The Role of Graduate Students in Humanities Computing at a Multiversity: The UC Berkeley Humanities and Technology Project

Diane Harley
Center for Studies in Higher Education
Berkeley Multimedia Research Center
South Hall Annex, MC4650
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-4650

Research universities or "multiversities" (Kerr, 1994) are under increasing pressure to develop and evaluate models of how best to utilize the new digital communication technologies to enhance their complex institutional missions of research, undergraduate teaching, and service (Trow, 1997). There are many institutional models that promote the importance of centralized support structures (e.g., Bates, 1997, Katz and Associates; 1999, Laurillard, 1995). These models may be particularly useful for institutions that have either identified distance education as their primary mission, or have made strategic decisions to engage regular faculty in distance education activities, or are small in size.

They may not, however, prove entirely useful for institutions where research is emphasized and more than a few faculty are skeptical of technology's educational potential. In these latter environments, creating strategies that will involve more than a handful of regular faculty in educational technology development and innovation will require discipline-specific and faculty-sanctioned approaches that serve the tightly coupled missions of research, undergraduate teaching, and graduate student training and placement. The latter is especially pressing in the humanities, where there is currently an oversupply of Ph.D's relative to the academic job market, and a perception that the relevance of humanists to the world outside of academe is waning (Weisbuch, 1999). These trends, combined with predictions for a transformation of the academic labor market (Schuster, 1997) and burgeoning opportunities for Mode II knowledge production in the "culture industry" (Gibbons et al., 1994), suggest novel approaches for preparing humanities graduate students for the world beyond the Ph.D.

This paper will briefly describe the genesis, status, and impact of a model that attempts to address the training and support of humanities graduate students in the creation and dissemination of web-based curricular materials. The U.C. Berkeley's Humanities and Technology (H&T) Project ( was a response to the frustration experienced by humanities faculty on the UC Berkeley campus with regard to the absence of a comprehensible institutional, financial, and on-line support structure (Campus Computing Commission Report; 1998; Faculty Internet Survey, 1998). This project's goals are: (1) To support the integration of WWW and Internet applications into humanities teaching and research; (2) Provide graduate student support and training in utilizing these technologies; (3) Provide a one-stop, technologically "smart" venue where graduate students can meet to share knowledge and collaborate in developing new Internet applications.

From its inception, the H&T Project's primary assumption has been that most humanities faculty themselves have neither the time nor the interest in becoming computer experts--but they do need help in utilizing internet tools for their teaching and research. Our conviction has been that graduate students, provided with sufficient resources, are the best source of faculty support for technology applications. In that spirit, we set out to create a low-cost and administratively simple model that attempts to assemble a core of graduate students with working knowledge of Web technology. These graduate students have the opportunity to directly share that knowledge with those faculty and 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 pedagogy and scholarship rather than technology.

We agree with Katz (1999) that technology will only enhance humanities scholarship if scholars familiar with the content are directing the endeavor. We would further suggest that at a research university like UC Berkeley, graduate students, both those who are beginning to explore a field and those who have a firm grasp of their dissertation topics, are an excellent interface between the faculty member and the application. Technical specialists, although essential, cannot understand the scholarly and pedagogical principles that must underlie good materials development. By supporting graduate students in their experimentation, the university can help generate new electronic resources that will enhance the creation, transmission, preservation, and assessment of knowledge. An important corollary of this activity is that the knowledge that is created and preserved can be accessed by those populations, such as high school students and teachers, that have been traditionally underserved by university scholars.

Centralized support structures are certainly useful for many of the problems research universities face in integrating new communication technologies into academic missions. Additional strategies that are geared specifically to the requirements of humanities computing need to be crafted as well. These strategies should ensure that faculty have easy access to low-level technical support and that serious enthusiasts are provided with resources to develop sophisticated applications. They should also provide a pool of money earmarked for graduate student experimentation with Web-based curricular materials. These latter resources, wisely deployed, can be a cost-effective and productive way to invest both in the creation of digital curricular resources and in the future careers of humanities graduate students.

Indeed, training and supporting graduate students in creative uses of web technologies can help them compete more effectively in the academic job market in obvious ways. Less obvious, but no less important, is how this training and support can prepare graduate students for employment in a booming culture industry. Gibbons et al. (1994) suggest that the radical influence of new technologies on this industry, and its increasing dependence on visual sensibility and oral skills, is redefining what it means to be literate. By providing graduate students with tools to communicate the importance of the humanities more effectively to the wider world, universities can take up Weisbuch's (1999) challenge and unleash the humanities from the insularity of academe.


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