UMass Amherst Learns With Harvard

For the four Harvard undergraduates and eleven graduate students in Linguistics 117r, reaching the basement room where they delve into the thorny morphology and phonology of the little-known languages of the Caucasus may involve a shuttle or a trek by foot.

But for the rest of their classmates, the journey is both simpler and far more complicated: While they sit still, they are beamed into Room B101 by satellite.

They are University of Massachusetts Amherst students, and their professors--Harvard’s Maria Polinsky and UMass Amherst’s Alice C. Harris--have figured out how to defy an age-old adage. They can be in two places at once.

Harris and Polinsky co-taught a smaller version of the class at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in 2007. Now teaching at separate institutions, they nevertheless decided to collaborate again because only a few American scholars have studied the course’s esoteric focus.

“We have both worked on these languages, but because there are so many of them, our domains of expertise complement each other. If we had chosen to teach two separate classes, the content would have been less rich,” Polinsky said.


Initially, the professors intended to have students drive between the two universities, 94 miles apart. But after conversations with Harvard’s Media and Technology Services, they discovered a less cumbersome means of connection.

During each three-hour session of the weekly class, William G. Countie, an evening supervisor for Media and Technology Services, manages projections displayed on two screens that dominate the front wall of the Harvard classroom. He switches between PowerPoint presentations, an overhead shot of the UMass Amherst classroom, a view of the lecturer at UMass Amherst, and a frame of the Harvard students in their seats.

When he controls the cameras within the Harvard classroom, he said, “It’s not like a joystick on a video game, but pretty similar.”

The virtual classroom format allows the colleges to share prominent guest speakers, including phonology expert Ioana Chitoran of Dartmouth and Nakh-Dagestanian language researchers Ann Gagliardi and Keith E. Plaster ’94 of Harvard.

Students said the virtual experience takes some getting used to. Michael H. Goncalves ’14 said that though he appreciates having another group of people in the room to offer feedback, he thinks that the class would have more conversation if taught only at one location.

“Sometimes it’s hard when you have a question, and they’re talking over there, so they might not see you waving your hand,” he said.

However, Goncalves’s classmates will not always be just images on a screen. Throughout the semester, the groups will meet in real time at local linguistics conferences throughout the region.

A handful of Harvard courses utilize less extensive videoconferencing, including occasional guest lectures by video in African and African American Studies 20: “Introduction to African Languages and Cultures.”

Likewise, the class History 84c: “Confronting Objects/Interpreting Culture” will host a joint session with Bard graduate students in October via video hook-up.

The technology is still fairly little-known, but students and staff who have utilized it say that they anticipate that it will become more common at Harvard.

Goncalves predicted, “It’s a process we have to get used to, but as more classes do this, it will become more standard.”

And Harris, the UMass Amherst professor, enthused, “The virtual class may yet shape our teaching styles in ways we can’t yet anticipate.”