FINAL REPORT: Web Projects Experiment for "Buildings & Cities in Japanese History," Spring 1998

By Henry Smith

First, a word of explanation about the course itself. I conceived of "Buildings & Cities in Japanese History," which I taught first in Spring 1989, as a broad survey of architecture and urbanism in Japanese history, all the way from Jomon pit dwellings to the architecture of Isozaki and Ando. Alternatively, it might equally well be described as a survey of Japanese history through the evidence of buildings and cities. I aimed at a general undergraduate audience, and hoped for a mix of students with some knowledge of Japan with students who had some training in the study of buildings or cities. This of course is a hopelessly over-ambitious design, and the course (of which Spring 1998 was the fifth offering) has always suffered from the difficulties of simultaneously teaching those who know something of Japan but little of space (and vice versa), and those who have an instinct for history but little for the visual arts (and vice versa). The actual mix has varied a great deal from year to year; over time, the course has tended to attract more students with training in architecture than those majoring in East Asian studies.

From experiencing various frustrations in successive offerings of the course, I reluctantly decided to make one major revision in the scope of the material covered, and to stop the chronological coverage with the early Edo period (mid-17th century). This was a big personal sacrifice, since my own interests and expertise are in the 19th and 20th centuries, and many of the architecture students in particular were interested in recent Japanese architecture. But the complexities of modern Japanese architecture, I finally concluded, were too much to include in the single semester of a course that had to double as an introduction to all Japanese history. So from spring 1998, I decided to limit the scope to "traditional" Japanese architecture and urbanism.

At the same time, I was attracted from an early point to the possibility of using the Web as a framework for student projects. I actually attempted to teach the course in Spring 1995 in this way, but the effort was premature and failed miserably. Most of the students at that juncture were unfamiliar with the Web, and only rudimentary software was available to assist in the construction of Web pages.

By 1998, however, much had changed. All the students who signed up for the course were already veteran Web surfers, and a few already had their own home pages--although none were real pros. But all now brought a real curiosity and enthusiasm to the prospect of building a Web site, and this energy is what you can see reflected in the final projects.  In fact, the real success of the experiment was the imagination and energy that each of the students brought to their individual projects.  If you browse through the sites, I think you will be intrigued by the very different styles that each member of the course brought to their page.  Given the limited time that they had to prepare the projects, it was a remarkable accomplishment.  We are now seeing the first wave of wholly new generation of students, who have been raised on the Web and take intuitively to the potential of self-expression in hypertext and imagery.   Few of us, I suspect, are really prepared to take advantage of this.

My basic strategy in 1998, following the fiasco of 1995, was to assure that even if the Web projects were a failure, the students would have received at least a basic conventional education in the history of Japanese buildings and cities until 1750. The syllabus that I followed reflects this priority, whereby the first 8 weeks of the course (out of a 14-week semester) were devoted to a mix of lecture and discussion of the assigned reading, enforced by periodic quizzes and finally a midterm exam.

The last 6 weeks of the semester were thus available for formulating and creating the Web projects. I imposed on the class an overall scheme, to create a series of inter-linked projects that would offer a comprehensive and informative picture of what I call "The Golden Age of Japanese Architecture, 1562-1657" (click here for an explanation of the concept). The first week of the Web project was devoted to thrashing out the organization and themes of this overall concept, which resulted in the final scheme with divisions into "History," "Types," "Cities," "Sites," and "Concepts." We thus arrived at a list with a total of 14 sub-divisions. (Eliminated from the final list were the cities of Osaka and Nagasaki.)

My initial idea was to have all the members of the class work in two-person teams, and to have each team work on two separate projects (out of the 14 sub-divisions). The teams were constituted on the basis of a questionnaire of interests, and the next two weeks of class time were devoted to presentations by the teams of preliminary outlines for the separate projects. (We used a direct overhead projector with which sketches could be shown to the entire class.) In the process, it became clear that the scheme of two projects for each two-person team was wholly impractical, but the interaction among the members of the class that the presentations required was, in retrospect, a real advantage.

After the two weeks of team presentations, I came to have a much clearer idea both of the design problems involved in creating Web projects, and of the personal preferences and abilities of the various members of the class. Beginning to grasp how much work was involved in creating a single site, and already apprehensive of the problems of working in pairs, I scaled back the whole format, asking each person to work on only one project, but permitting work in pairs for those who found that they could work well together. Somehow things fell nicely into place, with three pairs continuing together, and the remaining nine members of the class working individually. It was in this way that the responsibility for the 12 resulting projects was decided.  The results are for you to judge.

If I were to repeat the experiment of having students create Web projects for a history course, I would be particularly mindful of the following:

1) TRAIN THE STUDENTS IN BASIC WEB DESIGN EARLY IN THE COURSE. It only takes a single two-hour session with the Composer function in Netscape Communicator to train students in the basics of Web page design. Such training requires, however, a hands-on computer lab with individual terminals for each student, loaded with the necessary software (Netscape with the Compose function enabled [it is disenabled on most campus terminals] and WS-FTP). At Columbia, this was available only in a single location in Butler Library. For a copy of the hand-out I used for this session, click here.

2) PROVIDE EXTRA TRAINING IN THE CREATION OF IMAGE FILES. By far the most complicated technical task for the students was creating image files that were not only of decent quality but, equally important, of acceptable size. Many of the projects ended up with image files that were far too large, in the 100-200K range, which load slowly for anyone without a network connection. They should all know the proper techniques of scanning, cropping, resampling, compression, and enhancement to produce images that are of good quality and minimum size.

3) HAVE THE STUDENTS WRITE OUT THEIR TOPIC AS A CONVENTIONAL HISTORY PAPER BEFORE THEY BEGIN THEIR WEB PROJECT. The greatest failure of the student Web sites from my point of view was that very few of them worked as history projects. The historical context was thin, and few used the sites to make historical arguments. In fact, the total text for most of the sites came to a total of about a four-to-five page paper. (The one exception was Yoko Nitta's project on Taian, which was the most successful as a history project.) For this reason, I think it is crucial that the students be assigned first to write a regular history paper (about 15 pages in length), without even thinking of how it might appear on the Web. Then they can move to the task of visualizing their argument and structuring it as hypertext.

4) TEACH THE STUDENTS TO SPEAK TO THE IMAGES ON THEIR WEB SITES. This is perhaps my own personal preoccupation, but I think it is essential that the students learn to look very closely at the images that they use, and that they incorporate these insights into the text. I generally discourage the use of images merely to establish a mood, or to provide mere illustration that is not central to the argument. Also, I realize that I should have insisted that each image be precisely identified: what is it, what is the date, who is the artist, what are the original dimensions, where did it come from. There are various ways to do this: it can be in the form of a caption, but the best solution might be a link from the image to a detailed list of images in a separate file.

5) ALLOW PLENTY OF TIME TO COMPLETE THE FINAL WEB SITES. I would recommend a mini-Web site exercise (with just two or three pages at the most) near the middle of the course, after they have had the training mentioned in 1) and 2) above, so that they understand the basic procedures. These should be loaded on the each student's own home page.  This will give them the necessary technical skills so that they will not be too preoccupied with mechanics in the final four weeks that will be required to produce the final sites.

rev. July 15, 1998