Pedagogical Uses of Information Technology in Classics at the University of Cambridge: The Response to Changing Expectations

John Lewis
St. Edmund's College, Cambridge

Shard Collection, Museum of Classical Art and Archaeology

Dec 8, 2000

Classical Studies are everywhere is under siege, and Cambridge is no exception. The siege takes the form of the changing expectations that the University Instructor must hold for the incoming freshmen, and has its strongest focus on the special skills required for classical studies: ancient languages. One might expect that the major problem would be college recruits who have no training in Greek and Latin, as is often the case in the USA. This is to some extent true, although it is somewhat alleviated at Cambridge and Oxford by the preponderance of students from privately funded schools that teach classical languages. Most of the students still come with at least some Latin skills: in British terms, "A" level Latin is still the norm. To deal with the growing number of students from less than first-class schools who have not received such training, as well as to widen the range of students able to attend first-rank universities, the Faculty of Classics has put in place intensive language courses. The alternative is the unpalatable idea of offering degrees without the language requirement.

But the lack of basic language training is not the only problem at Cambridge and Oxford. A more pervasive problem is often in the lack of basic historical skills. Students may not know the century in which the Peloponnesian War, or the establishment of the Roman Principate, occurred. Thus they need to catch up in these basic historical facts while attempting to advance their 2 or 3 years of language training into comprehensive reading of multiple classical texts.

In the Cambridge system, the student is hard-pressed in several directions. He must attend to a series of lectures and the writing of weekly essays on topics relating to those lectures. The essays are reviewed by tutors, who meet with students alone or in groups of two or three. The students focus on these essays, their principle means of preparing for their written exams, and this focus sets limits on the amount of time available for language work.

The students must also read an average of 12 set texts in their first year. This is a mountain of reading and a lot of studying, especially when only one part of a wider curriculum. For these reasons efficiency in reading is of prime importance. One challenge to information technologies was to develop a tool that can facilitate the students' reading and help them to progress to a level at which they can truly use these languages.

A second task is to assist the student in finding and understanding the information required for the essays, and to prepare her for exams. This can be found in the programs such as Perseus, in which the student can contextualize historical information with language work and can come to see a particular historical period or event in a wider context of social history.

Third, it is vital to bring these tools to the student in the dorm room at the college, and to do so in a way that is itself not time-consuming to set up. The Faculty of Classics is a semi-autonomous institution at the University (the "Faculty" is the "Department"), at which students from the various colleges hear classical lectures, use the library and meet with the tutors. But the students are themselves centered around the colleges, which are also semi-autonomous and which set many of their own rules and requirements. It is unrealistic to expect the student to do the majority of language work at the Faculty itself. It is a fact of life that much of this work must be done in the evening. It is vital to bring the information to the student's room, and to have it available 24 hours a day.

These requirements are important to the pedagogical method that the instructors use. But Cambridge is also a leading research institution, and information technologies have important benefits for the researcher. The need to augment information on hand for researchers, as well as for the talented final-year undergraduate who wants to deepen his penetration into the Ancient World, is increasing. This means that industry-standard research tools must also be available in every department office and in every dorm room. But in addition to these standard tools, the Faculty is committed to making available certain resources that are unique to Cambridge. In both pedagogical and research functions the same IT infrastructure and the same IT strategy is required.

My first task is to highlight the IT infrastructure investment that has been made by the Faculty. Staffing includes a full-time computer officer, who maintains hardware and software as well as writing special-purpose databases and programs. Plans have been made for a second officer. A graduate student classicist has been hired as a part-time Web Advisor to act as a liaison between the technical officers and classical scholars. The primary task of the Web Advisor is to evaluate and upgrade the Web resources and make them more easily accessible by students and non-professionals as well as scholars.

The Faculty's IT infrastructure includes some 100 networked IMac and PC computers, connected through two switched ethernet hubs to 4 servers, including a CD server. Transmission speed is 100-megabyte at the machine and 1-gigabyte between the hubs. The Faculty network connects to the colleges and other university departments at 100-megabyte speed. Within the Faculty, and in its immediate connection to the outside world, the technology is in place to show movies and to do other functions requiring fast transmission rates. This often exceeds the speed of the ISPs that serve other universities. At the present moment it exceeds the transmission speed of the network connecting British educational institutions.

The Classics Faculty also maintains three web servers, one each for the Classics Faculty and administration, the Museum of Classical Art and Archaeology, and for the Classics Library. Each of the servers is maintained by a staff member in that particular field. One of the tasks delegated to the Web Advisor is to evaluate and maintain the "links" gateway to resources outside the Faculty.

One vital tool is the CD server. This is the central hub of information storage, and brings a range of CD resources to computers of all types through the network in a manner that is extremely fast and transparent to the user. This allows instantaneous access to important language and bibliographic resources without relying on web links outside the Faculty. The CD server is the central point of information storage for Latin and Greek text searching, for platform-independent Perseus, and for the database of Classical Bibliography. The server is a Windows NT Terminal Edition with Citrix mainframe. The strength of this is to deliver PC applications to all platforms, Mac, PC and Unix, meaning that PC format CDs are available to the Mac library machines. The entire network is backed up on tape every evening.

The cross-platform capability is essential to the Faculty's desire to bring this information to all types of machines, located in some 100 colleges and university departments. The Faculty is now working on Unicode Fonts for all college access requirements. The problem of Greek fonts is now solvable by individual students through download from the net, but the Faculty's long-range solution for the University will be the Unicode fonts.

One benefit to having the information CD resident is speed. When using Perseus, for example, cross-referencing and dictionary look-ups are seemingly instantaneous. For information not in the central server, the student has access to the library CD collection, which runs from the Biblioteca Iuris Antiqua to Barrrington's Atlas, the OCD and the Leuven Database of Ancient Books, to dozens of others.

To facilitate the production of written work, each graduate student, and each member of staff, has password-protected mainframe space for storage of personal research. It is a great advantage to be able to use any computer in the building to access your research work or dissertation. This initiative is one of the most important direct benefits to the graduate student provided by the server system, and one of the most gratefully received. The student can now view the world's classical resources as a footnote to his dissertation, and his file as one of many on this giant database.

The efforts described here are internal to the Faculty of Classics and its building. The central Computer Services department of the University brings a further depth of services, including classes in a variety of subjects related to information technologies, free to all associated with the University. Some 100 libraries in Cambridge, including the main University Library with millions of volumes, can be accessed from any computer via telnet or web connection, and from outside the university via the web. Email and web services are available throughout the university. It is through these central services that the Faculty's initiatives are brought into the college room. The Faculty is fortunate to be able to fund its own efforts in addition to the networking resources made available by the University.

Now I turn from this infrastructure to certain specific pedagogical initiatives being taken by the Faculty. I begin with language resources. Some 25 hard copies each of the full Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon and the Lewis and Short Latin Lexicon are on the tables in the Classics Faculty Library. Greek TLG and Latin Teubner searches of text databases are also available at any Faculty computer from the CD server. But for the undergraduate something more is needed, something that facilitates the reading of the set texts quickly but without too much hand-holding.

The requirement here is not for an in-depth look at etymological data, but for a faster ability to find the core meaning of a particular word and its basic forms. This tool should be accessible anywhere inside the University, should not require extensive installation on any particular machine, should be specific to the particular set texts required of undergraduates but not so customized that adding new texts is a major project. It should be fast, easy, no-frills, and easily expandable.

In co-operation with a private entrepreneur the Faculty has developed a package that combines the text of Cicero's orations In Catilinam 1 and 2 with a text analyzer and an Oxford Pocket Latin Dictionary. From any machine within the Faculty domain name a student can punch up an icon and download a 172 K file that includes the dictionary, analyzer (written in Java) and the text. The 172 K zipped file size means that the download is fast, and given that it is downloaded the operation is immediate.

The student can work through the text, highlighting problem words. The analyzer brings up the word forms related to these problems. Because this is meant to be a fast and flexible tool for learning, there is no attempt, and no desire to attempt, to make the analyzer specific to each word. If one punches up the Latin duces one sees every duc- form with the parts of speech and basic meanings attached.

This means that the analyzer is not customized for each text, and can be easily linked to further texts. Because there are some words not in the Oxford Pocket Dictionary the analyzer's dictionary has been enhanced as required by the text, resulting in an improved digital dictionary. Pedagogically, however, the student is forced to know the word forms and tables associated with the parts of speech in order to interpret what the analyzer brings up. This is a tool, not a means to bypassing the essential process of learning the language. Plans now are to progress to the 12 set texts required of all undergraduates.

I turn now from the analyzer to certain other research resources that are unique to the Faculty of Classics. The first of these is the catalog of casts in the Museum of Greek and Roman Art and Archaeology. The Museum, in the Classics Building, is dedicated naturally lit gallery with 636 full-size casts of Greek and Roman Art. The museum guide is available on the web, and plans are underway to bring graphic photos of every cast onto the web.

The museum is also expanding the information available by cataloging on-line its shard collection. This is a collection of pottery and pottery fragments, many inscribed or decorated, that may be accessed by specialists through the web. The intent is to make these pieces available to scholars world-wide, searchable by text, location, description and other criteria.

A further unique resource is the Faculty's collection of some 4000 soft-paper etchings of Greek and Roman inscriptions. These were collected over the past century by various scholars, often for their own use and then donated to the university. It is intended that this so-called "squeeze" collection be made available on the web, linked to a Filemaker database. This initiative should be considered a step towards a general, comprehensive database of Greek and Roman inscriptions visually accessible by researchers and searchable by types, locations and key-words.

In the end we come full circle, and must re-ask the central question. What have we really accomplished for the student, and for the researcher? This, I submit, is one question, not two. At this conference a controversy has developed, centered on whether academic specialists should be spending their time developing web pages and similar electronic resources. Wouldn't researchers' time be better spent doing pure research, leaving the organization of a web page to a computer specialist? Should the university administration even allow the professor to do so, or should the institution insist on a more profitable use of the researcher's time?

I think this suggestion is misguided. The premise at work is that research and pedagogy are distinct activities, with no connection to one another, and that the act of preparing a presentation of material is somehow of a different, presumably lower, order than "pure" research. This is misguided because it fails to recognize that research, and the thinking required to produce meaningful results from the research, is as much a process of organizing material as is a pedagogical presentation.

Research is not just collecting disparate facts and putting them into lists. Nor is it an act of creating an arbitrary organization that has no relationship to reality. The pragmatist concept of truth notwithstanding, the researcher's mind is not a flux of undifferentiated chaos. Research rather includes the discovery of relationships between the facts, including causal connections and the hierarchical orderings. Research and pedagogy are both processes of organizing material according to these relationships. In this sense the researcher is as much a student as a person who sits in a classroom, and the process of research is self-teaching just as pedagogy is teaching someone else.

The activity involved in organizing an academic paper is a process of translating the multi-dimensional relationships between facts into a linear argument. The interleaving of web pages is a similar process, albeit one that frees the writer from the constraints of strict linear presentation and allows multiple options in the direction that the reader can take. The reader may alter his own sequence of grasping the material as his own context of knowledge requires. This grants to the writer new ways of organizing material, which requires thinking. Although it may seem inefficient for a professor to do a web site himself, and even though greater technical support would often be beneficial, the professor has not lost anything by going through the process of creating this organization. He now better understands the new tool which is the web, and better understands the thinking behind a well-organized electronic presentation. If academics are to be able to guide the programmers toward the development of tools that can truly assist specialized fields of study, academics will have to understand programmers.

I think the greatest benefits of information technologies to the student are yet unfulfilled, since the initiatives remain ongoing. Of course the increased accessibility of information is a means of empowering the self-motivated student to step beyond the boundaries of the degree requirements and to become a person who truly researches issues in classical antiquity. I think that the text analyzer at Cambridge will allow more comprehension over a given amount of time for the student reader. I remain unconvinced that there can ever be a shortcut to the basic process of observing a piece of historical evidence, or a line of ancient text, and understanding the meaning of that evidence. But if the initiatives taken here reduce the time spent on matters not directly related to this primary task, then they are a success. Despite the birthing pains associated with all new methods, this is certainly the case.

This file was posted on 17 April 2001.
Please send your comments to Michael DiMaio, jr.

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