Media migrations: reflections on CALI so far…

by Paul Maharg on 20/06/2008

In her book Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, Lisa Jardine has this passage, on the development of printing in northern Europe:

In October 1513 the Low Countries printer Thierry Martens published a new commentary on a standard legal text by a distinguished professor of law at the University of Louvain. In a prefatory letter to his student readers Martens explained how the volume had come about:

Professor Nicholas Heems, doctor of humanities and oustanding professor of law, was tutoring a small number of privileged students in private, in his home, dictating to them an introduction to the Institutes of Justinian. By this excellent means he was able to make the whole subject of jurisprudence easier for them. Some of these young people transcribed their master’s lectures with great accuracy, and later showed him their notes. When he realized how much they had benefited from his coaching he judged it appropriate to use the art of printing to produce a thousand copies. I, the printer, agreeing that such a book would profit you as students of law, and greatly advance your studies, accepted the handwritten text from your master, and produced a large number of copies in my printing house. Here I offer the fruits of my labour to the Faculty of Law. If you like this little work, in a few months I will produce more printed texts on the same sort of subject.

I like this passage for the insights it gives us on the process of media migration. First there is the intimate circle of master and students — a set-piece of education that goes back as far as the Stoa, but here there’s the nice touch of Heems meeting the students in his own house. Next, we have transcription of what surely is less a lecture and more a tutorial, but nevertheless something that is highly structured. Is Heems talking from memory? Perhaps, but it’s clear that the students are taking highly detailed notes. The next step is crucial. The students show Heems the notes, who realises the pedagogic, commercial and reputational import of them. Heems or the publisher initially decide to publish as a book. But what happened to the students’ IP, and their efforts in collating the notes? We’re not told. Yet they played a crucial role in the transaction. Heems may not have published earlier because of the effort of transcription, structuring, checking, etc that the students undertook for him.

That’s one reading of the passage. But another would focus on the migration of knowledge from manuscript to print cultures. Note that the three drivers of pedagogy, commerce and reputation are key. Heems could have looked at the students and decided that a summa of the notes would be sufficient — another manuscript, summarising the student notes that summarised his lectures. But instead Heems switched technology platform to print, the leap into the renaissance flood of textuality.

Now look at e-Langdell. Are the three drivers still there, for staff considering its use? Pedagogy is a strong driver for any member of law school staff entering e-Langdell: the ‘negative space’ that Gene Koo remarked on is sufficient driver to at least consider it as a platform for course resource creation. Reputation — possibly strong too, particularly if you’re writing a casebook for the first time. For popular, well-published authors, more complex issues. Difficult to bridge from text into the digital arena, until folk begin to assemble a set of resources that clearly cannot be incorporated in a book — podcasts, video, etc. Commerce — for many casebook writers a no-brainer, surely, except for popular authors with an income stream. But there’s a fourth point. Heems may well have known of the new technology of moveable type, but it would appear from Martens’ preface that it wasn’t until a publisher/printer was there that Heems was able to make the critical step. So the technology needed a local champion. The same will be true of e-Langdell.

A passage such as this extract from Martens’ preface is important because we can understand the process that we’re going through ourselves by observing how the process was handled in other places, other times. Will e-Langdell succeed in creating a community of practice? I think it will depend on whether it can address the four issues identified above, most of which surfaced in the e-Langdell and Wiseman sessions noted in the postings below. One final point. Note the elite scene Martens describes — the little group of students in Heems’ house, a model that’s not really possible to expand or alter, and which probably existed for at least three centuries in European legal education. With the appearance of the book of Heems’ (or rather the student!) notes, though, students no longer need to go to Heems’ house, they don’t need to go to his lectures, and identical copies of his lectures can travel great distances. E-Langdell takes this further. What e-Langdell provides is the ability for staff to meet by sharing work virtually, and for students to share in the fruits of that. In a curious way, we are back to a version, a virtual version, of that intimate circle in Professor Heems’ house, but with Heems and many colleagues dialoguing, creating resources endlessly.

Which is why CALI is such a great conference. It too acts as a meeting place where faculty, IT staff, instructional designers, librarians, administrators and many others can meet and learn from each other. The nearest we have in the UK is the BILETA conference, but in recent years the learning and ICT stream has diminished, for a variety of reasons. CALI, by contrast, has grown and deepened. Once an organisation and a conference defined narrowly by its set of CALI lessons, it is now at the cutting edge of richly-creative applications that are extending the reach and range of legal pedagogies and implementations. It’s a humbling experience being here, and learning so much.

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