Internet Shakespeare Editions

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As the number of homes connected to the Internet grows, and as schools increasingly provide computers for student activities and projects, we are told that there is a new generation of students about to enter our universities and colleges that are computer literate. Certainly even the current generation of students is beginning to feel as comfortable reaching for a mouse as for a pen, and find it easier to spend a few minutes on the Internet looking for information, rather than making a trip to the University Library. Almost daily I receive emails from visitors to the site of the Internet Shakespeare Editions requesting help with homework:

what are the three unities of aristotle, and can they be summarized in 10 lines?

The disconcerting thing about this email--like many that I get--is that the information--about Aristotle and the unities--is already on the site, and can quickly be found by a basic search. A more sophisticated request:

hello sir i ran across your webpage on shakespeare and was wondering if you could help me make a connection between the Tempest and the outward limitations of the play that could imply a dialectical Platonic critique by the playwright of his own art of imitation. Thank you.

This second request is entertaining in that it reveals an instructor who asks rather tricky questions, but the number of queries of this kind I receive makes me wonder whether the new wave of students are really so computer literate. They will be comfortable with computers, and will believe that they can solve their problems, but they will not necessarily know how to use computers beyond a few basic functions.

The danger is that we will see a generation of computer users, especially in the technologically conservative Humanities, who are little more than pointers-and-clickers; for whom interaction with the medium is only marginally more active than the couch potato using a remote control to interact with a hundred digital TV channels. However it may be achieved, it is clear that there is a real need for Humanists to ensure that our students have an active voice in the new medium, and that they are aware of the powerful tools that it makes available to them.

There are at least two ways in which we can provide our students with genuine literacy in the new medium. We can make computer interaction of various flavours essential for our own courses, of whatever kind, so that students learn through example; or we can construct a specific course designed to give them a head start. Or, of course, we can do both. In this paper, I suggest a way of constructing an introductory Humanities Computing course in such a way that the medium itself is in part the teacher.

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