Teaching in the Wireless Classroom - Marjorie Perloff

MLA Newsletter.Winter (2006): 3-5. (Reprinted with permission)
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“If it doesn’t exist on the Internet,” Kenneth Goldsmith, the conceptual poet who founded and administers UbuWeb (www.ubu.com) recently quipped, “it doesn’t exist.” As scholars and teachers of literary and cultural studies, many of us will scoff or at least wince at these words: we define ourselves, after all, as people who read and write books, essays, reviews. Our status in the profession still depends primarily on book publication, and we continue to read other people’s books, especially novels, in their print incarnation. Not many people, surely, want to read Middlemarch or Don Quixote online, and, as for poetry, what could seem less appropriate than reading Paradise Lost or Fleurs du Mal or even Howl! in electronic format? Then, too, textbooks and heavyweight anthologies continue to proliferate, suggesting that the Internet is all very well when it comes to information retrieval but that it is not really attractive as a reading tool. Reading fiction in bed? at the beach? on the subway? Surely in most situations, we still want to feel ourselves turning pages. Indeed, an arresting narrative is known as a page-turner, right?

But Goldsmith is hardly calling for the death of the printed book. He is merely suggesting that, as far as possible, the text in question be available online as well. The 2006 report of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences, “Our Cultural Commonwealth” (www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure)—a report I strongly urge members to read—puts it this way:

For the humanities and social sciences ... an effective cyberinfrastructure will have to support the computer-assisted use of both physical and digital resources, and it will have to enable communication and collaboration using a range of digital surrogates for physical artifacts; in fact, it will have to embody an understanding of the continuity between digital and physical, rather than promoting the notion that the two are distinct from or opposed to one another. A cyberinfrastructure for humanities and social sciences must encourage interactions between the expert and the amateur, the creative artist and the scholar, the teacher and the student. It is not just the collection of data—digital and otherwise—that matters: at least as important is the activity that goes on around it, contributes to it, and eventually integrates with it. (14, my emphasis).

“Creating such an infrastructure,” the report continues, “is a grand challenge for the humanities and social sciences, and indeed for the academy, the nation, and the world, because a digitized cultural heritage is not limited by or contained within disciplinary boundaries, individual institutions, or national borders.” (14-15)
It is the teacher-student interaction that I want to discuss here. Among my colleagues, the term wired classroom still arouses a degree of suspicion: it raises the spectre of gimmicky little PowerPoint displays where information, conveyed digitally, is packaged and simplified and where instructors let the Internet do the work they should be doing. But this need hardly be the case. Especially for those of us who teach courses that include visual or sound materials, the Internet can function as a distribution tool, allowing materials, previously unavailable, to enter the classroom as well as the dorm room. Let me begin with a personal example.
In 1998, I was giving a graduate seminar in avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century—specifically, futurism, both Italian and Russian, and Dada vis-à-vis such American avant-gardists as Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams. Assembling course material was very difficult. The works to be studies—F.T. Marinetti’s futurist manifestos to gether with his visual poems (parole in libertà) and the artworks of Boccioni, Sant’Elia, and Russolo; the zaum poetry, performance works, and artists’ books of the Russian avant-garde; Dada manifestos, sound poems like Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, and photomontage; and Duchamp’s ready-mades—none of these were available in paperback or CD format, much less in textbooks or anthologies. The English translation of Marinetti’s writings by R. W. Flint (Farrar Straus) had unaccountably gone out of print, as had The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Thames and Hudson). Fortunately, the Library of America had just brought out Gertrude Stein’s Writings 1909-1932, a central text for this course, and the poems of William Carlos Williams were readily available from New Directions. But since the art materials in most university libraries don’t circulate, I had to struggle over the visual part of the course, using photocopies and tapes and putting books from my collection on reserve in the library.

What a difference seven years can make! This past year, when I taught a similar course, it was in a wired classroom. I brough my little laptop, connected it to the Internet and PowerPoint set-up, and we were ready to go. True, I had to request this particular classroom, which happened to be in the School of Social Work, a few months in advance, and in many universities wired classrooms remain a rarity. In this regard, we must be aggressive: if engineers, biochemists, and economists can have wired classrooms and electronic equipment, why not English and modern language instructors?
For the Italian futurists, we used the British Web site Futurism and the Futurists (www.futurism.org.uk). This site includes all the major manifestos in both Italian and English, reproductions of the artworks, and an array of source materials on and by the writers and artists in question. The reproductions of, say, Marinetti’s 1909 manifesto (published in Le Figaro) are sharper than in most art books, and the students could supplement it with related works in their oral reports. For the Russian material, we used The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910-34 (www.moma.org/exhibitions/2002/russian), based on the Museum of Modern Art archive. On this site, one can click on individual books and then turn the pages to see individual texts—much more than one can do in actual exhibits where the books are in glass cases. For reproductions of Duchamp’s artworks, notebooks, and the Large Glass, we began with the Marcel Duchamp World Community Web site (www.marcelduchamp.net), whose “Introduction” is worth citing here as an example of what is not available to all of us:

In November 1999, CyberBOOK+ Press, the publishing arm of Art Science Research Laboratory, a 501(3)(c) not-for-profit organization, announced the arrival of Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, the first academic journal in electronic format devoted to Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and his peers. The term “tout fait,” the standard French translation for “ready-made”, was a phrase used by French mathematician Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), whose influence on Duchamp was crucial. Thus, Tout-Fait not only represents the intersection between art and science, but serves as a site promoting the interdisciplinary study across diverse fields of scholarship.

By 2004, Tout-Fait had 200,000 visitors, and its contributors range from Francis Naumann, one of the leading Duchamp scholars, to graduate students and people outside the field from all over the world. It has a truly global reach.
For my seminar, I assigned an article in Tout-Fait that seemed especially suggestive: “Wittgenstein Plays Chess with Duchamp; or, How Not to Do Philosopy,” by Steven B. Gerrard, a philosophy professor at Williams College. One of my students became intrigued with the chess question and did further work at the Getty Research Institute, tracking down various chess manuals and other links; her term paper on the relation of the semiotics of chess to Duchamp’s Large Glass is about to be published.

Note that the course work I describe is never based on electronic materials alone; it must always be supplemented by close reading of the poems and artworks themselves as well as by research in the library. But it made our task in and outside class much more stimulating, especially since student reports could introduce yet other Web sites (e.g., Malevich’s paintings or recordings of Stein’s readings at Penn Sound ()) and make the material as interactive as possible—as well as free of charge.
Literary Web sites and hypertexts now exist for all time periods and for a great many different nations and cultures. For students of nineteenth-century British poetry in its larger cultural setting, the most remarkable of sites is no doubt Jerome J. McGann’s pioneering and encyclopedic The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Archive (www.rosettiarchive.org). According to McGann’s introduction,

The first installment (Spring 2000) centered on the 1870 volume of DGR’s Poems and the pictorial materials most closely associated with that book. The second installment (Summer 2002) added to the first all the textual and pictorial materials that center in DGR’s 1861 book of translations, The Early Italian Poets. The present installation focuses on Rossetti’s 1881 publications: Ballads and Sonnets and Poems. A New Edition and related material. A fourth installment (Summer 2008) will complete the Rossetti Archive by bringing in all of the posthumous material.

Note that the links (highlighted in boldface) take the reader immediately to the work in question, beginning with the 1870 edition of Rossetti’s poems, and that this archive is at once scholarly variorum text and gateway to the pictures, beautifully reproduced, and also provides the biographical and scholarly materials that make study of the poems possible. Such an edition is, of course, expensive: the credit page lists some powerful sponsors:

The Rossetti Archive is sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia, and funded in part by: the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; by an equipment grant from International Business Machines Corporation; research support grants from the University of Virginia; by the University of Michigan Press; and by a grant from the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Costly for the granting agencies, certainly, but once up and running, such a scholarly edition cum archive cum links to other authors and artists (from Dante, whose name Rossetti took in veneration, to Rossetti’s circle), the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, and so on seems to me eminently justified. When I first taught Rossetti in the 1970s, in a course on W.B. Yeats and modernism, I made photocopies of “The Blessed Damozel” and distributed them to the class along with a black-and-white reproduction of the accompanying painting. I wanted the students to learn something about Yeat’s Pre-Raphaelite origins, the sources of his own poems in The Rose (1891). Today, in a wired classroom, the instructor can put poem and painting, as well as related works, up on the screen and discuss them much more satisfactorily. And further: other nineteenth-century Web sites—for example, Romantic Circles (www.rc.umd.edu), edited by Neil Fraistat, Steven E. Jones, and Carl Strahmer at the University of Maryland—can take you to the archived edition of Felicia Dorothea Hemans, The Sceptic: A Hemans-Byron Dialogue (1820)), edited at teh University of Missouri, Saint Louis, by Nanora Sweet and Barbara Taylor, or to an electronic edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, produced by Ron Tetreault (Dalhousie Univ.) and Bruce Graver (Providence Coll.). ReadingLyrical Ballads is now a new experience: a click on the gateway “Dynamic Collation” (www.rc.umd.edu/editions/LB) brings up a screen divided into four parts, for the 1789, 1800, 1802, and 1805 editions respectively. A second click—this time on the poem of one’s choice from an alphabetic menu on the left—allows one to compare all four variants on a single screen. In 1800, for example, the Lucy of “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways” was “A Maid whom there were not to praise / And very few to love”; in 1802 the second line was printed (misprinted?) as “A very few to love.” Why?

All these editions have elaborate scholarly apparatuses and bibliographies that are now in the process of assemblage in Jerome McGann’s current project, NINES (www.nines.org), a “networked interface for nineteenth-century electronic scholarship,” which will contain “aggregated, peer-reviewed online scholarship centered in nineteenth-century studies, British and American.” The key word here is peer-reviewed, since one of the main complaints about electronic texts has been that there is too little editorial oversight, that scholarly essays have not been submitted to rewrites, and so on. But of course there is no reason why digital texts should not be peer-reviewed, and the situation is now changing rapidly.

For the wired classroom, the key item is the primary text itself. But electronic transmission of these texts is not without its problems. A Web site I have recently been using frequently and recommending to my students is The Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources and Links Pages (www.samuel-beckett.net). This site differs from the ones I have discussed so far in being anonymous: evidently, the proprietor doesn’t want to be named because copyrighted material is included; with or without the copyright holders’ permission is not clear. The materials on this site are, in any case, astonishing: online texts (e.g., the complete Waiting for Godot, the short plays), interviews, audio and video performances—for instance, Brooks Atkinson on Godot in the New York Times—and so on. In the case of Godot, the site contains not only the complete text of the play but translations into Polish and Russian. And Penelope Merritt, who has written a long commentary on Godot called Everything You Wanted to Know about Waiting for Godot, but..., provides astonishing visual analogues, including the Caspar David Friedrich paintings of trees that are known to have inspired Beckett’s own staging, as well as paintings of the Crucifiction by Duccio, Mantegna, and Van Eyck—paintings that provide important insights into Didi and Gogo’s dialogue about the two thieves, one of whom was saved.

But is it legal? Under the rubric “Papers on Beckett,” I found two of my own, one on the Beckett radio plays, reprinted with my permission from Lois Oppenheim’s collection Samuel Beckett and the Arts (Garland, 1999), and a second, “In Love with Hiding: Samuel Beckett’s War,” reprinted unknown to me from the Iowa Review (Spring 2005). For the latter essay, the anonymous editor added from another archive a photograph of bombed-out Saint-Lô, the Normandy town where Beckett worked for the Red Cross in 1946—a photograph of better quality than the one I had included in the Iowa Review version.

Many scholars object strenuously to such tampering: the issue is of course brought up in the report of the ACLS commission, and it will take years of legal wrangling and institutional negotiations to sort out the situation. Here I can only speak for myself and say that I was pleased with the result and pleased that the article in question would have so much larger an audience than it can have in a periodical like Iowa Review and that my students—and colleagues in remote places overseas—could access it readily. Does digital publication on another Web site mean that such print periodicals will go under? Or will it actually increase circulation of the print journal or book in question? Certainly, Beckett’s books themselves, including Grove Press’s new four-volume centenary edition, are selling like hotcakes.
Lest I sound too optimistic, let me conclude with two small caveats. The drawback of the incorporation of the Internet into the classroom and curriculum is that it may sometimes leave the student—or even the professor—feeling overwhelmed. McGann’s scholarly commentary on Rossetti, Penelope Merritt’s detective work on Godot, the bibliographies on Stuart Curran’s Frankenstein site at the University of Pennsylvania—these sometimes make us feel that our own interpretations, emendations, and amplifications may be gratuitous, that the work has already been done. But ironically the ever-evolving nature of Web resources indicates that that editorial and critical work is never done, even by the principal scholar(s) involved, and that students can find ways of making useful—and genuinely scholarly—interventions.

The second caveat has to do with the questions already raised about copyright, ownership, error, duplication, and plagiarism. Students must be advised not to trust everything they see on the screen—even on the most “professional” Web sites. Online bibliographies, for example, are not the “last word”: inevitably, they date even as do their print counterparts. The Internet cannot replace the instructor’s intellectual organization of and response to the material in question: to treat it as a teaching tool is to remember that sometimes telling is better than showing. But used with a certain degree of skepticism and irony, Internet access can transform the classroom. Indeed, whether we like it or not, it has done so already.

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