By Elliott Shore, Ph.D. ’84
Chief Information Officer, Constance A. Jones
Director of Libraries, and Professor of History

Networked information technology does two things at once: it opens up exciting new ways of thinking while it radically destabilizes organizational structures that have underpinned the way we teach and learn.

How many have heard faculty say: "My discipline is text-based." Or the librarian or information technologist suggest: "Let's do information literacy workshops." Or, the student ask: "Do I have to do a web-page for this class?"

New tools turn up old texts
At Bryn Mawr, students learn to do research with a wide range of tools-online databases and web searches as well as finding aids for electronic and print holdings in the libraries.

During a panel discussion for the launch of the College's comprehensive fundraising campaign,"Challenging Women: Investing in the Future of Bryn Mawr," Associate Professor of English Katherine Rowe described herself as a "skeptical technophile: I have one foot solidly in the world of paper and codexes, the other in the world of electronics." Rowe, a scholar of Renaissance drama, begins the semester in many of her classes by taking students to the library and setting them a research problem, for example: 'How many children did Lady MacBeth have and who cared?'

"Students come back with many an essay, but before I hear their answers, I ask them to tell me about their experiences in the library and what resources they used," Rowe said. "They quickly say, 'Well, if you do a Google search on the web, you get all kinds of weird stuff, and much of it's unusable. If you do a keyword search in Tripod (for the holdings of the Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore libraries) you get targeted, local answers. When I searched the MLA (Modern Language Association) bibilography online, there was an essay about this by some scholar back in 1920. Wow! If you walk the stacks when you're trying to answer a problem, something really cool happens, Professor Rowe, you find all these books you weren't looking for, and they turn out to have much more interesting ways of addressing the problem than you had thought of.' Give students a substantive, chewy problem to tackle and they come back with some very surprising, sophisticated, and wonderful responses.

"Paradoxically, students are going back to more old texts. Early English Books Online, a database to which Bryn Mawr subscribes that comprises 125,000 books printed before 1700, lets me pull John Willis' Art of Memory (1621) for students to read when we study Hamlet. Why is it that Hamlet's father's ghost says, 'Remember me' instead of 'Revenge me,' which all other ghosts in revenge tragedies in the Renaissance tragedies do? This contemporary text helps students understand that Shakespeare was talking about thought in a way familiar in his time, but sometimes strange to us: as a kind of mental writing."


Associate Professor of English Katherine Rowe, Elliott Shore, and Professor of Chemistry Michelle Francl look at a copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) in Canaday's 1912 Rare Book Room. Today's technology is no less radical than was letterpress printing in changing the way we think, work, and communicate. Background, ethernet cables and the back of a patch panel, for networking computers, in Guild Hall.

These apparently different reactions to the use of information technology share a notion that it can be domesticated into patterns of thinking that seemed to work well in the past-instead of opening up ways of reapproaching old questions or asking new ones. One of the most salient features of these standard responses is the ossification of the roles we all play in this drama: the professor decides what is useful knowledge, the librarian and the information technologist try to be service technicians, and the student weighs in with a bottom-line mentality. The world didn't change much after all.

Or did it? Networked information technology inspires those who think of the life of the mind as one which questions assumptions, challenges authority, and revises categories. From building language learning communities to integrating text, image, sound, and song into the study of philosophy to layered group interactions in an introduction to psychological research methods class, the fusing of information technology with other learning technologies (the book, the discussion, the paper, the lecture) has resulted in the development of new ways of seeing, thinking, and understanding.

In early 2002, Bryn Mawr College began to consolidate into one administrative unit the libraries, computing, language lab, visual resources center, multimedia services, and telephones. As in most institutions, these various groups and physical spaces grew out of needs that were perceived to be distinct and discrete at the time of their development. If there is one general truth we can agree upon in the age of electronic information technologies, it may be that we are hard-pressed to describe, let alone defend, the notion of bounded entities and activities. It is nearly im-possible to address a major issue facing a college's academic support structure that does not encompass several of the areas we once considered separate.

Academic divisional nodes
The process of reconceptualizing and reforming the structures that support the academic mission of a liberal arts college has taken on a distinct cast at Bryn Mawr. It was modeled deliberately upon the European system, in which departments were encouraged to take on large intellectual questions and work independently from one another.

The task of rethinking key underpinnings of the College's academic enterprise is fraught with questions that could be perceived to challenge some of its founding principles, still visible and vibrant: independent disciplines do not seem to be consonant with networked information technologies. We think we may have chosen an approach that both honors the intellectual heritage of Bryn Mawr and her sister institutions and moves forward with the deep intellectual excitement of the electronic age.

Concentrating on the individual faculty member or student scholar and her search for meaning within disciplines, we have set up a central system that includes three academic divisional nodes-social sciences, humanities, and the natural sciences, each with a staff of librarians and information technologists. The system is individual in that it focuses on services provided by experts in the general academic field of the user and gives us the flexibility to channel centralized resources to individuals and groups as needed. It is collective in that it organizes those services within the larger disciplinary interests of the division.

Each node provides traditional reference and research services of the academic libraries. The sciences node also supports use of the UNIX operating system, and desktop and other computing applications. Online statistical surveys and calculators, used for an economics course by students on their own and by the professor in the classroom, call for the services of a librarian, instructional technologist and a computer specialist from the social sciences node. The humanities node includes the Rhys Carpenter Library for Art, Archaeology and Cities; the Language and Learning Center; and the Visual Resources Center.

Service points: technology goodies, online exhibitions, live reference chat
This fall, Information Services offered workshops for the entire community on scanning documents; digital photos; burning CDs and DVDs; how to borrow laptops, videos and DVDs from the library; and software for a variety of uses in the classroom, research, and writing papers. The series, "Technology Goodies and Information Fridays," also included discussions on the fair use of online materials under The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and possible effects of the Patriot Act on individual members of the Bryn Mawr community.

Among recent technology-based developments in library and information services at Bryn Mawr:

Exhibitions in Canaday's Class of 1912 Rare Book Room can be visited electronically during the show and long afterwards.

Bryn Mawr subscribes to JSTOR, an ongoing project to digitize the most important journals in many fields. JSTORincludes 250 major journals and more than 700,000 articles, reaching back into the 17th century. Together, Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore also subscribe to some 30 full-text electronic journals.

During blocks of hours Sunday through Friday, reference librarians at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore offer help with research via web-based live chat.

From her dorm room at midnight, a Bryn Mawr student can log on to Denbigh Language Learning Center's website to listen to practice and pronunciation tapes for her Spanish class. The site also links to language class web pages and online language resources outside.

Video-editing equipment in Canaday, the New Media Lab in Guild, and the Language Learning Center allows students to quote, discuss, and do close readings of audiovisual works such as film-in class or in an essay-the way they would a printed poem or a Renaissance play.

Breaking down hierarchies
Through a project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a series of three four-day workshops held in 2000 (social sciences), 2001 (humanities) and 2002 (natural sciences), we have found that one of the most important aspects of rethinking academic structures is how individual members of the College's community see their own roles. By bringing together teams of faculty members, students, information technologists, and librarians to consider how particular courses can be enriched through the use of information technologies, we have taken on the most difficult of the problems, we feel, that face the academy in the information age. That problem lies at the heart of how education is conceptualized in elite academic institutions and may be the most crucial stumbling block to moving forward: will the various constituency groups recognize each others' capacity to collaborate on the production and reproduction of knowledge, or will traditional hierarchies stand in the way?

Getting high intellectual mileage
When Professor of Chemistry Michelle Francl taught a course in mathematical modeling, she wanted students to show their models working on a web page rather than using paper. "My rubric for grading was clarity," she said. "My eyes are not as young as theirs. If there was an animated GIF, it had to be there for a reason, to show me something I could not understand otherwise. I got less of little ants walking across the bottom of the page and instead clips of ant migration models made into movies."

Associate Professor of English Katherine Rowe makes students hand in hard copy. "I like to be able to scribble on it," she said. "The only essays I accept electronically are the ones that warrant it-if, for example, they are using a video clip followed by an expanded written argument."

"Students have always been carried away by flash," Rowe said. "They're not doing that in any different way when they use new technologies. I often start a class by assigning a very short paper to assess how well they can balance the tradeoffs in making an argument. Many of them will waste the entire first paragraph to show that they can launch the essay in an engaging and entertaining way, and I ask them whether that was best use of the space. ... I use the principle for myself when I decide whether to adopt a new technology in my classroom."

Rowe also asks her students to set aside three hours of writing time when they are not interrupted or online. "I do different kinds of training exercises that make them experiment with the times of day they write and the most productive composition experience for them," she said. "Our job as teachers and professionals is to reflect on the way our work is shaped, cognitively and practically. This seems to me increasingly important as the pace of technological change accelerates."

If this can work anywhere on the American academic landscape, its greatest chance of success should be at a liberal arts college such as Bryn Mawr. With students considered colleagues by faculty, with a tradition of scholars honoring librarians for the quality of their support, there remains only the need for and willingness to conceive of information technologists as the fourth partner rather than anonymous technicians. We are trying to help this happen in a number of ways. We have invited a faculty member of our Education Program to teach a group of staff some principles of teaching in a seminar designed exclusively for them; we are organizing the nodes in a way that breaks down the hierarchies within and the traditional divisions between and among smaller units; we are actively teaming faculty members, staff members, and students to work together on course preparation; and we are trying to introduce new technologies for teaching and research that work best through collaboration, not only on the Bryn Mawr campus, but also with Haverford and Swarthmore colleges.

We are examining the relationship between the reference service in the library and the help desk in the computing center. Are the questions that we get at these two points similar? Would the expertise of the information technologist blended with that of the librarian yield better information for the student and for the faculty member? On questions of the future relationship between our printed materials and electronic information sources, the interdepartmental work of colleagues at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore yields promising directions for expanding our collective resources and making them more accessible.

Emphasizing common goals
As the College's Chief Information Officer, I have tried to emphasize the ways in which the four different roles of faculty member, student, librarian, and information technologist share common goals, as well as to embody them in my own work. As an historian of the United States and of the United States and Germany in the 19th and 20th century, I have been investigating media technology in a new way for myself. My own research has moved towards the history of film from the history of advertising and, before that, from the history of radical publication in the United States. As a classroom teacher, this semester I am reprising a course I first taught last spring on the history of Philadelphia. There are two key texts, a book and a film, produced and directed by a student, that counterposes Hollywood images of Philadelphia. We watch the film over and over as we move back in history, considering the students' changing notions of the city against Hollywood's. As a librarian, teacher, and information technologist, I've taught distance learning for many years at the University of Illinois. There I've learned many ways in which the use of technology in communicating with students, in developing technology skills, and in sharing information resonates deeply with what happens in the traditional classroom. For example the semester-long work of a student can be presented as a coherent whole in an electronic portfolio, which we have successfully demonstrated in a few sections of the College Seminar program. Instead of a stack of paper drafts, the students show in both linear and non-linear fashion, through web links, how they have improved their writing and thinking.

Networked information technologies compel people who make up the academy to remember that they all have roles in helping one another develop as teacher and student, librarian and information technologist. Through our efforts, we hope to knit together a community of learners engaged in the pursuit of the future.

One of the goals of Challenging Women: Investing in the Future of Bryn Mawr is to enrich the College's technological resources for teaching and research. To learn more about information services at Bryn Mawr, please contact Elliott Shore by email.

This article contains excerpts from the author's "Liberal Arts Education in the New Millennium:Beyond Information Literacy and Instructional Technology" in the Fall 2001 issue of Moveable Type: The Newsletter of the Mark O. Hatfield Library, Willamette University.


The student lounge on Canaday's A Floor is furnished with sofas, computers, a large-screen TV, art work on display, zines, paperback novels, and magazines. The lounge's Lusty Cup Café, open evenings until 1 a.m. and self-serve earlier in the day, also provides entertainment acts.

Increased student-faculty engagement
In Bryn Mawr's smart classrooms, faculty can project digital images, videos, and computer screen hookups to other sites. Outside class, they also use instructional technology to communicate with individual students and groups by e-mail, instant messaging (IM), and web pages.

Blackboard, a software package, gives students 24/7 online access to syllabi, assignments, electronic reserve reading, and lecture notes for their courses. Faculty can set up discussion forum boards for the entire class or smaller groups, and archive them for later reference.

Faculty say that the use of electronic communication has only increased their face-to-face interaction with students. "My students tend to use e-mail for specific questions-'I can't figure out this particular problem'-and come to see me with meatier things to discuss," said Professor of Chemistry Michelle Francl, who holds e-mail office hours in the evenings after she has finished reading bedtime stories to her younger son.

"I think students find there's nothing like seeing our own eyes light up when they say something," said Associate Professor of Computer Science Deepak Kumar. "That's very hard to communicate over e-mail or an IM."

"My office hours are much busier than they were 10 years ago, when students didn't attempt brainstorming a paper topic with me," said Associate Professor of English Katherine Rowe. "I tell them, never use e-mail for anything important. 1) You can't control tone-and they're not usually aware when they have a problem with controlling tone. 2) It's not private. I've also been able to do more group work than I could before because less of our time is spent dealing with logistics and more time sending them out into the library together to work on a problem."

cover icon Return to Winter 2003 highlights

MHK