ITP student Jesse Merandy (English) reflects on his independent study project
Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun . . . . there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand . . . . nor look through the
eyes of the dead . . . . nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Walking with Whitman: A Downloadable Walt Whitman Walking Tour is a mobile learning experience that takes users to the streets of Brooklyn Heights to actively engage Walt Whitman on the same grounds that the nineteenth century poet once traversed and that provided inspiration for many of his most important works. Through downloadable audio tracks, a detailed travel packet and map, the walking tour encourages users to break away from their computers and classrooms through mobile technologies to look at the importance of location and context in the shaping of creative works, while at the same time helping foster a greater appreciation for the learner’s environment. Although intended primarily for use in college and graduate level literature courses, this IT tool that can be used in writing and history classes and also by Whitman, poetry, and New York City enthusiasts and scholars of any background. This paper will describe the Walking Tour and its creation in detail, discuss some of its underlying ideas and theories, and reflect on its successes and failures.
THE PROJECT BACKGROUND: AN OVERVIEW
Whitman’s poetry often provokes us, asks us to challenge our assumptions and past learning, and prompts us to look deeply at our beliefs and to reach a new awareness through those pursuits. Similarly, when we look at technology and how it can serve us in academia, we must also challenge our assumptions, routines, and accepted practices to see if there are new and unseen ways in which we can improve our teaching methods and alter how we conduct our own scholarly research. One challenge that has been continually intriguing to me, as an English student and teacher, is how we “get at the meaning” of literature. Understanding literature and contextualizing it, while also making the interaction personally valuable, is an extremely difficult endeavor, one that often changes for us over time as our interests and life experiences shape us. However, despite the personal nature of this discovery, finding meaning in literature is frequently approached as a problem with a solution, a puzzle that is solved through methods that we may not identify with, or maybe even disagree with. This can lead to an experience that is isolating and frustrating for the casual or first-time literature student, and disorienting when it serves as a starting point for novice literary scholars entering into a practice that ultimately asks them to utilize their own interests to develop specialized critical lenses. With this in mind, it seemed important to me to develop approaches to literature that emphasize the significance of personal discovery and allow us to explore our relationship to literature as an intimate and complex interaction between our experiences, thoughts, and contexts and those of the writer and the work itself.
To engage these challenges, nearly two years ago I began work on The Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Online Critical Edition, a web-based project that aimed to provide site users with a unique method to interact with and explore one of Walt Whitman’s most popular and enduring works. In its original version, The Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Online Critical Edition was comprised of three main areas: a Close Reading section that provided links to criticism, commentary, and multimedia resources throughout the poem; an Edition Evolution section that tracked the changes Whitman made to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” throughout his lifetime; and an Edition Comparison section that gave users the opportunity to look at the these different versions of the poem side-by-side. Each of these sections provided a different entry point into the poem and let users determine the path of investigation without privileging any one method in particular; the experience presented an opportunity, as Whitman suggests, to “listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.” Instead of a conclusive end-point or solution, this learner-centric experience utilized the associative properties of hyptertext and hypermedia to give access to a network of interconnected approaches and ideas relating to the poem. The user encounters, as Jerome McGann understands in his book Radiant Textuality, a “radiant and decentered structure,” a “fabulous circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (25, 70).
With the learner’s investigation continually shifting based on their interests and actions, the Critical Edition’s self-directed approach to literature created a certain amount of personal investment. However, radiant textuality, even when expanded to include different medias, still resulted in an project constrained by the delivery method. No matter how many endless links the user clicked on, videos they watched, or audio tracks they listened to, they were still focused on the screen, drawn into a virtual experience that was, in the end, not so dissimilar from traditional textual practices which were rooted to the page. It is this “atemporal gaze” Lev Manovich concluded rendered the world outside the screen non-existent for the viewer, leaving everything not in frame “immobile, reified, fixated, cold and dead” (100, 106). Even as I tried to turn the focus of attention away from one mode or medium of exploration toward a radiant methodology that included the beneficial aspects of each and strove to overcome their respective shortcomings by using them in concert, I still wondered if this experience was personally meaningful for site users. Malcolm Knowles, an early advocate of adult learning, understood that learning experiences needed to have personal meaning to be effective and have an impact. He felt that the learner needs to “knowwhy they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it” and then, how this new knowledge will help them to “cope effectively with their real-life situations” (64, 67). His words echoed the sentiments of John Dewey who found that there was a continuum of learning and that “knowledge and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow” (44). Keeping these thoughts in mind, I wondered how I could use the technology I had been experimenting with to initiate a different kind of learning experience, and active one that would serve as a launching pad to the external world where the learner could eventually apply the knowledge that they had taken from the project. Instead of drawing the learner inward to the screen, I wanted to send them out of the classroom to make visible the connection between texts and their external world, in what I hoped would be a more holistic, intimate, and meaningful experience with literature.
John Dewey once asked, “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?” It was a question that I kept coming back to for my ITP project as I began to look for threads to connect the learner to Whitman’s work and life. Whitman’s writing was one element that I knew would be a focus of this exploration. His prolific catalogue of poetry, editorials, letters, and prose left a detailed account of life in nineteenth-century New York City. He thought often about the innumerable characters and sights around him; equally awed by the seagull and the steamship, his fluid democratic gaze led to the creation of his all-inclusive, free verse. These passages and their ties to New York City’s history form a powerful record for modern readers and allow us a window into Whitman’s life and times, yet, they are partial and in some ways unapproachable for readers. Whitman’s writings, although visceral and vast, do not fully convey the sensory experience of urban living and can at times seem remote and detached from the modern urban existence. Even he was able to appreciate the limitations of his work and suggested that his readers not take his word as final, but instead “listen to all sides and filter them from yourself;” he encouraged personal experience to gain a more complete understanding of the complex experiences he documented. The Walking Tour attempts to give this opportunity to the learner by using Brooklyn Heights as the classroom and his writing as a guide, engaging Whitman on a shared ground in a full tactile and sensory experience.
Place theorist Yi-Fu Tuan concluded that place “achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is, through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind” (18). It was through this process of active and deep thinking about place that he felt could help us uncover “unexpected meanings and raise questions we have not thought to ask” (3). Living or traveling in an urban center such as New York City is an overwhelming experience of place: it is face-paced, isolating, and overwhelming at times, exhilarating, inspiring, and uplifting at others. We are constantly bombarded with sensory information, yet we still often neglect the necessary reflection and contemplation to understand these experiences. When a learner takes a moment to reflect and appreciate their own environment and the vast catalogue of personal sensory stimulation that accompanies it, when they explore and consider that place as a conduit to the past, as a common ground, then the experience becomes a connection that begins to have personal relevance. The words and life of Whitman are no longer confined to the page, distant ramblings from a disembodied voice, but are instead grounded in a shared experience of place, taking on a depth that would be difficult to achieve in a traditional classroom setting. Perhaps we do not see the shoreline hemmed with masts of ships, but we can understand what it is to be part of a living crowd and to look up in wonderment at the Manhattan skyline. Whitman’s words can help learners grapple with the urban experience by providing knowledge that someone else, however distant, struggled with the meaning of these experiences as well. At the same time, the learner, through the temporal distance to Whitman, is able to gauge similarities and differences between their experiences and his, helping raise the questions that Tuan knew led to new revelations and personal discovery.
Another key benefit of personal discovery through immersion in place is that the learner engages all of their senses. Paul Rodaway, in his work Sensuous Geographies, spoke of sense as “both a reaching out to the world as a source of information and an understanding of that world so gathered” (5). In approaching poetry, traditional classroom exercises often neglect the rich sensory context of a work because of the limitations of the printed page or screen. Instead, the learning focus is on the formal aspects of the work, or involves a dissection of text and author through critical lenses. This experience is only slightly improved through online approaches which introduce visual and audio elements to the investigation. These sensory experiences, however, are limited and can only hope to provide partial returns in our understanding of the work and its context, and as a result, of ourselves; as Tuan found, “Life is live, not a pageant from which we stand aside and observe. The real is the familiar daily round, unobtrusive like breathing. The real involves our whole being, all our senses” (146). I wanted to promote this kind of holistic sensory experience of place instead of trying to simulate or approximate that experience with technology. Technology’s role in this project would be as facilitator, an element of the overall experience that would engage the user in an intimate interaction with New York City where the streets became the classroom and Whitman their teacher.
MLearning: Taking Class To The Streets
With a idea of what I wanted to accomplish with my ITP project, I began to look for technical avenues and precedents to use for development. I wanted to first explore the possibilities of mobile learning (mlearning) as a means of content delivery, and as a way of delivering the learner to the content. Mlearning is particularly adept at facilitating the kind of situated educational experiences that I wished to create, one capable of creating a learning environment out of the learner’s context (Naismith). By using mobile devices, which are accessible and essentially ubiquitous, site users could be immersed in the experience of place without the technology becoming the focus of the interaction. As Bryan Alexander finds, mobile devices are “personally intimate; they are held close to the body” (30). This intimacy and the everyday use of these devices affords them a certain transparency that allows them be present without being intrusive. Their association with entertainment and communication would also work to lessen the distaste that can be attached to learning tools, making it easier to reappropriate them for learning. In addition, the ease of use of these devices and their integration with digital media management software like iTunes would make content delivery to an audience with minimal technical knowledge possible and reduce the learning curve that is typically associated with adapting new technologies. These mlearning methods could ultimately embrace the intimate experience mobile device users have with their content and the freedom of movement and exploration that is already built into the culture of these devices. New York City has such a vibrant mobile culture, one even Whitman marveled at in his time, that it made sense to embrace this quality of mobility as part of the essence of the project.
Fortunately, initiatives in mlearning that use digital audio devices have a history dating back to the unveiling of the Apple iPod in Oct. 23, 2001. Although the first widely available MP3 player, the MPMan, was released by Saehan Information Systems in 1997, it was the iPod’s seamless integration with iTunes (released at the Macworld Expo in January 2001), its style and ease of use, and timing with the expansion of high speed internet that led to a seismic shift in the portable audio and mobile device landscapes. In 2004, Duke University decided to explore the untapped potential of these devices in academia and formed the Duke Digital Initiative, formerly known as the Duke iPod Project. In the first year of the program, over 1600 first-year students at Duke received a 20GB iPod and faculty submitted proposals that incorporated the iPods into their course designs. The final report of the initiative found many benefits of the project including a reduced dependency on physical materials, greater student engagement and interest in courses, and flexible location-independent access to course materials (Belanger). Although only one course out of the 27 selected to participate in the program was a literature course, these benefits were in line with the role I wanted technology to play in my ITP project. It was becoming apparent that learning could take place in nearly any location and that traditional sites of learning were not necessary to create a valuable education experience. These results played perfectly in supporting my efforts to create a learner driven experience outside the classroom, however, I did not want learning to take place just anywhere. Brooklyn Heights was a key element in the project and I needed a model that could connect the learner to this important place.
Coinciding with Duke’s iPod project was the emergence of podcasting (MTV VJ Adam Curry, also known as the “podfather,”launched the first podcast, The Daily Source Code, in August 2004), which led professors to begin experimenting with the delivery of lectures as downloadable audio files. Even though I was not interested in podcast’s essence as episodic content, acquiring the audio files was simple and I appreciated how it was reconnecting users to the important element of audio, which could be instrumental in bringing the spirit of Whitman and his work to life. As Gardener Campbell explains in his article There’s Something in the Air: Podcasting in Education, “There is magic in the human voice, the magic of shared awareness. Consciousness is most persuasively and intimately communicated via voice. The voice is literally inspired language, language full of breath, breath as language;” it “conveys our common humanity.” In addition, a subset of podcasts, the audio walking tour, began to emerge which were designed for location specific consumption. Based on the audio tours first seen in museums and galleries, the popularity of podcasting opened the door to scores of commercial, non-profit, and academia-based efforts. These audio tours provide important history and insights pertaining to locations, while giving users the opportunity to move at their own pace as they explored. One of the earliest experiments in education with audio tours was conceptualized by David Gilbert, a professor of communication at Marymount Manhattan College. Created with the help of his students, his “Art Mob” produced unofficial audio guides for artworks at the MoMa in Manhattan. Described as an attempt to “hack the gallery experience” or “remix MoMa,” these audio tours included music and non-traditional approaches to famous works of art, which Gilbert used to engage his students and stop them from being “passive information consumers.” Using audio to reevaluate the known, to reconceptualize the user’s physical surroundings through active awareness, would be important in looking at Brooklyn Heights as a common ground with connections to the past. Gilbert’s work also helped me to realize that mlearning methods could provide an educational experience without sacrificing the joy and pleasure that can accompany learning.
Another project that influenced the development of my ITP work was an audio tour through a little visited area of London called Wapping. Using personal reminisce, factual history of the area, and fictional episodes, the tour sought to “challenge the way in which the walker views their city/this city, rather than seeking simply to entertain or provide factual information” (Day 1). The producers of the Wapping tour creatively portrayed place through their downloadable audio while also throwing a certain subversive element into the mix. In their writing on the project, they commented that their tour was a way to counteract the process of commodification that typically occurs at well-known locations through guided tours, a process that leads to a ‘staged authenticity’ (2). This use of the audio tour to challenge traditional views and voices reminded me of the spirit of the Marymount Manhattan College project; I was reminded of how easily intent could be embedded into and read from any academic/public production. While I admired that quality of these productions, I wanted to be cautious not to politicize my tour. Audio could create an opening for expression and communication, a connection fostered in breath and timbre that could have a profound impact on the learner. It could certainly be political and subversive, but I wanted to leave the meaning making in the hands of the learner as much as possible. I did not want to limit the possibilities of their experience or imagination.
Ultimately, downloadable audio tours held great promise for what I wished to accomplish with my ITP project. Their ability to make the listener aware of their environment through active participation, their exploration and celebration of the human voice, and the connection that could be drawn between these elements seemed ideally suited to bring the words of Whitman to life. And, because the learner determined the pace and level of participation, as well as the meaning, there would be a sense of ownership created through the learning process that would lead to a memorable and lasting experience. Finally, the audio tour provided an opportunity for me to be creative and grow as a scholar while exploring the uses of technology in the teaching of literature. With a clear direction and methodology in place, I began to develop the audio tour components.
THE PROJECT PRODUCTION
Walking with Whitman was developed in three major stages: the website production, the production of the audio tracks, and the production of the Travel Packet.
(Programs used for website Production: Adobe Creative Suite 3 & 4 (Photoshop and Dreamweaver)
Using the template that already existed for the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Online Critical Edition website, I created a page to house the walking tour. The walking tour page would be linked to through the main menu and a visual icon on the Critical Edition’s homepage, which would integrate it into the larger site. This would continue to build the CBF critical edition and make a visible relationship between the other methods on the site and the walking tour, adding yet another valuable method to approach the works of Whitman. I then began development of several visual assets including a header featuring a young Whitman, which was thought to have been taken in New York between 1848–1854, and sub headers that utilized elements from nineteenth-century maps of the Brooklyn waterfront. The look and feel of these elements would also be incorporated into the travel packet for the tour to bring some overall continuity to the project. Finally, I composed the introduction paragraph for the tour site, which proved to be a bit challenging. I wanted it to be concise and informative, but keeping in mind my desire to leave the learning experience in the hands of the learner, I also did not want to guide too much. As a result, I minimized the text on the tour page, presenting only an overview of the project and basic instructions. My hope was that by keeping an overall lightness to the content and layout that the user could concentrate on getting the assets needed to actually partake in the activity it supported.
(Programs used for tour packet production: Adobe Creative Suite 3 & 4 (Photoshop and Acrobat)
Determining the overall design of the tour – its length, course, and the destinations that would be featured as points of interest – became crucial at this stage of the project. I knew that I needed to take into consideration the physical effort required for the walk and the mental fatigue that often occurs with any learning activity in order for this to be a positive and doable experience. These choices would also influence which and how many of Whitman’s works I would record and the travel packet content I would have to develop. Finally, I was concerned with the learner’s safety while listening to the audio tracks and wanted to make certain that the tour stops were places that would give learners a space to reflect and take in their surroundings without danger. To find a resolution to these practical matters, I relied on my own previous visits to Brooklyn Heights.
On my first trip to Brooklyn Heights in 2002, I had set out to visit the former site of the Rome Brothers Print shop where the first edition of Leaves of Grass was printed and the Eagle Warehouse where Whitman once worked as an editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1846-48. My modest goals were immediately frustrated as I discovered that the plaque which once marked the site of the print shop no longer existed and, even more surprising, that the cross streets where it once stood were also gone! This was a valuable lesson in the organic, changing nature of place and a reminder that a place’s history, the memory of people and structures, were easily swallowed and forgotten, paved over in time. What did it mean that this important place in American literary history was gone? What did Whitman’s Brooklyn look and sound like in comparison to this present version? Conveniently, not only was the approximate place were the print shop once stood the perfect site for reflection on these complex issues, but it was also situated directly outside of the High Street subway station, making it the obvious choice for the tour’s starting point. The location and its connection to Whitman’s poetry also made the selection of “Song of Myself,” one of Whitman’s most popular works and also the first in Leaves of Grass, an easy choice for the accompanying audio track on the first stop on the tour.
The second stop on the tour, the Plymouth Church, I discovered on a guiding walking tour I took with Karen Karbiener, a professor and Whitman scholar at NYU, several years after my first visit to Brooklyn Heights. I met Karen, a self-proclaimed “Whitmaniac”, at a Whitman birthday celebration that took place at the Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey. She would often lead her students on walking tours as a part of her curriculum and invited me to join her for a reading of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” on the Brooklyn Bridge. As part of the tour, we visited the Plymouth Church, which was known as the “Grand Central Depot” of the Underground Railroad, where both Whitman and Abraham Lincoln had attended services. Whitman’s connection to the Civil War, recorded in his poetry collection Drum Taps, and his connection to Lincoln, whom he eulogized in his famous poem “Oh Captain! My Captain!” made the church an important stop to reflect on the political and social history of Brooklyn and how they pervaded Whitman’s work. The audio track for this stop of the tour was another excerpt from “Song of Myself” which depicts an interaction with a runaway slave. It is one of the only direct mentions of slavery Whitman ever makes in his writing, and it is non-committal in its position to the subject. Trying to understand Whitman’s stance on slavery from this work brings light to how complicated the issue was during his life and seemed a thought-provoking topic to contemplate in the presence of this historic church.
Deciding on the next stop of the tour was one of the more interesting decisions that I had to make during the project. With roughly a ten-minute walk between Plymouth Church and the Eagle Warehouse, which was the next physical location I knew held historic significance to Whitman, it seemed necessary to break up the distance to create a sense of even pacing between stops and give the learner ample opportunity to rest. The Brooklyn Promenade was the perfect mid-point, offering benches and spectacular views of Manhattan, yet there was no immediate visible link to Whitman. In trying to “fit” the stop in, I realized that my frustration was originating from my rigid understanding of ways in which we can be connected to place. This was a perfect opportunity to open the tour’s approach and let Whitman’s poetry guide the meaning making. I tried to imagine what Whitman would see if he looked out from this vista across the East River toward the Manhattan and was reminded of a passage from the poem “Manahatta” where he describes the city skyline and its “high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies.” In the same poem he offers a striking image as he admires the “the countless masts” that line Manhattan’s shores. Playing with these similarities and differences, the work becomes a powerful frame of reference for the learner as they juxtapose Whitman’s New York in the nineteenth-century and their own; in many ways, the learner’s distance from the subject being considered, layered with Whitman’s poetry, provokes a depth of thought that is achieved without having to be at a specific physical place.
With a quick downhill walk from the Promenade, the learner would next arrive at one of the few buildings still standing with personal relevance to Whitman. Although now incorporated into the structure of the more modern residential Eagle Warehouse, the old three-story pressroom where Whitman once worked as editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle still stands in a symbolic architectural layering of history. A plaque detailing Whitman’s history in the warehouse and honoring his contributions to American literature adorns the front of the brick edifice adjacent to the Warehouse’s impressive brink arch entrance. Up until this point, the tour’s planned audio only featured Whitman’s poetry, but for this stop it seemed necessary to acknowledge his substantial work as an editor and prose writer. Using the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s online record of its early print runs, I isolated editorials created during Whitman’s time working there and was able to find “The Philosophy of Ferries.” The passage depicts a commuter scene at the nearby waterfront that is so detailed you can imagine Whitman looking out his window taking in the scene. For the learner, looking out at the same waterfront presents a dramatically different scene from the bustling hub of transportation that once existed at the Fulton Pier. Today, the scene is decidedly more serene, the pier filled with small pockets of visitors and the Brooklyn Bridge looming overhead acting as the main artery between Brooklyn and Manhattan. These moments that allow learners to layer Whitman’s experiences over their own are intriguing to me and I hoped that they would help build an appreciation for our place in the larger spectrum of human history.
Although it was not in my original plans, the Fulton Pier, with its incredible backdrop of the city and the east river flowing by, became one of the unexpected surprises of my first visit to Brooklyn Heights. After failing to find the Rome Brothers Print Shop earlier that day, I was pleased to find engraved on the entire length of the Pier’s railing a passage from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Only a short distance from the Eagle Warehouse, the Fulton Ferry once loaded and unloaded passengers, including Whitman, who travelled between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Whitman found great pleasure in the passage and the people he met, an experience captured in the poem immortalized on the pier railing during a 1995 restoration project. The poem’s importance to the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Online Critical Edition, Brooklyn’s history, and Whitman made it an obvious choice for the centerpiece of the walking tour as well. As the longest work selected for the tour, the pier would be the perfect open and public place for the learner to linger undisturbed while listening to the recording surrounded by Whitman’s words. On the walking tour with Karen Karbiener, her students read this work at the first tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, and while this made sense in thinking about the modern passage over the river, I felt that the bridge and its heavy traffic was disruptive to the rather serene and contemplative essence of the poem.
The Fulton Pier is such a powerful symbolic location as a beginning and end of journeys that it became difficult to decide the appropriate path for the remainder of the tour. On the one hand, I was aware that there would be some who were sufficiently fatigued and those with time constraints who would be ready to conclude the tour at this point. I certainly wanted to leave this option open, and felt that the experience on the pier was a quality one to end on. However, I also wanted to provide the learner with an opportunity to conclude the trip without retracing their steps back to the subway; it seemed fitting to use the pier and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” as a launch pad for a final activity, one that would be memorable for learners. A first option was to take the water taxi across the East River much like Whitman once did on the ferry. On its own, the passage across the river is an inspirational experience, but with “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” fresh in the learners mind, the connection to Whitman and the poem would be strong. The other alternative for travel to Manhattan from the pier, as mentioned earlier, was by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Although this course only approximates Whitman’s passage across the river, the Brooklyn Bridge offers spectacular vantage points and has a history of its own with vital importance to New York City. Here, once again, the learner is able to draw distinct comparisons between his/her life experiences and Whitman’s. After considering each of these options, I ultimately decided that I would leave the decision in the hands of the learner and include all paths. Malcom Knowles felt that adults wanted to make decisions for themselves and that they had a “deep psychological need to be seen by others and treated by others as being capable of self-direction” (65). I wanted the walking tour to encourage this self-direction and this decision making moment was one way that could empower the learner. Despite the tour diverging into different paths, I decided to choose one passage from Whitman that could act as the main audio track for both experiences. “Manhattan from the Bay,” written by Whitman later in his life, illustrates his continued love for Manhattan and Brooklyn and also notes the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. This was notable for several reasons: first, Whitman never walked across the bridge that eventually connected the two cities that he loved and envisioned as one, and secondly, it was the completion and popularity of the Brooklyn Bridge that effectively ended his beloved ferry service in 1924. I like how these radical changes to New York City’s landscape make us examine the ideas of “progress” connected to place and also how they make us reevaluate the changes that transpire during our own lives and their impact on future generations. Finally, for the Brooklyn Bridge course, I also offered several other audio tracks to accompany the learner as they moved towards Manhattan. “Human and Heroic New York” and “Omnibus Jaunts and Drivers” both focus on Whitman’s experiences in Manhattan acting as a transition to the conclusion of the tour
Having determined the tour’s course and the audio tracks, I began researching each stop so that I could provide basic information about the locations and their connection to Whitman. Even though the audio tracks were the central learning device of the tour, I wanted to make it possible for the learner to use only the packet as a guide through Brooklyn Heights. Finally, I created a map for the tour with each stop assigned a number and clearly marked with a Whitman icon. The user could then use these numbers to navigate the packet and find information about the respective location. I then used this map as a guide to create detailed text directions from one tour stop to another.
(Programs used for audio track production: GarageBand 1.1)
With the travel packet nearly complete, I began the process of recording the audio tracks for the tour. Having had some experience with recording in the past, I initially assumed that between my Power Mac G5, my Dell issue microphone, and GarageBand, I would have the equipment to produce a decent recording that I could output as MP3’s and then link for the user to download. To simply the process, I knew that I wanted to provide recordings that had only one track, which would be dedicated to a vocal recording of the selected Whitman writings. Although many audio tours feature music and sound effects to enhance the listening experience, or are recordings of actual tours (sound seeing), I wanted to eliminate as much ambient noise as possible. By presenting just vocals to the learner, I hoped that the sounds of Brooklyn Heights would be audible and mix with the recorded tracks, creating a unique aural exerience.
It was not until I began recording one of the passages that I realize what a difficult task I had undertaken. Playing back this first recording and hearing my voice “naked” and unprocessed exposed every swallow, lip smack, imperfection, and mispronunciation. After about two hours, my voice raspy and tired, I felt fortunate that I was the only one involved in this aspect of the project. Finally completing the first track, which was one of the shortest of the group, I realized three things: One, whatever I had been doing up until now was not going to work, especially with more challenging and lengthy passages to come. Two, in recording someone else’s poetry precision was necessary. Although shifts in tone, pacing and emphasis were possible, anyone holding the text of the poem would be judging to my performance under a microscope; there was no room for missed words or improvisation, which forced me to practice and learn Whitman’s words well in order to avoid numerous retakes. The third thing I came to understand was that my microphone was horribly inadequate for the recording quality I desired and was the reason for many of the pops and hisses that were being picked up. I knew that if I wanted to finish this project I was going to have to upgrade my microphone. After a great deal of research, I finally found the Audio Technica AT2020 USB Cardoid condenser microphone with digital output, which met my price point and received high reviews. The plug and play microphone set up easily and sounded fantastic, yet, there were still pops and hisses evident in the recordings it produced. After more research, I discovered that I needed to purchase a pop filter to reduce the occurrence of plosives. Finally, I was able to concentrate on the actual recitation of Whitman’s works and not constantly fear having to start over because of the equipment; any retakes at this point would be a result of my own mistakes.
Over the next few months, I slowly worked through the poems on my list and even added additional tracks, which I went back and added as supplemental listening on the tour packet. I found great joy in recording the works, even though at times it was a frustrating process. The most difficult challenge was by far “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which was around a 20-minute recording. I was forced to break the poem into sections when I realized I could not flawlessly deliver this length of a recording. This was the one work I had to record as multiple vocal tracks and then mixed together for the final product. In total I recorded approximately 45 minutes of audio over 15 tracks, not all making the final project.
PROJECT TESTING AND RESULTS
With the tour finally completed and made available online, I looked for an avenue to test. I began discussions with Matt Gold, professor at New York City College of Technology, about the possibility of working together to incorporate the Walking Tour into his project “Looking for Whitman.” This multi-campus digital pedagogy exploration was run simultaneously across four campuses, each with a connection to Whitman. Each campus focused on their specific region and its relationship to Whitman, and then interacted through open-source social networking tools to share their findings and projects with one another. In researching Whitman’s early career and the Brooklyn Heights area, Gold’s class seemed a perfect project to partner with for the testing of the Walking Tour. We scheduled the tour for October 20, 2009 and I requested his students print out and read the tour packet beforehand. Immediately, I started to realize that testing the audio tour as I had conceptualized it was going to be difficult. In my plan, I had imagined the Walking Tour as an individual experience, an intimate interaction with Whitman where there was flexibility of movement and decision-making. Yet here in a class situation, with a large group of people, the potential for spontaneity seemed drastically reduced. In addition, the idea of a group of people listening to audio tracks instead of communicating and interacting seemed counter productive in this setting. Even with these immediate concerns, I still knew I could benefit from running the walking tour and seeing how the tour stops worked and how the writings selected for each succeeded. I also needed to gauge the pacing and length of the tour and knew having a diverse crowd would let me gain valuable feedback for future users and versions of the tour.
I met Gold’s class outside the High street subway entrance at the start of the tour. With only 1-½ hours allotted for the tour, we decided that we would end at the Fulton Pier and that continuing on past that point was not feasible with the time constraints. We would visit all of the other tour stops, however, and read the corresponding Whitman passages and briefly discuss their significance. At this point, I had worked on the travel packet for so long that the knowledge was second hand and I felt comfortable speaking with authority on the different locations. The students were equipped with the tour packets so they could follow along and many brought cameras to document their trip. As part of their class requirements, they would later post their photographs and write about their experiences on their course blog. These posts would be incredibly important to assessing the successes and failures of the tour and would provide valuable feedback that would help continue shaping my project in the future. I was very interested to discover whether or not my mission to make the study of literature a personally valuable and meaningful active exercise would be accomplished. I also wondered what insights the students would share and if they would find a connection to either Brooklyn Heights or Whitman through our trip.
It was not very long before I was reminded of the how quickly even the best laid plans tend to go astray. Standing outside of the second stop of the tour, the Plymouth Church, the students exhibited an exited interest at the location where Abraham Lincoln had once visited. In the travel packet I had included the phone number and contact person for guided tours and decided to place a spontaneous call to the Director of History Ministry Services, Lois Rosebrooks, to see if she could accommodate our group. In a fortuitous turn of events, within five minutes we were inside the church where Henry Ward Beecher once delivered his powerful anti-abolition services, and where Whitman and Lincoln attended services. Lois was incredibly knowledgeable about the church’s history and Whitman’s connection to the area. She added a wonderful voice to the tour and patiently fielded many questions from the group. One of the most rewarding moments of the tour occurred when she informed one of the students that they were sitting in Abraham Lincoln’s seat. The stunned look of excitement and disbelief on the student’s face helped remind me how unscripted moments often provided the most lasting impressions. I noted how important it was to keep the tour from becoming a strict guideline and to be mindful about encouraging these types of deviations from the tour.
The experience of sitting on the pews and listening to Lois Rosebrooks speak had an impact on many of the students which they detailed in their writings, confirming the power of the event. Several communicated that they felt as if they had been transported back into the 19th century through the visit, a distinct feeling of being in the past. This profound reaction was exactly the kind of personal impact I was hoping the tour would create. Although reading the slavery passage from Whitman outside sparked the students’ interest, it was the historic interior space of the church that was really able to connect the students to the location. The eloquence and knowledge of Rosebrooks also communicated a more complete understanding of the importance of the stop, leaving the students with a new appreciation of and link to the past. This reminded me of the limitations of technology and the necessary inclusion of different voices and types of experiences to create a lasting impact on learners. Although our entrance into and experiences in the church were not planned, it turned out to be a considerably valuable and memorable experience.
Another interesting moment came as we moved from the Brooklyn Promenade to the Eagle Warehouse. I had forgotten that there were cobblestone streets outside of the warehouse, and when we arrived at the location the students marveled at the rough uneven cut of the stones. They walked over them inspecting their layout and experiencing what it was like to travel over this surface. Several students wrote about the experience in their reflections, the cobblestone street helping them to imagine Brooklyn in the past and what transportation and movement on streets like this would have been like. These details can be easy to overlook and yet, they are so important to the moments of discovery that make exploration of place exciting and thought-provoking. Like the church, these visual cues with real ties to the past are especially effective at helping connect to a location’s history and those that once lived there. I had done the tour so many times that it was refreshing to see the students enjoy this experience with the same excitement that I had on my first visit there and have it carry over into their writing.
After the Eagle Warehouse, we walked towards the Fulton Pier where we intended to read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” as a group and conclude our trip. As we neared the Pier, we met with the second unexpected moment of the tour. Before us, holding signs and cheering wildly, was a large group of people gathered in what looked like a political rally. A helicopter flew overhead as we moved closer and seconds later we were stopped by several men who informed us that there was a film shoot there today and the entire pier was closed! I was immediately frustrated by this development, lamenting the lost opportunity to read on the pier. However, as we read the poem with the roar of the crowd, the traffic on the Bridge, and helicopter in the background, all the sounds melded together in a unique cacophony and I couldn’t help but smile. New York cannot be planned, and that was in large part its real beauty: the unscripted discovery, the moments between the tour stops, the unexpected unpredictable vibrant city reminding us to look again at this space we so easily take for granted.
Despite the change in the tour, the students were still able to find value in the experience, and this time Whitman’s words provided the inspiration. Reading “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” provoked many students to think about their modern transportation experiences in comparison to those of Whitman. One student commented on the similarities between the hurried rush of public transportation now and in the past. Another developed a new appreciation for our transit system in comparison to Whitman’s. The observations helped the students to relate to the past in a personal way and showed evidence that my desire to create a meaningful personal experience was being realized. The tour deviation also provided another unforeseen result, which spoke to the tour’s impact on the personal lives of the learners. Interestingly, the inability to go to the pier that day inspired several students to return after the tour to complete the experience. One student returned the next day to photograph the pier and, closing his eyes, tried to imagine the location 150 years ago. The student’s motivation to revisit the site and document it, and then engage the experience thoughtfully, was the kind of self-directed learning that I hoped to inspire. Moreover, the student’s reflection helped me to understand the impact that the tour could have after the initial educational experience was over, an indication of the promise of the project to inspire future individual learning.
In reviewing the posts following the tour, I also found that many students posted reflections that commented on their overall impressions of the trip. These were helpful in judging the larger impact of the project. Several students expressed the enjoyment they experienced participating in a non-traditional learning activities. One posted their disbelief that they were able to learn something new while doing it for school, something that they never thought was possible. Another called the tour “a welcome breath of fresh air” and stated, “You can learn just as much out of the classroom as in it, and this class was proof of that.” I liked that the tour was able to help students reimagine educational possibilities and allowed them to expand their perception of where learning could take place.
Finally, I noticed that a majority of the students posted that they had a newly discovered appreciation for their City. They spoke of seeing their surroundings in a “new light,” a change in perception that fostered a shift in the way they thought about their environment. Other students felt that they had ignored or overlooked their surroundings and its history and that the tour gave them an opportunity to discover something valuable in their lives that had always been right before them. One profound reflection came from a student that felt the tour had helped them learn to “not take things for granted that are around you” and “to not be afraid to explore the past because it can reveal a lot about yourself and your surroundings.” I was particularly pleased in reading this response, as it was at the heart of what I wanted to accomplish with the tour. Taken together, these comments indicated great prospects for the tour; not only had the students felt a connection to Whitman, but they also were able to frame their insights in a way that would impact their lives both in education and beyond. In trying to make a personally valuable experience through technology, I felt that these reflections showed my ITP project’s promise and encouraged me to move forward with further testing and development.
Reflecting on the experience of testing this project made me aware of many aspects of the walking tour that needed to be changed as I moved forward. One result of interacting with Gold’s class was that I was able to see the usefulness of the class blog for reflection and in building community. The students’ posts on the tour allowed them to express their individual voices, to distinguish themselves from one another, yet they were also able to share commonalities of experience in this space. In looking over these posts, it was apparent how important a feedback mechanism would be for the future of the tour, especially if I wanted to have isolated individuals be able to share their experiences with others. A blog would allow these unrelated users to build a community much like Gold had done with his class website, giving them a platform to relate their experiences to others and dialogue about their findings. It would also provide an area to participate in a scholarly dialogue with others who share a common interest, opening a space for sharing suggestions for follow-up activities and teaching techniques, which could eventually build a shared database of useful resources for future learners and educators. Without the feedback mechanism, it would be extremely difficult to evaluate the project’s effectiveness moving forward.
I was also struck at how Gold’s students were able to convey their experiences through digital photography on the blog. This visual documentation of personal experience held importance for the learners and served as a visual cue for future reflection. There was also a sense of composition and framing in the student’s photos that suggested a command of the media and an investment in the outcome. With the increasing convergence of mobile devices, digital cameras and video have become integrated into phones and iPods and are widely available, so it was not surprising that Gold’s students would be experienced and skilled at photography. With this observation, it seemed that allowing expression through other media types, including video, on a social network and feedback site could expand the type of interaction possible between site users, allowing for diverse and potentially artistic comments and dialogues. For the future of the project, it also seemed like this convergence of mobile devices would make delivery of tour assets through iPods unnecessary. In fact, the possibilities of what could be delivered to a learner at remote locations would make downloading tour assets in advance and working through products like iTunes unnecessary. In addition, learners with location aware devices (most new smart phones) could have content delivery triggered as the reach certain destinations.
Finally, location aware mobile devices running on 3G and 4G networks have recently made “augmented reality” possible for the general public. Learners will soon be able access media pertinent to a location or have it delivered to them and then layer those images and videos of the actual physical environment using their mobile devices. Location aware devices will also change the nature of feedback and allow learners to leave their own responses and media at particular locations which future visitors could access there. In essence, learners would be able to leave their digital footprints at a location, a new matrix of digital information layered over our physical world that would make visible the intricate layering of history that the tour attempts to expose.
In the end, even though more testing needs to be done to determine the impact of the audio tracks in conjunction with the tour, and despite the need for changes in order to accommodate new technologies, my effort building this project has expanded my own understanding of Whitman, his poetry, New York City, and also the use of technology to convey those ideas. The process had made me acutely aware of the possibilities and limitations of using technology and had ultimately opened my eyes to ideas for future projects that will build and improve the Whitman walking tour. I look forward to this challenge and know that my experiences, regardless of their impact on any other person, has been personally valuable to this Whitmaniac.
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