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(Interview with Jack Wolcott, continued)
JRW: At the University of Washington, about half of a faculty member's teaching is with undergraduates, the other half with graduate students. From the beginning, I felt it was important to involve all of my students in my work. After all, it was for them and their learning that the University existed. So in 1984, when the Olympus Project began, I announced to my undergraduate classes that I needed help. From those who responded, a core of six or eight students emerged, a core which renewed itself each year. Eventually, the University provided funding so that interested students could be paid for working part-time in my computer lab. The graduate students were enthusiastic from the start, and I quickly incorporated computing into doctoral research and seminars. The Pergamon drawings, to which I have alluded, grew out of a research project that was revisiting archaeological site drawings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Our laboratory, from 1984 until I left the University in 1998, was part of my office, which was quite large, located under the eves in the attic of the School of Drama building. With my students we build work stations, removed and added interior walls and, eventually, ran wire throughout the building for a computer network. Little of this involved university funding. The wire was salvaged from one of the science buildings, with technical support for the network provided quietly by computer staff in the College of Arts and Sciences. Any student who agreed to work with me was provided a key to the office/laboratory. I trusted them, and they never betrayed that trust.
Over time, the laboratory acquired five computers, attached to quite an assortment of peripheral machinery and to the University's network backbone via a pirated connection in the Drama Library. Students often brought in software of their own to serve their specialized computing needs. We eventually were able to hire a half-time staff member, who kept things in good order for us all.
L.C.: You mentioned your interest in hypertext. How was that incorporated into your work with the students?
JRW: I've always believed that life is chaos, and have long suspected that human endeavor to provide order merely impedes the enjoyment of living. Nothing delights a child more than surprises and chance encounters; nothing proves more stultifying than regimentation. Hypertext gave us an opportunity to do a great deal of research into how people experienced learning and, ultimately, to find a means of creating "structured chaos".
Our first effort produced the Florimène material to which I've alluded before. Six undergraduate students met with me once a week for ten weeks, during which time we explored the concept of hypertext. As an exercise, they worked together at taking a short document and making it hypertextual. I don't recall what the document was, but I remember the excitement among the group when they came to the realization that creating hypertext meant more than linking to other sources, that it meant rethinking the basic premise of how to present the material in the document.
From these tutorials grew the software for Florimène, a masque which we had been examining in an undergraduate theatre history class. The students did all of the CADD drawings, discovering along the way how to make three-dimensional drawings using a two-dimensional CADD program. They also wrote the tutorial.
Florimène's structure reflects the ideas of William Perry, whose work the students had read and discussed. The software has a tightly structured tutorial for the "dualist," and an Index for those who are comfortable browsing, finding their own way through the material.
Florimène was tested by more than 50 pairs of students before we released it for general use. We worked with the University of Washington Center for Instructional Development and Research on this, and were interested in seeing how students would make use of the program. To our delight, students we had previously identified to be "dualists" tended to head straight for the Tutorial. Some would try an item or two from the Index, conclude that they "didn't know what they were supposed to be doing," and retreat to the Tutorial. Students further along toward Perry's stage of "contextual relativism" tended to ignore the Tutorial and head straight for the Index.
L.C.: Did you continue working with students after Florimène?
JRW: I did. Two major pieces of research followed: The Philadelphia Project and The 19th Century London Stage. All that remains of The Philadelphia Project is the set of drawings of the Chestnut Street Theatre. The reason for this illustrates the way in which our research was undertaken or, to extend my environmental metaphor, it illustrates our passage through the landscape.
With The Philadelphia Project I set out to discover how a long-term, far- reaching research project could be used to educate students in theatre history. In other words, The Philadelphia Project was a learning environment. Many years earlier I had identified the drawings of the main floor ground plan and of the elevation of the first theatre building erected for professional performance in the United States, the Chestnut Street Theatre, opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1794. Working with undergraduate students, I began using 2D and 3D CADD (Generic CADD) to develop detailed architectural drawings of the theatre. Everything above the first floor was developed from sketches made by workers at the Chestnut Street Theatre, and from accounts left by actors and other artists who worked there. Students became immersed in Georgian architectural and construction practices, and in the cultural life of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
As we worked on the drawings - work which took more than four years to complete - we developed a hypertext document that integrated the drawing with the sources from which it was drawn. This work was done in Guide(tm). As news of this project became known on the University campus and in Seattle, I was approached by curators from the Textile Collection of the Henry Art Gallery. Would I be interested in including late 18th and early 19th century clothing in the project? The collaboration with the Henry Gallery eventually led to the development of a laser disk, the contents of which were also integrated into the hypertext web that was being woven around the theatre building.