American Studies and the New Technologies:
New Paradigms for Teaching and Learning

Alan B. Howard

originally prepared for the

Ninth Annual Learning and Literacy
Network Learning Conference
Beijing, July 19, 2002


          Despite a good deal of rhetoric about the transformational power of the new technologies in education, very little has emerged that points toward deep, substantive, and significant change in the ways we teach and learn. Four projects at the University of Virginia, however, are exceptions: as they alter the ways in which we create and disseminate knowledge, they are beginning to show what that transformation might look like. In combination, they suggest a new and extremely promising paradigm for using the new technologies. They are large, complex, aggregative, and synthesizing virtual spaces that both require and enable a new kind of collaborative culture for research, teaching, and learning. They are also suggestive of the kind of learning organizations that will be needed in the traditional academic disciplines as they attempt to adjust to new global realities.


          I suspect that most of us would agree that the new technologies are fundamentally transforming education at every level. And most of us believe that distance and asynchronous learning are radically changing not only whom and when we teach but how and what we teach them. My happy task today is to disagree, to tell you that what most of us are doing is not, in fact, transformative at all. In my view our current use of the new technologies does not fundamentally reorganize the ways in which or what we teach and learn - it merely uses the new technologies to deliver the same tired old, rather doubtful stuff more efficiently.

          I have no doubt that the new technologies have the capacity to be fundamentally transformative. I just don't think we've yet discovered how to make them so. That's to be expected. Historians of science and technology will tell you that any powerful new technology, when first introduced, will be radically misunderstood. Our first instinct is to use it to address an old set of problems or questions. Only over time do we come to understand that the new technology actually reorganizes the world, generating both new questions and new ways of answering them.

           Take, for example, the introduction in America of cast-iron technology in the first third of the 19th century. The first, most commonsensical application of the new ability to cast large pieces of iron was to create modularized panels of imitation stone- and brickwork. These pieces -- cheap to make, easy to transport by water, and not requiring skilled labor to assemble -- were applied to the fronts of frame buildings in Western cities. They thereby transformed rude frontier structures into something that looked, at least from the street, like their more expensive, more substantial, more traditional Eastern equivalents. And the new banks and commercial establishments they housed presumably looked more reliable -- sounder somehow -- than they often were.

          Eventually, of course, builders discovered that the cast iron was better used for the interiors than the exteriors of buildings, as structural members that could bear the weight of curtain walls and allow greater building heights and a more intense use of increasingly expensive urban real estate. The technology, one might say, eventually argued its own best and highest use, a use that was quite literally structural rather than decorative, a matter of the organization of the building rather than of its appearance. And in the end, of course, those structural changes transformed everything around them: the shape of cities, the nature of social and economic relations, and the scale and function of most human organizations.

          In my judgment, we are now at something like the cast-iron storefront stage in our educational use of the new technologies. We understand them primarily as the means to teach with greater efficiency and flexibility at lower per-unit costs. We see them as a kind of telephone, an instrument for the distribution of already existing information, and as modalities for acquiring and transmitting that information. They're currently being used largely as the means to address certain problems universities have in space and time, problems of reaching students who are spatially distant from campuses and whose work schedules or life situations don't permit them all to show up anywhere at a fixed time. They are being used, that is, for distance and asynchronous learning.

          But the highest and best use of the technologies can't be simply to provide a more cost-efficient way to massify the retailing information, some sort of high-tech successor to the correspondence school. I think they should be understood, instead, as a new kind of lens that allows us to create different kinds of knowledge, more complex and credible models for describing the way the world works and that will be arrived at by different means. By "different means" I have in mind the ways the invention of another set of lenses, the telescope and microscope, which reorganized knowledge and science in the late Renaissance. Like them, our own new technologies should create both new ways of knowing and new kinds of learning institutions. The telescope and the microscope gave rise to new kinds of physics and medicine; they also gave rise to the Royal Society and other organizations dedicated to the "New Science," new kinds of learning organizations capable of understanding and using those technologies. Something like that has to happen now if we are to capture our own new lenses power to transform.

          That transformative power rises out of the increased scale and complexity of the material computers can create and manage. They allow us to store and manipulate significantly larger volumes of data in different modalities -- print, audio and visual. They allow us to organize and analyze these data in exponentially more sophisticated and compelling ways and to represent those analyses in significantly different forms. To the extent that they permit these things, one might say that they "argue" or even demand some use. They also argue for learning organizations that are capable of working at the same scale and complexity, enlisting a multitude of talents, training, and abilities in order to exploit the technologies' potential power. No one scholar is learned or skilled enough to create, manage, and develop the virtual information structures that the new technologies permit.

Four Sites at the University of Virginia

           Four projects under development at the University of Virginia, each large, complex, and extensively collaborative -- are fundamentally transformational. All four, although developed independently of one another, are beginning to assume remarkably similar shape and direction, as if they were beginning to hear the same argument from the technology. And all suggest significantly new ways of using the technology to teach and learn.

          The first of these is the Uncle Tom's Cabin site created by Stephen Railton, at

          This site is focused on Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel. At present, it consists of four layers. The first is a body of texts created prior to Uncle Tom's Cabin -- "texts" in the broadest sense of the word, including sermons, sentimental and domestic literature, and minstrel shows. The second is comprised of the full text of the novel in all of its original versions: the manuscript, the serialization, and the first edition. It also includes Stowe's prefaces to various editions of the novel and her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Christian Slave -- the first a response to attacks on the book and the second a dramatization of the novel for the stage. The third layer consists of responses to the novel, pro and con, in various forms and media -- print, graphics, and film -- and objects related to the book from material culture. And the fourth is a set of contemporary critical or scholarly essays. In prospect is yet a fifth layer designed to help teachers integrate the larger site's resources into their curricula.

          The second site is The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the Civil War by Edward Ayers, Anne Rubin, and Will Thomas, at

          Focused on two counties in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, one in Pennsylvania, the other in Virginia, at its base is very large -- if not yet complete -- digital archive documenting the history of these two communities between 1859 and 1866. It includes census data, tax digests, documents regarding slaves and slave owners, letters and diaries, transcriptions of newspaper articles from both counties and from major metropolitan papers in the area, church records, military records, maps, paintings, drawings, photographs, lithographs, and photographic and other images of contemporary objects such as quilts. In addition, there is a group of projects drawn from archival materials by teams of UVA students on various subjects, including the status of U.S. "colored troops," the condition of Augusta County on the home front, and the experiences of members of the 77th Pennsylvania Regiment. Finally, there is a rich body of teaching and learning materials for the schools, including directed research projects and materials geared to the Commonwealth of Virginia's new Standards of Learning. The archive is, of course, searchable.

          The third site is The Salem Witchcraft Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, led by Benjamin Ray. It can be found at .

          The Salem trials have long been an iconic event in American culture -- and a longstanding historical puzzle, an outbreak of medieval religious hysteria at the end of the 17th century in the part of the British Empire with the highest per capita number of people with university educations. The site includes digital transcriptions of all the relevant contemporary documents -- court records, church records, and personal letters -- brought together for the first time in one virtual, searchable space. In addition, the site is accumulating contemporary accounts by participants and observers, as well as subsequent treatments of the event in American history and literature. It also contains educational materials, primarily for college students. At this point, it is less fully developed and articulated than the Valley project, and it focuses on a more circumscribed event and more limited body of information. In the end, however, I'm confident that it will look and function much like the other two projects.

          Finally, the fourth site is AS@UVA, the Website for the American Studies Programs at the University of Virginia, at

          This site is different from the other three in at least one significant way: it is built entirely by students. Its most fully articulated features are

  • the Yellow Pages, a selective, annotated guide to Internet resources in American Studies;
  • the Museum for American Studies, a virtual exhibition space;
  • Hypertexts, a collection of digitized texts hypertexts relevant to the study of American culture(s);
  • Cultural Maps, a series of projects in the visualization of historical processes;
  • the Capitol Project, which looks at the construction and management of the Capitol building as a national icon; and
  • the 1930s, focused on American culture in the Great Depression, perhaps the most fully developed site of the lot.

          Each of these four University of Virginia Websites is transformational in one or more dimensions.

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Novels vs. Cultural Texts

          For at least half a century, literary and cultural scholars have understood that the novel is something more than a stable material object, that it is in some fashion a cultural process. What kind of cultural process and how to describe it have been theorized and disputed intensely. Arguments about the desire of the 18th-century's emergent middle class to see itself represented positively in literature and to learn how the upwardly aspiring and mobile should think, feel, and behave have given way to views of the novel as an instrument of class, racial, or gender hegemony and resistance. What all of these approaches have in common, though, is a tendency to exclude other, competing interpretative strategies and the evidence that would support them, and to be generally data poor and profoundly self-referential.

          The Uncle Tom's Cabin project brings together a very large body of materials that precede and follow the publication of Stowe's famous novel. Once brought into relation with one another, a picture of the novel as part of a very large and complex cultural process begins to emerge. The "Pretexts" provide us with the codex that contemporary readers would have needed before they could have made meaning of the book: the language and assumptions of Protestant Christianity, the assumptions of sentimental and domestic discourses, and early Victorian America's thoroughly tangled ideas about gender and race. It layers these with critical reviews, correspondence, and oppositional tracts and novels to show us how Stowe's readers variously read and misread -- or, to put it another way, how they helped her write or themselves "re-wrote" -- the novel from various ideological perspectives. The site then tracks this process of rewriting and revision into the 1930s, meticulously detailing the various ways in which Uncle Tom's Cabin was absorbed into cultural conversations about gender, class, race, morality, religion, politics, economics, morality, and popular culture, as well as into the larger debates about the nature of American identity and the emerging national and modern culture. The book is, in effect, revealed for what it "really" is, a kind of palimpsest, a text written over and over again -- a contested, virtual space whose meaning is best understood by observing the many hands at work doing this writing and re-writing.

The Valley of the Shadow: history vs. History

          The word 'history' contains within it the fundamental paradox of the discipline, the difference between "the things that happened in the past" and "the stories we tell about the past." The transformative power of "The Valley of the Shadow" begins when it thrusts this paradox into view, presenting the experience of two communities in the Civil War in such remarkable detail and complexity that it fundamentally challenges the historian's efforts to manufacture a synthesizing and analytical narrative. Take almost any current historical explanation of the meaning of the Civil War, and the Valley archive will give you examples that complicate or subvert it. Despite having recently won the first eLincoln prize for digital history, it seems clear that the site is confusing and disquieting to some historians. This discomfiture about what the project might imply is, I think, understandable, since its particular application of the new technology argues for a very unconventional model of historical explanation and narration.

          The database is "multi-relational." Any single item from the census data "means" differently when placed in relation to, say, agricultural commodity prices of the period, the number of females enrolled in school, or net dollar gains or losses in property transfers. And this suggests in turn that any credible history of the period must somehow include the complex interrelations of all of these variables. In effect, the archive "argues" that historical analysis and narration must become multi-relational as well, a web of discreet narratives layered and intersecting at various angles.

          This is unconventional history, indeed, but for most historians it shouldn't feel as strange as it seems to. Although contemporary scholarly practice doesn't always measure up to that of the great 19th-century American historians, in their work we often find something like what I'm describing here. Prescott's Conquest of Mexico, for example, includes a primary narrative, the story of Cortez's "heroic" conquest of the "barbaric" and "Oriental" culture of Aztec Mexico. But beneath that one, literally at the bottom of every page, is another, often ignored narrative, which is carried in Prescott's remarkably extensive footnotes. There, we find the historiography of the Conquest. It contains not only the rich and expansively detailed documentation that Prescott consulted -- a kind of database of original sources -- but the historiographical drama of his own struggle to find an interpretive path through his various sources' variety, contradiction, intentional deception, and unintentional error. The footnotes present, then, a body of original sources and a second narrative layered beneath the main one, and both of these additional layers repeatedly intersect with, complicate, and challenge the synthesizing primary narrative.

          Extending Prescott's practice into the digital world, one might envision a multi-layered set of narratives about the history of two communities.

  • Layer 1 might be a concise sequential narrative of the subject.
  • Layer 2 would be a sequence of focused narratives, each from a different angle of inquiry: economic history, social relations, religious history, popular culture, military history, etc.
  • Layer 3 might be an historiography of the subject.
  • Layer 4 could contain a series of micro-macro comparisons of each of the two communities to the regions to which they belonged, or to other regions, or to regions of other nations that experienced major civil conflict.
  • Layer 5 could focus on pedagogical uses of the site.
  • Layer 6 would contain reader's responses, editors' comments, etc.

          And indeed, The Valley of the Shadow actually seems to be well on its way toward this sort of "more complex narrative." It has taken the form of a CD-ROM /book package that both provides a general overview of the two communities on the eve of the war and explains how, using the CD-ROM, teachers and students can "become" historians by doing various kinds of original research in the database. It has begun a pedagogical layer, and it will continue to enlist students and graduate students in focused lines of inquiry.

Salem. Narratives vs. Maps: The Visualization of Social Processes

          The Salem witchcraft trials have a deep and interesting historiography, beginning with contemporary accounts: the court records themselves, various kinds of correspondence, and a subsequent literature of self-justification or self-mortification by some of the participants. In the 19th century there is an appropriation of the event by the historian Charles Upham and by literary figures such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, the one under the influence of the mid-19th century historians' new interest in primary documents, the other under that of the literary clerisy's desire to provide America with the myth and history she seemed so sadly to lack. In the 20th century there is the seminal account of the trials, V.L. Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought, which casts them as a simple contest between clerics and commoners, between the conservative and liberal imaginations in America. And most recently, we have narratives that argue that the crisis can best be understood in terms of emerging class conflicts over property and status or, most recently, gender.

          What the people working on the Salem Witchcraft project are beginning to suspect is that none of these explanations of the event is quite adequate -- that all may have some relevance, but that there are also other, more complicated variables at play. They are bringing together in one virtual space all of the surviving contemporary documents and all of the significant subsequent commentary in very much the same way that the Uncle Tom's Cabin and Valley of the Shadow projects do. In addition, they are exploring new ways of displaying that information, bringing to bear on the documents, for example, the lens of cartography. And in attempting to graphically display the outbreaks of accusations, the researchers noted that the resulting dynamic map (which works best in Netscape)looked remarkably like the kind that the Center for Disease Control might create to chart the outbreak and spread of disease. This in turn suggested an epidemiological analytic model, one which they are following up on now, complete with agents of transmission, varieties of contact, tables of variable susceptibility to infection, and time of and opportunities for re-infection. Again it looks as if the development of the hysteria is not a single-cause or single-agent process but one in which multiple variables are at play.

Common Attributes

          These three projects, then, seem capable of changing the way we see and explain our world. And they share a group of common attributes. They are all large, and getting larger; they are interdisciplinary and multimediated, radically expanding the notion of what a text is. They are aggregative, synthesizing, and virtualized, bringing together in a single digital space materials that otherwise lie impossibly separated and unmanageable, resistant to analysis. They are multi-relational and multi-layered, structures whose complexity approximates that of the reality they seek to describe. They are question based and open ended, beginning with no clear sense of the object of the enterprise except to bring together in one space the relevant data, repeatedly discovering and re-discovering the uses to which they might be put.

          Above all, these are collaborative, virtual structures built and extended by real communities. In the future, each enterprise will succeed in rough proportion to the degree that it is able to evolve a new kind of institutionalized intellectual culture in which faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, library staff, technical support staff, school teachers, independent researchers, academics at other institutions, and unaffiliated professionals share authority, expertise, and responsibility. Moreover, the technology argues that, in order to succeed, each project will have to create an intellectual community of teachers and learners of sufficient scale, complexity, flexibility, and durability to develop serendipitously and opportunistically over time. If, as some have said, the modern university is the last rust-belt institution, the last standing invention of the age of industrialization and mechanical reproduction, the model these technology-based projects suggest, ironically enough, is strikingly organic, complex, vital, and dynamic -- less like a production line than an incubator.

AS@UVA. "Learning Communities" vs. Communities that Learn: "Process is our Most Important Product"

          American Studies at the University of Virginia actually consists of two programs, one for undergraduates, the other for master's candidates. The graduate version takes a calendar year to complete, twelve very intense months; the undergraduate version runs for two academic years. During that time, the students create two types of community. Since each group remains together for the term of the students' stay in the program, they develop a certain amount of social cohesion. And since the students in each take a number of classes together and participate in a series of core seminars designed to integrate and synthesize the content in those courses, social cohesion is gradually transmuted into intellectual cohesion. Students form study groups for their common classes, work together on a series of collaborative projects, and help each other with individual projects. Meanwhile, they also become part of a larger virtual community, consisting of graduates of the programs and the various people who respond to their projects on the Website.

           Over time and apart from some differences in pace, the two programs have come more and more to resemble one another. In both, the objective is to provide students an opportunity to complicate and clarify their notions of cultural process, particularly of American culture(s). In both, the strategy is to involve students in inventing whatever is the next evolutionary stage of the program's Website and to prepare them to do it. In both programs, this objective is approached on two parallel tracks. The first is fairly conventional: learning the basic theory and method of interdisciplinary study of a culture. The second is less familiar: acquiring the skills necessary to produce for the Web, with its technical demands as well as its peculiar logic and rhetoric as a medium.

          Each of the sub-sites reflects a stage in the students' learning process. The Yellow Pages, for example, introduce them to the protocols for evaluating materials on the Web. The Hypertext site is really a small publishing company; it teaches them about the selection of texts, textual editing and production, and the conversion of print texts to hypertexts -- texts that attempt to capture, like the Uncle Tom's Cabin project, narratives as cultural processes. The students have done this kind of conversion primarily with three print texts:

           Each of these texts has been "extended," surrounded with satellite projects that amplify, qualify, or contest the central text. The Incorporation of America is the most fully developed of these. It now includes some 55 additional texts and commentaries on everything from the incorporation of baseball to the incorporation of general benevolence and organized religion. What students learn in the process of doing this work is how to understand interpretive paradigms, how to use them to explore new and uncharted areas, and how to adjust them when they fail to explain. The Capitol project does something similar, treating the building as if it, too, were a text and attempting to read it, first, as a social construction and, secondly, as a contested space where competing ideological forces battled for control of the idea of America.

          Finally, the 1930s project attempts to complicate and contextualize the Great Depression in America. At this point it includes some 40 sub-sites focused on the cultural history of the period. Most explore the function of the new media of the time -- periodicals, radio, recordings, and film -- and its great symbolic spectacles, such as the two World's Fairs of 1933 and 1939. Both the Capitol and the 1930s projects are aimed at expanding students' technical skills, field of vision, and critical vocabulary in an increasingly mediated culture, introducing them to the tools for producing, analyzing, and interrelating materials in various media.

          The work on AS@UVA gives the programs considerable pedagogical power, in two ways. First, because much of what the students need to master is quite new, the learning curve can be quite steep, and they get the benefits of a very concrete sense that their effort is yielding an increase in knowledge and power. Second, that mastery counts for something. The students sense that what they are doing is real -- they are providing resources that people "out there" actually use. What they know, the judgments they make, and the ways in which they argue, support, and present those judgments will be seen and evaluated by people beyond the classroom and the instructor. Work they do on AS@UVA doesn't end up in a wastebasket or a fraternity file -- it goes out into the street. And because their work is public and part of the larger site development, they can't ritually repeat what someone else has already done, can't regurgitate what they've been told in class. They have to ask genuine questions. They have to explain why anyone out there would be interested in either the questions or their answers. And they have to try to understand what the viewer already knows, what he/she needs to have explained, etc.

          In the coarsest, most easily quantified sense, traffic, they have risen to the challenge. Over time my students have built a significant body of primary and secondary resources that are used by more than 25,000 people (200,000 hits) each day. Another measure of their success is the quality of the work -- variable to be sure, but nonetheless sufficient to merit links with over 14, 000 sites, including those of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Gateway for Educational Materials, the Library of California, the Scout Report, the BBC, the Study Web, Yahoo, the Discovery Channel, the American Studies Association, the American Historical Association, and large numbers of universities and schools. Student work has been added to classroom syllabi and reprinted in electronic and print journals. And students have gone on to work in the new-media arms of traditional publications (Fortune Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, NBC News, etc.), at colleges and universities, in museums and libraries (the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the University of Maryland's Electronic Text Center), in private companies, and for public-interest groups.

          To see how this process actually works, you can examine the students' work. And you can also review the formal evaluation of the program conducted in 2000, which includes student opinions -- all solicited well enough after graduation to give the graduates an opportunity to test their education against the demands of the real world.

          The AS@UVA site not only generates a newly powerful pedagogy -- it also works as a new form of scholarship. Like the three other sites I have described, it thickens the description of each of its fields of inquiry. The 1930s site, for example, brings into the discussion of the Great Depression not only the social and political history of the period, but also an extraordinary body of material from popular and material culture, including films of every flavor: gangster, western, screwball comedy, documentary, and musical. It serves up the visual landscape of the period in painting, sculpture, murals, cartoons, magazine and book illustrations, and advertisements, as well as in elements of the built environment: gas stations, motels, billboards, skyscrapers, and public-works projects such as dams, parkways, and resettlement communities. And it provides access to the aural landscape: the soap operas, children's adventure programs, political speeches, and popular music that provided the background for the decade. All of these, along with literature of every possible kind -- fiction, non-fiction, commercial, and political -- were components of the 1930s culture-wide effort to understand what had happened in the Depression and what to do about it. The jukebox songs "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" and "Happy Days are Here Again" tell us as much about the period as Roosevelt's fireside chat defending his attempt to pack the Supreme Court - or as much as editorials in the New Masses. All of these can be found on the site.

Reaching Out

          The new technologies, then, argue for the creation of virtual learning and teaching spaces. The models here suggest how these spaces can 1) become loci for genuinely original research, and 2) facilitate the reorganization of the learning culture to be more genuinely collaborative, more productive, and more analogous to the world our students will live and work in. In closing, I'd like to situate these spaces in an international context. In order to do this, I need to back up a bit, to look at academic disciplines as a function of national culture.

          Academic fields and sub-fields such as American Studies, American history, American literature, American religious studies, American anthropology, American art, etc., have all suffered recently from disquiet about the monomyth of American culture and about the various kinds of "American exceptionalism" it seems to imply or promote. And to some extent American scholars' discomfort has produced a growing realization that the idea of a national history or a national literature is, like the nation itself, "a collective argument, partly coerced, to affirm a common basis for a shared history," as Thomas Bender put it recently. As Bender points out, whether they arose as professional and academic enterprises in the nineteenth century (history), the early twentieth-century (American literature), or at mid-century (American Studies), they all emerged as a "cultural investment in the work of modern nation-building." As William McCall puts it, they "got into the classroom to make nations out of peasants, out of localities, out of human raw material... in the not-so-United States" or, later, in order to re-constitute a nation after the Second World War, and subsequently under Cold War conditions.

          More recently, these fields have resisted and subverted the monomyth. They are now in the process of creating a new paradigm for the nation, hybrid rather than 'pure,' multi-threaded and multi-layered rather than flat, uniform, and consistent over time. To carry forward this sort of exploration of a more complex and dynamic model of the nation, we need something like the new technologies and the new learning organizations I have been describing. This exploration also requires that we not only complicate but broaden the definition of the nation, largely by expanding our field of view to include larger social, political, economic and cultural scales and spaces, to view the inside of the nation in dynamic relation to what is outside it.

           Despite our tendency to talk about the present moment as the beginning of the era of globalization, American has always existed in a global context. In the Age of Discovery and early colonial period, America was primarily a European fantasy projected upon what was presumed to be a blank and empty continent. In the Revolutionary period, America was arguably an artifact of the Enlightenment, as in the early 19th century it was a test-bed for European technology and Romantic ideology and advances in the natural sciences.

          Just as attention to America's hyphenated binaries - Anglo-American, African-American, Asian-American - has helped break the hold of the monomyth, re-focusing our attention on America in a global context would, I think, lead to, in Clifford Geertz's term, a thicker American Studies, American history, etc. -- something simultaneously more complex and truer to what, even in the postmodern world, has to be called "reality."

           The task, again phrased elegantly by Thomas Bender, would be to "look for the ties that bind a multiplicity of ...narratives to one another under the canopy of American history, even as...[we]... explore ways these histories connect the United States to histories outside its bounds -- sensitive in both instances to the seams and fissures in the surface unity." In some ways, this task is already begun in American Studies in the exploration of intersecting nationalities, cultures, and language groups in the American population. Literary scholars are looking at post-colonial and Anglophone literatures, and historians are studying the world-wide deterioration of civil societies after WW II. But many other areas suggest themselves: global immigration and emigration flow, settlement patterns and the emergence of staple-producing economies in various global situations, the intellectual and social construction of utopian communities worldwide, and the like.

          Such an enlargement of perspective promises not merely a further recovery of the remarkable heterogeneity of American culture hidden beneath the national monomyth but a correction to some of its premises. In contrast to the Turnerian focus on Westering as the central unifying, nation-building experience, for instance, some of the studies suggested above might reveal that America was actually shaped by the movement of capital, things, information, and people ineluctably traversing national and other kinds of boundaries. Our history, it may turn out in the end, is the sum of that interchange from outside to inside and from inside to outside.

           These possibilities, and others I cannot begin to imagine or name, can best be realized within virtual spaces shared across institutional and national boundaries and inhabited by students and teachers with different specializations and training and different national perspectives and narratives. At a recent conference on the future of international American Studies, participants were asked to describe barriers they experience in doing scholarship. They listed access to journals first, to libraries and archives second, and to teaching materials third. I think the collaborative construction of the kind of virtual spaces described here would address these problems for more students and teachers, at significantly lower costs, and with greater effect than any of our traditional modes of distributing scholarship can do. In addition, these kind of trans-institutional, trans-national spaces would enlarge the universe of talent and resources brought to bear on any one area of investigation. Institutions that are poorly endowed in some areas but that are capable of contributing the talents and perspectives we lack could become partners in designing and developing an enlarged virtual community capable of creating a new American Studies in a global context.


           We are confronted with a series of choices about how we use these new technologies: to expand markets and reduce per-unit costs or to increase the scale and complexity of understanding; to use the technology to put a new front on what we already know and can do or to listen to the technology and hear how it can be genuinely transformative; to build fake communities manufacturing rote learning or to create actual communities, even if virtual, that are actually learning.

          And it is clear that we will have to choose. Historically, whenever a technology has argued a transformative use, some have refused to listen. When Cortez arrived in Tenochtitlan, he noted that the Aztecs, though extremely sophisticated in some ways, had not yet developed the wheel, except for use in children's toys. This may have been a rational choice on the Aztecs' part. Lacking draft animals and with a huge labor pool, one might say that the Aztecs didn't need to hear the argument of wheel technology. One might also suspect that the Aztecs understood that the wheel could have social and cultural consequences they could not anticipate, feared, and did not want to risk. Could it be that they turned a deaf ear to the technology precisely because of its dangerously transformational power? I believe that there are many in our profession who will make a similar choice regarding the new technologies. But I hope not too many. Remember what happened to the Aztecs.