add better software, and which has provided me access to a group of educational-technology people who are very smart and very supportive. Its wonderful to have people who understand what you're trying to do and who want to help you get there. In addition, the College is beginning to get NT tech support people and to provide them with the training that they need and deserve. Ask the same question in a year, and I think the answer will be that I'm getting substantial help from the university.
The problem all along, I think, has been that administrators don't really understand the nature of the new technology, have little sense of its potential for improving the quality of education, are focused on it as a cost-cutting measure, have no stomach for making the hard choices that are required to invest in the human and material plant that is clearly needed in order to make it work.