What it's like in practice

So what can this all add up to? The following examples are from my own experience. My own view is that I've scratched the surface and done about 2% of what can be done, and I look forward eagerly to a career long enough to take some of these things to the limit.

There are hundreds if not thousands of courses in contemporary universities being taught with "lists", newsgroups, and the like to supplement discussion. At Penn, this has really only been widely possible since the fall 1993 extension of e-mail privileges to all undergraduates. Since then I've twice taught courses with a listserv/newsgroup extension: to see the current results, look at the newsgroup upenn.classics.cs28 -- discussion, announcements, and student papers. There is also the WWW page for the same course.

More experimentally, I have begun teaching higher level seminars with a network component. The Augustine seminar in the spring of 1994, involving on-campus students and off-campus auditors (to a total of over 500 at one time or another, from Hong Kong to Istanbul), has attracted considerable attention, while in fall 1994, I conducted a seminar on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy with on-campus students, 175 off-campus auditors, and a handful of off-campus for-credit students registered through CGS and getting instruction through a combination of e-mail and on-line MOO sessions. Since then, this has become my regular practice: look at my "Cultures of the Book" course materials to see a continuing exercise. Our Department of English has been pushing the envelope a bit as well and has a wide range of course materials on-line, while my colleague Joe Farrell has created a Vergil home page for current and ongoing teaching activities as well.

I've written about the Augustine seminar for Religious Studies News; what I would emphasize most strongly is that adding this networked community to the discussion has sharply increased the quality of the course for students here at Penn.

What next? In spring 1995, I hope to do something at a higher level still: to gather a small group of scholars of standing who work on St. Augustine and conduct a short-term, sustained, and serious discussion of a recent controversial book in the field, including (we hope) response and perhaps full e-mail participation by the author of the book. In this way we hope to re-invent the European research seminar in the humanities on its original terms, with the advantage that a much wider audience than would ever fit in a seminar room can begin to listen and learn from the experience. (There are other experiments elsewhere that deserve attention.) In the long run, archives of discussion like this may rival formal monographic statements of position in importance as records of the scholarly enterprise. This may well be no bad thing: if the monograph is monologue, we must remember that not only professors but also madmen prefer that form; while dialogue, with its ambiguities and open-endedness, is a form with venerable ancestry in our intellectual tradition and with real capacity to capture not only the search for truth but also its uncertainties and limits.

I speak and write of these subjects a lot these days; but it is at points like this in the discussion that I draw a breath and realize with satisfaction that the issues that the new technologies raise are very profoundly ones that already belong to the tradition of scholarship and teaching to which I belong. I am sometimes asked whether I shouldn't be speaking up for a nostalgic love for leather-bound volumes, and I freely confess that books are certainly my fetish of choice. But to use them wisely, resourcefully, passionately -- that is my profession and my vocation, not a private pleasure. And this place where my words reach readers in the ambiguous virtual space of the World-Wide Web is exactly where that profession has led me and where that vocation insists that I be, for now and the foreseeable future. It's an exciting time, and this virtual place, wherever in the river of spinning electrons it may be, is a very exciting place to be.

So now what?