Curricular Change and Choice: Reaching Across the Disciplines and Opening New Avenues of Inquiry with New Technologies


  1. Humanism: My background is in English and scholarly electronic publishing
  2. Research: Through my work at the Institute, I have become convinced that electronic research precedes and conditions teaching with electronic resources.
  3. Collaboration: My experience in the classroom and in my own work is one of collaboration--among researchers, between teacher and student, and among students.


  1. Computers are, in principle, no less well suited to the purposes of humanists than to the purposes of scientists.
  2. Networks are more important than computers, people are more important than networks.
  3. In communication, bandwidth is often critical: Face-to-face communication is still the highest bandwidth available.
  4. On the other hand, for some purposes, low-bandwidth communication may actually be preferable.
  5. The chance encounter is a critical element of research and teaching, and indeed of all kinds of intellectual discovery. Physical space and other real-time systems promote such encounters (even more effectively than bad search tools).
  6. The major change wrought by the internet in the academic disciplines of the humanities will, I think, be the shift from individual and cooperative work to collaborative work.


  • Is a community simply "Lots of people?"
  • Networks that work are communities of interest
  • Communities are formed by a combination of social and material forces
  • It's possible (but not inevitable) that technological change will reorganize communities (e.g., the highway system, the telephone)
  • Although we talk a lot about virtual communities these days, communities still function best when they share a physical location.
  • Collaboration

    "An intricate web or wires that cuddle the planet" (Day et al., "Creating a Virtual Academic Community" in Harrison and Stephen)

  • Historically, most humanities research has not been collaborative (the exceptions: edited collections, festschrift, and reference works)
  • Historically, most humanities research has been cooperative.
  • Collaborative Research: "a group of researchers with various backgrounds and interests...jointly identify a common research theme or scientific problem, and carry out coordinated actions in order to create new knowledge in relation to the research question" (Sanderson, "Cooperative and Collaborative Research" in Harrison and Stephen)
  • Cooperative Research: "an individual or group provides another with useful information or data, although little other discussion is held in relation to the data" (Sanderson, ibid.)
  • Historically, most teaching has been cooperative as well--but the network and the computer open up the possibility that students can contribute to a collaborative research effort and "carry out coordinated actions in order to create new knowledge" rather than simply receiving "useful information or data."
  • The presence of tools for collaboration is not enough to make people use those tools: they have to be motivated, and the tools have to be the best available for the purpose. Sanderson describes the installation of a video-conferencing system for a research group in Atmospheric Physics: "There was initial enthusiasm for the project, and several researchers indicated interest in using the system.... However, a few months after these tests, none of the sites had yet used the system to conduct any work-oriented discussions." On the other hand, they used email extensively.
  • The lesson for teaching is that, sometimes, the basic electronic tools are the best, and that the use of these tools in the classroom needs to be motivated--by a common purpose, by a class narrative, by the presence of high quality content in electronic form.
  • If the internet does produce a shift in humanities research from cooperative to collaborative work, it will be because the problems you can tackle with the computer are larger and more complex, and because tackling them often requires you to cooperate in substantial and coordinated ways with people who know things you don't.
  • Intellectual Technologies: Examples in Practice


  • Courses need to be redesigned to make the best use of this medium (ENSP 482)
  • The most important adjustment: collaborative work (ENSP 982)
  • Class meetings are still critically important, but MU* and email and the Web make valuable supplements (Majordomo)
  • There is a potential for student work to have, and therefore to imagine, an audience well beyond the classroom (The Germ)
  • IATH

  • Tools: MU and Inote facilitate the production and dissemination of electronic scholarly resources.
  • The Blake Project: networked faculty collaboration
  • The Valley of the Shadow: community collaboration
  • The Rossetti Archive: student colleagues
  • MU*s

  • Not all MU*s are alike
  • MU*s are highly configurable environments
  • Communication in large groups is difficult, but can be made feasible
  • Social issues are foregrounded and personality is hypertrophied
  • Play shades into work and vice-versa, in interesting ways
  • Resources

  • Alan Liu, Voice of the Shuttle
  • Diane Kovacs, et al., Directory of Scholarly and Professional E-Conferences
  • New Horizons in Scholarly Communication (Librarians Association of the University of California)
  • The Scholarly Societies Project
  • Robin Cover, SGML: Academic Projects
  • Teresa M. Harrison and Timothy Stephen, eds. Computer Networking and Scholarly Communication in the Twenty-First Century (Albany, NY: SUNY UP, 1996)
  • Jennifer Hoyt, IATH Related Readings
  • Todd Blaylone, Chorus: Reviews and Resources for Computing in the Humanities
  • Paul Groves, The HUMBUL Gateway (Oxford University)
  • WWW Virtual Library: Humanities
  • Altavista
  • Unsworth, Living Inside the (Operating) System: Community in Virtual Reality
  • Unsworth, Constructing the Virtual Campus

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    Copyright 1996 by John Unsworth, all rights reserved
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    Last Modified: Wednesday, 21-Aug-96 23:11:27 EDT