Experimenting with Innovations in Humanities Teaching at UC Berkeley: The Humanities and Technology Project

Diane Harley
Berkeley Multimedia Research Center
Center for Studies in Higher Education
South Hall Annex
University of California Berkeley,
Berkeley, CA 94720-4650 USA


Because of their multiple capacities as centers of pure and applied research, graduate student training, and undergraduate teaching, American research universities are under increasing pressure to develop and evaluate models of how best to utilize technologies such as computerized courseware, e-mail, the World Wide Web, and video-conferencing. Complicating the expectations that these tools may provide enhanced, even novel, modes of teaching and learning is the mounting pressure for American universities to explore the use of new technologies to serve increasingly diverse student populations at reduced cost.

In the last three years, the University of California at Berkeley, as with most research universities in the US, has seen an exponential growth in faculty and student experimentation with network technologies. Facility with and access to the new tools, however, has not been evenly distributed among the various departments and programs at UC Berkeley. Specifically, the humanities have lagged behind the sciences. The humanities disciplines at UC Berkeley, which is an institution characterized by highly decentralized IT services, need practical, non-bureaucratic and cost-effective models for integrating the Web and other technology tools into teaching and research. Berkeley's humanities faculty and graduate students need adequate hardware and software, accessible support personnel, and central facilities for project development.

This paper will describe the genesis and evolution of the UC Berkeley Humanities & Technology (H&T) Project, which three years ago grew out of the simple realization that acquiring hardware was only a small step in providing resources to humanities faculty for integrating the Web into teaching and research. The H&T Project has three goals:

  1. Integrating Web and Internet applications into ordinary teaching and research;
  2. Providing graduate student support and training in utilizing these technologies;
  3. Providing a one-stop, technologically "smart" venue where graduate students and faculty can meet to share knowledge and collaborate in developing new Internet applications.

This relatively low-cost and administratively simple model attempts to create a core of graduate students with detailed knowledge of Web technology. These graduate students have the opportunity to directly share that knowledge with faculty and other graduate students who want to develop course home pages and other creative uses of the Internet. One of the strengths of the model is its focus on content, rather than on the technology for its own sake; it is a project born out of scholarship rather than technology. Students supported by the project represent a diverse range of departments and programs including: History, Medieval Studies, English, Classics, Near Eastern Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Buddhist Studies, Music, Comparative Literature, Anthropology, German, French, Rhetoric; Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, Scandinavian, and Slavic. The efforts that have resulted from the project's support represent an interesting mix of approaches fueled by graduate student creativity. They range from creating on-line resources such as interactive quizzes and large image databases, to on-line chat sessions and video-conferencing, to publishing on-line journals. Two of the projects entailed the development of modules that draw on existing university collections and can be used for undergraduate teaching and secondary teaching alike.

The focus is on the motivations for initiating the project within the context of Berkeley's institutional organization and culture, and describe the way in which departments, units, and individuals were coordinated to deliver non-bureaucratic technological support services run primarily by graduate students. Of particular interest to this project were issues surrounding 1) the varying levels of faculty and graduate student motivation to develop web applications, 2) the leveraging of existing institutional resources, and 3) efforts to garner permanent financial support to institutionalize the project. The current status of the project will be discussed in the context of an institutional environment that has changed significantly in the last three years. Finally, some suggestions will be made for improving the institutional support of graduate student and faculty efforts in the integration of technology into humanities teaching and research at elite research universities.