Stephen G. Nichols
(Stephen G. Nichols is James M. Beall Professor of French and Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University).
I’ve taught for more years than I care to think about. And throughout my career as a wandering scholar in the United States and Europe, libraries have always played an important, if stationary role: I wandered; they stayed put. At least they did until recently. In the past decade, more and more of my research needs-journal articles, bibliographic materials, reference books, dictionaries, and primary and secondary works of all kinds-have become instantly conjurable on my computer screen. Even more revolutionary is that I no longer have to remain in my office on campus to access these virtual stacks. Thanks to software such as VPN Secure Client, I call up the library’s panoply of information from any place with Internet access. Needless to say, bringing the library with me on my travels has made preparing lectures and checking references a lot easier . . . to say nothing of lightening my luggage!
Exciting as it may be, the revolution in research resources is not exactly breaking news. The frontier today-and for the foreseeable future, I believe-lies in the challenge of what I like to call “co-teaching” with the library, namely, bringing the library into the classroom. That may seem like a logical extension of taking the library with you, but many colleagues who routinely use virtual resources for research tell me they have yet to explore these new pedagogical frontiers. Few dispute the rationale for combining teaching and research, but that frequently means using some part of the knowledge acquired from research to prepare classes. But doesn’t that imply that teaching plays no active role in refining scholarly inquiry?
Such assumptions arise for a variety of reasons. One is that teaching and research involve distinctive modes of communication. Obviously, we convey ideas differently when we teach our students than when we lecture to our colleagues. With students, we are not simply demonstrating new ways of looking at a given problem. We are also-even more crucially-explaining the context and history of the issue at hand. We are showing why this topic matters. This doesn’t imply that we are less intently focused on our particular area of inquiry when we teach it. It does mean, however, seeing it through the eyes of those unfamiliar with our concerns.
Thinking about my teaching, I’ve realized how critical it is to reach students by exciting their interest. First, I must grasp what it is they find so strange-even alienating-about technically complex subjects. Secondly, I must determine a way to capture their attention. I’ve found that this means demonstrating what excites me about my work, for if I can’t communicate my own enthusiasm, I can’t expect others to share it. I must therefore let students see the drama of my research-the disappointments as well as the successes.
I’ve found that too often, we professors feel responsible for getting across facts, while leaving out the messy details of how we came by them. But teaching can add invaluably to our research when we are forced to remix highlights of our discoveries with the painstaking, even tedious efforts that produced them. This exercise comes with an important collateral benefit. Suddenly, as we share our work with students, the relevance and disciplinary logic of our research agenda comes into full focus as we encounter facets of the project we might never have seen. That’s why it makes sense to develop pedagogical techniques focusing on the larger context of our research. And this is precisely where the library can enter the classroom with us to become a co-teacher.
Let me offer a “before and after” scenario of how this works. When I began teaching medieval French literature, I did it much the same way as my own professors had. That meant using a modern printed edition of the romances, epics, chronicles, dramas, or lyric poems chosen for the course. The editions used for graduate students offered the text in a version of the medieval French language, while undergraduate courses more often used 20th-century French translations, with a few samples of the original language to offer a medieval flavor. Since they were all modern editions or translations, the books appeared to students’ eyes physically like those by modern authors.
When they opened these books prepared to read them as they would a modern work, they experienced a shock. Nothing had prepared them for a world so different from their own. The atmosphere, the sentiments, the exploits, the people described could not have seemed more alien to them. Knights dressed head-to-toe in armor breaking lances with opponents who erupted from the forest to challenge them with no apparent reason; noblewomen carried off from castles in full view of King Arthur and his knights; princes who turned into birds of prey; lords who left their beds at night to become werewolves; heroes who opposed untold numbers of enemy almost single-handedly. And what was all this business about courtly love?
Who could blame students for being confused? They were reading works wrenched from their historical setting, where the story would have appeared perfectly natural. It was my job to explain that historical background: language, customs, codes of chivalry, politics-in short, everything that made these works so different. But try as I might, the gulf remained. Many students found the medieval world remote and abstract. I could explain to them that these works were originally written by hand in richly decorated and illustrated manuscripts. But unless they could see the manuscripts themselves, how could they visualize what I was saying? How could they appreciate the columns of calligraphy, or wonder at the exquisitely painted miniatures depicting key scenes of knights and ladies dancing, castles, tournaments, battles, dragons, whimsical designs, and other signs of this lost art from a bygone era? If I could have shown these things to them, they would have learned much more because they would have been able to visualize the historical setting.
It’s not that I did not manage to get some of these ideas across to the students, or that many of them did not enjoy the reading. My own enthusiasm proved infectious to some, but I don’t flatter myself that I could ever do justice to the works as a whole. How could I have done so without being able to show them what the original work looked like? And how could I have done that? Manuscripts of the works I taught were housed in widely scattered libraries. In the era of the passive library, I would have had to take my class to cities all over Europe and North America. The libraries were not going to come to us! At least not in those days.
But what if the library could come to my classroom? Suppose it were possible to teach medieval literature from digital surrogates of the manuscripts so that students would be able to see the medieval work? I’m talking not about a passive image, but about a version of the original they could open and read on their computer screen. They would be able not only to read the stories in the original setting but also to see how books were produced by scribes and artists working together. For nonspecialists who could not be expected to decipher medieval scripts or read the old language, the digital surrogate would be an even more effective teaching tool. For, unlike a manuscript, the digital version would have transcriptions and notes to facilitate reading, translating, and studying the written text and images. That sounds reasonable, but what would it take to accomplish? And if we did manage to put manuscripts online, how would they change our teaching?
To answer the first question in detail would require an article in itself. Suffice it to say that for me to have fully functional manuscript surrogates in my classroom requires a research library willing to act as a digital repository. That library must dedicate staff and resources to collecting raw digital files of materials from widely dispersed institutional owners that agree to have the documents scanned and made available by the library. Once the mass of images has been acquired-no mean feat in itself-they must be organized and programmed according to a logical plan called an “intellectual data model” prepared by the library’s digital curators. It is the data model that guides the programmers in adding the levels of functionality that allow digitized artifacts to appear on a computer screen.
Functional commands are the equivalent of hands that turn the pages of a manuscript: they replace the magnifying glass or ultraviolet light in revealing small details of the original; they allow us to obtain three-dimensional renditions of objects; they enable us to search for words or images, or to call up anything else we might need to look at. They can also assist in making comparisons and in many other tasks required for teaching or scholarship.
But where does the information in the data model come from? After all, the digital curators are not themselves going to teach these manuscripts or use them for research. That’s our responsibility as scholars, of course. It is also why this new world of digitized archival resources binds our teaching and research so tightly, while linking both to the library. No matter how talented they are, digital curators can do their work effectively only after my colleagues and I tell them what we need. Ordinarily, this would not pose a problem since we usually work on or teach material we know. In this instance, circumstances were different. We were being asked to say how we wanted to work with and teach digitized manuscripts. What kinds of functions should the programmers design to meet our needs? The questions could not have been more straightforward, or more challenging. For it meant having to decide how to work and teach in an entirely new way.
It wasn’t the material that was new-my colleagues and I had worked with the artifacts themselves, and taught them. It wasn’t even the medium itself-we were familiar enough with the Internet. The novelty was the library’s role: it was asking us to design teaching and research needs in advance. It was also offering a novel kind of access to our artifacts. Rather than having to study them one at a time in different places, we could now bring the artifacts into our studies and classrooms for research and teaching. We would be able to do things previously impossible, such as making side-by-side comparisons of manuscripts physically remote from one another. It would also be possible to show variant treatments of a work in manuscripts produced at different times.
Rather than having to teach a work as something fixed once and for all by its author, I could illustrate medieval book production as a participatory process in which scribes could alter passages to suit their own or their patrons’ tastes. With numbers of manuscripts of the same work to consult, students could study the dramatic changes in the style and content of illustrations over time. These simple historical facts could simply not be effectively conveyed when teaching from the fixed text of a printed edition.
But unprecedented access to our material would have other implications. For example, having more than 150 manuscripts of a single work produced over a period of 200 years, we realized, would also generate data on a scale we’d never dreamed of. For each manuscript was unique, differing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways from the others. Collectively, they constitute nothing short of a new perspective on medieval literature. In consequence, our focus would have to expand beyond the internal dynamics of plot, language, and structure to consider the rich variety of manuscript presentation evolved over centuries. We would need to propose new questions and research problems, and respond to new teaching challenges. The library could deliver access to make this possible, but first we had to rethink what we were asking them for. This is a challenge with which we are still grappling, as more and more codices come on line. But that’s another story.
Once I began teaching from manuscript surrogates, I found that the library had online resources to make classes even more productive. Here’s a description of what has become a typical class using these new resources. We’re studying a 13th-century romance. I begin by projecting a page or folio on the screen in front of the class. I ask students to take turns deciphering and translating lines, while I comment on the grammatical points of medieval French. Suddenly, they come to a word they don’t recognize. Thanks to the library’s subscription to an online Old French dictionary, I open another browser tab, call up the dictionary, and try to look up the word as it appears in the manuscript. Students are puzzled at not finding it. That isn’t surprising, I tell them. Orthographic conventions didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. People tended to spell words phonetically, but because people in each region spoke with a different accent, the same word could be pronounced, and thus spelled, in a variety of ways. I reel off some variations for the word we’re looking for. Thus prompted, the students easily locate the word in the online dictionary.
They see that the entry for the word in question gives a number of variants, as well as references to the word as it appears in other medieval texts. After brief discussion, a student asks if the meanings of words varied as much as their spelling (particularly in comparison with modern French). Whereas once I would simply have answered the question, now we have resources that let the students work out the answer. Opening yet another browser window, we call up one of the other medieval works cited in the dictionary entry from a database to which the library also subscribes. In an instant, we have the passage. The students read it, proposing possible meanings for the word that might fit the context. They discover that the meaning that fits the passage we’re reading in class is indeed somewhat different from the one they find in the new citation.
This leads another student to ask whether the variations in meaning could be affected by the differing syntax in each passage. Good question, and one that we can also research online as a class. While the answers are less definitive than in the case of spelling or meaning, the exercise introduces the students to yet another resource available through the library. At the same time, I get the opportunity to explain examples of Old French syntax in a context they are more likely to profit from because the discussion has stemmed from their own question.
As the class proceeds, the students unselfconsciously adopt a number of different professional roles: literary critic, philologist, lexicographer, historical linguist, and grammarian. They’ve become archeologists, seeking to make sense of an historical enigma made up of archaic language, pictures of a vanished world, strange social codes, and unfamiliar expressions. More important, they have done so as a class working together, fueled by collective curiosity. Class dynamics do not lack for a healthy tension spurred by amicable competition as students vie to find solutions to each other’s questions. Would their excitement be so palpable if they were not face-to-face with the historical object? Judging from student reactions to the same material that I used to teach from printed editions, the answer is a resounding no.
Since we live in an age of outcomes assessment, it’s fair to ask whether students actually learn more in this new environment. How could it be otherwise? After all, they have a much more varied-and above all interactive-experience with the material than do students who simply read a medieval work in a modern critical edition. Seeing the work in a variety of settings affords students an opportunity to understand not just the work but also the changing public of the period. They learn to distinguish between a 13th-century codex, as opposed to one produced 200 years later-and to pride themselves on their discernment.
The library extends their competence by enlisting them as assistants for the digital library. Students perform key aspects of the “back-end” work that enables functionality for the surrogates. For example, they are needed for the tagging that allows viewers to search manuscripts, to navigate through them, and to perform other functions. Such work can be done only by someone who can read the original. The same is true for transcriptions of manuscripts. Students have progressively played key roles in transcribing works as they have gone online. In some instances, transcription projects have been undertaken as a semester-long class assignment. At other times, students have volunteered. In all cases, however, the combination of classroom and extracurricular involvement with the library’s digital library means that students today have greater familiarity with manuscripts and the works they represent than their predecessors ever did.
In closing, let me hasten to put my own experience in context. What is unusual at Johns Hopkins is not the digitization of manuscripts. There are a good many such projects. Rather it is the fact that from the outset, the Johns Hopkins Digital Manuscript Library was conceived as a library initiative that involved scholars. That is the reverse of the usual scenario, where scholars undertake digitization projects on their own, enlisting the assistance of the library as needed. Indeed, one finds digital humanities centers whose Web sites make little or no mention of the libraries that support research at their universities-and, one imagines, a good deal of the inquiry that takes place in the digital centers themselves. It would be gratuitous to cite particular examples, even if randomly chosen from my recent reading on the subject. While it may simply be an oversight that the Web sites of digital humanities projects do not acknowledge the role of their research library, I think the problem runs deeper. Faculty members in the humanities tend to see themselves as belonging to the School of Arts and Sciences. Since the library is often a separate division in the organization of the typical research university, faculty do not think to credit the library’s role in their enterprise.
But time and resources are on the side of the library. More than ever, research libraries generate projects once seen as the province of scholars working alone. Individual faculty now perceive that research libraries have become the venue for large-scale digital enterprises. If they wish to advance their projects, faculty will have to work with their library colleagues-not only a gain for the undertaking itself but also a sure winner when they go to teach it. At least that’s what I have found.