Teaching with Web Sites

by William Howarth

For the past few years I've signed my email with the above Web link, which leads the curious to a home page at Princeton, listing seven online courses I've built. All of these efforts are modest: they have limited graphics, no whirling GIFS or Web counters. Mostly they are text, blue oceans of it, listing Web links for hundreds of sites that offer research information, online texts, and collections of relevant images. My Web sites are simply reference desks, organized to complement the readings I have assigned for classes.

When I began to compile these sites in 1994, my colleagues in English were baffled and my only campus support came from the computing center, which gave some money to fund a summer graduate assistant. I taught her to surf the Web, using "crawler" engines that now seem antiquated, and she brought me bookmarks, which I organized in an outlining word processor. Then I tediously coded in HTML, learning by trial and error how to set type in the cyber-equivalent of a hand letterpress.

Today the business of writing Web pages has vastly speeded up, and I am no longer an anomaly in a department that sports its own Web page and lists every course online. The tools for searching and writing havegreatly improved: now I search with my own engine, appropriately named "Retriever," and I store thousands of bookmarks in a private database, called "Surf Scout" (a subset of Panorama, by ProVUE Development). In practical terms, these tools let me quickly look for topics, secure Web addresses, and build pages in an HTML editor (PageMill). In about three hours, I can prepare a complete set of links for a lecture or seminar.

Yet that efficiency of production does not make teaching any easier or less daunting. How should we use the Web in our classrooms? Over the years, I've conducted various teaching experiments. Sometimes in lectures I project Web sites to show images or texts--but in truth, a 35-mm slide projector does a better job. In seminars I have also displayed Web pages, but generally to make brief discussion points. The Web is less useful in these situations because it interferes with the high bandwidth of human conversation, distracting us with a technology that remains slow, cumbersome, and all too prone to system bombs.

For me, the Web works best as a supplement to classes, which students may consult before or after our discussions, especially when preparing to write. In most of my courses, I ask students to submit email responses to each week's reading, due a few hours before the discussion class. These I print and annotate, using them as a basis for guiding our conversation. I thus know in advance what students think about the reading, where they have problems and blind spots, and what points of disagreement may be useful to explore. I also have something in prose from every student, including all those sphinxes who refuse to speak in an open forum.

At first, I ask the students to write privately to me, then after a few weeks I direct their mail to a class "e-list," in which all submissions are read by all subscribers. Now they are reading and reacting to what their peers think, and quite often the conversation grows more intense and collaborative. Using the Web, I will then ask students, either alone or in small groups, to explore links and compile evidence for comparative discussion: what about that review in the LA Times? Who remembers those portraits of Walt Whitman? Did anyone find a map of Wounded Knee?

One major recurring motif in American writing is the inscription of reality, the imaginative recasting of what Emerson, in The American Scholar, called "the common...the familiar, the low." To comprehend the figural drift of Melville, Dickinson, or Faulkner, it's valuable to see the literal content of their times and places. For me, the Web creates a series of paths into that history, the better to grasp why many years later a text reads as literature. Perhaps the author has made a significant change or omission, a slight rearranging of the past for effect. Or perhaps we need to drop our contemporary blinders and learn to gloss a word or phrase as the author did. The Web provides these avenues of annotation, not fixed in marginalia but shifting and evolving with each reader's needs. Of course, it's also easier to search electronic links than paper offprints and clippings, let alone copy and circulate them. I used to make a "green" argument for the Web, claiming it saved us tons of paper--until I found my students were laser-printing assignments, at exorbitant cost.

Over the years, I've found that it's easier to build Web sites than to induce students to use them. They have many excuses: no workstations available, the network was down, can't remember how to log on, and that old reliable, you never said...this...was...required. So I began to require Web use: every paper must have both Web and library citations; review these five links and write a 500-word evaluation of them; test the online concordance of Moby-Dick by searching for words describing paternity and maternity. In time, the sullen fear of learning new skills faded, especially after English majors began to pick up postcollegiate jobs asWeb masters.

One spring I ran an entire American Studies seminar on "Race and Region" through Web-based research and writing. We met on Tuesdays to discuss the readings; on Wednesdays the students surfed madly, trying to solve a set of research problems: Trace the route of Frederick Douglass's northern journey. Locate images of the Sonoran Desert. Who sponsored the Dawes General Allotment Act? On Thursdays, we discussed these findings and their implications. Far from regarding the problems as trivia, students saw them as multiple contexts that framed the primary readings. They also reported to me that their parents were logging onto the course from far away and reading over our shoulders.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I had was creating a Web-based course called "American Literature before 1825." Here, The Heath Anthology of American Literature (2d ed.) came to my rescue. I liked its inclusion of Native, Spanish, and French authors, and its careful mix of historical documents with literary period pieces. Uncertain how much ancillary material I could locate on the Web, I was astonished when the total represented more than 80 percent of the works assigned. The next time I repeat the course, I plan to take full advantage of the stunning Web site created to support the latest Heath Anthology (3d ed.). It remains the single most impressive book-Web site I have seen, thanks to the inspired work of editor Paul Lauter and Web master Randy Bass. The Web address is /english/heath/index.html.

My latest venture turns from teaching students to teaching teachers. For the next two summers I will conduct a seminar for Princeton graduate students in English and history on "Teaching with Technology." I am working with two colleagues, from faculty and library, and we are taking on students with a wide range of technical skills. Our ultimate goal is to have them build Web sites for their fall courses. We also expect to advance their dissertation research, by teaching them about online resources and how to use software as powerful organizing and writing tools. Our aim is to develop productive scholars who are also versatile teachers, well prepared to meet the next generation of college students.

William Howarth, Professor of English at Princeton, teaches courses in American literature, environmental history, and media studies. He is author of many publications, including The Book of Concord, Thoreau in the Mountains, and The John McPhee Reader.


Heath Anthology