AS@UVA: Virtual Space -- Actual Learning

Alan B. Howard

AS@UVA is the virtual space for
the American Studies Programs at the University of Virginia:

What follows is an attempt to describe something that -- much too slowly and with far too much ingrained resistance -- I 've come to understand about the promise of the new technologies for the humanities and especially for American Studies. It has little to do with what most university administrators, state legislators or the public seem to expect -- that computer networks will allow us to deliver learning more efficiently to a larger audience at lower unit costs. Instead, I think that the new technologies are a new opportunity to do what we have always claimed to do --to teach and learn -- but it won't be either easy or cheap. AS@UVA, it turns out, is both "virtual" and a "space" in ways far more complex than Time magazine ever dreamt of; it is "virtual" in that it is a simulacrum of something it resembles but is not; and it is a "space" which turns out also to be a temporal continuity, a process.

In order to explain what this last sentence might amount to, I need to begin at the beginning. Bear in mind that the narrative that follows is, like The Education of Henry Adams, a comic tale of the inadequacy of good intentions and the possibilities of learning in spite of oneself.

In the beginning, my intentions were good. AS@UVA began as a reaction to a set of conditions here at the University of Virginia, a hypothesis set against a set of real, if local and idiosyncratic, institutional problems.

  1. The English Department came to the realization -- somewhat later than other "major research universities" -- that it was overproducing Ph.D.s for a badly saturated market and that it would have to downsize its Ph.D. program and reallocate resources and energies elsewhere, to undergraduate and especially to masters-level programs.
  2. Almost simultaneously the Department discovered that, since the M.A. had long been understood as the initial stage in the preparation for the Ph.D., it had absolutely no idea what a legitimate "terminal M.A." might look like, a graduate program that prepared students for something other than life in a tenured position.
  3. And, at least in some quarters, this forced us to try to understand what we were educating students for, how our curriculum was organized to that end, and how we would know if we were doing a good job at it -- i.e., it forced us to consider the possibility that all the talk of "assessment" we'd been hearing might actually have something to do with us after all.

In pursuit of at least a partial solution to these problems, I began designing an American Studies professional master's program that would emphasize the use of the new technologies. We already had an undergraduate American Studies Program which had been running for over fifteen years, small but by all accounts successful. We also had an unusually rich set of human and material resources here at UVA. We had a large number of faculty housed in various departments but trained in American Studies or doing de facto American Studies: Richard Wilson in Architectural History; Jim Deetz in Anthropology; John Bunch in the Education School; Ed Ayers, Peter Onuff and Stephen Innes in History; Roger B. Stein in Art; as well as Dell Hymes, Chuck Perdue, Stephen Cushman, Eric Lott, and Stephen Railton, in English to name only a few. And we had a library with extensive American holdings, a superb special collections division, The Electronic Text Center, a campus-wide high-quality computing network, and fairly easy access to the resources of Washington, D.C.; Richmond; Williamsburg; and, of course, Monticello. And, finally, I had some familiarity with computers, and least enough not to be phobic about them, and I had a good deal of curiosity how, since they seemed inevitable, they might actually work in an educational setting.

The original design proposal called for a one-year (12-month) program limited to ten students and somehow combining training in American Studies and in computing. The objective was to prepare graduate students for work or further training anywhere that analytical and expressive skills, a good understanding of American cultural processes, and a familiarity with computing would be of value. I also hoped that, if the program proved credible and its success demonstrable, it might provide a model for building similar programs in the English Department and, over time, might provide a path out of the swamp we had wandered into.

When I presented the project to my departmental chair in 1993, the computing I had in mind consisted of public workstations networked to Unix servers capable of delivering email, managing newsgroups, and allowing for file storage. My rather too-vague notion was that I could use this for distance and group work as well as for storing and manipulating student essays. Beyond that, I hoped that, if I could learn something like Asymetrix Toolbook, I could eventually figure out how it use it to construct larger projects that incorporated text and graphics. I had heard about Mosaic, but found it clunky and unreliable. Like the cavalry officer in the television ad who hears -- but does not yet recognize -- the sound of tank treads on some WW I battlefield, a sound that signals the end of everything he knows, I knew that Netscape and the web were out there. But it took me nearly a year to consider that they could ever be anything but a bizarre electronic interstate highway system -- without towns or rest stops and with only a few off-ramps that seemed to lead nowhere. So much for origins: a reasonable attempt to respond to a recognizable set of problems, a surplus of good will, and very little real experience or understanding.

When you go to AS@UVA I hope that little of this extraordinarily rough beginning is still visible; at the same time I suspect your first impression will be -- nothing special. A home page with a panel of hot buttons pointing you to subordinate pages -- descriptions of the American Studies Programs at Virginia, a set links to resources in American Studies, a collection of locally produced electronic texts, a collection of historic and demographic maps, a group of electronic courses at UVA and elsewhere, a cluster of projects focused on the National Capitol Building, and another set of pages built for the Virginia Association of Museums. If you drill down in any of these areas you'll find some faculty work and a lot of student projects, some of it a little shabby but most of it of pretty good quality, well designed, informative, likely to be useful.

But if you take some time to move about in the space -- with an anthropologist's eye rather than that of a tourist or video surfer -- I hope you'll begin to sense that something different is going on here. In the section on program descriptions, e.g., you have access to descriptions of the American Studies Programs at Virginia, pretty much analogous to the printed materials distributed by the related departments or by the University itself. In addition, however, you'll find a set of electronic courses, syllabi and student work for the most recent cycle of core courses in both undergraduate and masters' programs, a sampler of representative student projects in American Studies, pointers to institutional human, and technical resources for the programs, and resumes for graduates of the programs. In effect, you're invited to explore the program by two paths not usually open to you: in addition to the official version of what the programs are and do, you can see how those general claims and objectives translate into classroom situations and how those situations translate into student learning and accomplishment. What prospective students see here, then, is a fair representation of what will happen to them should they apply to the programs. What interested onlookers can see is how we actually do the business of teaching and learning here and with what results.

If you move on to Hypertexts, you'll find three different kinds of activity: first, an ongoing archive of core texts in American Studies, texts like de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Henry Adams' The Education of Henry Adams that are touchstones for many of us whatever our ideological differences or methodological eccentricities. Second, there is the beginning of an archive of lost texts, texts that were once powerful in American society but which have become almost invisible. These are texts that have lost their audience, their commercial viability, and hence their very reality, but which remain interesting exactly because they once had all of these. These texts range from nineteenth century works like Mary Anne Sadlier's Bessy Conway: or, The Irish Girl in America, a novel about the Irish immigration experience, to David Levin's History as Romantic Art, the classic modern study of Bancroft, Parkman, Prescott and Motley. Third, there is a group of true hypertexts, electronic texts that sit at the center of a series of satellite projects -- other primary texts, images, reviews, essays -- each designed to place the primary text within a thicker con-text in some fashion might rehabilitate it, return to it the power and resonance it once had. The most fully developed of these is Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land, a classic text in American Studies, often criticized but less often read even by its detractors. But Herman Melville's The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, and Mark Twain's Puddn'head Wilson are also useful, interesting hypertext publications.

Clicking on Yellow Pages leads to a space dedicated to providing information on electronic resources for teaching and learning American Studies. It includes some material that can be found elsewhere, search engines, professional associations, bulletin boards, and American Studies programs. But it also includes two relatively novel features. First, there is a set of directories by discipline -- Ethnicity Studies, Gender Studies, Literature, Social Sciences and the like -- each a selective set of pointers maintained by a graduate student who serves as its editor. The editor is responsible for selecting a limited number of the most useful resources available on the Web in a particular area, to describe and evaluate them for the viewer, and to maintain the list over time. There is also a section called Journals and Zines that includes a list of electronic periodicals in American Studies and related fields as well as selected synoptic versions the current run of specific journals; again, these are created and maintained by graduate students through the year.

If you go next to The Capitol Project you'll find a continuing exploration of the National Capitol Building as a cultural product and cultural producer. At its center -- although as in all virtual spaces its difficult to say exactly what the center actually is -- there is a large set of images of the Capitol itself and of the sculpture and painting which, in their interplay, constitute a complex and powerful web of symbols iterating and re-iterating a definition of the American Faith. Over time, we are building an array of commentaries on this web of symbols, piece by piece and item by item explaining the processes by which each component was produced and integrated into the larger structure. In the end -- although there is no end -- the goal is to recontextualize the Capitol, to place its images back into something like the cultural processes that formed them.

The Capitol space is also being linked to a series of peripheral spaces that complement or contest it. A fairly straight forward example of what we have in mind here would be two sites, the state capitol building in Denver, Colorado, a structure clearly designed to mirror and refract the National Capitol, and the capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska, a structure just as clearly designed to oppose the Capitol while also echoing its major ideological structures. Since neither of these is yet present in The Capitol Project, better examples might be The Arlington National Cemetery and The Holocaust Museum, each of which stands in uneasy confirmation and confrontation with the Capitol itself.

Beyond this kind of inter-institutional dialectic, The Capitol is also linked to sites that are less powerful, less part of the official culture, but also struggling to take part in the larger conversation about American identity and values. In The Historical Monument of the Federal Republic, by Erastus Salisbury Field or the paintings and constructions of Howard Finster we see two artists who have appropriated symbols from the Capitol, amplifying them and refiguring them to their own very different purposes.

Mapping the site in this physical and spatial way actually turns out to be quite deceptive. AS@UVA came on line about a year ago, on Jan. 1, 1996, and has grown and changed significantly since then. The major architecture has already been reworked once; a large number of new projects have been added and some older projects deleted, revised or amplified; and ideas that seemed promising have been built and mounted, some kept, some discarded when they didn't pan out. If you wait three months to visit the site, it will be different again -- perhaps better -- but certainly different.

AS@UVA is, I have discovered, less a space than a process -- and that the process is what is real and significant about it. In the descriptions I've given above, I find myself repeatedly mixing verb tenses, blending what is visible now with what was originally there and what we hope will eventually be there. The casual mingling of ideal and actual, fact and aspiration isn't inadvertent; it is the familiar turn of the American mind, the sort of thing that commentators from de Tocqueville to Bercovitch have noted in mingled amusement and despair. It is meant to suggest that although AS@UVA seems to lie there, fixed on the screen , a set of objects physically related in virtual space, in fact what you are seeing is only the trace of a different, and I think larger and more important, on-going process of teaching and learning American Studies.

This process has emerged out of the gap between what I originally imagined and what was possible, between what I understood and what I would be forced to understand. And these gaps are reflected in the parallel difference between what appears on the screen and what is really going on. In 1995, students were admitted to a program that didn't even exist. I explained at our first meeting that the motto of the program was a line from Monty Python, "And now for something different." We were going to try to do integrate American Studies and the new technologies, something for which there were no models. They weren't going to take American Studies at all; we were going to build it -- by designing and building the first iteration of AS@UVA. I went on to explain that I hadn't a clue about how this was to be done. I'd have to learn the technology myself and, although I'd try to keep ahead of them, I knew that, at some point, they'd have to take the lead. I had a few general notions about where we were headed but nothing very clear, and we'd have to figure it out as we went along. This was not what exactly what they expected, but, after a short collective sigh, they turned to the task.

And sometime shortly thereafter, the whole project began to assume a life of its own, heading off in directions I hadn't anticipated and, in fact, wouldn't have chosen The students began exercising a kind of creative control that, in extremis I might deflect but couldn't simply deny; they set up projects that struck me, initially, as misguided but which often enough turned out to be really interesting, things I wouldn't have done, couldn't have done and yet, in a number of cases, projects that actually worked. At least as significantly, the site itself began to assert its own shape and logic. Having taken up some tasks that seemed likely to work, there was an obligation to continue them; having established a set of interdependent projects, as each project grew and changed it set off a concatenation of effects in other projects which required adjustment and re-thinking all the way down the line; each of the better projects suggested some extension that ought to be built, some further development that would be required to optimize it. All of this was completely outside the range of my own experience. In the past, I had been able to count on designing a new course, then developing it over a few years, all in the confidence that, at some point I'd have something with a long, useful life. I'd have to modify the course at points, accommodating changes in my own interests or the scholarship in the area, but essentially I could look forward to a long-term payback on my initial investment. AS@UVA, it turned out, required constant re-thinking, continual upkeep and maintenance. It would not only never be finished, it would always be behind. Whatever it was, it was alive! It was moving! And it was always hungry!

In creating a new program with students rather than building it and then imposing it on them, I had set in motion forces that changed virtually everything . First, it altered the level and kind of expectations of everyone: their work would be visible, not just to their teachers, but theoretically to the whole world; it was, as one student put it, a bit like showering in public. They couldn't just talk to me, they couldn't get by repeating what they thought I wanted to hear; instead, they would have to identify that audience, decide what it already knew, what it needed to know next, and in what kind of language it was prepared to hear. And that audience would most certainly give them feedback, by simply turning its attention elsewhere or by actually going through the work and then e-mailing them a short review. Just one example. One group of undergraduates created a project on Stone Mountain, Georgia, the Confederate Memorial cum convention center and theme park. It went up last May and almost at once they began receiving email about it. Most of the responses are generally favorable but a significant number are not. They've been accused of celebrating the Lost Cause and of defaming it; they've been charged with racism and with not being racist. In other words, they found themselves in the enviable position of displeasing both ends of a number of intersecting political spectrums.

I think this happened, also, because students felt that this was, in some very important fashion, real work, not just school work. We agreed early on that the site's primary objective was to be useful to students of American culture; each of the sub-pages in AS@UVA is designed as a service, a utility,something to do work. In effect, the whole thing seemed more real in the sense that they weren't just accumulating course credits that would eventually be exchanged for a diploma -- they were building something tangible, something useful. And they would leave with the usual transcripts and diplomas but also with a portfolio of their work, examples of what they knew and could do.

Again, AS@UVA seemed to move toward the center of the students' education -- and, like a magnet in a pile of iron filings, it began to organize everything about it. Whatever they did -- in other courses, in their own time -- could be viewed for its potential contribution to the larger project. Whether a class met at a decent hour or was offered by a popular or famous professor came to seem less important than whether it offered an opportunity to acquire a necessary skill or take possession of some information that prepared them for some even more advanced inquiry. It shifted the question, in effect, away from whether they would be entertained in the class to whether or not it might prove useful. And, given this change in their own purposes, their classes began to take on a kind of relevance that was largely of their making. Bad courses were still bad courses, inept or indifferent instructors were not automatically transformed into paragons of virtue. But by and large, the students mined the courses for everything they could get out of them, transformed them into positive experiences by, in effect, transforming the course into what they needed it to be. They were, in a sense, designing their own curricula by seeing that any curriculum is an abstraction, a public-relations gimmick, and an illusion; the only curriculum that actually matters is what happens inside a student's mind, and over that curriculum the student can exert a great deal of control. In effect, students were required to take control of their own education, to find ways to synthesize what was presented to them piecemeal, and to force coherence out of what was an fundamentally atomized and incoherent intellectual universe.

Moreover, they were beginning to learn, not by rote and replication, but by actually doing it -- whatever it turned out to be. Whatever the theoretical attractions of hands-on, active, and cooperative teaching and learning, simply doing it proved, in fact, a formidable challenge. American Studies itself was notorious for its inability to developing a consensus theoretical definition of its own field, let alone a governing methodology. And the application of computer technology to the field seemed only to compound the underlying problematic. Over time, I came to believe that these twin complications were actually a kind of solution. The computers seemed to offer a number of possibilities, a platform for presenting and inter-relating a variety of kinds of information -- text, graphics, sound -- at levels of complexity and cost that couldn't be matched by print technology; possibilities for collaboration and community-building that had often been important -- some have argued central -- to the American Studies project; and offered a virtual space by which students of American culture might simply step over the institutional and ideological structures that kept individual practitioners isolated, marginalized, and weak. At the same time, I think it's fair to say that three years ago no one actually knew whether these theoretical possibilities were actual or simply another outbreak of the recurrent naive faith in technology's ability to solve any problem. Certainly no one had a clear notion of how these promises might be realized; certainly no one had a very clear sense of how the technology might bite back, might have unanticipated and unwanted consequences. Certainly I didn't. But, lacking first principles, conventions and guidelines, no road maps, tourist stops or laybys, not even a friendly native guide, everything would have be done for the first time -- and they would have to figure out how do it. They would have to imagine it, build it, find out whether it worked or not, and then decide what to do next.

In this environment, success proved fleeting and mastery an illusion. Moving the whole project out of the classroom and on to the Internet plunged them into an incredibly dynamic, changeful universe. The technology itself was developing so rapidly that what last year's class labored to learn to do by hand could be done automatically by this year's class if they could find the right software. The information that, yesterday, was available to the few who held the academics' equivalent to the keys to the washroom was today available to some thirteen-year-old with a modem in Lexington, VA. Last year's class labored to make available an important text like Tocqueville's Democracy; this year's class would have to drive that text toward some higher state of utility. Last year's class faced a world in which almost no one was doing what they were doing; this year's class faces a world in which there are many potential allies -- but many more competitors. Everything is, as Henry Adams feared, accelerating and complicating at an alarming rate; the trick was to learn to maintain balance, flexibility, intensity; but the idea of mastery is an anachronism, a quaint and dangerous exercise in nostalgia.

As a kind of corollary of this last point, they found that they were embarked, not on a year-long program, but on a life-long task. At graduation, the University of Virginia declares that they have been educated and provides diplomas certifying that fact. But this is clearly no more than an comfortable institutional fiction, socially necessary and possibly even useful, but a fiction. In fact, they will have to continue their education for the rest of their lives; what they needed most to learn was to be their own teachers, to frame the questions, find the resources, do the analysis, and present the arguments. They had to understand that the task was to transform themselves from being consumers of information to being its producers.

At the same time, we came to understand that, as much as one can in these matters, there are no hard and fixed assumptions about what is or is not a legitimate area of inquiry The student who wanted to explore the significance of the Philadelphia Water Works, the students who wanted to know what to make of the confederate monument at Stone Mountain or the student who had a long and carefully closeted interest in quilting each had to explain why the project might be significant and to whom, had to explain how it was to be done and how we could know whether it was successful or not. This done, anything was fair game.

There was a host of other secondary lessons I should mention at least in passing. Relations between the students themselves shifted perceptibly. I encouraged them to collaborate on projects -- and many did. But, beyond this, they felt AS@UVA was itself a large collaborative effort. When we were discussing how we might map the site in order to provide an additional navigational tool, one student said that he thought of AS@UVA as like one of Bucky Fuller's geodesic domes, a large structure made up interconnected modules tied together in such a way as to distribute load and maintain structural integrity. And I think he was right. Individual projects can be accessed directly, but most are linked to other projects. The value of individual projects is enhanced-or reduced-by those that surround it. In very real ways, students seemed to believe that the success of any individual's work was inextricably bound up with that of their fellows. They began to carry each others' projects around in their heads, looking for resources that would enhance someone else's work; they edited each others work with a candor and ease and attentiveness I've never seen before; and they felt quite free -- thank you -- to explain patiently where they thought I'd lost the thread. It even changed relations between students across generations, as it were. The first group of students had a stake in what the second group did, kept watch on the site and felt free to offer comment and criticism. The second group was revising the work of their predecessors, went back to the original authors for consultation. And both groups served as consultants to the undergraduate American Studies student who were doing AS@UVA projects at the same time. Almost all seemed to consider AS@UVA a kind of joint stock company, something in which they had a stake they retained even after they set off in quest of the real world.

In the end, it seemed much easier, not to say more productive, to do collaborative work on the computer; we could all watch each others' work-in-progress and got an unusually clear sense that other people struggle too, that writing and thinking aren't abilities with which one is born but skills that can be developed if one is willing to pay the price. And paying the price became, in turn, more tolerable because their work was never wasted; even the broken pieces of failed projects were archived in the expectation that, eventually, someone would find a use for them.

To shift the focus away from the students for a moment, I also had to understand just how thoroughly my own role had changed. I had to learn again what I thought I already knew, that students have remarkably different learning styles; the computer accentuated and highlighted these incredibly, and I would have to learn how to accommodate these differences. I would have to accelerate my responses to student work, to accept the discipline of the almost instantaneous turn-around time of the Internet. No more taking papers home over the vacation, no more two weeks to comment on a student paper. And I had to learn the virtues of syncopation, of responding to individual students' projects and problems in the student's own time frame rather than by a course calendar. This was on-line and in real time, but real time was actually real times. And, most difficult, I had to understand that I, too, was "showering in public"! It wasn't going to be possible for me to base my own sense of myself as an effective teacher on course evaluations, grade-point averages, or assumptions about the quality of my teaching derived from notions about the quality of my scholarship. Instead, I was going to have to be judged by what my students had really learned and could really do. Not exactly the sort of thought with which to lull oneself to sleep at night!

And I had to confront the vexing issue of the ownership of intellectual property. I don't think I was actually as silly as some I hear discussing this question now, but I am an American and I do take pride in my wife and my children and my house and my dog -- and my ideas. But it became progressively clear that AS@UVA wasn't mine. The whole question of ownership had somehow been mooted. In the beginning, all this was my thing, my answers to questions that I had framed. But at some point title seemed to have passed to the participants, to the students who were contributing to the process. After the first group of graduate students had passed on to careers or further training, ownership didn't revert to me but expanded even further to include the next group of students who inherited the site.

And it expanded yet again to include those outside both AS@UVA and UVA itself, remote users who wanted to appropriate materials for their own use, quarrel with us because we hadn't reflected their views, or who pushed up to our group email account like disgruntled customers to a complaint window, demanding that we do a better job of maintaining the site. Somehow, I had been carried -- against my training and experience -- to conclude that, in the matter of ownership -- I couldn't claim it. To the extent that the primary value of AS@UVA lay in the processes that led up to it, and since that value was already realized by both my students and myself, what was left was actually only a kind of byproduct. And, since even the value of this byproduct could only be realized when someone else expropriated the material, changed it, added to it, it was something that couldn't be sold, only given away. Title, it seemed, was vested more in the user than in the producer.

In retrospect, I see that I had built into this process a set of problems that might have been avoided. For instance, I decided early on that the site should be built on the cheap, that I would utilize existing resources rather than chasing new money. I believed that, if AS@UVA was really to work, it would have to work because students and faculty were willing to invest their own sweat equity in it; otherwise, it would be just one more foundation-chasing boondoggle. I scrounged space, computers and miscellaneous equipment for an American Studies Lab from the University and from a local computer vendor. I cozened other faculty into donating time and energy to the project, sweet talked soft-hearted computer technicians and library staff into bailing me out when I got into trouble. The computers were a constant headache, the lab riddled with incompatibilities and quite unstable. But even this turned out to have some merit I demonstrated, at least to my own satisfaction, that building a site is not something that can only be done by throwing money at it. In the end, this turned out to be an old fashioned, labor- and imagination-intensive enterprise. It also yielded old-style, low-tech rewards: the ability to think, to write, and to work intensely with others on matters of genuine concern, things that have always seemed to me the central goals of a liberal education.

For the immediate future, the task for AS@UVA is just to keep on developing the site with a new group of students, beginning again to rethink the whole project. We'll continue to "grow out" areas of AS@UVA and we'll add new features and services. I think it's time we tried to use it as a means to better coordinate the American Studies resources here at UVA. I think there are possibilities for using it to set up cooperative relations between institutions, to share virtual programs that exploit institutional differences -- pairing institutions with different regional, ethnic, or social make-ups so that students would be able to work with others who are significantly unlike themselves -- and overcoming institutional limitations -- organizing small colleges that can't, individually, afford an American Studies program into electronic collectives that share resources and students. Or perhaps it can be used to bring students and teachers in the international American Studies movement together with their American counterparts.

All this, then, is what AS@UVA was originally, what it seems to be turning into, and what it might eventually become. It began with the truly naive decision that we would build the program ourselves. This ramified through the whole system in ways maddening and wonderful. And it's clearly not over yet. Having found ourselves unable to afford an automobile right off the showroom floor, we decided to build a car. As Robert Pirsig could have told us, we discovered that the machine we were building was -- ourselves. Whether we succeeded or not is, of course, quite another question. You can actually ask the students (some new to the program, some already gone and with at least some experience in whether the program prepared them for the next thing they did); you can explore the projects they left behind and determine for yourself whether, individually, they have merit; or you can explore the whole site over the next months to see whether the collective effort is leading anywhere, accomplishing anything. In virtual reality, with these technologies, you can really do all these things.