November/December 2000 // Case Studies
Interdisciplinary Studies and New Technologies: A Case Study
by Alan B. Howard
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Alan B. Howard "Interdisciplinary Studies and New Technologies: A Case Study" The Technology Source, November/December 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The initial impetus for the American Studies M.A. program at the University of Virginia was threefold. First, in 1994 the English Department had reached a critical juncture in its graduate program: it had passed from unwittingly accumulating the world's largest stock of unemployed Ph.D.s and ABDs and had become a knowing producer of unemployable graduate students in English. Unable to accept the existence of what one of my colleagues termed the "recreational Ph.D.," I determined to create a terminal M.A. that would re-tool bright and capable students for productive work outside the academy.

Second, I saw a larger trend in which "education" was leaking out of colleges and universities, being taken up by a mix of traditional (libraries and museums) and non-traditional institutions (centers, proprietary universities, amateur historians). This was happening because the new technologies permitted it, because the humanities had—by their resistance to public accountability and their inability to articulate the social value of their enterprise through presenting the undergraduate and graduate curricula as anything more than the means to produce even more unemployable academics, and by their inability to engage in meaningful examination and reform of themselves—defaulted on their traditional obligations and filed for bankruptcy.

Third, the new technologies just coming online in 1994 held remarkable promise for interdisciplinary fields and especially for American Studies. In their scale/complexity and in their multimedia capacity, they offered the means by which genuine multidisciplinary work could be pursued. They offered tools for constructing the more sophisticated models of cultural process that were emerging. They suggested a way past the post-structural theory and identity politics that had come to dominate interdisciplinary studies. And, in their ability to integrate various and dissimilar kinds of "cultural texts," not only the print that is our traditional subject and medium but also the images, objects, and events about which Americanists often attempt to speak, they seemed to provide a platform through which genuinely sophisticated cross-disciplinary work could be done.

Since my objective was to prepare students for work outside the university—at best along its periphery—I looked into what people in higher education, corporations, and the public sector were saying about their needs. I found a remarkable degree of agreement. They wanted employees who had all the things that a classic liberal arts curriculum claims to provide: the ability to think critically and analytically, the ability to be articulate in writing and in speech, and the ability to make informed and subtle judgments. They also wanted people who could work in groups, who could carry out projects efficiently and on schedule, who could "think outside the boxes," and who could bring imagination and intellectual daring to an enterprise. And they wanted people who were literate in the new technologies, who had both practical experience and a theoretical understanding of the technologies that were transforming the workplace and the culture as a whole.

Curriculum Design

The initial program design, then, was an attempt to create a curriculum that would build on the traditional objectives and methods of the humanities but add to them active, collaborative, and reality-based work. The intention was to transform students from passive consumers of information into active producers of knowledge. At the very beginning, I informed the first group of students that they had not actually enrolled in a program—the program did not yet exist—but had instead signed on to build that program. They would certainly hear and read about American Studies, but more importantly, they were going to "do" American Studies. I wanted to collapse the distinctions between teaching and learning, research and teaching. I wanted them to have a sense that their work mattered in the larger public sphere, to challenge them to do work that would not end up in someone's wastebasket at the end of the term but would be pushed out into the street to be tested and used by a wider audience.

On its face, the curriculum was not significantly different from any master's level program in the country—core seminars and seven courses inside and outside the English department. What was different was the approach: I asked the students three simple questions: Where do you think you're going next? What knowledge and skills do you need to acquire before you get there? What synergies are available between this course and what you already know, between this course and the courses you're going to take at the same time, between this course and the work you're doing in the American Studies seminar for the term? American Studies students explore art history and architectural history, sociology and economics and history, government, and even education and law. What holds this universe of individual choices together is the American Studies seminar sequence and the thesis seminar. These seminars are designed to provide students with the opportunity and means to weld a variety of subjects into some sort of whole, to share their new-found expertise with others in the class (learning by teaching others), and to apply that expertise to electronic projects that are then published on the Web.

The curriculum, then, aspires to be, more than an accumulation of credit hours, an integrated and integrative educational process. The program begins with an introduction to research methods course that trains students to work in the library and to do electronic research, which I initiate by assigning each student to be the editor of one segment of the Yellow Pages. Next, students are introduced to scanning, optical character recognition systems, and basic HTML tagging and are assigned short texts—articles, short stories, pieces of longer works that are in production—to put online; in the process, they internalize the above-mentioned skills by applying them. Over time, this has yielded much of the reading material done in both graduate and undergraduate American Studies courses; at this point, about 40-50% of any syllabus is accessible online. Next, students are trained in Photoshop and given instruction on the use of images on the Web. Improving visual literacy is a major challenge that is developed gradually through the program.

This year's class was given the task of mounting an exhibit on Fortune magazine covers from the 1930s, an exercise in image manipulation and visual literacy as well as a study of the ways in which the Depression was inflected and refracted by this publication. By the second half of the semester, students were asked to create a small hypertext project that integrated all that they had learned to that point. Initially, the projects focused on Smith's Virgin Land and aimed to elaborate on his argument by providing extended information and analysis that Smith's publisher could not afford to include in the printed text, or by providing material that Smith did not see, consider important, or understand. This year's class has begun building a similar site based on Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America; they've digitized the full text, written a synoptic version for distribution outside the UVA campus, and created the first generation of satellite projects for the core text.

The second semester seminar, ENAM 803, is given over to designing, constructing, or amplifying a much larger group project. The first of these was The Capitol Project, begun in 1995; currently we are working on The 1930s, a site begun last year, which is being extended by this year's class. The first task last year was to focus the site conceptually, to design its gross architecture, and to create the first generation of projects. The task for this year was to extend the site by looking at the mass mediation of culture in the period by film, radio, photography, and mass circulation print. To do this, we had to add audio and video to our skills base and acquire some models for interpreting the cultural effects of mass media. Students were asked to select "iconic moments" from comics and cartoons, radio programs, films, and documentary photography from the period and to learn how to create sound and video files for their distribution. The result was an exhibition tentatively called "seascapes/soundscapes," a display space where, over time, we will try to create a kind of taxonomy of mediated culture in the period.

At this point in the semester, students are in the initial design phase of their larger projects for the semester. Last semester, the projects included analyses of Hoover Dam, the invention of country music, Vanity Fair magazine, the Chrysler Building, Charlie Chaplin, Gone With the Wind, and Absalom, Absalom; a comparison of the Depression in the United States and that in Europe; and a comparison of two of Pare Lorenz's documentary films, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. As part of this year's process, students are being asked to critique last year's projects and to offer re-designs for them. At the same time, they're forming their own projects, which include "Amos 'n Andy go to Market," "The 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition," "Graphic Design in the 30s," "The National Park Service and the Reconstruction of American Landscape," and "Woody Guthrie and the Folk." Also in the spring term, I organized the students as a virtual Web design and development firm. Each student has assumed the role and responsibilities of a particular job area: technical support, project management, professional development, marketing, editing, or placement. They will have those jobs throughout the semester, then assume different ones the next.

The third semester is devoted to the master's thesis. This is a summative exercise, a full demonstration of the knowledge and skills acquired in the program. I compare the students' task to that of 18th century cabinetmakers who built scale models of their work to show around the countryside. Their job is to create in miniature a comprehensive demonstration of actual competencies. After the project has been built, each student will sit for an examination by two professors, myself and someone from English or another department. I've shamelessly used this as an opportunity to educate my colleagues about humanities computing and to seek out alliances around the university as well as to provide students the challenge of explaining their work to people who are not computer literate.

Throughout their tenure in the program, students are encouraged to work part-time at relevant jobs, on campus at places like the Electronic Text Center and The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities or off campus at private firms. Periodically, work-study students build sites for non-profit organizations and for my colleagues. In short, wherever possible, I find ways to integrate the mundane business of paying the bills with experiences that enhance their training and fatten their portfolios.


The results produced by the program can, in one sense, be measured by a thoughtful exploration of AS@UVA, the Web site for the program. After four years of work, the site presents four major components. First, The Yellow Pages for American Studies, a selective, annotated directory of the best electronic resources for students and teachers in the field. Second, The Museum for American Studies, a series of museum-like multimedia exhibitions on topics ranging from the art of Grant Wood to the New York World's Fair of 1939-40 to the nature illustrations of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology. Third, the largest and most fully developed section of the site, Hypertexts, a collection of some 50 electronic texts in American Studies, either "classics" like DeTocqueville's Democracy in America and Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The West as Symbol and Myth, or "lost" texts, once powerful works like Gilbert Seldes' The Seven Lively Arts or Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, books that, for various reasons, have disappeared from view and consideration. Fourth, The Capitol, introduced as "an infinitely extensible exploration of the National Capitol as an American icon—cathedral of our national faith, the map of our public memory, and the monument to our official culture." What will be the fifth major component is The 1930s, an effort begun last year to explore and re-present the most academically unfashionable decade in American Studies circles—and arguably the most important one for an understanding of modern America.

All of this is, in a superficial sense, what the American Studies Master's Program has accomplished in its short history. The site has won numerous awards; it is linked to by more than 10,000 other sites; it now attracts about 80,000 hits per day, primarily from teachers and students. And all of this at minimal cost to the University. But, as I've already said, this is really no more than the by-product of the more important educational process. To assess the value of that process, you will have to speak with the students themselves. In general, they've gone to places they could not otherwise have gone to, taken jobs that are more responsible and interesting—at better pay—than they could have otherwise, and are moving up in their organizations. Some few have gone on to graduate programs in American Studies or English, but the majority have gone to work for public or corporate information providers, including PBS, Microsoft, Educorp, Maryland Public Television, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institute, Washington and Lee University, the University of Alabama, Teach for America, Sacred Places, and NetBeans.

The Future

We have begun to implement many of the curricular structures and objectives described here in our two-year undergraduate program and, with some modest tweaking, they promise to work just as well at that level. In addition, we are, in effect, exporting this model to other interdisciplinary programs here, particularly a new Media Studies Program that will come online in 2002-03. Finally, we are actively looking for partners at other institutions in American Studies or other interdisciplinary programs with whom we might design collaborative, trans-institutional courses.

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