Teaching on the Infobahn

James J. O'Donnell

Religious Studies News 9.3(1994) 4

Our master image of the site of teaching has been for many years the classroom. Wherever teaching actually takes place, we imagine it situated within four walls, with rows of desks facing an authoritative podium of some kind. We might prefer still to think of Mark Hopkins, the student, and the log, and such personalized instruction indeed happens more often than we sometimes fear, but every September, academics drift back into tens of thousands of classrooms to begin the year's work.

In January 1994, I broke out of the classroom and wandered out onto the information superhighway. What eventuated was the most exciting teaching I've done in years, and I now plan to spend as much time as I can out there on the highway, dodging traffic, and teaching my heart out. In doing so, I am convinced that I have blundered into the future and started to live some of the science fiction I used to consume voraciously when I should have been memorizing Greek verb forms.

I was preparing in January to teach a course I have often taught before, an introduction to the work and thought of Augustine of Hippo for advanced undergrads and especially beginning grad students. I have a great, almost pathological fear of the academic tendency to repetition verging on self- parody, and so I was seeking a way to renovate the course. At the same time, I was reflecting on the fact that the relatively small number of students who would take such a course at Penn (in the end, ten were enrolled) could easily be supplemented by others elsewhere who would not have many opportunities for such a relatively specialized course. I then determined, with the same easy naivete with which Mickey and Judy used to decide to put on a show in the barn, to create an e-mail list to accompany my course, invite the world to join, and see what happened.

To my delight, it was all just as easy as Mickey and Judy made it seem. I made preliminary announcement in numerous e-mail lists in late December, then formal announcement in early January. Over 550 subscribers from around the world, from Bangkok to Istanbul, signed up, and about 375 of them stayed the course from mid-January to early May. They included students at every college and university level, scholars of standing both in the field of patristics and in many other fields, and other internet-surfers of an immense variety.

Procedure was this: I had posted in January a variety of syllabus files, suggested readings, information about myself and the course, and the like, originally to a gopher menu (later supplemented with a World-Wide Web page: see below for addresses). Sometime before the regular Monday afternoon classroom seminar, I would post some preliminary information to the list with suggested topics and the like. We met for two and a half hours on Monday afternoons for a fairly traditional seminar. One student was assigned each week to be rapporteur, and s/he posted by Monday midnight a summary of the discussion to the list as a whole; in addition, any special presentations, handouts, etc., were also posted to the list. (So when Professor Eugene Vance of the University of Washington came for a memorable lecture, the full text of his talk went to the network immediately, followed over the term by two student papers that brilliantly responded to his work.) General discussion followed. There was more discussion early in the term, and some of it ranged fairly widely as list members had topics they needed to ventilate. I see now that I could and should have done a better job of priming the pump later in the term, chiefly by making sure that there was a clear sense of a "reading assignment" for list members to follow. (Ideally, such reading assignments would be made available on-line, though there can of course be technical and legal problems in doing that for many things one might want to read.)

I was concerned at the outset that, especially with a topic as potentially controversial as Augustine, the list might get out of control. "Flame wars" are familiar on the internet, and with a sensitive religious topic, things could get ugly. I was prepared at a moment's notice to make the list a moderated one (where only messages that I approved would go to the group), to detach it from the classroom course (I was concerned that my paying customers at Penn get at least their full money's worth), or shut it down entirely. The question never arose. Discussion was firm, vigorous, often outspoken, but remained civil and stayed as close to topic as any reasonable classroom seminar would -- that is, it was not perfectly focused, but it responded well to nudges after I had allowed it to stray fruitfully a bit. There are clearly techniques that I am only beginning to learn for optimizing discussion and transmission of useful information in such an environment, but they are really only extensions of the traditional classroom teacher's methods. (I was also teaching during the same term an undergraduate survey course "The Worlds of Late Antiquity" where the classroom students were required to use e-mail for discussion; they also "published" their papers to each other by e-mail and were encouraged to write papers responding to each others' work -- thus turning the classroom paper exercise into a real act of communication with an audience of the students' peers. Much of what I learned in each of these courses will help me in the future in both open and closed settings.)

The diversity of participants made for a far richer course than I could ever teach myself. Take, e.g., the time our correspondent in Istanbul reported on a lecture given there on medieval Christian philosophy by a Franciscan priest to the faculty of the (Islamic) University of the Bosporus. Well and good, the faculty opined when it was over, but it's too bad Christianity is not a truly rational religion, like Islam. Leaving aside the question of comparative rationality of religions, I think it is undoubtedly good for my students at Penn, taking a course on a very traditional "western" figure, to be reminded that the whole picture looks quite differently if you happen to be in a different seat. Disciplinary specialties other than my own made for points of view closer to home but still independent of mine as well. The gopher/WWW server now contains papers written by almost a dozen people, including students in my course, faculty elsewhere, and at least one master's thesis elsewhere now getting a much wider and more serious audience than would have been the case otherwise. All the course materials (somewhat digested and indexed) will be kept on line for the next time I teach this course: in other words, a gradually richer and richer environment for Augustinian studies on the net (soon to be enhanced by more texts and translations, e.g.) will grow where this course has planted the seed, and each successive course will be the better for it.

I am happy to say that the success of the experiment has made it possible to continue and expand what I have been doing. In the fall of 1994, I will teach a course on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy in a similar way with one vital addition. It will now be possible for students to enroll for the course for credit from remote locations through the University of Pennsylvania's "College of General Studies". Tuition and fees will amount to about $800 for one course of grad/undergrad university credit on an official transcript. I imagine a primary audience for such a course (the text will be read in Latin by those taking it for credit) as school teachers needing to collect credits to keep up their certification or work towards degrees, but if I have learned one thing on the internet it is that you never know who the real audience is likely to be. The arrangements will be similar to those last spring except that paying customers away from Penn will have special times during the week for on-line conferencing (using MOO software) and will have their work evaluated, criticized, and discussed, and of course they will get grades.

The one point to emphasize above all others in this regard is this. None of what I am talking about is technology. I do not see myself as a technological specialist, nor have I any interest in becoming one. I am in many ways a traditional, tweed-backed, cotton-breasted, chalk-dusted, bleary-eyed academic, still fired with the passion for new and old books that drove me to graduate school, still ready and eager to pass off a lecture or start pushing students through their Socratic paces at a moment's notice. Those fundamental educational activities are what engage my spirit, and it is those activities that I now look to pursue with the exciting new tools that networked communication gives me. E-mail, gopher, and World-Wide Web place in scholars' hands in 1994 a package of tools that are already stunningly easy to use and that multiply the power of the teacher to reach students and stay in touch with them far beyond what the old classroom allows. (I think it is true to say that for my Penn-only course this spring, I saw fewer students in my office than in any comparable course in my career, but I had more and better contact with more of them than in any comparable course. The traditional "office hours" are in fact a painfully inefficient way to manage student contact; e-mail chatting at midnight is far more effective.) There is nothing that I describe doing here that a faculty member with the right (essentially simple) piece of equipment on her desktop could not learn to do within about an hour all told. The use of networked technology is in fact the cheapest, easiest, and most powerful enhancement to teaching that I can see within my reach, and it will only get easier and more powerful as the years go by. I cannot imagine ever passing a semester in the classroom again without the umbilical cord to the network to energize, diversify, and deepen what we do.

The easiest way to find out more about these enterprises is to have a look for yourself on the network. If you can only use "gopher" look for the gopher at ccat.sas.upenn.edu, then choose menus in succession for "Course Materials", "Classical Studies", and "Latin 566: Augustine". With WWW access through Lynx, Mosaic, or the like, you can begin by going to this address:

and then select the item for "Augustine". Comments, offers of additional material, or expressions of interest in the Boethius course or later offerings (probably Augustine again in January for a ten week session, e.g.) should go to me at jod@ccat.sas.upenn.edu.