picture of Timothy Lenoir Timothy Lenoir


The Word and the World

As part of the project to revise the introductory humanities (IHUM) requirement for all Stanford freshmen in 1997, an initiative was launched to experiment with uses of technology in teaching. I responded to that initiative by proposing a course and assembling a teaching team for the fall IHUM course "Word and the World" (offered during three academic years from 1997 to 2000) which took a unique approach to Stanford's freshman humanities requirement. This course presented works that are world-making in the broadest sense: texts that help to found cultures, political systems, notions of selfhood and humanity. These works were the biblical Book of Genesis, the Chinese classic Shang shu [The Book of Documents], Descartes' Meditations, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the film Blade Runner (The Director's Cut). "Word and the World" was designed and taught by a team that consisted of a history of science professor, Timothy Lenoir; a professor of Asian languages, Haun Saussy; and a professor of English, Larry Friedlander, who co-directed the Stanford Learning Lab, a research unit in Stanford's School of Engineering studying innovative uses of technology in education. Two postdoctoral teaching fellows, both literary scholars, completed the teaching team.
Beyond a partnership among diverse academic departments, "Word and the World" represented a unique collaboration among the humanities, engineering, and education research: the course served as a testbed for the Learning Lab's emphasis on technology in the classroom. The Learning Lab's efforts focused particularly on solving problems encountered in traditional pedagogical settings; for instance, the dissatisfaction students often feel with large lecture courses.

"Word and the World" incorporated innovative pedagogy and computer technology at every level, from course design to oral and written assignments. Students explored specially created websites offering backgrounds on the assigned texts. They also participated in ongoing on-line discussions of the works with other students and with faculty. Used as tools for continuous feedback on student learning, these on-line discussions often provided faculty members starting points for their lectures; in this way the students in the course helped direct the teaching into areas of their own concern and interest. The course avoided another traditional aspect of a lecture course, where one faculty member lectures while students silently take notes, by diversifying the personnel at the podium: faculty members delivered lectures they had developed together, and they invited groups of students the chance to prepare and present panel responses to lectures.

In order to motivate rereading of the texts, and to facilitate the presentation of different approaches in the humanities, the teaching team structured "Word and the World" into two parts, each of which dealt with all five texts. The first five-week pass through the material presented close readings of texts, supplemented with only the most basic historical and contextual background. In this first pass the faculty lecturers demonstrated literary and philosophical approaches, focusing on themes of identity and subjectivity as constituted in the texts. The teaching team organized the second five-week pass around two types of approach, generally categorized in terms of "strands" and "contexts." "Strands" lectures explored intertextual readings among the five primary texts: for instance, the notion of legitimacy and its illegitimate double in Hamlet and Descartes' Meditations, or defining "the human" in Genesis, Hamlet, and Blade Runner. Through lectures labeled "contexts," faculty members provided exemplary readings which emphasized the historical location, production, and subsequent receptions of the text. In focusing on how the texts were received in different places and at different times, the teaching team introduced students to the concept of the "engaged reader": the reader with a stake in a particular interpretation who develops a method or style of reading in order to displace other established readings.

During four of the first five weeks of the course students wrote short papers in which they exercised a specific skill such as close reading of a literary passage or critical analysis of a philosophical argument. The second five-week segment featured two longer writing assignments, in which students analyzed an intertextual strand in the reading or researched and presented a context relevant to a particular text. These reading practices required skills that built on the ones developed in the first five weeks. Then the students employed all these accumulated skills in the final project for the course. This last assignment took the place of a more traditional final exam. By foregoing the conventional final exam, "Word and the World" enabled students to display their methodological mastery, their critical analysis and deep learning in a more extended context.

For the final project, students worked in teams of three to write a tripartite textual analysis, including a close reading, a strand, and a context of some element among the five primary texts in the course. Each student in a group was responsible for producing one of the written parts of the project. They were graded individually on these separate parts. As a team, they added a statement of purpose for the project as a whole, and created a public presentation for the project. The students presented these projects--which ranged in form from oral presentations to websites to puppet shows--at a multimedia fair held at the end of the quarter during the registrar-scheduled time in which the course would have administered its final exam.
The rationale for the group-based projects was to replace the standard way of organizing labor in humanities research. The final projects substituted a model of collaboration for the traditional image of the totally independent scholar, alone in a book-filled study. In addition to offering this important experience, the teaching team intended for the group projects to improve students' oral communication skills as they articulated ideas within their groups and presented their final projects to the class as a whole.

The course is now in the IHUM archive of classes. Some of the original content, such as video segments, and the opening screen, which was a daily bulletin board that presented individual students with the latest form responses to their previous day's postings and listed all assignments, has been taken down. The general course organization and assignments are still viewable at the archived Word and the World site.

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