We are all coming to face the facts: the computer revolution has come
to the humanities. The revolution has been digitized. Whether we were at
the barricades or strolling around in the park minding our own business,
it happened, and now the world is . . . different. We are probably too close
to decide if it is immeasurably better or worse, but we know for sure that
it is different.
And slowly, but in many ways faster than our colleagues in other periods, we medievalists are starting to consider the pedagogical possibilities for using computers, CD-ROMs, the Internet, and the World Wide Web to enhance our teaching, our presentation of this world (often so alien to our students) in and out of the classroom. More sessions at conferences are starting to discuss these possibilities; whole conferences now discuss the use of computers in the humanities.
I am one of those who is excited and optimistic about the new electronic media and specifically about their pedagogical applications. Though I am not a "techie" by any means, I have experimented with using discussion lists, the Internet, and the World Wide Web in teaching Chaucer, the Beowulf to Milton survey so many of us teach, and other courses. But I am only cautiously optimistic, for I have found that, pace the utopians like George Landow, computers by themselves cannot change anything; it is still the imagination, experience, and skill of the teacher that makes any teaching medium work well for students, and still the financial and institutional support of the institution that enables the teacher to work well. And I have often found that even the best teacher can be hamstrung, unable to use this new technology to its real potential - and, in fact, doing a worse job than if there were no computers at all.
So I'd like to offer a few caveats to those who are thinking of diving into computer-assisted pedagogy and are unsure of how to do it, or where they should begin, or how things might turn out once they begin.
1) Make sure you have decent support, both technological AND human. Take a trip to your academic computing office; tell the people there what you would like to do and how you think electronic media might help you. The techies will be able to tell you whether you can accomplish your goals on the campus: whether they have the hardware and soft- ware to access Netscape, whether students will be able to have access 24 hours a day, and so forth. (One hint: dream large. Often, I'm told, professors come in asking for much less than current technology can accomplish, simply because they don't know how advanced things have become. If you tell them you want the moon - say, simultaneous Chaucer classes with three other universities, with video and audio hookups - they might be able to do it. If they can't, they back you down until they come up with what they can do. But if you ask for the minimum, they may not know what you really want to do.) While you're there, size up the human support as well. If you or your students have trouble, will there be people around to get you out of the inevitable snafus? Do they seem excited or resentful and overworked? I have found that, without excellent human support, the most exciting computer classrooms can crumble into chaos when the glitches do arise. And nothing - and I mean nothing - will turn students off to computer pedagogy faster than glitches which remain unfixed. A student who can't get access, even though she has done everything right, a student who loses three hours of effort because the system crashes through no fault of his own, a student who can't even get on the system because there aren't enough terminals available when she gets off work - these are students who will just say "the hell with it" and give up on technology for good.
2) Know the software or medium yourself fairly well before trying it out on your students. We all have the experience of teaching a text we've never taught before: we race to stay ahead of the students, reading a few days ahead of them. We've become adept at this, and have learned how to do it from time to time. I've found that this is dangerous when using a new electronic medium; you can get into glitches and not be able to get out of them, or just hang yourself and the class in a weird back alley and blow a class period. (See above for how students respond to this.) If you're going to try one of these in class, spend a semester or summer playing with it on your own first. Learn where the glitches are, where the shortcuts are. Your students will thank you.
3) Plan intensive, timely, and time-consuming training periods for the students at the beginning. We tend to think of students these days as completely computer- literate, and so we imagine that they don't need much training before they get started. I have found, to my chagrin, that this just isn't so. Upper-middle class students may all have computers, yes, and have had them for years; working-class and lower-class students often have much less experience with computers than you might even imagine, and even those students with computers are learning something new. If you find yourself telling students that "Control-J" means "hold down the Control key while you hit the J key," or if you find students writing down every command in a notebook, then you are dealing with novices who have a high level of anxiety and difficulty, simply because they are unaware of things you and I now accept as second nature. Each new piece of software, each a new piece of technology, can be as baffling as their first foray into word processing. Thus, the schedule needs to allow for time when you (and preferably a techie) work with the students until they feel comfortable with the new media and software you are using.
4) These media work best - and in fact, have their best chance of transforming teaching and learning - when students are encouraged to "play": to surf and find out things they can't easily find in other media; to explore the questions they have, rather than the ones we teachers ask; to frame new questions based on the huge amount of information newly at their disposal. I think what this means is that we need to come up with new sorts of syllabi, ones that will reward this new sort of play and free exploration. And perhaps that will transform the classroom itself in new ways. I won't attempt to prescribe ways that teachers should reward this sort of play; I simply call your attention to it. As you plan your syllabi, think of new ways of grading, assessing, and rewarding students' free exploration.
5) However, students won't take to this free exploration until you force them to do so. No matter what the utopians say, fallen human nature is stronger than technology. That is, students are like the rest of us - they will rarely take on new duties, stick their necks out, until they are forced to do so and find out that it is fun and worthwhile. I have learned to have several required assignments, graduated in difficulty, and graded sternly, early in the terms, to get the students going. Once I use the stick, the carrot takes over: the interest and fun of using electronic media begins to provide its own rewards.
If you are unsure about using the new technology, I would encourage you to start small. Try using a bulletin board or discussion list in your class first. This is a way for students to bring up questions, discuss texts, explore different ideas, do things that you didn't have time for in class. This is not a complex technology, and students learn a great deal from it. They learn that they can come up with questions and topics on their own; shy people learn that they can speak; they learn how to cite evidence to defend their points and how to speak to and persuade an audience that is not "there" in front of them; they learn that, in the best of classes, class is never "over" but the conversation goes on twenty-four hours a day.
When you see this start to work, you will start to see other uses for the bulletin board: students can try out paper ideas, report on research, give historical background "lectures" to each other, even turn in their papers electronically so that the whole class can read and evaluate them. And as you and the students gain confidence, soon you might be asking your techies for images of manuscripts, snatches of chant, or views of Islamic cities in Spain.
Can computer technology - the Web, the 'Net - completely change teaching, democratizing the classroom and academia? No, I don't believe it can. Until every school has the financial resources of a Harvard or a Yale, and can thus buy the latest technology and software, this will never happen. And since I don't believe my school will ever have the financial resources of a Yale or UT-Austin, I don't see that happening. In fact, computers and software, because they are so expensive to maintain and update at the rapid rates necessary, may only increase the differences between the haves and have-nots. For example, at my institution, someone had the foresight, way back in 1987 (the Jurassic era in computer time), to lay fiber-optic cables to every office and dorm room, and to provide a "computer" to every faculty member and student. It was proudly called - and still is today - "The Electronic Campus", the "first of its kind in the nation." Today, at this moment, I am working on the ancient Digital VT125 terminal that was installed in this office in 1987, using word processing software that was out of date the minute it was installed. Why? Money. The legislature has not yet freed up the money for campus-wide installation of "Electronic Campus Plus," which will (we hope) put laptops in place of these horrible terminals.
Still, the stuff works, and my students can get access to the Internet, the World Wide Web (using Lynx), and the bulletin board I have set up for them, all from their dorm rooms. We haven't democratized the world, but I do believe we can improve our teaching - in some ways - with a bit of creativity and ingenuity.
Department of English
Northwest Missouri State University
The World Wide Web is an easily-navigated network of resources, probably
the most user-friendly area of the Internet. You need a browser (a software
program) to enter the Web. Using a program like Netscape, you can view texts
and images (of illuminated medieval manuscripts, for example, or maps or
charts) and hear recordings of speeches or Gregorian chants. But you can
also explore the Web using a text-only browser like Lynx. Ask your local
system operator what's available to you and your students.
The medievalist's first stop on the Web is Labyrinth <http://www.georgetown.edu/labyrinth/labyrinth- home.html>, a project sponsored by Georgetown University and co-directed by Deborah Everhart and Martin Irvine. Labyrinth provides organized access to more than a million files located all over the world ­p; medieval texts in English, French, Italian, German, and Latin; pointers to resources on medieval cultures, Arthurian Studies, pedagogical resources, databases and projects (including, for example, the Beowulf Project); and links to professional associations and journals. The image of the labyrinth on the home page is now "hot," which means you can click anywhere on it and be taken to another page. You could be happily lost for hours here. For those who prefer a more methodical approach, Labyrinth provides an organized menu. Be sure to visit, directly or through Labyrinth, <http://rodent.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/tmsmenu.htm> to preview a few of the volumes in the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (courtesy of the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester).
E-mail: Each of the classes I teach at Calvin has its own local e-mail discussion list. My students and I use it to discuss readings and ideas, to share questions, and to continue discussions begun in class. I wonder what might happen if we expanded our list to include students in other classes at other schools. But there are already bigger circles for scholars.
Medievalists were pioneers in organizing global electronic discussion groups. As a subscriber, you receive a copy of every message posted to the group. You can reply to the group or to the individual who posted a message. Such groups can be sites for lively debate, for soliciting opinions and ideas, for sharing appropriate announcements, for seeking advice. They can also, at times, spawn tangents (look for "TAN" in the header) and fruitless chatter. Subscribe sparingly: any one of these groups could drop a dozen ­p; or twenty ­p; messages a day into your mailbox.
Space permits me to suggest only a few groups here. List veterans, let me know about your favorites and I'll include them in future issues of this newsletter.
MEDTEXTL (Medieval Texts: Philology, Codicology, and Technology). To subscribe, send a message to LISTSERV@ vmd.cso.uiuc.edu. Leave the subject header blank, and type "SUBSCRIBE MEDTEXTL" in the body of the message.
MEDIEV-L (Medieval History). To subscribe, send a message reading "SUBSCRIBE MEDIEV-L" to email@example.com. ukans.edu. Leave the subject header blank.
ANSAX-L (Anglo-Saxon studies, with some medieval traffic). To subscribe, send a message reading "SUBSCRIBE ANSAX-L" to firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave the subject header blank.