Next Generation Student Resources: A Speculative Primer

Next Generation Student Resources: A Speculative Primer

2003-11-08

A survey of humanities research websites (and how to teach with them) by Susan Schreibman.

The World Wide Web is both a source of frustration and richness for educators. It is a source of frustration in that students plagiarize from it more easily than from published texts, while they do not seem to be able to differentiate reliable from unreliable resources. Our own searches often reveal substandard source material, particularly when held in comparison with print publication. Some educators refrain from using the World Wide Web in the classroom because they feel intimidated by their students’ seemingly superior ability to navigate virtual space. Yet, it is also a resource of immense richness. Less than a decade after Mosaic, the first Web browser, was launched, users from all over the globe have access to primary materials that were previously the preserve of scholars. They have access to images of unprecedented clarity, entire novels that can be downloaded onto e-readers, and virtual libraries that would make even Alexander jealous. As more information is mediated through the World Wide Web, educators will need to find a balance between the suspicion that every student paper is at least partially cut and pasted from the Web, and the realization that by introducing students to the artifacts of primary research, seventeenth century missionary maps of Latin America, copies of Emily Dickinson’s holograph manuscripts, or the first movies produced by Thomas Edison’s studio, their appreciation of and engagement with the arts and humanities will deepen. Facilitating access to these objects is but the first step in the engagement process. The second step is to create an environment wherein students can become contributors to this docuverse, shifting the balance of power from being consumers to providers of knowledge. Currently, the practice of utilizing the World Wide Web as a pedagogic tool tends to fall into two broad categories: 1) utilizing the Web as a resource, i.e. integrating previously digitized material into teaching practice, and 2) utilizing Web technology so that students become content providers. Although these practices are interrelated, they are not mutually dependent. This article will explore these two categories, surveying current practice and speculating on how it may change in future.

The World Wide Web as a Resource

For many, locating high-quality, reliable primary texts on the Web is rather like embarking on a quest. For me, the quest invariably leads to very specific resources: i.e. electronic editions. These editions tend to be lightly contextualised, can be difficult to navigate, and assume some previous knowledge of the subject. They also tend to use Standard Generalised Markup Language (SGML) or extensible Markup Language (XML) for encoding, rather than Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). This distinction in encoding is often invisible to the user, as SGML and XML texts are ‘converted on the fly’ to HTML. In other words, the server on which the text resides processes the SGML/XML files into HTML so that by the time the user views them in her browser they look like any other Web document. The distinction, however, is important. Texts and images which contain metainformation encoded in SGML/XML allow for robust searching not possible in HTML. Thus, in The Blake Archive ( http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/blake) it is possible to search on all images that contain representations of angels. The search can be further refined to return only those images in which angels appear with ‘dark-skinned’ children. The Blake Archive allows searching on text or images. The image search is based on a list of metainformation terms devised by the editors that categorize Blake’s work through four main rubrics: Animals, Vegetation, Objects and Structures. The text search allows for plain text and Boolean searches, as well ways of refining those searches by, such as limiting a search to the titles of poems.

Many of these archives are located at and supported by humanities computing centers, such as The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at University of Virginia ( http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu), which hosts projects such as Ben Ray’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials, 1692-1693: A Thematic Research Archive, Jerome McGann’s The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Research Archive, and Stephen Railton’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, or The Humanities Computing Unit at Oxford University which hosts The Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive (http://www.hcu.ox.ac.uk/jtap/). Other humanities archives originate in libraries, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Academic Affairs Library which is host to Documenting the American South (http://docsouth.unc.edu/) featuring several thematically-based textual archives, including an extensive collection of slave narratives, as well as The Southern Homefront, 1861-1865, which charts Southern life during the Civil War. Other archives are the result of a consortium of scholars who have created standards for electronic editions in their fields, such as The Model Editions Partnership (http://mep.cla.sc.edu/) whose goal is to explore ways of creating electronic editions of historical documents which meet the standards scholars traditionally use in preparing print editions. For a more comprehensive (although by no means complete) list of humanities projects encoded in SGML, see The Text Encoding Initiative’s list of projects, http://www.tei-c.org/Applications/index.html

Resources such as these are created by a subject area expert or team of experts, often working with graduate students, undergraduates, librarians, and technical staff who have the institutional support necessary for compiling, digitizing, encoding and designing what is, by digital standards, even a small archive. The creation of these electronic editions is not unlike the work scholars have traditionally engaged in when editing for print publication in that typically resources are collected from a number of locations and synthesized into a single text (or in this case collection of texts) with additional value added through apparatus. The apparatus in a hypertextual environment may differ significantly from that of print, may take the form of metainformation generated through the encoding process itself and/or terminology applied to the text (much like index terms) that facilitates searches not available through plaintext searching. Metainformation may also be applied to images in the form of text header so that they too may be searched through a search engine. At present, retrieval rates for image-based searching lags far behind that for text-based searching. In recent years, however, image-based retrieval has made great strides. An excellent resource for image based humanities computing is Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Looksee at http://www.glue.umd.edu/~mgk/looksee/ The archive may also contain a hybrid structure of apparatus, such as introductory essays and textual and/or contextual notes, in addition to apparatus generated from the encoding itself.

Other rich humanities resources are created by cultural institutions, and have given birth to a new genre of online catalogue. These catalogues digitally reproduce objects from their own holdings while providing access through electronic finding aids. Yet, to simply call these resources online catalogues belies their richness. Projects such as The Library of Congress’ American Memory Project (http://memory.loc.gov/) serves as a gateway to primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States. The wealth of digital material here is staggering: over seven million digital items (including text, still and moving images, and sound files) from more than 100 historical collections.

These types of resources have come to dominate primary source material in the humanities on the World Wide Web. As mentioned previously, they tend to favour primary material that has been rigorously transcribed, encoded and digitised. This, however, has not always been the case. In the early to mid 1990s, many humanities resources were created which did not envision a reading audience. This is due, no doubt, because of the early perception of the Web as a democratized space that could inherently overcome the audience-specificity of print publication. This idea was developed by early hypertext theorists, many of whom were also early contributors to humanities resources on the Web, who believed that that freed from the temporal and special restrictions of the codex, sites could be fashioned which served many masters: that audiences would be self-defining and inherently understand how to navigate the multifarious resources available to them at the click of a mouse. By the end of the decade, however, it became clear that the World Wide Web, like any other space, is one of atomization, that the implicit and unstated ideal audience envisioned by resource creator(s) was self-selected, and sites that not only found - but retained - their audiences were those in which the editors’ ideal audience found their flesh and blood equivalents

The problem with many early humanities resources is that they simply port codex norms into the electronic environment. What many creators of digital resources seem to have forgot during the early stages of developing material for the Web is that ‘form reshapes content’ (Burbules). Or perhaps site editors/designers were seduced into thinking that they were reshaping content by integrating the functionality afforded by that overused and over-praised HTML hyperlink. Some of the earliest and indeed, most successful of these resources have fallen victim to their own success, becoming large, unwieldy structures with a preponderance of hyperlinks which send readers down tenuously associated trails in a vaguely circuitous fashion. Others have become a testament to a theoretical understanding of what could be achieved in the medium at a specific point in time, such as George Landow’s The Victorian Web or Stuart Curran’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Others have caused the medium to be denigrated as a pedagogic tool because of their being hastily conceived, filled with promises of valuable information which never appeared, finding their way into the search engines, and, regretfully, never taken down. Many of these sites are fragmentary, in that freed from the spatial restrictions of the codex, the ambitions for the resource were far beyond what their editors/designers could accomplish. In the early days of hypertext, very few people realized the costs associated with these new editions: freed from print publication costs, editors never reckoned on the enormous time commitment in digitizing objects and designing the space in within which they would be contained. This is not to say that there are no valuable resources conceived and implemented in Hypertext Markup Language. Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/) or Columbus and the Age of Discovery ( http://muweb.millersville.edu/~columbus/), for example, are cases in point. The Perseus Digital Library (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/), one of the oldest and most successful humanities computing projects on the Web, began as a resource that concentrated exclusively on ancient Greek culture, but has since expanded its scope to include Roman and now Renaissance materials. Its goal, like so many humanities computing projects, is not only to make available digitized versions of humanities objects, but to study the possibilities (and limitations) of the electronic medium, as well as to serve as the foundation for work in new cultural domains (Crane). An excellent source for locating humanities resources on the web is The National Endowment for the Humanities, a gateway featuring ‘the best of the humanities on the web’. See http://edsitement.neh.fed.us

Being able to locate high-quality, reliable Web resources is not only essential for integration into teaching practice; it is a skill that students need to acquire. Although they may be able to surf with greater ease than many of their teachers, they are far too frequently not discriminating Web users. A case in point was the Junior-level student in my Survey of American Literature class who dutifully cited and footnoted the first paragraph of an article from an Internet site that sold research papers. Students need to be educated as to how to use Web resources as a ‘means and medium of interaction and work’ (Burbules), not simply as an information free-for-all. Rarely do students question the information they receive. Far too frequently they do not attempt to discern if a source is reliable. This is not surprising. Modern systems of education have provided students with a mediated informational environment, through textbooks, through school and public libraries, through reading packs provided by teachers and professors. While it often seems that anyone under the age of 25 inherently knows how to use a mouse, that ability has not provided them with the skills to evaluate the overwhelming amount of information generated by a search engine. Students do not always understand that the characters after the http:// on their Web browsers is a significant set of signs and not a meaningless string. The Internet will be a life-long learning tool for an increasing number of people worldwide; thus it is incumbent for educators to create a knowledge base so that students can navigate this decentered, destabilized informational resource.

The World Wide Web as a Tool

Much current pedagogic practice utilizes Web-based material as a visually and orally enhanced textbook mirroring the power and pedagogical relationships of the codex. To utilize Web technology to teach students how to become content providers requires a conceptual shift from thinking of the technology as a machine which lends itself to automated and routine actions, such as typing a string into a search engine and clicking on the results, to thinking of the technology as a tool which lends itself to manipulation as an extension of the user (Muffoletto 93). These tools or models or indeed, games, allow students to become collaborators in content creation through a framework established by the technology. Part of the reason the development of Web-based pedagogic spaces has lagged behind the creation of Web-based scholarly resources, is that our thinking is still, by and large, framed by the codex. We think in pages, chapters, and paragraphs. We think in annotation and footnotes. Replicating codex norms in hypertext may not be the best use of a digital space, as Jenny Lyn Bader seems to suggest in the following passage from The New York Times:

The reading process mourned by scholars who thought footnotes superior to endnotes - who preferred the process of interruption, mainstream re-evaluation, and jumping around - is the natural process of reading on the Web. Small children who would not normally read books with footnotes until secondary school know their way around bright blue hyperlinks. They learn early that a Web site isn’t complete without references to other sites, and that the cooler a site, the cooler its links.

Many collaborative Web spaces have a game-like quality, for example Jerome McGann and Joanna Drucker’s The Ivanhoe Game, and Neil Fraistat and Steven E. Jones’s MOOzymandias. The Ivanhoe Game was developed ‘to use digital tools and space to reflect critically on received aesthetic works (like novels) and on the process of critical reflection that one brings to such works’ (McGann, Ivanhoe). Players of The Ivanhoe Game not only engage with aesthetic works in performative ways, but intervene in them within an environment which puts their ‘critical and reflective operations on clear display’. In playing the game, the players in effect, perform the novel, making critical and aesthetic decisions about the text which, in fact, creates a new and evolving narrative. The Ivanhoe Game thus becomes, like MOOzymandias, a “ ‘pedagogical edition’ that students build, mutate and inhabit rather than merely read” (Fraistat). The site of MOOzymandias is a MOO (Multiuser Object-Oriented Environment), a text-based, virtual reality space that allows multiple users to connect to the same place at the same time. MOOs differ from conventional chat rooms in that they allow users to manipulate and interact with cyber objects in addition to live communication (Multiuser). MOOzymandias utilises a MOO space in which the physicality of the Villa Diodati (the Swiss country house rented by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816 where Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived) becomes a virtual environment for exploring Romantic literature, including Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In this space students interact with one another, with teachers, as well as with virtual objects to explore the meaning and origins of the primary text(s) around which a particular MOO was developed. Students also have the ability to add to an extant MOO, or indeed, construct their own. Like The Ivanhoe Game, MOOzymandias utilises digital game playing to create a performative and critically reflective immersive digital environment which teaches students on the one hand, about literary texts, and print textuality, and on the other, about editing virtual spaces and visual literacy (Fraistat).

Thus, rather than view the World Wide Web as yet another contributing factor in the marginalization of the humanities, it can be seen as having the potential to revitalize teaching of humanities disciplines by challenging existing pedagogic practice. This does not happen through the use of technology alone, but though a shift in thinking from how can new technologies be accommodated into existing pedagogic practice, to how can they stimulate new learning environments (Salomon). The game-like pedagogies of The Ivanhoe Game and MOOzymandias are cases in point. They are ‘subversive technologies’ which have the ability to stimulate pedagogic changes that affect classroom culture (Salomon). Another subversive technology is the integration of the rich array of previously digitized humanities objects freely available on the World Wide Web into learning environments which facilitate the co-construction of knowledge. Many of the originals of these objects are located in archives that only admit scholars, or are in museums too distant to be visited by students. As mentioned in the first part of this article, there are already thousands of humanities artifacts freely available on the Web. These artifacts can be utilized in environments that not only teach students the basic skills of humanities research, but involve them in the excitement of the investigative nature of working with primary sources. By creating a framework which allows students to experiment with the ordering of manuscript drafts of a poem by Emily Dickinson, students can work in an environment which allows them to create a versioned edition. Furthermore, students could be asked to justify their ordering, through a scholarly introduction and apparatus. This type of learning environment introduces students to the skills of textual analysis and well as literary scholarship. For a working model of such a software system, see http://www.mith2.umd.edu/products/ver-mach Students, in the role of scholarly editors, not only become knowledge providers, but understand the process by which the texts they are asked to read are created.

A learning space might be imagined in which college undergraduates create scholarly editions intended for high school seniors. The undergraduates would be asked to pay specific attention to types of information they would have found useful several years earlier. Their edition might include a critical introduction as well as annotation in the form of text, images and sound. Furthermore, students might conduct usability studies by having several high schools classes utilize their edition. Students of history may be asked to create a multi-media timeline utilizing a template that facilitates integrating text, images, sound and video into a timeline rubric. Students may be asked to construct a timeline from a particular historical/cultural perspective, then asked to re-imagine that same time period from an alternative perspective, thus teaching students how the production and interpretation of cultural texts can be re-imagined from different cultural, religious, sexual, psychological, economic and/or political perspectives. The design of the these learning environments would encourage constructivist learning by stressing the active co-construction of contextualized knowledge as well as Webs of relations amongst its nodes. They also facilitate a shift away from a teacher-centered learning environment to an interactive community of active learners (Salomon).

Why, then, have not more of these active learning environments been created for use with the World Wide Web? One reason may be due to the limitations of Web technology itself. Hypertext Markup Language is an un-malleable encoding language: it composes itself in rigidly hierarchical structures, with the hyperlink the only way out. In recent years, however, Web browsers have become more sophisticated, with a variety of plug-ins that more easily accommodate constructivist learning environments. In addition, as HTML quietly fades into the background of XML (Extensible Markup Language) and its sister technologies, it will be easier for new structured environment models for collaborative learning to be developed. The combination of generic Web-based tools and customized ones, of interaction and co-collaboration, promises an exciting new era of humanities scholarship and education. If studying literature becomes as enjoyable as surfing the Web, or studying history becomes as much fun as playing a virtual reality game; if we can engage students with objects and events hundreds or thousands of years old through the language and games to which they relate, we can revitalize disciplines too many students see as ancillary to their lives in the twenty-first century. And in reimagining our disciplines for our students, we reimagine them for ourselves, creating new hypothesis for reading the past, the present, and the future, generated out of and through the same media.

Bibliography

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Crane, Gregory. ‘The Perseus Project and Beyond: How Building a Digital Library Challenges the Humanities and Technology’. D-Lib Magazine. (January 1998). http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january98/01crane.html

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