And she muttered, “it’s still just a tool…”

One of my favorite television shows of all time is a little known Canadian series called Slings & Arrows. In the opening scene of the series the theater director Geoffrey Tennant claims that a theater “does not need phones” in order to function, all it basically needs are a script, actors and a director. This is actually an ongoing theme in the series, where Tennant (who is clearly not completely in his right mind) repeatedly eschews the use of advanced technology (including pyrotechnics during Macbeth) and yet produces stunning performances.

The reason this came to mind was Ms. Rowe’s assertion in ‘Giving Literature Virtual Life’ by Patricia Cohen that it would be “difficult for students to imagine what it would be like to put on a production in the 16th-century Globe, a circular open-air theater without electric lights, microphones and a curtain.” To this I say, get creative. For one thing Pennsylvania’s Renaissance Faire isn’t very far from Bryn Mawr College if one is looking for some sort of recreation. Or, try staging the play in one of the plentiful outdoor spaces on the college campus. Perhaps even venture into Ashbridge Park or, if that is too loud due to traffic on Montgomery Avenue, head a few more blocks over to Harriton Park.

The possibilities abound. Is the virtual stage a reasonable possibility? Absolutely. It is one of several ways that the content of that lesson can be taught. But, it is still just a tool, just one way to get at a certain base of knowledge or experience, and it is by no means the only way. If Geoffrey Tennant can bring forth the power of the storm at the opening of Tempest using a mostly broken light system and a toilet plunger, Rowe could create the feeling of the 16th-century Globe even without nifty new technology.

I’m not against this technology, I just don’t see it as anything beyond a tool at this point. A handy tool at times, a distraction at other times – who here can beat my record on Minesweeper? – but still just a tool. Not a revolutionizing artifact. If anything has had the greatest impact on the minds and analytical skills of students today, it is the policies incurred by the travesty of No Child Left Behind. Which, makes me a social determinist rather than a technological one.

This opinion I have is not altered by the stories in ‘Scholars Recruit Public for Project’ and ‘Digital Maps are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land’ also both by Patricia Cohen. The former, is an article about how the University College London is using the public to transcribe Jeremy Bentham’s work from handwritten chicken scrawl to the digital format. This is a very laudable project, and it would be good to have all of his and numerous other historical individuals’ writings available to everyone.

There are two points to be made here: The first is that the transcribing for the Bentham project still has to be “reviewed and corrected by editors.” So it isn’t as if this is a magical solution, it is still something that requires professional knowledge. In fact, this approach was abandoned in regards to Abraham Lincoln’s work. “[Nonacademic transcribers] produced so many errors and gaps in the papers that ‘we were spending more time and money correcting them as creating them from scratch.’”

The second point is that this isn’t terribly different than the role that many monasteries and monks played during the Dark Ages, copying over and over classical texts so that they would not be lost in time. We owe those monks a great debt. In a sense, this is what is happening with the Bentham project, where the older written material is being preserved, although admittedly this is (hopefully) a more finite exercise where it will be done once and won’t have to be done again.

Still, I say, just a tool. A fabulous tool, but a tool nonetheless.

Digital maps, those discussed in the article ‘Digital Maps Are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land’ are to me the most useful of these tools. But still, just a tool. The goal has remained the same, essentially. Why did General Lee and other military leaders make the decisions that they made during the Civil War (and other wars)? Arriving at that understanding has been pursued through reading their writings, examining interviews with them from the time, and other means. This, while unarguably cool in a cybergeek sort of way, is just another tool.

Admittedly, it is my favorite tool. However, I continue to mutter in front of my laptop with Luddite undertones and a fair amount of hypocrisy, “stop getting so excited about tools, and start getting excited about the content.”