(last revised: 9/13/1996)
In the traditional history senior seminar, students meet weekly to give reports and discuss the individual books or articles that they have been assigned. They are also typically asked each week to submit a review essay in which they analyze and critique their assigned reading. This is a reliable format and one that students enjoy. (For a sample syllabus, see: History 75-B: Coming of Secession (Spring 1996) Majors routinely describe the seminar format and the intensity of the debates as their finest learning experience in the major. Because the library resources of any small college are limited, however, it has often been difficult to use anything other than secondary sources and other interpretive works by professional scholars.
It is the intention of my project to complement this format by using the new computer-based document delivery and textual analysis tools now available on the world wide web. This will allow participants for the first time to have interactive access to primary sources during the seminar session itself. By shifting student papers and reports to the web, more seminar time will be devoted to comparing the hypotheses advanced by professional scholars with evidence contained in original documents. The other major change from the existing seminar format is that students will be required to spend the final weeks of the seminar in researching and analyzing their own selection of primary documents. After uploading to the history web site, these primary documents will be made available for subsequent seminars as well as to other scholars. All phases of student work will thus become in a sense public property. In keeping with the recent emphasis on experiential learning, participants will thus be expected to make a real contribution to the larger scholarly community, instead of generating mere busy work for the instructor's eyes only.
The main activity this summer has been to investigate the state of the art in textual analysis and document delivery tools for scholars in the humanities, and to begin assembling a trial version of the primary source database. There are currently more than 150 editorials in the database awaiting proofreading and error correction before being added to the on-line system. In addition I attended the summer seminar of the Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities at Princeton University., which provided training in the TEI/SGML document standard for humanities computing, practicums with various text analysis programs, and introductions to a number of cutting edge humanities computing applications. I have prepared a summary of the humanities computing tools that seemed most intriguing. I still need to assemble the various analysis techniques into a coherent, integrated, web-based delivery package for the seminar. During my sabbatical this fall I will be completing this aspect of the project in conjunction with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia.
The computer support system for the seminar will have two major components. The first is an interactive syllabus which includes not only a list of assignments but also an on-line chat room and space for each student's weekly web essay. The second component will be a source page of documents, analysis tools, and facilities for submission of the student's own projects. The main resource is a collection of several hundred newspaper editorials from leading newspapers in every state, focused on six major events in the movement to secession. Participants during the seminar will be able to search the collection and generate subsets of editorials by date, by city, state or region, by political party affiliation, and by keywords, including synonyms, antonyms, coordinate terms, and related "is a kind of...' hierarchical terms. This subset can then be examined directly, fed into programs that generate word/phrase frequencies, keyword in context concordances, collocated words, or compared with other participant-generated subsets. I also hope to allow students to be able to save their own bookmark "audit trail" of specific documents that can be followed by others or included in their web essays.
Apart from the advantages of increased exposure to primary sources, I anticipate that in comparison to the traditional format that students will more rapidly develop their skills in the "close reading of texts," become more rapidly attuned to how contextual historical interpretations are, and become more critical in their use of primary documents. There may be additional positive side effects from public presentation of research, in being able to continue discussions outside the seminar meeting times, and in the improved computer skills that students will gain through exposure to these tools. It is also likely that the tools developed for the seminar will be useful to other members of this department.