In Search of Sources

By Micah Buis '02

It’s a Vassar mantra: “Go to the source.” Credited to Lucy Maynard Salmon, who was hired in 1887 to establish Vassar’s history department, the phrase has long guided the way teaching is done here at Vassar.

For Salmon the laundry list was the primary source du jour. She advertised in the Miscellany News for students’ actual laundry lists from home, to study as historical records in her classes. A social historian, Salmon valued such everyday objects because “being closely and continuously connected with daily life, [they] reflect custom and change in social conditions, industry, or in language, with a detail and rapidity which other sources seldom do.” By having her students study these lists directly, Salmon hoped they would come to their own interpretations through independent investigation, rather than resting idly on preexisting secondary scholarship.

What has become of this sort of pedagogical approach in the age of the Internet and new technologies? At Vassar, as at most colleges and universities, students and faculty readily use technology intended to aid in the classroom and in research. Software applications like Blackboard, for example, give faculty the ability to post syllabi and course readings online, and they provide a space for students to post reactions to coursework that can be accessed by other students to read in preparation for in-class discussion. Online databases such as MLA (Modern Language Association), BHA (Bibliography of the History of Art), and JSTOR (Journal Storage: The Scholarly Journal Archive) provide important bibliographical information, in a matter of seconds, to students and faculty for their research, and often include a hyperlink to download an article directly from an online version of a journal. And Vassar’s completely wired — even wireless — campus allows students and faculty to access these resources from the comfort of dorm room or office.

The vision of scholars poring over hardbound volumes in the hallowed halls of the library is a fading one. Adding further distance between the library and the research process is the ready availability of online sources like Wikipedia and about.com. These web sources have a certain lure, especially when one is conducting research in the wee hours of the night before a deadline. And for this generation of students, who largely postdate card catalogs, and bulky, multivolume resources such as encyclopedias or the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, having information available within a few keystrokes is standard and accepted.

So where does this leave Vassar students in their ability to be discerning researchers, writers, and scholars? Have time-saving technologies jeopardized the primacy of primary sources in scholarship and produced a new variety of scholars more likely to use shoddy research methodology? Quite the opposite, argues Lee Rumbarger, director of the Writing Center at Vassar’s Learning and Teaching Center. First, questionable sources of information encountered in the research process can be a valuable teaching tool for professors who are helping students understand just what makes for a useful source. In some ways, “we are able to interrogate sources better because of the web,” says Rumbarger.

Take, for instance, the not-so-subtle difference between a print academic journal that happens to be posted online and an academic journal that is exclusively web-based. “Students sometimes have a hard time differentiating between the two,” says Kerrita Mayfield, visiting instructor in education. “The proliferation of information these days is so much greater that there’s an even more pressing need to give students the proper tools for evaluation and discernment of all the information available to them. Syntactically there may seem to be little difference between a journal online and an online journal, but there are important distinctions in audience, writing style, and scope. The web helps us emphasize the intrinsic differences between sources, and when it’s okay to use some types and when best to use others.”

Rumbarger points out that studying web sources can help determine the credibility of other sources as well. For instance, have we traditionally taken as truth all written sources? And if so, why? It calls into question all sources, not just those that appear online. Further, in an age when any homegrown expert can post information online, how do we define expertise and credibility — and how do we decide who has it and who doesn’t, when the weightiness and authoritativeness of the printed page is called into question? “The web is a lot more egalitarian,” says Mayfield. “On a site like Wikipedia people are producing and promoting ideas and interacting with one another in these processes. On the one hand, this wrongly assumes that anyone can be an expert. On the other, it allows for the populus to feel empowered to contribute to knowledge by constructing multiple forms of knowledge not limited to the pages of a book.”

Asking questions of media, whether it be a book, the Internet, or a software application, is key to how Vassar is addressing the balance between utilizing technology in the classroom and upholding high academic and scholarship standards. To this end, Vassar established the media studies multidisciplinary program in 2004; the program counts as its hallmark the imperative “to address questions raised by new technologies and to provide a space for the critical assessment of the technologies we use and their impact on society and culture,” says Colleen Cohen, professor of anthropology and teaching faculty in the media studies program. “Our students live in a hypermediated world, so it’s incumbent upon us as faculty members to give them the tools to think critically about that fact.”

Cohen teaches, with Tom Ellman, associate professor of computer science, a course on game playing. As a “medium specificity” course, the goal is to have students pay sustained attention to one particular medium in order to understand how it both complements and differentiates itself from other media. (Other medium-specificity courses have considered the history of the book or the interplay between image and text, and another in the future will explore sound recording and reproduction.) One of the assignments in Cohen and Ellman’s course is for students to design their own games — mostly as an exercise to “learn and use technology to demystify it,” says Cohen. The professors help students realize that a software application such as Flash is open to interpretation, analysis, and criticism in much the same way as a novel might be.

Ellman emphasizes that he and Cohen aren’t teaching with technology, they are teaching about technology. “Students are generally really good about questioning,” he says. “What is harder for them sometimes is to question things they take for granted,” such as the idea that games are simply sources of fun. Cohen adds, “We ask them to understand that these media we use are ideologically freighted with assumptions and the technological history that comes with them.” In addition to building their own games, students analyze and discuss popular games — such as Grand Theft Auto, which allows players to adopt the role of a criminal and amass points through further crime and destruction while navigating one of three cities — taking into account questions of the correspondence between an event in an online or game environment and that same event in the actual world, and what the decisions we make as online selves say about our real-world selves.

Grand Theft Auto may seem far removed from the laundry lists Salmon had her students investigate, but it’s not really. Both are everyday items, easily overlooked or dismissed for having no real point past an immediate purpose, that have the potential to say important things about social values, the ways lives are led, and the choices people make. And the interpretative energy Salmon asked her students to bring to the laundry lists is the same that professors like Ellman and Cohen demand of their students in reevaluating what it means to play a video game.

Reevaluating technology is a task for faculty members, too. “Students are already using technology extensively in their lives,” says Natalie Friedman ’95, associate director of the learning and teaching center and visiting assistant professor of English. “Faculty [can] refine technology to aid teaching and show students that it can be used not just for fun but in the real service of their learning.” Part of Friedman’s job involves helping faculty members effectively integrate technology into their lesson plans, a process that essentially requires them to believe that they “can teach what they care about even better” — and in previously impossible ways.

Assistant Professor of Art Andrew Tallon has tapped the capabilities of technology to give his students amazing 3-D experiences inside architectural spaces, such as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or the cathedral at Amiens, a far cry from the standard slide views that once dominated the study of architecture. “There are problems in the representations of space” when using slides, Tallon says. “I’ve been impressed by the degree to which students are able to comprehend space as a result” of this new mode of representation, based on space and context, that complements traditional side-by-side image comparisons. Tallon uses 3-D modeling and spherical panoramic photography (sometimes called QTVR, or QuickTime Virtual Reality) to rebuild the architectural spaces he asks his students to analyze, in ways that allow them to feel as if they are entering the building, walking around, exploring apses, even soaring to the ceiling to view windows or roof structures up close. He uses technology to give students “a way of understanding space by seeing it and talking about it as if they’re there,” he says. Tallon’s next project, with collaborators at Columbia University, received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and will place the architecture of 12th- and 13th-century France on an interactive map. Called “Mapping Gothic France,” Tallon hopes his new project will “establish linkages between the architectural space of individual buildings, the complex spaces of cities, geo-political space, and the social space resulting from the interaction (collaboration and conflict) between multiple agents: builders and users.”

Tallon’s work highlights the lengths to which Vassar faculty members are going to ensure that, when used in the classroom, technology is never gratuitous or gimmicky but truly enhances the learning experience. And the heart of it, making students feel as if they get to visit and look inside architectural spaces to deepen their understanding of those spaces — all from inside Taylor Hall — is quintessentially Vassar. Maybe technology has changed the way we ask students to go to the source, but the expectation of what they will discover in the process remains unchanged.

View an example of Professor Tallon’s work and learn more about ways other Vassar faculty are using technology in their classrooms.

— Micah Buis '02

Photo credit: Russell Monk