"Classical Myths and American Literature" on the Web

"Classical Myths and American Literature" is a graduate-level course I teach in the Master of English/Master of Liberal Studies program of University College, the continuing education division of Northwestern University. It is aimed at mature students who often live far from campus and lead busy lives juggling work, family, and education. We meet once a week, and the class has a discussion/lecture format. Historical and socio-cultural backgrounds are provided by my introductory mini-lectures and the in-class oral presentations of individual students, but there is still a certain amount of information that must either be left out or handed out in book or photocopied form.

I created a Web site for the class for two reasons. First of all, I felt it would be useful to my students for me to post important background information on the Web, and secondly, thanks to University College I was able to participate in a TiLT (Technology in Learning and Teaching) seminar to help me do this with expert help. Thus, my Web page emerged from the serendipitous linking of need and opportunity. The TiLT seminar, offered by the Learning Technology Group of Academic Computing at Northwestern University, is an intensive, hands-on three-day seminar that introduces academics, librarians, and others to the digital environment and provides practical guidance in concrete projects.

A Web site allowed me to offer my students important background material on the influence of the classical tradition on nineteenth-century and twentieth-century American architecture and art. In order to point them outwards to the constantly growing number of World Wide Web materials on the classical world, I created a link to the Perseus Project of Tufts University, which gives students access to a huge compilation of online resources on ancient Greece, including Greek mythology, art, and architecture. My Web page also contains the usual course outline and requirements, which can be modified for future use.

Aims of the Course

In the class we read literature, primarily fiction, which contains significant retellings of or allusions to the Greek and Roman myths. In the nineteenth century, the ways most Americans were exposed to these myths were through an elitist college education (mainly aimed at men) and books, as well as (most commonly) by the viewing of sculpture, at the time widely considered the epitome of all art. Americans abroad saw classical statues and reliefs as specimens of classical art, and copies were shipped to the United States. In addition, neo-classical sculpture flourished in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, providing vital means through which the classical myths could enter the American imagination.

It is therefore imperative to show students the most important statues mentioned in the literature we read (such as Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun, where a number of statues, both classical and sculpted by American artists, have highly symbolic functions). What I had been doing before ["Before" meaning "before implementing the course web page"? -N] was bringing in bulky art and architecture books with examples of sculpture and paintings, as well as Greek Revival and other neo-classical architectural styles, to show the students in class. I also gave them some photocopied examples, which lost much visual detail in the process of duplication.

Using a Class Website to Meet the Goals of the Course

For my Web site, I scanned images from the NU Art History Department Slide Library and a variety of books, using Adobe Photoshop to adjust and crop the image, and Claris Home Page to edit images and text. The images are divided into two sections—Art and Architecture. The Architecture section is dominated by a stunning eighteenth-century rendering of the interior of the Roman Pantheon, a building that looms large in several of the works we read. The rest of this section is taken up by nineteenth-century examples of Greek Revival in the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest, as well as two examples of postmodern architecture that make use of classical sources.

The Art section is larger. It features examples of classical statuary important to nineteenth-century Americans (such as the Venus de Medici) and American neo-classical sculpture, and it also demonstrates the combination of neo-classical architecture and sculpture at the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893. I also incorporated a few examples of nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings of classical and mythological subjects, such as Arcadia, Eros, Penelope, Apollo, and Daphne.

Conscious that not all students’ computers would have the capabilities of mine, I made these images small, adjusting size and contrast, hoping that students would at least get a taste of the original; the color came out very well on the computer screen. The black-and-white representations of sculpture and architecture turned out exceptionally well after I adjusted their contrast, and the images retain much of their clarity when printed out. I also added some introductory text and quotations from a variety of authors to complement the images and supplement class information, such as quotes from Henry James’s novel Roderick Hudson that clarify nineteenth-century attitudes to the Greek myths and to classical and neo-classical art.

I was, of course, keenly aware of the necessity to carefully document all my images and quotations for copyright purposes and to assign credit correctly. This appears to be very much a gray area in Web page design. I gave my sources as I would in a scholarly article, following the MLA guidelines for text and using annotations of the images. Given that this material is addressed to students of a university course, I consider it fair usage.

On the whole, my students responded very positively to the Web site. Some were not comfortable with the World Wide Web, and needed a little prompting to use it. Others, better acquainted with electronic technology than I, asked me to put in a direct link to my e-mail (an excellent idea that I had not thought of earlier) and to add a discussion section, so we could all engage in a dialogue about the class whenever inspiration struck; this is a feature I might add the next time I teach the course. The Web page offered my students certain clear advantages. They all appreciated having their course outline and class requirements available online, having easy access to more general resources through the link with the Perseus Project, and most importantly, being able to view material crucial to the class at any hour without having to come to the library to check materials out of reserve or resorting to grainy black-and-white photocopies of the originals. [Good summary. I suggest that you consider your "next steps." What did you learn from what the students learned, how do you feel about the use of the web to supplement instruction, what will you do for future courses, what are its possible limitations, how can the TiLT program help you in taking these next steps? -N]

[This really would benefit from a discussion of why you made the choices you did, a bit more specifically on the format of the pages, an indication of how and why the addition of the pages changed your teaching style, and a mention of what else you might choose to do the same or differently in the future. If you would like to discuss how the TiLT seminar influenced your choices, what things they advocate, and how they were helpful, this could also make a good Faculty and Staff Development article.]


Critical Reviews

There is nothing really new presented here—it sounds like a typical first experience on the Web, with the random discoveries that entails. It would seem more useful to publish the author's next syllabus reflecting Web integration as a result of this experience?