Department of English Information Technology Plan

revision of 21 October 1994

[Committee: Baker, Crocker, Duggan, Gibson, Grant, Howard, McGann, Sedgwick, Unsworth]

I. School Mission Statement

Computers, and particularly networked computers, are increasingly compelling tools for research and teaching in the humanities. However, as any experienced user will attest, this particular branch of information technology is still far from mature: change is rapid and unsettling, both in hardware and in software, and the user who wants information technology to serve his or her needs, rather than the other way around, is still asking for a special dispensation. Nonetheless, the basic goal of the English Department, with regard to information technology, is to ensure that this technology is deployed to maximum effect and with a minimum of frustration and wasted time. More specifically, it is the Department's intention

To provide faculty and graduate students with access to up-to-date workstations capable of running LAN-based applications, including current versions of basic software (such as Windows and WordPerfect), internet tools for information discovery and retrieval (gopher, World-Wide Web, ftp, archie, veronica, etc.), and electronic mail. To make better use of computers in the classroom and outside it, and beyond that, to begin producing our own multimedia instructional materials. To make better use of I.T.C.'s training, outreach, and user-support services, while exploring ways of providing significantly improved in-house user support and training. To minimize systems administration tasks within the Department, in order to free up our current computer support personnel for user support; to ensure that the resources provided within the Department run smoothly and without avoidable frustration or interruption; and to flatten the learning curve as much as possible for faculty and graduate students who are acquiring new information-technology skills. To look for ways to streamline administrative operations within the Department by taking advantage of LAN-based computing, shared files, and network standards. As the Department moves into Bryan Hall with its newly installed network infrastructure, with a significant influx of new end-user workstations, and with generous classroom and lab facilities for using information technology we have an opportunity to start fresh and, with the advice and collaboration of the College and of I.T.C., to provide a model which will point the way for other humanities departments.

II. Background

The English Department's last Information Technology Plan (3 November 1993) noted progress in several areas:

The installation, in fall 1992, of a local area network for the Department, connecting 8088 terminals in faculty offices to vt100 resources such as Virgo, GWIS, and the Electronic Text Center. The introduction of the Department's first graduate-level course in Computing and Literary Study, taught by Peter Baker and Hoyt Duggan in the spring of 1993. Ground-breaking computer-mediated faculty research projects undertaken by Hoyt Duggan and Jerome McGann as fellows of the newly established Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The Plan also discussed two significant Departmental endeavors, then in the planning stages:

Computer-assisted instruction: Bryan Hall will include one computer-assisted classroom with about 15-20 computers and a Writing Center with additional computers. A multimedia lab in which faculty and graduate students would be able to create instructional materials for use at the University and elsewhere. The intention of the 1993 Plan was to design these facilities so that materials developed in the multimedia lab could be moved directly into the computer-assisted classroom. The 1993 Plan also noted some factors retarding progress in the Department's use of information technology, in particular

The poor quality of the computers in faculty offices The lack of training and support for Departmental users of information technology "It is still by and large true," the Plan stated, "that English professors who wish to make serious use of computers must purchase their own and then teach themselves how to use them. In our view, this situation must change before the computer becomes more widely accepted as a research tool in English literary scholarship."

III. Current Academic Computing Activities

A number of the problems cited in the '93 Plan have been, or are about to be, remedied, and some new initiatives have surfaced, but the issues of training and support are still unresolved. These issues will be addressed in detail in sections V. and VI. and (where appropriate) touched on in sections III. and IV.

A. Current Instructional Computing Activities

  1. Writing Instruction

    Last year (1993-94) the English Department applied for two grants to upgrade the outdated computers in the Writing Center. With the money we received, we purchased five Gateway 486/33 computers, four ASI 386 computers, and two HP Laserjet printers. We also purchased Grammatik editing software, chiefly for the use of ESL students. Given the number of students using the Writing Center, and the limited number of tutors we are able to hire, it is clear that we need to develop more imaginative uses of computer technology to help our students diagnose and correct certain kinds of linguistic errors, especially our ESL students. The other group that would benefit from good editing software would be ENWR 100 students.

  2. Graduate Instruction

    Perhaps not unexpectedly, graduate students in English are making more extensive use of computers than their teachers are. In a recent course in Old English, for example, every graduate student enrolled made use of the Corpus of Old English in the Electronic Text Center, with little prompting from the instructor. Students working in the rapidly developing area of cultural studies are recognizing the relevance of hypermedia to their concerns, and theorists are excited by the hypertext as a revolution in our concept of textuality. To accommodate these interests, Peter Baker and Hoyt Duggan offered ENSP 805, Computing and Literary Study, in the spring of 1993. This course provided instruction in the use of textual analysis tools and the creation of hypermedia applications and electronic archives using Toolbook, a Hypercard-like authoring package.

    Jerome McGann has begun to involve graduate students in his courses in the preparation of electronic editions, with the cooperation of the Electronic Text Center. In 1992 and 1993 his graduate classes produced two hypertext editions of late eighteenth-century books of poetry, and these volumes were used to inaugurate McGann's online archive of critical editions: British Poetry 1780-1910. A Hypermedia Research Archive. His graduate course in the spring term, 1995, will comprise several groups, each of which will spend the term on similar editions--probably four in all--of late nineteenth-century British poetry. The materials in these classes is often drawn from online resources. Consequently, the McGann's students learn not only how to build hypertext editions, but also how to use both local and remote electronic networks in their research.

    Graduate students in the English Department also have a Departmental mailing list, used for dissemination of Reading Matters and other relevant materials. In addition, graduate students in the Department have also started their own mailing lists independently: for example, is a list for Americanists, with some faculty and undergraduate participants as well.

  3. Computing in Advanced Undergraduate Courses

    Relatively little is being done in this area now, primarily because of the inadequacy or unavailability of computing facilities. The lack of a computer-assisted classroom has, for the most part, kept computing in undergraduate courses at the level of hope and speculation, and current estimates are that the Bryan Hall computer classroom will not be available until next fall. In the meanwhile, there have been some notable experiments: in the spring of 1993, Steve Arata and Hoyt Duggan set up electronic conferences for their courses and required all students to obtain electronic mail accounts and to address comments on their reading to the electronic conference. Both professors reported that students responded well to the assignments, and the electronic conferences became quite lively. More recently, Peter Baker, Tom Scanlan, and Doug Day have continued the use of electronic discussion sections for graduate courses, and John Unsworth has used a real-time interactive (text-based) virtual reality program called a MOO for office hours and has placed the course syllabus, bibliographies, and pointers to relevant networked resources on a World-Wide Web server.

    It should also be noted here that the Commonwealth Center, under the guidance of Jerome McGann, is about to be redirected to the task of providing facilities, release time, and user support for the development of new teaching tools, methods, and materials that make use of information technology and especially the networks. The Center will serve departments across the Unversity, but the English Department is likely to benefit from its activities, and we can expect to see more, and more innovative, classroom applications of information technology as a result.

B. Current Research Computing Activities

The 1993 Plan reported, in this area, that "most faculty members use computers for word-processing," and this is still quite true; it also true that "the most frequently used services supplied by the University are Alderman Library's online services: VIRGO and the texts in the Electronic Text Center." New equipment on faculty desktops may well change these patterns of research behavior, and even in the short time since this last Plan was filed, a number of important efforts have begun to bear fruit.

At the graduate-student level, two projects merit special mention: Elisabeth Crocker, a student in the Baker/Duggan course described above, developed her class project into a hypermedia essay published in the peer-reviewed electronic journal Postmodern Culture (January, 1994) and went on to win the first Sprint-funded graduate fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Ms. Crocker's publication was also the subject of an illustrated piece in the New York Times Week in Review Section (April 10, 1994). David Gants, who is also a graduate fellow at the Institute, has made extensive use of scanning for a bibliographic dissertation on watermarks; he is currently researching this project at the Huntington Museum in California, and he has also taken mobile equipment to the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.. Crocker and Gants have presented their research results at national and international conferences.

At the faculty level, Hoyt Duggan's Society for Early English and Norse Electronic Texts has secured the support of the University of Michigan Press for its proposed electronic editions, the first of which, an electronic edition of Piers Plowman, is due to appear within the year. Jerome McGann's Rossetti Archive, a prototype of which is available via the World-Wide Web, has been widely noticed and discussed in this country and abroad. Both Duggan and McGann have been frequent participants in a high-level discussion group focusing on electronic editing, known as ESE. And finally, Peter Baker is working on persuading the Yale Boswell Editions and (a somewhat more difficult task) the Beinecke Library to launch a project, based here, to digitize all of Yale's c. 10,000 Boswell MSS.

Since the last Plan filed by the English Department, John Unsworth, a new member of the Department, has been appointed Director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. This research-oriented unit provides extensive technical assistance and high-end equipment to faculty and graduate researchers in the humanities, through a competitive annual fellowship program. Mr. Unsworth is also a founding co-editor of the electronic journal Postmodern Culture: published with the assistance of two universities and Oxford UP, this journal is the oldest peer-reviewed electronic journal in the humanities, and it remains the most frequently used resource on the Institute's WWW server, with more than 200,000 pages requested by readers around the world, between March and September of 1994.

The American Studies Program, in cooperation with The Electronic Text Center, has designed a comprehensive interdisciplinary World Wide Web server. Called "Xroads," this is conceived as a kind of electronic library for American Studies, a place where Americanists can come to find electronic resources in their field, to access digitized texts, to see program descriptions and course syllabi, to find models for computer-assisted and multimedia instruction, to view UVA faculty and student work, and to participate in the creation of hypertexts. Xroads promises to be unique and valuable in a number of important ways. First, it will provide a vehicle for the organization and distribution of the remarkable inventory human and material of resources in American Studies that we have here at the University but that are fragmented and dispersed throughout the community, sometimes invisible, often inaccessible, occasionally just not available in useable forms. Second, because it is grounded in the Electronic Text Center, it will be far more that just a kind of disciplinary switchboard: it will also be a production facility for the generation of digitized texts, images, animation, hyper- and multi-media texts. Because it is also grounded in the English Departments' Masters Program in American Studies, it will be a central feature of an ongoing instructional program. And that program, designed to train computer literate humanists, is presented as a clinical experience in which students learn by doing, by designing, building, expanding, and re-designing Xroads. Finally, Xroads will provide a remarkable window for all of us: for faculty and students, a window that faces outward onto a remarkable and increasingly accessible world of information about American Studies; for the world around us, a window that opens up the University of Virginia to public view, that allows broader access to our riches and a clearer sense of what, exactly, we do here all day.

And finally, one important trend that is beginning to emerge, not only among high-end or leading-edge users, but also among the median of Departmental researchers, is the increasing reliance on electronic mail and the networks in general, to facilitate collaboration, discussion, and scholarly investigations with colleagues who may be across the country or around the world.

C. Current Administrative Computing Activities

At present, the administrative tasks accomplished online include the production of Reading Matters for distribution by e-mail and on GWIS; the use of CAPPS, ISIS, PCMAIL, PUBLIC, VIRGO, UBLAN, and HARDCOPY; and the maintenance of the server. We see the need for further tasks to be accomplished online, but the University includes a wide range of computer equipment and user expertise, and we recognize the need to be patient and sometimes to move slowly. Our inability to share records with one another, and from one application to another, is in part due to our lack of computer training, in part due to the often incompatible systems in use at the University, and in part due to the absence of any University-wide emphasis on developing interoperable data-management systems.

IV. Future Plans and Proposals

A. Instructional Computing

  1. The Bryan Hall Computer Classroom

    A computer-assisted classroom was part of the original plan for Bryan Hall, the new Arts and Sciences building. In the year before construction began the classroom was completely redesigned on the basis of recent research and experience in the teaching of writing; to the original plan we have also added multimedia capabilities and X-terminal emulation. Our idea is that the classroom should be able to serve a variety of needs, accomodating traditional classroom discussion, workshop-style writing instruction, in-class research assignments, group or individual viewing of multimedia presentations, and so on. The current plan calls for the installation of fourteen 486 computers for use by students, an instructor's machine with projecting display, two printers, and a file-server with 1GB of storage. We are awaiting final approval (which we are told is all but certain) of about $70,000 in funding from S.C.H.E.V. for the purchase of computers, printers, networking software and a few peripherals.

    In the Department's pending proposal to the Academic Computing Support Program, we are seeking funding for several items (e.g. word-processing software, small peripherals) not eligible for funding by S.C.H.E.V.. The A.C.S.P. proposal also asks for funds to purchase a 15ppm HP Laser printer capable of serving IP, IPX, and Appletalk connections, so that all members of the Department, regardless of the hardware on their desks, could print to a centrally maintained printer. But the centerpiece of the proposal is a request for funds to upgrade the Departmental LAN server to a 100MHz 486 with upgraded Novell NetWare (3.12). We propose to use the LAN server as the Department's central repository for software and information, including:

  2. The Bryan Hall Writing Center

    We expect the new computer classroom in Bryan Hall to significantly improve our writing workshops, allowing students and teachers to read and edit texts together. We also expect that the classroom will improve our ability to experiment with new software and different pedagogical strategies.

  3. The Bryan Hall Multimedia Lab

    The Multimedia Laboratory has developed rapidly in the past nine months. Beginning with an initial grant of $7,000. the Department has found additional funding (H.E.E.T.) which will be used to provide multimedia production equipment, has upgraded four donated P.C.s, has allocated space for the lab in Bryan Hall, and has contributed research assistant and technical support help. At this point, the equipment is being gathered and assembled in Wilson Hall. When re-assembled in Bryan after the first of the year, the lab will present a complete if basic array of equipment: eight P.C.s configured with Windows, LanNetwork and eXceed, text-, image-, and video-processing software, a scanner and color printer, along with sound-, image-, and video-production and editing equipment.

    This laboratory is designed as an integral part of the new American Studies Masters Program. Students in this program are now in ENAM 802: Introduction to American Studies, a course designed to develop computer literacy through a series of tasks focused on issues in American Studies. At this time, for example, students are beginning a three-week group project which will construct a hypertext of Henry Nash Smith's classic The Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. In its first iteration, this will be a digitized text, formatted in HTML, with a network of internal links connecting central concepts and references and a set of external links to primary texts, critical works, and graphics. Even though the course is just at the beginning of its three year development phase, it's already clear that it has entered some very promising terrain, that the computer clearly has the capacity to transform the way we access, analyze and distribute information as well as the way we teach and learn.

  4. The Bryan Hall I.T.C. Lab

    As we understand it, I.T.C.'s plans for the Bryan Hall lab in Room 235 are not complete, and are not funded in this fiscal year. However, in the next fiscal year, we expect that the lab will be funded, and we understand that it probably will included a Novell-based fileserver (running NetWare 3.12), about 17 486-based workstations connected by ethernet to the fileserver and the internet, one LaserJet 4si printer, WordPerfect and Quattro Pro. There are plans for the lab to have a security system, but no on-site staffing by student consultants is projected at this point.

B. Research Computing

In the area of Research Computing, our goal at this point is simply to provide faculty and graduate students with basic hardware and software resources and with access to networked information from which new project ideas might develop. It is difficult to predict what portion of the faculty will be interested in pursuing computer-mediated research projects, beyond those who are already involved, but the Technologies Committee will try to ensure that faculty are made aware of the research possibilities that the new Departmental infrastructure makes available.

C. Administrative Computing

Our immediate goal is to see the Admissions files transferred online from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to the Admissions Secretary (in English), with the program files being transferred to the Graduate Administrator (in English) after admission. We have been waiting to replace the Admissions secretary's computer because we want to be compatible with the Graduate School's hardware and software. It would also be advisable for the Department to encourage administrative staff to make use of the relevant I.T.C. short courses, acquiring training and keeping computer skills up to date. Most importantly, the Department needs to commit to upgrading the computer equipment used by its staff, so that secretaries and other support personnel can take advantage of the centralized software and printing resources that the Department hopes to offer.

V. Maintenance and Support

A. Systems Administration, User Support, and Training

No. Classification Hours/Week Function
Secretarial 1 Fiscal Technician variable general tech support
Grad Student 1 hourly variable computer instruction

We note that the information reported in this section of our Department's Plan has not changed at all over the last several years: our support staff remains minimal. Peggy Gibson, our fiscal technician, spends part of her time providing technical support, most of which is taken up in maintaining the Department's LAN server, what little is left being spent on elementary instruction and troubleshooting. We also have paid a graduate student consultant from the Graduate Assistant budget. For some of our needs, particularly networking difficulties, we go to Gail Moore in the Arts and Sciences office. All of our support is supplied on an "as-needed" basis; the amount of time each person spends on it varies widely from week to week. A few professors with advanced computer skills consult occasionally on technical matters, but their contributions are too infrequent and informal to represent in the table above.

I.T.C. has a commitment to train liaisons between itself and the individual departments, as well as a time-sharing program that allows the departments to hire a percentage of an I.T.C. staff member's time for user support. The English Department is fortunate in its close ties to the Electronic Text Center and to the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, but these affiliations cannot provide ongoing, daily maintenance, training, and support for a large Department with diverse computing needs. The Department needs to secure a time-sharing arrangement with I.T.C. for help with hardware, software, and networking problems. I.T.C. must provide humanities-specific training in the use of computing resources for the faculty and staff, and for graduate students who may staff the I.T.C. and Multimedia Labs in Bryan Hall. By establishing relations between I.T.C. and just a few faculty members and graduate students, the Department can institute a peer-training system which would filter the knowledge and skills needed to make optimal use of computing resources throughout the Department. The Computer-Facilitated-Communications Committee of I.T.C. (on which both Crocker and Unsworth serve) is trying to ensure that more focused and intensive assistance will be made available to to the departments, but it is the responsibility of the English Department to make its unique needs clear and, in all future planning, to budget both time and funds for the training and support that the successful use of information technology requires.

With the rapid influx of information technology into higher education, most educational budget priorities have focused on the initial procurement of equipment: in general, educational institutions have been slow to realize that once one buys a computer, one is also committed to maintaining and upgrading it as well. We will need to face this fact in the coming years. The English Department, the College, and the University as a whole must begin to budget for the inevitable: machines break down, and both hardware and software need to be updated regularly. The cycle for software is probably two years; hardware has a maximum useful life of about three years, with perhaps a couple of years of graceful obsolesence. If it is true, as we believe it is, that the business of education can no longer proceed without this equipment, it is highly irresponsible of us not to plan to maintain it and, when necessary, replace it. Admittedly, we do not at this point have a very good idea of where the funds for maintenance and replacement will come from, but we encourage the Department to include this cost in its future budget planning and in the estimates of operating costs it provides to the University and the State.

VI. Conclusions

A. Strengths

After many years of inactivity, and despite the primitive state of the Department's local resources, the English Department in the past three years has made remarkable progress in exploiting computer technology for teaching and scholarship. Some of the University's boldest and most innovative computer projects are the work of English Department faculty or students, and two of its most impressive new instruments the library's E-Text Center and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities are under the direction of English Department personnel (John Unsworth is on the faculty, and David Seaman came to the Center from the graduate program). Many graduate students now regularly work in the Center or the Institute, and the Department has a small but vigorous group of faculty which is actively engaged in using computer resources in the classroom as well as in high level research work. Finally, the new Commonwealth Center for Cultural Change, to be headed by Jerome McGann, will focus its efforts on promoting in the University and ultimately throughout the state innovative uses of technology in instruction.

B. Weaknesses

Given that the Department does, in fact, receive the S.C.H.E.V. funds for the Bryan Hall classroom, the A.C.S.P. funding for our Department's basic instructional computing infrastructure, and the College's support for providing faculty with desktop 486s, our most evident weaknesses will be in the areas of user support and equipment maintenance. On the first of these, we have an immediate and pressing need to arrive at practical short-term solutions, by making effective use of the resources that are available within and beyond the Department, and by making sure that faculty and students know what those resources are. In the longer term, we encourage the Department to recognize the importance of suer support and training as it plans its budget, revises job descriptions, and hires new staff. On the second of these, the matter of equipment maintenance, we note that the customary one- to three-year warranty on new equipment does give us a grace period, since most of our equipment will soon be new, but we emphasize that the Department should make the most of this respite by aggressively campaigning for a long-term strategy to provide for the cyclical renewal of both hardware and software.