What a new-fangled web he weaves

December 18, 1998

Alan Liu runs 'The Voice of the Shuttle', a gateway to all humanities subjects posted on the internet

Alan Liu compares his website to a giant redwood tree that is growing and dying at the same time as new links are added and old ones go out of date and die.

Liu, an expert on the poet William Wordsworth, runs "The Voice of the Shuttle", one of the world wide web's largest sites devoted to arts subjects. The site, started in 1994, is named after a lost play of Sophocles in which a woman, whose tongue was torn out by the evil king who raped her, can only reveal the truth in a wondrous web or tapestry that she weaves.

Even though Liu spends up to two hours a night working on the site, whenever his schedule at the University of California, Santa Barbara allows, he says he cannot keep it in perfect order because the site operates as a gateway to all humanities subjects posted on the web. It has links to everything - from the design drawings of Leonardo da Vinci to the Sanskrit home page, from Beowulf to the Klingon Language Institute. It offers what the web promises but rarely delivers: access to extraordinary resources in navigable form.

By teatime on the day Liu spoke to The THES, the site had received 23,000 "hits'' from 4,437 machines. Eighty machines had "visited'' from Canada, and 1 from the United Kingdom. One of the hazards, in fact, is the "insane questions'' that arrive via email, which Liu used to pass on to colleagues, but now seldom answers. Schoolchildren will ask for help with their homework, demanding to know just who are the main characters in Moby Dick. "This is a medium that is odd for an academic,'' says Liu. "It makes us naked to the world. Lo and behold, I've got a real audience there."

Specialist and personal, "The Voice of the Shuttle" is the antithesis of a grab-all internet search engine. But Liu fears he is fighting a losing battle to be discriminating about what the site links to. At last count, the in-box had nearly 300 suggestions for new links. His religious studies page is a particular headache. Liu tries to vet links to those that proselytise. Gender studies is another contentious area. Men's studies groups send angry demands that they should get as much coverage as the women.

So how did an arts academic get involved in such a high-tech enterprise? "I've had a life-long interest in technology, in computers and so on," Liu says. "But I've also had a long-term interest in Wordsworth. Every male member of my family was an engineer, part of the brain-drain of immigrants into this country. I have always had these two interests, one literature, the other technology.

"One morning I had this revelation that the contextual research that I was doing, with its fanatical adherence to research into the texts of the past, bore an uncanny resemblance to information research. I realised that, in a strange way, I had become a data processor."

Liu is writing a book that grapples with the "clash of assumptions'' between what knowledge means to arts academics and what it means in the world of business.

"We are told that industry now is all about knowledge, all about information work, all about brain work as opposed to manual work. We are told especially that this kind of work facilitates a different relationship to time,'' Liu says.

"Post-industrialism is about just-in-time as opposed to just-in-case; it's about flexibility, quickness, speed-up; everything one month or even one week old is obsolete.

"So there is this stunning contrast between knowledge as it is understood in the academy and knowledge in the world of business. We think of knowledge as primarily historical, they think of knowledge as of-the-minute."

Liu says that he is trying to let each perspective criticise the other. "A lot of my academic colleagues have this almost automatic hostility towards any inkling that we should see our students as customers, that universities must now be part of the corporate production structure.

"From the other perspective, it's astonishing how shallow and shrill the attitude of business is towards traditional education. All the million-seller business books seem to have in them a chapter that is a jeremiad against a traditional education, how it is not able to create the informationally competent person that business requires.

"I would like to tell business that there's something to be learned from a historical view of knowledge and I would like to tell my colleagues that this whole phenomenon of the university being corporatised isn't only about the bottom line, it isn't only about dollars and efficiency, it is also about the overlap between two concepts of knowledge, and that's what a few of us aren't getting."

The style of arts teaching in universities, Liu says, is anathema to the dominant corporate model of teamwork. Faculty are locked, he says, in an "intense bi-directional circuit'', of question and response, where a teacher stares at students and they stare back. In his own classes involving website construction, he wants to see students stand shoulder to shoulder with professors and look at a common object that the class is building, more in line with a laboratory. Liu's assignments to undergraduates include working in teams creating, for instance, a website that reflects on subjects such as the wars over the English literary canon.

What is needed is a critical consciousness of the new technology, Liu says. "It is one thing for students to be presented with a Beowulf poem that is extensively hyperlinked and gimmicked up by a professor, and an entirely different thing to ask students to take a text and create, say, a hyperlinked commentary on it.

"That brings it to life in a much more real way. It would be wonderful to assign students a hundred lines of Beowulf and to make a hyperlinked artefact out of this to anything on the world wide web. A link to a site about baseball movies might, to the curious undergraduate mind, offer a unique perspective."JTC Alan Liu will speak at a workshop as part of the MLA presidential forum on 'Nice Work'.

The Voice of the Shuttle can be found at http://humanitas.ucsb. edu

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