The Chronicle of Higher Education

Date: April 18, 1997

Section: Information Technology

Page: A24

Mount Holyoke Professor Teaches Multimedia With "Frankenstein"

By Ben Gose

South Hadley, Mass. -- Jo Eve Shay hated her computer-programming class in high school, but that didn't stop her from jumping into a course with a high-tech focus at Mount Holyoke College here.

"This isn't programming. This is completely different," says Ms. Shay, a sophomore.

"Frankenstein Meets Multimedia" is different, indeed. Students in the class are reading Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein, learning about the historical developments that prompted her to write it, and publishing their own CD-ROMs on the subject.

Robert M. Schwartz, the history professor who teaches the class, has only recently developed marketing skills that match his passion for computers. Two years ago he taught a course he called "Computing Applications in History and the Humanities." The title was a snoozer, he now concedes -- and hardly a name that would lure the likes of Ms. Shay.

"'Frankenstein Meets Multimedia' has a little more sizzle," he says.

The Frankenstein class, which is making its debut this semester, is the first Mount Holyoke course that requires students to hand in a multimedia project. The course is open to students who have no experience with computers.

The nine women in the class meet twice a week, for two hours at a time. Each Tuesday, they discuss topics related to the novel, which offers up a man-made monster as a consequence of hubristic science. On Thursdays, the students learn how to scan into their campus computers various essays, film clips, poems, and paintings that are related to the book. These items will eventually become part of their CD-ROMs.

In one class, Dr. Schwartz contrasts two of the several films based on the novel, the 1931 Boris Karloff version and Kenneth Branagh's 1994 movie. He stands before an array of multimedia equipment, which occupies about a fifth of the small classroom, and uses a mouse to click on an icon on his monitor. The depiction of the monster's creation in the Branagh film is projected on a


Shelley's novel describes this scene quickly: "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs." The film, however, takes a fair amount of creative license. A bare-chested Mr. Branagh, starring as the scientist Victor Frankenstein, scampers around a laboratory amid explosions of electricity as the monster comes to life.

"There's nothing like this in the novel," Dr. Schwartz says with a chuckle. "This is sort of like 'Rambo meets Frankenstein.'"

He teaches Frankenstein in a history class, he says, because Shelley was heavily influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, as well as by the poetry of the Romantic period. Shelley feared unbridled scientific exploration and viewed nature as both inspiring and humbling.

Those influences make Frankenstein an ideal subject for a multimedia project, Dr. Schwartz says. Students can make hypertext links to paintings of the Romantic period that -- perhaps for the first time in history -- portrayed mountain settings as nurturing. Or they can highlight excerpts from music and poems. Percy Bysshe Shelley -- Mary's husband -- wrote a poem called "Mont Blanc," about the French peak that is the novel's setting.

Because the story has had a persistent impact on popular culture, the students face no shortage of resources. Among the films based on the novel, Dr. Schwartz notes, is a 1910 work by Thomas

Alva Edison.

The students are required to explain these cinematic interpretations in their CD-ROMs. For example, in the classroom they noted a homoerotic subtext in the Branagh film when Frankenstein hugged his newly created monster and tried to raise him from the filthy lab floor. Such a subtext is hard to find in Shelley's novel, the professor says.

Coupling multimedia instruction with traditional history lessons will pay off for students, he believes. "We're giving them intellectual and academic skills, but also helping them to understand how those can be combined with state-of-the-art technology. That's the kind of thing that is useful in the real world."

For serving as a guinea pig, Dr. Schwartz has received a $5,000 grant from the the Multimedia Access Project, an effort by the region's five-college consortium to encourage professors to make greater use of technology in the classroom. In addition to Mount Holyoke, the consortium comprises Amherst, Hampshire, and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Matthew Mattingly, the project's director, calls "Frankenstein Meets Multimedia" a good test case for classes that call for CD-ROMs, a requirement that he thinks is likely to become a trend.

"You're not really experimenting anymore," Mr. Mattingly says. "Students can go from knowing nothing to putting something plausible together in a short time. In the future, students are going to be doing multimedia homework, multimedia theses."

Of course, his job description more or less requires him to promote multimedia technology. Some students are wary of it.

When asked in class by Dr. Schwartz to define "multimedia," Amy Ashcroft, a sophomore, calls it "a buzzword sort of thing."

"It sounds more like hype than an educational tool," she says.

Her observation leads to a question: If multimedia is mostly hype, wouldn't students be better served by forgetting about CD-ROMs and spending more time on history?

"There's always a tradeoff," says Dr. Schwartz. "I do have to eliminate some of the readings, but I don't think I'm being irresponsible." While making the CD-ROMs, he says, students will realize that history is also "produced" by people with their own interests and biases.

Dr. Schwartz calls himself a "computer aficionado," but his academic interests extend well beyond Silicon Valley. He lived in Dijon, France, for two years and is writing a book about rural communities in 18th- and 19th-century France.

As for his students' projects, he expects them to be of high quality. In class, he disparages mass-market CD-ROMs about Charles Dickens and music of the Romantic period as simplistic "high-tech slide shows." He wants students to develop products that are more interactive and that let users find their own paths.

Ms. Shay, the sophomore, says it's too early to tell how her CD-ROM will look. But so far, she says, she's enjoying her quest for an introduction to computing that's more practical -- and more interesting -- than the one she got in high school.

"We can use multimedia to explain things in history or English or whatever," she says. "This is not just computer-oriented stuff."

Copyright (c) 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.

Title: Mount Holyoke Professor Teaches Multimedia With "Frankenstein"

Published: 97/04/18