My strategy for this presentation was to write out a version of what I meant to say, in bits and pieces, as I took daily constitutional walks. I digressed from my prepared text when the moment came, but it was useful for me to think it through in some detail in this form.
Before I became a librarian (7 years ago) I struggled for years with the problem of inspiring interest in my students. I tried all sorts of things, often on what seemed a pioneer basis, and generally to the bemusement of my colleagues: library scavenger hunts, multimedia [before they were called that], computers, team-teaching, self-publishing, interdisciplinary studies, in-class writing... but none of these 'worked' in any truly satisfying way --I still had classrooms full of students who were worried: do we have to know this? is this going to be on the exam? what do you want? And what I wanted was their enthusiasm and engagement in the adventure of learning.
My own satisfaction came from learning a lot of stuff myself, from the efforts to construct classes that were virtuoso performances, marvels of wit and erudition --or so I intended them to be. But most students really weren't much affected by my magisterial ponderings and vaudevillian antics. And to this day I don't know what I should have done, or even if anything would have worked, REALLY worked, to make a difference in students' lives. Maybe it's too much to ask, that students should be INSPIRED by what a professor does. Maybe that's not how it WORKS. You can't will or shame or bribe or trick someone into inspiration or engagement. Perhaps you can entice.
Anyway, after 17 years I jumped ship. I spent the first 4 months of a sabbatical trying to work out what it was that I was really interested in, what I thought the really important questions were, and what I should do with 20-odd remaining years of professional life. The answer (well, the QUESTION) of December 1990 seems vieux jeu now, in the light of what's happened to all of us in that 7 years, but it was really only a springboard into 18 months of intensive work and discovery:
what will be the consequences for libraries of the ubiquity of personal computers?
That question got me in the door at Simmons, in Boston, where a series of lucky accidents led me to become the Reference Librarian that fate had been preparing me to become in years of study and teaching. Perhaps most important, I began to focus on the problems of how to find information instead of on those of the delivery of knowledge to reluctant victims.
In an article on "Classification of the Sciences" in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas I ran across this, from the 12th century scholar Hugh of St-Victor:
and it's been a leitmotiv for what I do and try to do, and for what I'd like to inspire students toward. The emphasis is on learning, rather than on teaching, and it's fundamentally something that one does to oneself.
This does have a lot to do with honors programs and courses, but in what follows I mean to emphasize the process more than the format or the outcomes. I want to tell you about something I'm going to do, so I run the risk of a hubris of overweening ambition. But even if everything doesn't "work" as well as I imagine it, there may still be some elements in what I'm attempting that will suggest possibilities for your own contexts.
So I have several problems to lay before you:
A lot of my work in the last 6 years at Washington & Lee has been concerned with electronic tools. I worked on introducing faculty to assorted software, was W&L's gopher weenie and then web weenie, created and tended the university's home page, taught HTML to all sorts of people, consulted on instructional applications of the web... in short, I was an advocate for all sorts of electronic developments, many of which have since become common coin. The tsunami of online catalogs, online databases, online full text, and the WWW has changed the scholar's and the student's world in ways we're all more or less familiar with, to the point that we're now beginning to complain about what we marveled over just a couple of years ago (students spend so much time doing e-mail...), and see the medium as the source of our problems (students make uncritical use of the stuff they find on the web...). And do the falling circulation statistics in college libraries everywhere suggest that we web advocates have been too successful?
In addition to making a plea for the usefulness of OLD forms of information tucked away in the bowels of libraries, I want to focus attention on ways to develop and promulgate constructive uses of electronic resources, by teachers and students alike, and at least initially I'll do it by describing a University Scholars course I'm going to teach in the Winter term.
In my guise as an anthropologist I've always been interested in technology --or perhaps it would be better to insist on technologies, to emphasize the variety I mean to include under the rubric. Sometimes I've focused on the social and cultural upshot of technological evolution, but I've maintained a constant curiosity about technical details as well. Shifting cultivation of rice in Borneo, ensilage in Nova Scotia dairy farming, the evolution of woodworking machinery, the production and distribution of recorded sound, the art and science of bloomery iron... these (among many other subjects) have all diverted me at various times. But I've never really attempted to pull all those interests together into something "teachable" --they've been personal curiosities, passions, obsessions.
A chance conversation last spring with my colleague John Blackburn got me started. We'd been talking about the difficulties of inspiring students into self-propelled commitment, to educating themselves, and short-circuiting the all-too-common term BORING, which seems to characterize much of what the young endure in classrooms. I said that I thought some subjects were just intrinsically interesting, applicable to just about every discipline's interests and concerns, and that I'd always wanted to teach a course on the History of Technology. John responded that if I would teach it he'd like to sit in on it, and that started an exchange of e-mail, and very shortly thereafter a web page to contain my thoughts and discoveries. It wasn't long before there was a course proposal, which focuses on the concept of frontiers. Here's how the course description reads:
Technology and American Frontiers: an exploration of resources
Technology deals with materials, processes, energy transformations, mechanisms, the taming of physical forces and the domestication of biological systems. As people adopt new machines and techniques, their relationships to one another and to their surroundings change. This course focuses upon American technological frontiers and examines the technical background and social and cultural implications of a broad range of evolving technologies. A cross-disciplinary seminar with a media lab component, the course will include selected readings, library exploration, and class and World Wide Web presentations.
Since the web presentations and media lab component are novelties in course descriptions, I want to digress a bit into how I see the uses and potentials of the web, since they seem to be different from the 'usual' views.
One of my most incapacitating problems as a professor was that of audience: for whom was I learning and integrating and summarizing? Most of my students didn't seem to care much, and putative professional audiences (academic journals and so on) seemed to me to have agendas that didn't fit with my own. I was starved for outlet, though the early versions of HyperCard on the Mac (in the mid 1980s) opened a whole lot of new possibilities that I started to work with --but still I had no way to distribute the hypertexts that I was beginning to conceive and produce. I did spend several months of my 1990-91 sabbatical (just before I went to library school) working on a HyperCard atlas of musical instruments of the world, incorporating drawings and sound samples.
But it was first gopher and then the WWW that provided me with the MEDIUM to reach the audiences I'd been craving. And it worked, immediately and gratifyingly, and so it continues. I make web pages at the drop of a hat, to record my thoughts AND as a means to distribute to various publics, known and unknown. It's also an exercise in linking, both because of the essential property of hypertext, and because people who find something of mine via a web search engine are also led to other (serendipitous) things. This has generated some interesting contacts that I'd never have made via more conventional communications media. And it's a concrete expression of my conviction that information ought to be free (though I recognize all sorts of ways that it's constrained).
So: back to History of Technology, the plight of libraries, the pedagogical problems to be solved, and the testbed scheme which seeks to encourage the use of underutilized library materials, focus on technology as an object of study, and make appropriate use of new technologies in teaching.
The interdisciplinary character of History of Technology and my own at-large faculty status as Science Librarian suggested that the most appropriate identity for the course would be outside of regular departmental offerings; the experimental nature of the course (which I'm about to get to in detail) suggested that it might be most appropriate for our strongest students --in what at W&L is called the University Scholars Program. Because of its prestige in the W&L community, approaches worked out for University Scholars have a shot at credibility across disciplinary boundaries.
Libraries are treasure troves of materials that hardly anybody ever looks at, and librarians develop collections with the idea that someday somebody will be inspired to discover the gems. But we don't really have very good ways to locate or point to older materials --the electronic indexes that have transformed the finding task in scholarly journals usually don't go back more than a decade (there are some important exceptions, like JSTOR, but they're just getting started). And the old paper indexes are rarely consulted --Poole's Index to Periodical Literature (the source for indexing of 19th century periodicals) is unknown and unused. Bound issues of such glorious sources as American Machinist moulder away unloved.
When we moved to the new Science Library I discovered that we have a nearly complete run of Journal of the Franklin Institute (from 1826) --one of the first SCIENCE journals in the United States-- and quite a few early issues of Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. A half hour of browsing in either of those makes it clear that JFI and TofAPS are full of descriptions of early 19th century inventiveness and curiosity in areas of "natural philosophy" and mechanisms. Practically any article is a springboard for investigation: what was the state-of-the-art at a particular time? what knowledge did people have, and what were they about to discover? What was the social and cultural context of the time? And, for any invention or report of discovery, what were its consequences, its upshot, socially, historically, economically... History takes on a new lustre with such empirical questions. What could we do to get people interested in them? And, if we could work out some schemes, perhaps they could be applied to other "older" materials.
A couple of examples:
Most of us probably have stored away the fact that Benjamin Franklin invented a stove --but what do we actually know of the Franklin stove? His report and description (which I found in Papers of Benjamin Franklin, volume 2) makes interesting reading on several levels, but especially for the challenges posed by the questions it generates:And here's where the web comes in, and where my schemes differ from the good intentions of lots of other courses. The output form for the course, the medium for student participation, will be web pages, instead of conventional papers, for several reasons:
- wood economy and economics of late 18th century deforestation: urban growth led to rising prices (and especially transport costs) for a fuel source that Americans were in the habit of using profligately, as if it was an inexhaustible resource for domestic heating and cooking.
- state of Pennsylvania iron industry in re manufacture of stoves: just how was iron made with charcoal? how was it marketed?
- domestic consequences of the new design --a warm place in the house where people could gather
- interest provoked in other Franklin inventions and discoveries --the smokeless coal stove, his description of an iceberg met off the coast of Newfoundland, etc.
Each of these is an opportunity, the beginning of an odyssey of information-seeking. One reads colonial history differently once the economic complexities of household heating, wood transport, and manufacture are mooted, and when stimulus materials are contemporary. Once posed, these questions crave answers (which can be found in the library, though there's an art to finding things, based on skills that nobody is born with, and students must develop by practise), and searchers also require some place to put the process of finding answers, and must develop personally productive strategies for recording what they find. Such skills and strategies are applicable to any investigative work, but they are rarely taught in courses.(I also talked about the Johnstown Flood, starting from a famous image and tracing its implications: canals, dams, railroads, iron and steel, Pittsburgh plutocrats, meteorological extremes, etc.)
There are some excellent general-audience books on the evolution of American technologies (such as Ruth Schwartz Cowan's A Social History of American Technology [Oxford, 1997]), but their best use is not as textbooks but as inspirations to go and do likewise --to start asking questions and seeking answers. Joh Blackburn urges me to say that it matters little just what you study --Franklin stoves, pencils, the Empire State building, Taylorite management-- and more how you study, and how you frame questions. A seminar is a sensible format for exploration of such skills and processes.
Another possible source of topic and direction is based on locale, and details would of course vary according to local resources. W&L is in Rockbridge County, in an area which had a vibrant small-scale iron industry in antebellum days. There aren't many obvious traces on the landscape, but if you know where to look there are iron ore mines, charcoal hearths, sites of furnaces and forges and so on, and there's a fair bit of documentary evidence in the Library's Special Collections, and one prominent piece of scholarship (Dew's Bond of Iron). As it happens there's also a group of people --I call them the Iron Cabal-- interested in working on various aspects of this historical industry: geologists, chemists, blacksmiths, cartographers, historical preservation people, archaeologists... There are pieces of the nascent Rockbridge Iron Project that students in the Technology course could take on. Again, the problem is how to organize the work of a disparate group, and then what to do with the results.
At W&L we are fortunate to have a close working relationship between the Library and University Computing, and indeed John Blackburn of University Computing (whom I've mentioned a couple of times) is Director of the Media Center, which is in the Library, and he is charged with assisting faculty, staff, and students to use a very wide range of media tools, electronic and otherwise. An instructional lab for electronic media is almost a reality (via conversion of a former smoking lounge in the Library), and will serve as the classroom for the media component of the Technology course. John and I will both be involved in web instruction, but the main goal is to get students up and running with pages which they can use to gather, organize, and display what they are working on and discovering.
A couple of years ago making web pages was geek work, involving cryptic UNIX commands and requiring a turn of mind that few students and fewer faculty took to easily, but the EDIT PAGE capability of web browsers reduces the technical hassle of learning and teaching HTML, and puts page creation right into the hands of neophytes. Network access can either limit page access (to members of a class, or a department, or a campus or consortium) or open to the world. Possibilities for collaborative web work are imaginable, but essentially undeveloped.
There is a similarity here to the work of Alan Howard and Ed Ayers at UVa, though I wasn't really aware of their programs until my scheme was already brewing. In any case, another of my objectives is an electronic evangelism among W&L colleagues. If I can work out schemes for integrating web page creation into courses and take the roughest edges off the process of teaching the creative use of the web as an intellectual construction kit, then I have made significant progress in an important part of what I do as a librarian.
If I ran the circus I'd use every opportunity to focus student efforts on the creation of public --or at least semi-public (perhaps constrain-to-domain) documents, web pages being the type case. Besides the issue of pride and commitment that accompanies public performance, there's another issue to be confronted: the dyadic relationship of professor and student inherent in the paper/exam model has built-in problems, among them the temptation on the part of the student to "psych out the prof" --to do the minimum he or she seems to require. Broadening the field of audience to other students, and potentially to all sorts of anonymous web denizens, should promote attitudes of personal responsibility, including intellectual responsibility in matters of citation and attribution --and might help to move undergraduate efforts away from attempts at imitation of traditional models of scholarly communication, and toward modalities that communicate personal engagement and enthusiasm, and toward the sort of originality that we prize. We want student work to be more fulfilling in ways that conventional academic papers rarely are, and some of us want something even more subversive, making undergraduate scholarship respectable by giving it a voice and by making it collaborative, between students, between students and faculty, and perhaps with extramural individuals and groups as well.
Every fall I'm struck by how enormous our opportunities are as teachers. We have hordes of potentially eager minds to work with, though what they know is pretty limited. A library colleague of mine does a survey every fall of what sources of information --magazines, newspapers, mass media, internet-- his students make regular use of, and the results are most remarkable for their conventionality and narrowness: Time, Newsweek, USA Today, CNN, YAHOO... It seems that they don't really know what to be interested in, and they don't know how to be interested. That's the opportunity.
I'm tempted by the notion (which I've already mentioned) that it doesn't really matter where you start --what book or artifact or idle question is the origin. The train of association and pursuit of further connections is where the fun and the challenge lies. It is important to develop effective ways to track the quest, and here again the open-ended nature of hypertext represents a great improvement on the notebooks and 3x5 cards and other traditional impedimenta of scholarship.
Who gets to be the Johnny Appleseed with new technologies of scholarship? Librarians are pretty good candidates, because they're largely free of disciplinary strictures, and information is their business. But anybody can play, and as far as I can see, the basic scheme fits all disciplines. We are trying to encourage habits of inquiry, curiosity, interest, and a taste for exploring connections and implications. These proclivities are transferrable to any field of study, and they are truly the basis for the "lifelong learning" that we claim as the ideal of an educated person. The best way to foment is by personal example of active engagement in what one seeks to teach. That is likely to take one a long way from the limitations of the full frontal lecture, and it requires a new suite of scholarly tools, which must be learned and taught. It takes some courage to plunge into the dangerous waters of new technologies, and there are risks of many kinds, but there's also the prospect of reinvigorating one's own jaded attitudes, and escaping professional ruts.
Preparing for this project has led me into a lot of discovery, following up hunches and questions, and so I have a very personal model for the interest I want to inspire students toward. In the last few months I've sampled railroads (do you know why 19th century locomotives had those conical smokestacks?), canals (notably the history of navigation on the James River), lathes, naval gunnery, rural electrification, balloon framing in house construction, photography, Vannevar Bush's MEMEX, the origins and consequences of the Johnstown Flood... to name but a few.
I'll leave you with a quote from John Fitch, one of the candidates for "inventor of the steamboat":