Sunday, October 25, 2009

Technology and Education--Really Cool Toys

This will probably be an ongoing feature of the Owl of Athena, because I keep happening on items that encourage optimism about the future of education. Such encounters are not as frequent as I'd like in order for me to become generally more sanguine about where we're going, but they do help make up for all the rain we've been having lately, which has damaged some books I had stupidly stored in my garage.

The British Library has applied digital page-turning software to a selection of books in its collection, and the results are stunning: The Luttrell Psalter, the Lindisfarne Gospel (with its bejewelled cover in exquisite detail), one of Leonardo's notebooks, Jane Austen's History of England (written by hand when she was thirteen years old)--and more.

The technology, which allows readers to use a mouse to "turn" the pages, makes it almost like actually performing the act of page-turning, except for the texture of the page itself (which you wouldn't be able to feel anyway, because you'd be wearing cotton gloves if you had the text in front of you). The pages aren't merely visible, either; rotate, magnify, zoom, or move the pages about on the screen, and listen to or read commentary on them. For my History of Art & Design I students, this may well prove a valuable resource, when it comes time to solve the final design problem--creating an illuminated manuscript of your own.

The technology serves not only codices (both right- and left-reading), but volumes, like the Dering Roll, a three-meter long scroll of heraldic devices (featured on the Turning the Pages website). If you can't figure out how to use the icons, the "get help" link supplies clear instructions, and you can minimize the tool bar and otherwise "personalise" your experience as well. Unfortunately, only select pages are featured from the books featured on the British Library site, twenty three at the moment, but each one includes rich examples of what the book contains.

Some aspects seem a little silly--like the 3D option on the menu, which is otherwise helpful because it offers a choice of categories: in case, for example, you're interested in Science and Nature but not in Religious texts. Some of the categories are empty, but provide an idea of what will eventually be available.

Alas, the program currently (in its TTP 2.0 form) only works on PCs running XP or Vista. Some small recompense, perhaps, for those who haven't been completely converted to the Mac cosmos.

The same browser application powers the "Explore the Manuscripts" segment of the English Heritage page on Charles Darwin's home, Down House. Five of Darwin's notebooks are available, and all but the Beagle Diary can be viewed in their entirety.

The folks who made this software possible, Armadillo Systems, have developed it (according to managing director Michael Stocking's blog) to "to help museums and libraries provide access and interpretation for their collections." Since many of us will probably never go abroad again, much less obtain access to the rare book collections of the British Library, I can't think of a more noble cause. I also love the emphasis on interpretation, because that's the engine that drives learning, and the broader our perspective (including encounters with primary texts in their original form), the more fluent the interpretation. Now I just have to drive more of my students toward learning Greek and/or Latin, and I can die happy. Some considerable time in the future, I hope.

Image credit: The first page of Matthew's Gospel, from the Lindisfarne Gospel. Wikimedia Commons. For a much more intimate and true-to-life encounter, go to the British Library link mentioned in the post.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Metaphors Be With You

I usually start the quarter out talking about the necessity of metaphor in the learning process, but the manifold uses of metaphor and translation in everyday life have been popping up everywhere, prompting this post.

As some of you already know, I'm not an enormous fan of "self help" culture or new-agey spiritual quests, but every now and then I come across a book that falls into one or both of these categories and that proves both useful and interesting. One, Michael Gelb's How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, is especially helpful in teaching my students about the importance of making connections (connessione) and embracing ambiguity (sfumato) in the development of creativity. It's so useful, in fact, that I carry it around on my cart (portable office) from class to class, and more than one student has been inspired to check it out of the library.

More recently I happened on Norman Fischer's Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls (New York: Free Press, 2008), which was on the cheap deal rack at Borders. Always on the lookout for material my students can use for research on their illuminated manuscript project (the "Lotus Eaters" episode in The Odyssey is one of their choices), I thumbed through it and what little I read I found rather engaging. Fischer is a Buddhist monk, and my long association with the East has made me more sympathetic to Buddhists than to most established religions (I've actually know some pretty cool Buddhists who used to hang out with the Benedictine priests we visited in mountain missions in Taiwan). So I bought it. At three bucks it was cheap at twice the price (as the old saw goes).

While reading through the first chapter, "The Sea of Stories," I found Fischer's treatment of metaphor and its value to storytelling insightful and potentially useful. As he points out, "Creating, processing, and interpreting stories is a major industry" (13), and my students are some of that industry's future purveyors. They're taking my classes in order to help them become better storytellers. In his introduction, Fischer notes that "metaphors condition, far more than we realize, the way we think about ourselves and our world, and therefore the way we are and act" (7), and thus significantly influence the kinds of stories we tell, and our ability to tell them creatively.

As I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I'm fond of Gerald Holton's concept of the "cultural pool of metaphor" from which we draw images and ideas that have collected through the cultural experiences of ourselves and our ancestors. And my students probably get tired of hearing me say that "the more you know, the more you can know," because the more you know, the more metaphors you absorb, and the more lenses you have through which to interpret the world. The lens Fischer offers in his book asks us to look at an odyssey as a journey--not a quest, but a journey home. Students who come to understand that metaphor not only know Homer's world better, but can in turn (in Fischer's view) apply that understanding to their own world.

Not long after I finished the first chapter of Sailing Home, and sat down to work, I remembered that I was supposed to look up the word that refers to the human tendency to see patterns where they don't necessarily exist. I found it in the Skeptic's Dictionary: pareidolia, from the Greek para (beside) and eidos (image). It's the phenomenon that encourages people to see faces on Mars and Jesus in tortillas, and has people running to see the Virgin's image in a tree trunk. It's actually an aspect of metaphorical thinking, at least in Gregory Bateson's sense of "seeing as." Since Bateson was a psychologist as well as an anthropologist, it makes sense that he would recognize metaphor as the basis of some psychological practices and processes--like using the Rorschach test.

Pareidolia may also be at the root of some cave paintings, like the "Wounded" or "Leaping" bison from Altamira Cave, where cracks and contours on the cave wall may have suggested the positions of some of the figures. When we look up at the clouds like Opal and Earl (in one of my favorite comic strips, Pickles) or the folks in Strange Brew or Red and Rover and imagine seeing images of animals or other miscellaneous items, we're engaging in metaphor-making on a very basic level.

Parody is another example of "seeing as" and also an example of Terry Barrett's adage that "All art is in part about other art." Being able to see Michelangelo's David in a pair of Calvin Klein Jeans is pretty silly--but it probably could sell the jeans because David is a pretty fair model of a man (another metaphorical construct), as any giggly high school girl in Florence can tell you. I used to have my students produce parodies of famous art works--that is, at least, until I got one too many "booty call" renditions of Ingres's Grande Odalisque. Various artists have created major works that parody those of others, such as Picasso's play on Velasquez's Las Meninas.

Metaphor is such a basic aspect of human intellectual experience that I can't imagine creativity operating without it. Unfortunately, reduced to its most banal, metaphor becomes cliché, and loses its instructive and inspirational energy. But as long as we keep encouraging our students to learn more for the sake of learning, and to expand their storytelling horizons by filling up that cultural pool with new, inventive, different, meaningful, and invigorating metaphors, we'll be doing them and ourselves an enormous favor.

Image Source: "Nausicaa Playing Ball with her Maidens," one of John Flaxman's illustrations for the 1810 edition of The Odyssey. I chose this one because it illustrates the moment when Odysseus begins the final leg of his journey home and entertains Nausicaa's parents with stories of his adventures. It's also the segment of the story that inspired the opening scene for More News From Nowhere. I cleaned the image up a little, but got it from Wikimedia Commons. Fittingly enough, Athena herself appears, floating behind the young women.

A note on the title of this post: I stole it from a bumper sticker.