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Humanities Go Digital

Innovative multimedia programs give students new ways to study languages, literature, and the arts.
November 1, 2003

Using computers in Building 16, upper-level German Studies students are investigating two Berlin neighborhoods and keeping tabs on their inhabitants by listening to their conversations and shadowing them through their everyday lives via prerecorded film clips. At the same time, they’re learning about the Berliners’ past lives by locating and comparing press and government documents and images.

The investigation is part of an innovative, multimedia foreign-language program called “Berliner sehen,” or “See Berliners,” which turns the students into detectives of sorts, as they come to understand Berlin through the eyes of eight city residents whose daily routines were recorded by a documentary filmmaker in 1995. The students jump into the residents’ lives mid-conversation. They look for themes, such as frequent references to a specific institution or event, then piece together film clips, images, and documents related to the themes and use them to convey their ideas to their classmates. In the process, the students work together to gain an appreciation of German culture.

Developed in the late 1990s for the Foreign Languages and Literature Department, Berliner sehen is now part of a larger project for the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences called the MetaMedia Project. The aim of the project is to create a central collection of databases similar to Berliner sehen that foster collaborative, interpretive work with media in courses throughout the school. Users can compare different texts, images, and films and share their interpretations with others. Principal investigators Kurt Fendt, research associate in the Comparative Media Studies Department, and Peter Donaldson, a literature professor and head of the literature faculty, founded the project on archives they had developed separately-Berliner sehen for Fendt and Shakespeare manuscripts, photos, and film clips for Donaldson. They secured three years’ funding from the Alex and Brit d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education and since 2001 have been leading a team that is developing MetaMedia’s overarching structure. The team members are creating software tools that will allow users to navigate the databases and share materials, and they are also helping other faculty in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences create new archives.

Ten MetaMedia programs are now in the works, and the software tools that will make increased collaboration possible are nearing completion. Soon students and faculty in different disciplines will be able to view and compare materials side by side, create personal collections on the project’s server, share their collections with other MIT users, comment on the materials using an annotation feature, and even upload related materials. The resulting ongoing dialogue, whether it’s about German culture, Hamlet, Moby-Dick, or a George Balanchine pas de deux, will foster deeper understanding by making connections between materials and providing a forum for different viewpoints.

Cultural Connections

Fendt and Ellen Crocker, a senior lecturer in German, began using Berliner sehen in German courses in 1998. When other humanities faculty members saw it, they were enthusiastic and wanted to use its framework for their own projects, preserving the navigation system but plugging in new content.

Now one of four language programs within MetaMedia, Berliner sehen takes center stage in German courses at MIT and seven other universities, including Harvard University and Cornell University. Working alone or in teams, advanced students can access 680 conversational segments, three hours of additional documentary film footage, and at least 750 photographs and document images that promote learning about culture more than about linguistics.

Berliner sehen’s intent is to interest students in German culture in a personal way, says Fendt. “Teaching a foreign culture is a very difficult thing,” he says, adding that just choosing which parts of culture to focus on is challenging. For example, at the outset, students have no reason to be interested in a topic such as unemployment. But as Fendt explains, “When they go to Germany and meet someone, and learn that this person is unemployed, they become interested.” Berliner sehen captures that kind of interest.

In Berliner sehen, Fendt and Crocker decided to focus on everyday aspects of German culture using two Berlin neighborhoods that have gone through significant changes since the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall. By following the eight principal characters, students learn about daily happenings and how the inhabitants deal with change and interpret past events.

Fendt says using the program is similar to putting together a puzzle. “Students are jumping into the middle of a conversation. All the references people are making don’t make a lot of sense,” he says. Slowly, the students begin to pursue themes that arise in the conversations. They form hypotheses about the characters, then collect video clips and documents to prove their hypotheses during multimedia class presentations.

“Everything comes together in the classroom,” Fendt says. Students give their presentations by calling up materials from the Berliner sehen software and discussing their varied experiences with and knowledge of the characters. They also approach assignments differently, no longer writing simply for the professor, but for their fellow students. And sometimes they find connections or generate insights that are new to their teachers as well.

In the future Fendt and Crocker hope to add virtual walk-throughs and panoramic views of the neighborhoods to the program. In addition, they are building tools that will allow students to call up all materials related to a specific location or date.

Literary Learning

The literary side of MetaMedia now includes an archive on American authors and one on Arab oral epic poetry, but it began with Donaldson’s Shakespeare Electronic Archive.

Donaldson built his collection in the early 1990s as a quick way to compare different versions of Shakespeare texts-in particular, different early versions of Hamlet. He wanted to be able to read two text versions at the same time on the same computer screen, or to read the text while viewing images and films relating to it. He also wanted to be able to access all these media from the classroom. “What I really needed was specific scenes that would feed right into the spontaneous flow of discussion,” he says. “So you would be talking about a passage, and I could say, Now let’s look at how Olivier does it or how Mel Gibson does it-right now.’” Seeing different interpretations has given students new ideas about what Shakespeare was trying to say through his characters.

Today the Shakespeare archive contains the text of all Shakespeare plays and images of the original pages from the 1623 First Folio. It also includes 1,500 illustrations and film clips from Hamlet. Soon, users will also be able to annotate these materials, share collections of them with others, and upload additional Hamlet images they find.

Since the fall semester of 1995, students have used the archive to compose multimedia reports and presentations. They might, for instance, introduce a certain passage in class and show how it has been interpreted in various film versions. These assignments “transform not only [students’] understanding of the material, but also their ability to communicate what they understood to others,” Donaldson says. “For me, it’s shifted my teaching toward more coaching of students as they produce their own multimedia essays. The class is more of a community.”

The Shakespeare archive serves as the model for other literary archives, including one on American authors created by Wyn Kelley, a senior lecturer in literature. Kelley uses a collection of images, video clips, and audio files relating to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for classwork with entry-level literature students. Through it, students can learn about whaling industry practices, view 19th-century whaling images, and hear sound clips of people singing the sailing songs of the period.

Kelley’s students frequently open classes with multimedia presentations. “The aim is to give students the background they need for talking about the work and get them excited and interested,” she says. At first, she worried that the presentations might take time away from class discussion. Instead, she found that they stimulated it. “My students were doing what I often do to get the class going,” Kelley says. “More and more, they were teaching the class themselves, and they got a tremendous charge out of that.”

Kelley says the archive has changed the way she teaches. She no longer tries to cover all of Moby-Dick but instead concentrates on key parts, showing students how to read the text in a deeper way by understanding the allusions in it. For instance, the students learn what Melville was trying to say when he introduced old, scarred, one-legged Captain Ahab by comparing him to a sculpture of the mythological hero Perseus. When they see an image of the statue, they understand the allusion. “Maybe they lose the total picture in a certain sense, but they begin to master the details in a way that allows them to read more sensitively and creatively when they get to other parts of the text,” Kelley says.

Arts Appreciation

The visual and performing arts are also represented in MetaMedia. Thus far, projects include archives dedicated to early American comic strips, films and filmmakers of the Beijing Film Academy, and Balanchine’s ballet choreography.

Thomas DeFrantz, associate professor of music and theater arts, is the mastermind behind the Balanchine Dance Archive, which houses a range of materials relating to Balanchine’s 1957 work Agon. DeFrantz’s students can use it to create reports on particular sections of the ballet. They have access to film clips, “silhouettes” (shorter film clips showing specific dance steps), audio recordings of musical scores, critical reviews, photographs, and listings of ballet terms and online resources to draw on. Students can watch the ballet performance on one half of the computer screen and view a scrolling image of the musical score or a critical review on the other half.

DeFrantz says using the film recordings helps the students learn to write about dance. Such writing shouldn’t be static, he says, but should evoke memories of specific actions in the dance. “Using these digital media and the Balanchine archive, students will be able to remind us of certain moments in the text [or dance] again and again by keying the portion of the video they’re trying to discuss in their analysis,” DeFrantz says.

These MetaMedia programs clearly embody a new approach to humanities education. “The projects offer a multimedia tool set for teachers and students,” says William Uricchio, comparative media studies professor and MetaMedia’s acting director while director and literature professor Henry Jenkins is on sabbatical. They facilitate “an active learning environment where exploration and sharing lead to the discovery of new insights, new connections, and new relevance for some of our most important cultural forms.”

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