March 11, 2014
Vimala Pasupathi, Hofstra University
This assignment asks students to create their own Commonplace Book, encouraging them to think about reading practices in old and new forms of media. Read more… The Commonplace Book Assignment
March 11, 2014
Vimala Pasupathi, Hofstra University
“It’s probably natural, here in the 21st century, to fret over the future of literature – to worry that, in an era in which everyone wants everything to be social and interactive, serious reading will be impossible. Yet books are curious objects: their strength is to be both intensely private and intensely social – and marginalia is a natural bridge between these two states. It might end up serving equally well as a bridge between online and literary culture, between focus and distraction: a point of contact that could improve both without hurting either. Digital technology, rather than destroying the tradition of marginalia, could actually help us return it to its gloriously social 18th-century roots.”
–Sam Anderson, New York Times Magazine1
Today, in what can be seen as a transitional time and space for reading practices, readers are defining new ways of interacting with texts using new media, from collaborative online bookmarking sites to digital annotation tools for e-readers and more. In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, critic Sam Anderson discusses the seeming contradictions between the personal and social natures of the act of reading, and explores the ways that digital technology can mediate between these two different ways of interacting with texts. Anderson’s ideas resonate deeply with our MyDante project, which is a digital environment developed at Georgetown University for the study of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In many respects, MyDante was designed with the goal of creating a space for the mediation of personal and social reading practices, an interaction that is part of what we will define as contemplative reading—a method of reading, inspired by the metaphor of the medieval illuminated manuscript, that is both personal and socially collaborative. We propose that exploring the capacity of online reading environments to encourage contemplative reading represents an important approach to understanding how new media can redefine the way we interact with texts. Like Anderson, we do not consider social reading and personal reflection on a text to be mutually exclusive; rather, we propose that, in the appropriate context, these can and should be complementary facets of the reading process. A reading environment can foster individual immersion, developing the reader’s connection to the text; by connecting that reader to a reality that is shared by other readers, it can also strengthen his or her sense of a communal worldview of human culture. We believe that MyDante is such an environment.2
What follows is a view into the longstanding pedagogical experiment we have undertaken to integrate the MyDante site into an undergraduate philosophy course. The site and its usage in the course have gone through several iterations, raising many questions along the way about how the site can best improve the students’ learning experience and encourage contemplative reading strategies and practices. In this paper, we highlight some of these questions and explore how awareness of these issues can itself enhance the effectiveness of the site for teaching and learning. After an overview of the project background and context, we describe the findings from focus groups and surveys about how students used the MyDante site. We then present some lessons learned from this process and possible implications for future development.
The MyDante project began in 2000 with the primary aim of providing students with a contemplative space in which to engage with Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, specifically within the context of the undergraduate philosophy class Dante and the Christian Imagination at Georgetown University. Rather than prioritizing reading and research, as many of the existing online versions of the Comedy did, the MyDante project was designed from the beginning to enable students to understand the text through their interaction with it, their reflection on it, and their engagement with their peers around it. Inspired by the model of the medieval illuminated manuscript, we wanted students to see the text of Dante’s poem as a palimpsest, as a place where their ideas and their writing could share the same space as the poem—where they could engage with and rethink the poem by connecting annotations, images, and sounds to the text, just as medieval monks might have done through marginalia and illuminations. As a technology of contemplation, the medieval manuscript was embedded in the communal structures of monastic living, so that a monk would share the fruits of his individual study of a text with other members of the community. Similarly, we hoped that MyDante could help students to benefit from one another’s reflections on the text.
As Anderson describes, marginalia in a context such as that of MyDante can facilitate both the personal, reflective aspect of reading and its collaborative, social nature. We created and continue to develop a variety of tools, such as an annotation tool, a journaling tool, and a multimedia editor, to encourage students to interact with the poem and to share their ideas with others. MyDante was designed to encourage deeply personal reflection while at the same time fostering scholarly collaboration focused on the text.
While Anderson refers generally to “serious reading,” what we wanted to encourage in particular was an approach that we call “contemplative reading.” In the context of Dante’s Comedy, practicing contemplative reading requires the reader to accept Dante’s invitation to join a shared journey. To read the poem contemplatively, the reader must recognize three levels of meaning simultaneously at work in Dante’s text: the literal level of comprehension of the narrative, the metaphorical level of allegorical meaning, and the reflective level of dialogue between the poet and reader.
As explained in the MyDante site’s guide to contemplative reading practice:
In order to understand Dante’s poetic metaphors, each reader must participate in them personally and in a way which is genuinely contemplative. This contemplative reading goes beyond the literal meaning, and even beyond the traditional allegorical or interpreted meaning, to apply every possibility of meaning contained in the text to the reader’s own life and identity.
In further detail, this method of reading asks students to reflect on the following questions at each level of interpretation. (These questions are presented in the site materials and are also discussed in class.)
The MyDante site was designed to encourage contemplative reading in a number of ways. Students can annotate the text of the poem, which helps them to work through the first two levels of interpretation, both individually and collaboratively. Personal journals, where students practice moving among the three interpretive levels, are integrated directly into the site. The site includes a diverse collection of images, including not only illustrations of Dante’s poem but also other works of art that resonate thematically with the poem. These images can help spark students’ reflections. Students can place images from the site’s image gallery within the text, as well as finding or creating additional images and placing them in the text. Commentary by the professor helps to guide students in interpretation at the three different levels. In the fall of 2009, we introduced multimedia projects, asking students to assemble images, video, and music into reflective journal entries.4 In the fall of 2011, we added a series of scaffolded multimedia assignments that ask students to work more gradually with individual multimedia elements before taking on the larger-scale multimedia project.
The marriage of multimedia technology and the practice of contemplative reading led to the following specific goals for MyDante. We have already described the first two:
The final two goals involve enhancing the collaborative aspects of MyDante and expanding the reach of the project to include public use on a separate version of the site.
|EllipsisThroughout its history, the MyDante project has had a number of technical incarnations. In its development, we have always striven to create a site that offers the greatest possible flexibility in how its various functions can be used for instruction. As much as possible, we wanted the site to become a place where an instructor could create compelling interactions with the poem and with readers.The current MyDante website is implemented in a web application framework called Ruby on Rails. The Ruby programming language is particularly well suited to a programming strategy called “Domain Specific Languages.” In this strategy, a layer of code is written to translate simple, declarative statements into the actual application code. This custom “language,” which may be applicable only to the current problem domain, collapses the conceptual distance between the description of a problem and its execution. We feel that this approach is particularly powerful for the design of educational interfaces. It offers the potential to allow non-programmers to shape users’ interactions for certain purposes—for example, to create interactions that facilitate deeper reading and analysis of texts. While there are a great many “plug-and-play” tools available to instructors via the web, most share the limitation that they were designed for only a handful of uses and cannot be easily customized to other purposes. While code “mashups,” combining functions and content from different web sources, are becoming more ubiquitous and easier to implement, they often become just one more discrete piece of functionality in an instructor’s toolkit, rather than allowing an instructor to build an immersive environment entirely customized for the idiosyncratic needs of a particular text and/or a particular pedagogy applied to that text.We are currently building this more flexible type of web application to design environments for teaching and learning. We call it “Ellipsis.” Its purpose is to make texts in various media into centers of scholarly activity on the web. Ellipsis could be used in a wide variety of pedagogical contexts; possible uses could include peer review of student writing, annotation of film clips, and collaboration among students at different institutions. By giving instructors and instructional technologists a tool for easily crafting interactions, we hope to create an instructional culture where the design of interactivity is another tool for expressing both the instructor’s intent and the students’ evolving understanding of a work.To learn more about Ellipsis, watch this video.|
Our goal of developing a community of readers stemmed from several factors: first, the logistical reason that face-to-face class meetings do not allow for sufficient discussion and representation of all students’ voices. Second, we hoped that collaborative features developed for use in the Georgetown course would help us create a public community of readers outside of the course context, whose members would not meet face-to-face. Third, as discussed above, we wanted to explore the possibilities of using online environments to guide a reading process that could be at once communal and reflective.
Each year, the MyDante site has continued to play an integral part in the undergraduate philosophy course at Georgetown, and we are exploring partnerships with other institutions. In early 2011, we piloted a collaborative project with Regis High School in New York, where a small group of students used the site in an advanced English class. We hope to establish similar partnerships with other institutions in the future.
We are developing a public version of the site that is open to anyone. Readers will not only be able to use the site for individual study, but will be also able to interact with other readers of Dante through the site. We aim to support a virtual community of Dante readers by bringing together scholars, students, teachers, and independent readers from across the world. As part of the process of developing a diverse virtual community, we decided to examine the nature of the interaction among the students who use the site at Georgetown, in order to inform our design of structures that will encourage interaction among the members of the public site.
Furthermore, we believe that the conceptual foundation of MyDante holds great potential for the study of a wide range of texts. For example, a project is currently in development using Ellipsis to design an environment for the scholarly study of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a text that differs significantly from the Divine Comedy in form. Although based on the framework of MyDante, the Proust Project environment is very different in appearance and structure – for example, interpretive multimedia animations will be a significant element of the Proust environment.5 With both projects, we hope to show that the technologies and reading practices we have developed and modeled over the years are transferable to a wide range of texts and learning experiences.
MyDante is primarily used in Philosophy 276: Dante and the Christian Imagination, an undergraduate course taught at Georgetown University. The course, which enrolls about twenty-five students each fall, focuses on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Students may read the text of the poem either in hard copy or electronically on the site. Students are required to keep online journals that include “required” entries responding to specific prompts as well as “free” entries on topics of their choosing. Beginning in the fall of 2011, students were required to incorporate images and music into some of their journal entries. Other contributions on the site, such as annotations, discussion board posts, and the placement of images and music within the text, count toward students’ class participation grades. Journal entries can either be designated as “private” (visible only to the author, instructor, and teaching assistant) or published so that all members of the class workspace can view them.
The site includes videos that introduce conceptual material, such as this video that orients the viewer to Dante’s worldview. In recent years, we have recorded lectures delivered during class sessions using the lecture capture software Camtasia Relay. In addition to making these recordings available to students to review or catch up on missed classes, we have created independent modules both by excerpting audio clips from the recordings and by combining audio clips with related images. (For example, we developed a video and resource page that highlights a painting by Masaccio.) Some of these modules specifically address the concept of contemplative reading or model the use of that approach. Students are assigned to view these modules before class meetings. Thus, discussions can begin at a higher level because students have already covered the introductory material on their own, and more class time can be devoted to interactive discussion than to lecture.
We regularly gather information through mid-semester and end-of-semester surveys about how students use the site. After the fall of 2010, we decided to explore students’ experiences with the site in more detail by conducting focus groups. In addition to asking for their opinions about various features of the site in order to improve technical support resources, we wanted to gauge students’ overall conceptions of the site. The findings from these surveys and focus groups will not only help us to refine certain technical and design aspects of the current MyDante site, but will also inform the way the site is integrated into the course structure. Furthermore, as we continue to work on the public MyDante site and Ellipsis, our understanding of how students use the current MyDante site will play a key role in our development and design process.
The interpretation of data from the surveys and focus groups requires caution. With an enrollment of fewer than thirty students each semester, the class does not allow for a large sample size, and the participation rate in both the surveys and the focus groups (which were open to the entire class, but optional) is always less than 100%. Of the 27 students enrolled in the course in the fall of 2010, 23 students completed the mid-semester survey, and 12 completed the end-of-semester survey; 7 students participated in focus groups. Furthermore, it is difficult to draw conclusions about certain website features or assignments by looking across class years because of the number of additional variables – changing assignments, varying class dynamics, differing backgrounds of students, etc.
We have nonetheless found these results to be useful in a number of ways. For example, hearing directly from students about how they use the site has been informative. End-of-semester evaluations and focus groups can surface questions or problems that students may be reluctant to voice during the semester. We also find that students often offer interesting suggestions for future site developments.
Our findings from the surveys and the focus groups included the following:
Although anecdotal, these findings represent in many ways the tension inherent to an environment such as MyDante. How can the site meet the needs of individualized, personal reflection while simultaneously encouraging productive collaboration and interaction? While there is no easy or definitive answer to this question, the student responses helped to raise our awareness of a number of the factors that play into this balance between the individual and collaborative aspects of the site.
We hypothesize that requiring a certain number of posts, and scaffolding these posts with specific prompts early in the semester, will help students develop the habit of posting, which will likely result in participation on the site becoming more integrated with their reading process.
In the fall of 2011, we implemented several changes to the structure of the course assignments. Early in the semester, each student was required to post an image and to write a short journal entry about the image’s resonance with the poem (the image could not be a literal depiction of the Commedia). Students were required to post on the discussion board before and after viewing assigned films outside of class. Each student was assigned one or two cantos to annotate and illuminate, by adding images or music. Finally, students were required to include images and/or music in a journal entry preceding the multimedia journal assignment, as a way to scaffold the larger-scale multimedia assignment.
Preliminary feedback from students on these new assignments, via in-class remarks and in a brief mid-semester survey, seems positive. In many cases, the student work so far seems to demonstrate a high degree of engagement with the text and with the process of contemplative reading. Images and annotations posted by students on the site have enhanced some of the class discussions. Scaffolding the multimedia assignments seems to have helped the students to become more comfortable in practicing contemplative reading through reflection with multimedia elements. Further evaluation of the new assignment structure will take place following the completion of the semester.
Our analysis of the focus groups and survey data will continue to inform our integration of the MyDante site into future iterations of Philosophy 276. We will also need to consider carefully the implications of these findings for the public version of MyDante and for the Proust Project, as well as for future applications of the MyDante methodology, as these contexts present further challenges for fostering and sustaining collaborative reading communities.
We plan to develop a notification system to alert students (via email and/or dashboard announcements within the site) when someone has commented on their posts or when someone has commented on the same passage of text. Even within the framework of the course, where students were following the same reading syllabus, students often missed one another’s posts because they were reading at different paces. We hope that making students aware of responses to their posts will encourage additional dialogue and collaboration.
Users of the public MyDante site, who will represent a wide range of goals and backgrounds, will be separated both by time and distance without face-to-face contact (in most cases). Users of the site may be independent scholars and researchers who are unaffiliated with any formal program of study. We must consider what kinds of structures might encourage their sustained participation on the site, though we want to avoid imposing too many constraints.
Ellipsis offers incredible flexibility for the customization of workspaces; however, this means that careful consideration must be given to the consistency of structures designed to encourage collaboration. The hallmark of Ellipsis is the relative ease with which faculty members can customize environments for teaching and learning. However, rather than presenting an array of choices that could be overwhelming, we want to guide faculty toward structures that will help them achieve particular teaching goals. Awareness of some of the questions raised by MyDante will help inform this design process.
While some of the lessons we learned pertain directly to the classroom context, such as students’ desire for more structured requirements for posting, these lessons may still be relevant for the public site. For example, while we would hardly be able to require independent users of the public site to post a certain number of times, we might find a way to offer intermittent reminders about posting. Or we might explore whether a site moderator should comment on users’ posts, and assess whether receiving such feedback would inspire users to post more frequently.
Some version of the notification system we are developing for the class site will prove even more crucial for the public site as readers will certainly be progressing through a text at widely varying rates. Similarly, students may use Ellipsis to share comments on different texts or to collaborate across courses or institutions, and would no doubt benefit from a notification system as well.
MyDante strikes a delicate balance between individual and collaborative reading experiences. This tension is not unique to this project, however; nor is it as recent as the advent of digital technology. As critic Sam Anderson points out in his New York Times piece, books themselves are “both intensely private and intensely social.”6 Anderson sees the practice of marginalia as a possible bridge not only between these two seemingly contradictory aspects of reading, but also between traditional literary culture and the participatory culture popularized by the tools of the digital age.
Anderson compares the process of creating marginalia to the act of meditation, describing it as “a way to not just passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane.”7 He describes the pleasure of sharing marginalia with other readers through physical copies of books, and then explores the possibility of a digital tool that would allow readers to share marginalia, with its “social thrill of shared immersion,” in what he calls “an endless virtual book club” that would include not only friends and classmates but also historical authors and other notable figures. He writes: “This, it seems to me, would be something like a readerly utopia. It could even (if we want to get all grand and optimistic) turn out to be a Gutenberg-style revolution – not for writing, this time, but for reading.”8
MyDante encourages readers to practice what we have called contemplative reading by engaging in a personal dialogue with Dante. Our hope is that by doing so within the context of a virtual community, readers will be able to experience what Anderson calls the “social thrill of shared immersion.” As our longstanding experiment with MyDante has progressed, our methods of integrating pedagogy and technology have continued to evolve.
We see this project as having great value beyond Dante and Proust. The technology’s extensibility and transferability are two of its greatest assets. More importantly, however, we hope that this project and future iterations will show not only what is possible with the technology and framework we have created but also the value of developing a deliberate, contemplative reading practice in relation to digital texts. We believe that these methods can be applied to a wide range of reading contexts, bringing us all closer, if not to “readerly utopia,” then at least to an experience of a dialogical community of reflection on the shared experience of human living. This is, we hope, the message and the value of the project to the Digital Humanities.
Ambrosio, Frank, William Garr, Edward Maloney, and Theresa Schlafly. “MyDante and Ellipsis: Defining the User’s Role in a Virtual Reading Community” presented at the Fondazione Rinascimento Digitale International Conference 2009: Cultural Heritage on line. Empowering users: an active role for user communities, 2009. http://www.rinascimento-digitale.it/conference2009-papersandslides.phtml.
Anderson, Sam. “‘What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text’.” The New York Times, March 4, 2011, sec. Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06Riff-t.html.
About the Authors
Frank Ambrosio is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Director of the Doctor of Liberal Studies Program at Georgetown University.
William Garr is the Assistant Director of Research and Development at Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.
Eddie Maloney is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Georgetown University and the Managing Director and Director of Research and Development at Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.
Theresa Schlafly is a Writer/Editor and Project Manager at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University.