Extending the Boundaries of Instruction and Research

Article excerpt

Extending the Boundaries Of Instruction and Research

Every researcher knows how frustrating it is trying to explain complex problems to the novice. Ideas and techniques that we all take for granted and with which we have lived for years are foreign to our students, and every year, when new groups file into our classes, we take up our chalk and our handouts and start all over again: Who was Melville? When was he born? How did his career progres? What was the context of his work? What literary sources influenced him? And how did the realities of life in a whaler compare with the picture that we find in Moby Dick? The particulars differ (my own specialty is ancient Greek literature), but the basic problems remain the same. Our students must assimilate an enormous amount of information before they can even begin to address the intellectual problems that excite and challenge an instructor.

The Perseus Project is one attempt to ameliorate the problem of the "intellectual jump-start," getting the student up to speed quicker. Perseus is an interactive curriculum on classical Greek civilization. In its current working form, it includes a historical atlas of the Persian Wars, an archaeological catalog, texts of Greek tragedies and several other items. Perseus is beginning to erode the boundaries between instruction and research by allowing students to study the kinds of problems professionals tackle, and to browse through information in the free-flowing way the researcher does.

A Large, Multimedia Database

Within the next four to five yers, we hope to collect a substantial cross section of material illustrating the classical Greek world: between 40MB and 100MB of textual data and several thousand images. This will include almost the entire surviving body of Greek tragedy, comedy and epic; works of major historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides; and substantial portions of the massive surviving works of Plato and Aristotle. There will be color images and measured drawings of museum objects (such as sculpture and Greek vase paintings), plans and pictures of buildings and sites in Greece, and an atlas based on Landsat images. Much of the material commonly studied in courses on classical Greece will be included in the database.

A large, multimedia database such as Perseus will be useful not just because it contains the standard material that instructors normally cover. A database such as we are building can also include many sources that would be extremely useful in a class but do not appear in the handful of books we ask our students to purchase. All instructors who have ever drawn up reading lists have unconsciously filtered the material they included in them. In a course on Greek tragedy, the instructor might wish to examine questions that involve the historian Thucydides, the essayist and biographer Plutarch, Greek vase paintings illustrating mythology, the staging of Greek plays, or courtroom speeches that shed light on day-to-day life. But students cannot afford to buy the entire corpus of Greek tragedy, much less 50 or 100 volumes of additional source material. For especially important problems, instructors may create handouts, but there is only so much time available for creating special materials. As it is, we pursue not the most interesting problems, but the most interesting problems that we can discuss given the few books that our students can buy. This is where instruction and research have, up until now, differed.

A database with the equivalent of 50-odd printed volumes and several thousand images can include not only the well-known materials but much that, although important, is often neglected on the instructional side. Students who have access to this modest library can jump from Aeschylus' famous play the "Agamemnon" to a vase painted by Kleophrades to a speech by Lysias. If students canot move from one piece of evidence to another, they simply cannot address certain problems. …