INET Conferences

INET'98 Proceedings


Electronic Communication and the Humanities

Barton D. THURBER <>
Jack W. POPE <>
University of San Diego


A number of electronic communication techniques have begun to evolve, including e-mail--based discussion groups, telecommunications, Web sites and searches and related implementations, and are increasingly being used in upper-division college-level humanities courses. The authors review those techniques and the research that supports their use, and then look specifically at applications in the humanities.

Though clearly cost effective, and capable of generating experiences without parallel in the conventional classroom, we argue that current techniques for electronic communication do not address fundamental concerns in the humanities and may in some cases obscure them. In part the problem involves the humanities themselves, which have been slow to define what it is that they distinctively do, if it is something other than impart information, but we think there are unexamined assumptions on the technical side. If a tape of a lecture is the lecture itself (we're not sure it is), is a tape of a seminar still the seminar, in the same sense? Is an e-mail conversation the same as a conversation, and if not, what are the differences, and what is the significance of those differences? Is an extracurricular meeting with an instructor comparable to an extracurricular chat site? What is the (pedagogical) relationship between real and virtual, and what should it be? These questions have not been systematically addressed for the humanities, but, we argue, finally, they must be: decisions are already being made about (for example) transfer credit for courses taken electronically; and it is not obvious that transfer credit for such coursework will be forthcoming across the board.



Our purpose here is threefold. First, we review some of the common current uses of computer, and particularly Web-based, technology in upper division college level humanities courses, together with the research that supports its use. Second, and on the basis of that discussion, we argue that, while computer and telecommunications technologies may expand the opportunities for potential students limited by geography or time constraints to pursue degree programs in new and innovative ways, and may offer much to augment teaching and learning in the humanities, there is not yet sufficient evidence that they do; moreover, current techniques do not address fundamental concerns in the humanities and may in some cases obscure them. Finally, we assess current and projected uses of computer-based technology in the humanities classroom and argue that, as things stand, the prospects are mixed; and that, for example, transfer credit for computer-based humanities courses administered by other universities ought not to be granted automatically and conceivably ought not to be granted at all.

Generally speaking, computer-based technology in the humanities has developed along two, not always distinct, lines: the use of the computer, and particularly the World Wide Web, for the delivery of information; and the use of the computer, and again the Web, as a new and arguably revolutionary means of expression.

The computer and the delivery of information

Computer-based technology for the delivery of information in the humanities has developed along lines familiar to those in other disciplines, and involves, at the level of the computer itself, increasingly complex programs stored either on hard drives or CD-ROM; at the level of the computer network, the delivery of information has involved nearly ubiquitous e-mail, intra- and Internet-based services, listservs, ftp sites, and of course the Web, where there is no shortage of humanities-based or related Web sites. A typical such site (we choose among many) is The Victorian Web[1] at Brown University. Like other such sites in many disciplines, it is an accessible and well-ordered compendium of primary texts and images, with links to related materials, secondary sources, and other items of interest. Other sites, nonprofit or otherwise, also offer interactive (though seldom real-time) dialogues with writers, instructors, and other students, so that conversation of a kind can occur and the reader becomes in some sense a writer, a contributor, as well. One example is Literature Online[2], a commercial site. At sites like this the distinction between the Web as a medium for the delivery of information and the Web as a means of expression begins to blur; the "information" is a matter not simply of the datum the user chooses to encounter but also of the choice itself, the interaction the user can have with a "text" made newly malleable in an electronic medium.

These opportunities are such that Gerald C. Van Dusen, among others, has suggested that they will play a key role in shifting educational practice from the "Instruction Paradigm" to the "Learning Paradigm."[3] Van Dusen asserts that "interactive learning resources such as online computers and comprehensive multimedia have created many new venues for teaching and learning. As the Learning Paradigm matures, the role of the professor will change and possibly even be radically transformed."[4] Sherron and Boettcher posit that the latest generation models of distance education, those that use Web and other interactive asynchronous communication technologies, take advantage of modern educational design philosophy so that "the role of the faculty member changes from the font of all knowledge to the mentor who helps interpret information in the light of the discipline."[5] Given the advent of the Web, this has already begun to happen; Charles T. Davis III describes a course in Biblical studies in which he uses the Web to (a) organize difficult material on the creation of the Biblical canon; (b) walk students through a series of exercises designed to increase their familiarity with basic questions; and (c) organize the course syllabus and assignment schedule in a timely and efficient way. In doing so he frees "class time for the discussion of the literary texts themselves" (p. 117), interpreting information in the light of the discipline, rather than providing that information himself[6]. Instructors at our own university and elsewhere are doing similar work, using in addition e-mail and listserv-based mailing lists to stay in touch with students, course-based Web sites, and computer-based multimedia presentations to provide students with access to more complex and timely information about the course, the course material, and the students themselves than would ordinarily be the case.[7]

Without disputing the changes either in the nature of the information the students get in such courses, or the ease and convenience with which the computer makes that information available, we would make two observations about all such efforts -- one pragmatic and the other, we hope, more theoretical. The pragmatic observation is that we don't have a rigorous understanding of the effects of these changes in humanities classes. We think they are beneficial, even obvious. But all reports -- all reports we have been able to find, at any rate -- evaluate the changes that computer-based communication strategies in the humanities have made in terms of the instructor's own response, the student's response, or the instructor's interpretation of the students' response. To an extent this is understandable; evaluating what humanities classes actually do, beyond simply deliver information, was a difficult problem even before the advent of the computer and involved, usually, the kind of formal or informal survey of the participants' views that advocates of computer-based learning typically employ. Our point is just that claiming that there are advantages in this massive pedagogical change on those grounds alone clouds an already cloudy issue; even if there are reasons for the claim, how do we know, for example, that this is a revolution in the making and not simply a question of the instructor's intellectual style? If there are gains in convenience, (a) does convenience in itself constitute a revolution, and (b) is convenience, easy access to information, something we should value for our students, when relevant information may not be convenient at all or, for that matter, not (yet) a part of the instructor's premeditated Web page? Does easy access to information mean better access to information, access to better information, both, or neither? Our point is not, at the moment, to argue the case in either direction. It is that we don't know. In the absence of direct, quantitative evidence of what precisely is being changed in computer-based courses compared to the same course taught by the same instructor without the computer, over sufficiently long periods of time to obtain statistically sufficient samples, and with specific, quantitative attention to the question of whether or not these changes enhance, do not enhance, or are neutral for the (predefined) goals and purposes of the humanities, we don't know. The "goals and purposes" of the humanities are, of course, notoriously slippery of definition, and may change significantly from instructor to instructor or from institution to institution. To answer these questions in a meaningful way will involve fundamental attempts to decide what the humanities are, especially if something other than the delivery of "information" is the goal. This is a good thing in itself, even if different groups or individuals arrive at different answers. But we should be prepared for the possibility that the answers may or may not involve the computer.

Our second observation has to do with the use of computers to facilitate access to information. Conceivably this is a good thing but not, we think, inevitably. Is "information" what we ask humanities classes -- or universities, for that matter -- to provide? Yes, we want to say; but not entirely. If a humanities course, or a university, exists solely to provide access to information, then that course, or that university, is a library. Or, better yet, a Web site. And in fact virtual universities are currently in the making[8], just as humanities courses are and have been.

But is a virtual university a university, in the same sense that physical ones are? If access to information, including the ability to access, manipulate, and even contribute to that information constitutes what we want, the answer is yes. But there are problems with that formulation. Some of them are technical. Professor David Williams of Illinois State University, for example, in describing his experience in an online course entitled "Internet Models for Artistic Expression," underscores the formidable issues facing a faculty member who develops such a course. Each class session was broadcast over the Internet using RealAudio; all key class material was put on the class Web site. "An Internet-only course grants students unprecedented any time, any place access to the instructor through e-mail and online group forums. It simply takes more time to respond to a student inquiry via e-mail or forum than via speech. Furthermore, the end result of the lack of central management of technical resources . . . was a considerable time burden on the presenters as they coped with issues of content and technology simultaneously to make the courses happen in an effective manner. Consequently, an Internet instructor must grapple with new and exhausting time demands.[9]" Williams goes on to point out that specialized support for online course work is needed to promote its use effectively: "There were some resources on campus for instructional technology, electronic or audio/visual services, Web serving, and Internet education, but there was no central management of these resources that could focus the needed support specifically on the development of the Internet courses under design and production. For effective delivery of a comprehensive program of Internet instruction on a campus, central coordination of all of the technical resources noted must be in place, at least on a College-level, if not campus-wide.[10]"

But other problems with virtual courses, or virtual universities, go beyond such (predictable?) technical issues. Access to information is only one aspect of what universities are for, and in some cases the least important aspect; the quality of the "information" we possess about Shakespeare is certainly lower now than it was during his lifetime, although equally certainly we have more, and more varied, conversations with his work and with ourselves about the work. It is those conversations that are, in the deepest sense, what we know; and that includes those conversations that are not part of the hard copy, the exam or the paper, that we judge our students by. An education is not necessarily measured, or even advanced, by the results of an exam, at least in the humanities; it is the experience of the course itself, formal and informal, that we trust will register, and in ways that go beyond the experience of the course or even the specific university. If, with a computer, we can also have online conversations via e-mail or listserv services, are those conversations seamlessly the same as conversation conducted orally or via regular mail, and if not, what are the differences, and what are the pedagogical implications of those differences? Once again we don't know. Very preliminary investigations suggest that online talk is different than conventional conversational or written talk; Professor Grandjean-Levy, for example, describing his experience in using electronic communication tools in French classes at Cornell University, says that "beyond content, and the manifest cultural singularities that strike the students and are then discussed in class, e-mail also reveals interesting style points to the class. Just as in English, French e-mail language has its specific register, in which the formal 'vous' has disappeared even in messages to an unknown correspondent, and in which all the formulas mandatory in traditional letters are replaced by 'bonjour' and 'au revoir,' 'salut' and 'Ciao.' [11]" Are these differences significant? Does e-mail conversation occasion more informality, a greater feeling of accessibility, or in some other way empower respondents in ways that conventional talk does not, and if so, are those changes helpful or not helpful for what we want to do? We don't know.

It is arguably true that the course content in large lecture classes could be posted on the Web with little, if any, loss of cognitive content; in fact, such lectures could have been, and sometimes were, filmed, videotaped, or otherwise recorded using older technologies. Since the point in large lecture classes often just is the delivery of information, this makes sense, bearing in mind that most large lecture classes in some way supplement the lecture content with formal and informal conversations with junior instructors. But what if the primary vehicle for the delivery of instruction is not the large lecture class?

It is not at our own university; and most universities offer its humanities students at least some exposure to small group or seminar-style classes, with a professor and a handful of students. What, exactly, would be gained by creating the virtual equivalent? Is a virtual equivalent even possible? In this context computer-based instruction begins to feel cumbersome, awkward, an unnecessary drain on time and resources, given especially that we all talk faster than we write. Web sites, e-mail, and listservs, even the creation of hypertext documents as an aspect of the instructional setting, yes. But this is to add to what already exists, not change it fundamentally.

The computer as means of expression

If the use of the computer for the delivery of information involves unexamined assumptions, both practical and theoretical, there is another use to which the computer has been put that promises to change the nature of the debate entirely. This is the advent of hypermedia, interactive electronic works that do not simply deliver information but allow the user to act upon it in a number of ways, in the process fusing the previously separate acts of reading and writing, seeing and making. The effect is to create a previously impossible new kind of document, more boundaryless than, for example, a codex book, in which the user both acts and is acted upon, forms and is informed by the information he or she simultaneously witnesses and creates. This new kind of document, any new kind of document, is of immediate and enormous interest to students in the humanities, since documents of various kinds, together with our responses to them, are what we typically work with. Here if anywhere is surely a revolutionary development.

One of the first to recognize the potential of the computer as a means of expression was Sherry Turkle, for whom the Internet "has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life.[12]" Turkle's studies of MUDS (Multi-User DungeonS), in which participants take on alternate identities, suggest a deeper exploration of the self (or selves), as in Turkle's description of one MUDer's experience (Julee) in reevaluating her relationship with her mother via her "role" in a MUD experience[13]. Others, however, have not been slow to follow Turkle's lead, describing more conventional pedagogical situations from something like a traditional humanities context -- which, with the advent of interactive hypermedia, changes that context fundamentally. Richard Holeton of Stanford University, in describing his use of the Web in composition courses, notices that "my model reverses the usual emphasis, in which instructional technologies are seen as supplements to the 'main action' of the course. If we define the main action of a writing course as its various forms of critical dialogue (e.g., student texts, course texts, and commentary and discussion about these texts by students and teacher), that action can take place mostly in virtual spaces using computer network technologies. Large-group, face-to-face class meetings are still important, but they are supplementary to that main critical dialogue.[14]" Alan Dyer and Kate Milner describe the effects of having Art and Design students create hypertext documents of their own to both manage and navigate through their course material, finding that these methods are "significantly different from the way the student works in the studio.[15]" John M. Slatin has used, provocatively, Hypercard to show students how modern American poems recall other poems, and then how to construct their own links between and among source links, links created by other students and those created by the instructor, enabling them to "own" the text, to mirror and ratify a relationship to it, in ways not previously possible. Hypertext becomes, from his perspective, "a mechanism for demonstrating and exploring, and indeed for creating, cultural attachments.[16]"

We should note that not all writers on hypermedia agree that it is new and revolutionary, whether used in pedagogical contexts or not. Though Jay Bolter and George Landow among others have famously argued for its radical undermining of the conventional document, Espen J. Aarseth, in the forthcoming Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, argues that "in the context of literature, this has led to claims that digital technology enables readers to become authors, or at least blurs the (supposedly political) distinction between the two, and that the reader is allowed to create his or her own 'story' by 'interacting' with 'the computer.' The ideological forces surrounding new technology produce a rhetoric of novelty, differentiation, and freedom that works to obscure the more profound structural kinships between superficially heterogeneous media. Even the inspiring and perceptive essays of Richard Lanham (1993) are suffused by this binary rhetoric and, ultimately, dominated by politics at the expense of analysis.[17]" Still, the fact that Aarseth's study exists at all implies that there is something new to be studied; the question is, what are the uses of this new "something," and, once again, do those uses enhance or not enhance what we want to do in humanities classes?

This is not an easy question to answer, for several reasons. Hypermedia are interesting in their own right, of course, for persons (like ourselves) interested in the ontological status of the document itself. Their use in the classroom is another matter. As is the case when the computer is used as a vehicle for the delivery of information, the evidence we have for the computer's effectiveness as a means of expression consists either of the reports of the instructors involved or assertions by theorists that used this way the computer is (or is not) revolutionary and beneficial. There are not yet rigorous comparative studies. Secondly, and assuming for a moment the validity of Turkle's point of view, the possibilities for self-exploration she describes offer what seem to be new and intriguing possibilities for humanities education: readers reading themselves in a fictionalized, if not actually fictional, universe, moving in a place both real and virtual. Put this way it doesn't sound so very different than reading a novel, but in actual (institutional) educational contexts it's a little hard to see how this would work. What would we ask students to do? We can and do ask them to read, but is it clear that students would "read" (and write) MUD-like situations in the same way? Are the virtues of interactive role-playing fictions the same, comparable to, or different from those that conventional fiction encourages? The simple answer, once again, is that we don't know. Turkle herself calls MUDS and similar role-playing arenas "social laboratories," implying that their impact is sociological (and psychological), rather than strictly educational. Are they also authorless novels, or novels in which readers become authors? Maybe; but is it "authors" that we ask our students to be, exactly? The point of reading Shakespeare isn't to be Shakespeare. No one would be unhappy if it happened, but what we typically want to ask is not that anyone "be" a playwright, a judge, a doctor, or anything in particular, but to summon up as much "negative capability" (Keats' phrase) as possible and go selflessly where the fiction goes. Even if Internet-based role-playing fictions are laboratories of the self, "selves" are not all that we ask an education to produce.

But at bottom the question is what do we do with hypertext, whether we create it ourselves, prescribe it for our students, or simply encounter it on the Web or a CD. Instructors who have tried it claim important benefits for their students, though they are usually careful to warn against high expectations; and, once more, the problem of those benefits weighed against the benefits of a conventional classroom setting -- or conventional writing, which is difficult enough for our students to produce -- remains largely unexplored and then only anecdotally. We could ask our students to create hypertext fictions, nonfictions, and metafictions; we could do it ourselves; we could construe parallel and/or linking metafictions as postmodern talk, the vehicle our culture(s) rapidly invent as the preferred medium of communication. But are we? Hyperfiction, for example, is a topic in most college literature curricula, but not the only one; it is an option, but far from the complete defeat of the codex book (Or poem. Or play.). Currently it is one of several available media of expression, and though it adds considerably to our expressional repertoire, there is no other medium of expression it has yet replaced or even seriously challenged. It lives yet on the margins, and none of us is yet able to say whether or not it will become a central preoccupation. Or perhaps, with the increasing commercialization of the Web, it is becoming primarily a medium of exchange, not expression, or the loci of certain kinds of expression, not, except in the largest cultural sense, the expression itself. The politicization of the debate that Aarseth so regrets may be secondary to, and trivial beside, the commercialization of that debate.

These are weighty issues, so weighty that we confine ourselves to the relatively narrow issue of whether the creation of hypermedia is something humanists should be interested in. Our answer is a qualified yes; though it may or may not be revolutionary, and may or may not be central to the cultures of which we are members, it is sufficiently interesting in its own right to warrant attention -- not to replace conventional writing, and certainly not the conventional course, because (a) we don't know enough about what computer-based communication does or does not do vis-a-vis conventional educational strategies, and (b) there is evidence only that hypermedia have become an intriguing component of what writing can be, not what it is evolving into.

But even this qualified assent, indeed our entire effort here, has implications. What proportion of institutional resources should be devoted to the development of computer-based programs, courses, and curricula whose efficacy we have not definitively measured? Should hypertext replace conventional text or supplement it? What should we do when students from a virtual course (or university) ask for the equivalent credit at our own, presumably real institutions? In each case our response would be cautious, to say the least; and as regards the last, given that access to information is only one aspect of what the humanities do, given that hypertextual (or e-mail-, or listserv-based) responses are like writing but not exactly like it, and like conversation but not exactly like it, in ways we do not yet fathom, our response would be -- no. Not until we know whether -- or if -- a virtual education is an education.


  1. Landow, George P., The Victorian Web;
  2. Literature Online, Version 97:2, Chadwyck-Healey Ltd & Chadwyck-Healey Inc, c. 1996-97;
  3. Van Dusen, Gerald C. 1997, "The Virtual Campus:  Technology and Reform in Higher Education," ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Volume 25, No. 5. (Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development), p. 14
  4. Ibid., p. 15
  5. Sherron, Gene T. & Boettcher, Judith V. (1997). "Distance Learning: The Shift to Interactivity." CAUSE Professional Paper Series, #17 (Boulder, CO: CAUSE publishing, 1997.)
  6. Davis, Charles C., "Computerizing Biblical Literature," Computers and the Humanities v 30, n. 2 (1996), pp. 117-119. The course materials are available at:
  7. Ducharme, Robert; Flagel, Jan; Pope, Jack; "Start-Up and Other Little Success Stories From Low-Tech or Little-Tech Faculty." Computers on Campus Conference, November, 1997, Myrtle Beach, SC.
  8. The Western Governors University. For example see "Western Governors U. to Open its Virtual Doors Next Month." (1997, December 12). Chronicle of Higher Education, A23. Available online to subscribers at:
  9. Chizmar, John F. & Williams, David B. (1997). "Internet Delivery of Instruction: Issues of Best Teaching Practice, Administrative Hurdles, and Old-Fashioned Politics." 1997 CAUSE Conference Presentation. Available:
  10. Ibid.
  11. Grandjean-Levy, "Caught in the Net: Technology and Teaching Language Courses," cited in Technology Tools for Today's Campuses, Morrison, James M., ed. Available online at:
  12. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 180
  13. Ibid., p. 186ff.
  14. Holeton, Richard, "The Semi-Virtual Composition Classroom: A Model for Techno-Amphibians," cited in Technology Tools for Today's Campuses, Morrison, James M., ed. Available online at
  15. "Hypertext as an Authoring Tool in Art and Design Education," Humanities and the Computer: New Directions, ed. David S. Miall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 145.
  16. "The Role of the Computer in Teaching Modern American Poetry," Humanities and the Computer: New Perspectives, ed. David S. Miall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 135.
  17. Forthcoming from The Johns Hopkins University Press. An electronic preprint of one chapter is available at:

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