NEH 50th Film Screening

April 25, 2016, University of Maryland

On Monday, April 25th at 7:30PM, the NEH is co-hosting a film screening at the University of Maryland in the auditorium at 0320 Tawes Hall (directions here). We will be screening, for the first time in 42 years, an NEH-funded documentary film from 1974 called An Experiment in Computer Based Education Using Hypertext. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring the original NEH grantee Andy van Dam, Professor of Technology and Education and Professor of Computer Science at Brown University.

This film has a unique and interesting history. In 1974, the NEH’s Division of Education was directed by Roger Rosenblatt (today a well-known novelist and journalist). Rosenblatt was instrumental in making this grant to a computer scientist at Brown named Andy van Dam who, at the time, in collaboration with Ted Nelson, had built the very first computer systems that used “hypertext.” Today, of course, we know that hypertext is the underlying protocol for organizing information on the web (every “link” you see in this email is hypertext). Back in 1974, however, it was still quite a theoretical concept. But Andy van Dam, who has been involved in humanities/computer science collaborations throughout his career, believed that hypertext had a place in the humanities classroom. For his grant, van Dam, along with collaborators from the humanities, taught several poetry classes to students at Brown using an early hypertext system and compared the results to control groups doing traditional teaching. Remarkably, they made a documentary film about their work which we will be showing on April 25th.

This grant had largely been forgotten here at the NEH – I had no knowledge of it until recently when we began our 50th anniversary project of digitizing the old McBee cards. Ann Sneesby-Koch found the McBee card and brought it to my attention. Could it be that the NEH, of all agencies, funded this groundbreaking project in the very early days of hypertext, some 20 years before the world wide web? After Time magazine featured van Dam’s NEH McBee card on the web, Matt Kirschenbaum from the University of Maryland got in touch and said they would love to host a film screening – if anyone could locate a copy! Luckily, van Dam himself, who still teaches at Brown, was able to locate the original film, which is being restored for our screening.

I should note that Professor van Dam is also a pioneer in computer graphics and his students have gone on to help found Pixar, Apple, and other companies. So I do hope you can stop by Maryland to help us celebrate one of the more important grants in NEH history.  Lastly, I also invite you to a lecture that van Dam is giving the following day, April 26, also at UMD, entitled Five Decades of Experiments with Hypermedia Systems for the Humanities.

Posted: April 18, 2016