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Faculty Members Bred on Typewriters Learn to Love E-Mail and the World Wide Web

By Valerie J. Macmillan

Gregory Nagy, Jones professor of classical Greek literature, check his e-mail hourly. He's also been known to e-mail his wife when they are both at home. She can receive it and read it without leaving her desk--they have separate his-and-her e-mail lines.

And when Clowes Professor of Science Henry Ehrenreich is away from home, he also communicates via keyboard.

"I have a modem and a Powerbook at home," Ehrenreich says matter-of-factly. "It's something I carry with me on longer trips so I can keep in touch."

"I got a Mac because they were for idiots," he says. "They kind of lick your hands and are friendly."

While not every professor considers his laptop a lapdog, Internet usage is definitely on the rise among faculty members. More professors of Nagy and Ehrenreich's generation--the elders of the faculty--are using their computers to set up class discussions, give assignments and send letters all over the world.

According to Paul Bergen, the Instructional Computer Group (ICG) manager, the demand for faculty e-mail accounts, course Web pages and ICG services grows every year.

It's absolutely booming," Bergen says. "We have twice as many Web pages this year as we had this time last year. People are becoming more interested and enthusiastic."

Increased computer use may be due to peer pressure--intra-office electronic communication is becoming a way of life for Harvard's faculty.

"I have colleagues who don't believe in e-mail, and that's become almost a nuisance," say Sidney Verba '53, Pforzheimer University professor. "It's like they don't believe in telephones and you can't reach them."

Nagy says the Classics Department uses e-mail for planning everyday office life.

"Even the faculty who are still shy about actually using e-mail directly--just one or two people at this point--even they have arrangements so that someone who is e-mail literate will pick up messages on a daily basis for them," he says. "It just helps our momentum of decision-making."

Learning about Computers

In making the switch from telephone and fax to e-mail and other Internet services, faculty members say they have reached out to anyone willing to help.

"Reading instruction books is just completely useless," Ehrenreich says. "Usually what you're looking for is never written down."

So Ehrenreich collars people in the hall and asks for help. "Colleagues, secretaries, whoever happened to be handy," he says.

Verba says he also asks those around him for help.

"I've long learned that there is an inverse correlation between age and computer skills, so I always ask any young-looking undergraduate who comes into my office to help me," Verba says. "They always know what to do."

Bergen's group also provides support to professors. Technicians at the ICG helps set up e-mail accounts, construct Web pages, create threaded discussion groups and make automated announcement pages.

"I happen to be very fortunately located because I'm...where we have a good data center with good people who help elderly people who are technically over-the-hill figure out what's going on," Verba says.

Bergen says that for many faculty members who may be reluctant to dive into computing, the ICG helps make people comfortable.

"We always say that our most valuable skills have nothing to do with computing, but instead have to do with listening," Bergen says. "Generally, our first conversations have nothing to do with computing."

In those first conversations, Bergen says he tries to find out what the people's academic interests and goals for their courses are, then try to find a way to make those goals "practical and innovative."

Many times, the "killer [application] of the '80s and '90s"--e-mail--is the hook that draws faculty in, Bergen says.

"The lure of enhanced communication with students is really at the foundation of computing in courses," he says. "Many of the instructors who come to us may be nervous...really see that they develop new relationships with the students and the students develop new relationships with the course."

Nagy says that e-mail is "indispensable."

"I've really found e-mail just a wonderful medium for establishing contact with students. I answer questions on e-mail, and I find I can think much better because me answering happens when I have my books in front of me. All of my really important working books are at home."

For faculty like Nagy who really want to be on the cutting edge of technology, the ICG offers an intensive program where a staff member becomes the "steward" for a class and helps both students and the professor become comfortable with using computers in new ways.

In fact, Bergen says, sometimes the older people on campus teach the younger crowd.

"We go to sections and hold extracurricular sessions to teach them how to compute," he says. "Those are the most important students to catch--those who might be shy about computing itself."

Nagy, whose Literature and Arts C-14, "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization," has its own Web page, is one of the examples of this intensive program.

Among other things, the page features a trivia quiz, complete with film stills, on the movie "A Room With a View," which was filmed in Greece.

Professors say students are not the only ones who benefit academically from increased Internet participation.

"I find I have reestablished contact with colleagues who I don't see on a day-to-day basis," Nagy says. "I can renew ties of friendship with fellow academics with whom I've lost contact. It usually leads to all sorts of new academic projects and new ideas."

Nagy also says that because of phone costs and time differences when contacting colleagues in other countries, e-mail can be a better way to correct manuscripts, follow up a fax, or include foreign scholars in discussions.

Nagy says he has "a child's sense of wonder" about the "cc" function of e-mail.

"While in paper mail, you think twice before you try to pull in all interested parties, [with e-mail] you can be a much more consulting person and enhance congeniality and the spirit of group participation," he says.

The Old Days

Since many of the senior faculty entered academia when typewriters were still standard, "the very fact that the delete button goes backward and erases things you have typed--that's already a quantum leap for someone from my generation," Nagy says. "What a gift."

"I certainly didn't have a computer when I grew up," said Verba, who was finishing his undergraduate thesis the year Eisenhower took office.

Still, he prides himself on his comparative computer literacy. "I started using computers a long time ago when they weren't networked and were mainframe."

He compares the fear some have of e-mail to the discomfort people had switching to word processors.

"That made everybody, including professors in the humanities...much more comfortable with electronics, and I think the same thing will happen in e-mail."

Word processing never made Nagy uncomfortable, he says.

"I started using computers in the '80s. I remember one colleague telling me that word processing was something I would really need and find suited exactly to my writing habits."

"It enhanced my research. It made writing projects possible that would have taken years and years longer," he says. "There's no possible way I could go back now."

Family Ties

Even if professors are hooked on the Internet, the fervor hasn't necessarily spread to their families.

Ehrenreich notes that though his wife is "tempted" to get on-line, she hasn't done it yet.

"In families, it's not yet as common," he says, although he does communicate by e-mail with his children.

And while Nagy receives e-mail every other hour from his wife, his son hasn't jumped on the information super-highway.

"My son who's a sophomore at [University of] Chicago is e-mail phobic," Nagy says. "We have a very good telephone relationship, but he doesn't e-mail me. I still have to sell him on how e-mail can be talk substitute and a talk supplement."

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