The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: April 18, 1997
Section: Information Technology
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
"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
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
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
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
"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"