Faculty Experiences - Todd Presner

Todd Presner - photoTODD PRESNER

Germanic Languages

Interview Topics

What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

How could the University better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?


Critical thinking

Student creativity

Organize information

Associative thinking

Student participation




Class web site

Digital archive

Computer classroom/lab

Navigating Course Materials in Unique Ways

As students begin the groundwork for their education, it is crucial that they learn not only to have and call upon critical skills for understanding the world but that they also possess creative modes for responding to the world in which they live.

First and foremost it is important that students develop the critical skills necessary for understanding, interpreting and responding to the world within which they live. This means also gaining a certain historical perspective and knowledge of history. It is important that I cultivate students’ creativity and even offer them non-traditional outlets for their expressions. This may take the form of creative writing or written exercises or it may also take the form of projects. I am a big supporter of project-based learning. As students begin the groundwork for their education, it is crucial that they learn not only to have and call upon critical skills for understanding the world but that they also possess creative modes for responding to the world in which they live. I want them to be able to critique and create. And if I can help the students to develop these skills in addition to the requisite historical knowledge, then I think I have succeeded.

Hypermedia Berlin is a course on the cultural history of a place, -- the city of Berlin. It deals with many different layers: architecture, art, literature, philosophy and so forth. Traditionally, these are areas of study that students can respond to passively. But that is not what happens in this class because I assign them projects that require them to build something new out of their course materials. One particular mode of expression that facilitates students’ critical engagement with these materials is presenting their work in the form of a web site. As a conglomeration of images, texts, and sounds in a hypertext format, the site allows the students to navigate the materials in very unique ways. Student web projects get integrated into my course material so other students learn from it, and I can also use them in my teaching. Students respond creatively to this assignment, and oftentimes their work exceeds my expectations.

The concept behind the Hypermedia Berlin course is to teach students cultural history in a new way. I realized that I can either teach this course chronologically in a traditional textbook format or I can approach it by emphasizing the topography of the city, that is, by focusing on place and space and the relationship between space and creative expression. I thought the best way to help students understand the complexity of such a space was to create a “hypermedia textbook” called Hypermedia Berlin. All the course material is essentially online. I have maps of Berlin from different time periods that are interconnected with fully annotated hyperlinks that allow students to see the multiplicity of cultural and topographical layers that contribute to the complexity of the city. Students are free to navigate these layers. As they do so, they move through space and they also move through time. This mode of navigation allows for a multiplicity of ways to explore cultural history because there is not only one linear narrative, but rather many different narratives that lead to the understanding of layers that form any cultural spaces. For instance, in my lectures I begin with a particular place in the Berlin of the present (2003-04). Then I will “drill down” through time to talk about this exact same site in different years. I may discuss what happened at this site in 1989 right after the fall of the Berlin wall or in 1962 during the Berlin wall or in 1936 during the Nazi period or even earlier during the Enlightenment. Basically in my discussion about a site, I cover certain historical and ideological changes that were important to the understanding of the cultural history of Berlin. My teaching, the readings and all the students’ assignments are based on the web site. There are still traditional text-based readings. I am not saying we should abandon traditional text and textbook approaches but I think Hypermedia Berlin offers a new way of presenting course material and producing cultural knowledge.

The Hypermedia Berlin web site is always projected behind me when I am teaching as I use the web site to illustrate my discussions. Having the web site also allows me to have a much more dynamic lecture. I can essentially move through the history of Berlin in any order that I want which is also how the students navigate the city. They get lost in it because there is so much material. But getting lost is actually a part of the learning process because students have to find their way out. Furthermore they have to find their assignments because certain assignments are only tagged to certain dates and certain places. For instance, I have a reading from Moses Mendelsohn (1728-86), a very famous Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment. The students need to understand that they are not going to find that reading in the 1962 map. They have to use the syllabus to figure out why a certain map comes up and why it is linked to certain places, certain people and certain readings. This way, students also start thinking associatively. This associative thinking is facilitated by the web technology. It is a new approach to the way the students learn. They begin to think spatially because the Web is by definition a spatial medium.

I think the students respond to Hypermedia Berlin positively. Hypermedia Berlin is a general education course (German 61A) with lecture and discussion sections. It was offered as a pilot course last year. I have never taught a course like this before and the students told me that they have never taken a course like this before. In the beginning, they were a bit baffled; they weren’t sure whether it was a course about architecture, history or literature or philosophy. But they found that it is all those things because the cultural history of a city bears witness to the widest possible use and range of cultural expressions. One day we might be studying a railway station and the next day we might be studying a wall or a museum and so forth. This is all made possible because all these different structures and features exist simultaneously on the various maps that I use. In the beginning the students were a little bit confused and hesitant because it did not look like a traditional history class. In addition, since I lectured using the web site, the lectures were very visual and had many jumping off points and many points of entry and exit. The discussion sections met in the computer labs which is unorthodox in itself because most humanities discussion sections meet in seminar rooms. But the students’ uncertainty quickly turned into something very positive.

One of the first projects was for the students to be embedded in the Berlin of the present. I assigned them places where they had to “live” for the course of the quarter. As virtual inhabitants of Berlin, they created biographical web pages where they introduced themselves and posted their pictures. In addition they also had to do some historical analyses about the place in which they were living. If they live in (Kollwitzplatz, for instance, they had to find out about Kaethe Kollwitz. What was her story? Why was she important in the history of the city? Where is the square nowadays and what is the significance of this area of Berlin? The students then realized that this is actually a very interesting and engaging way to get involved with the materials on a personal level. They could “visit” each other virtually in the city and read each other’s biography. They could learn about the different places where they were living. In this way, the students began to respond very positively to the project.

In addition to the personal biography project, I also required the students to do research and contribute to the web site. Students grouped themselves into teams of two. I assigned each team a “hot spot” on the map. These hotspots are spaces on the web site which will bring a pop-up window when a user points to it with a mouse. The task for each group was to fill the pop-up window with more information about that place. There were 65 students in the class, so we had around 30 hot spots assigned. Students picked where they wanted their information to pop-up for instance, students who were working on the Nazi Germany would take a hot spot in 1936 map while students who worked on the Berlin Wall would place themselves in a later map. By the end, the students developed pretty impressive research web pages which were integrated into the Hypermedia Berlin web site. They expanded the offering on the web site in very creative and unexpected ways. Overall I was very impressed with their effort. The students are very talented; given the opportunity to excel and to creatively express themselves, they will.

This year, I am offering the Hypermedia Berlin class for the second time. In reworking the site for this offering, we build on what we learned last year. One of the stumbling blocks was that students did not have an archive of visual materials that they could use for their own projects. They had to find the material on the Internet or scan the images themselves. This sometimes contributed to technical and logistical problems. To solve this problem, this year I am papartnering with a professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia to build an archive of digital images of Berlin. The archive contains maps, buildings and various key architectural features. The archive is hosted by the UCLA Digital Library project and is searchable. For students in my course, this will streamline their project productions because they will have a reliable archive of visual material. Additionally other students and faculty members will have access to this visual archive and be able to find images and use them.

I am also expanded the website itself, to cover the entire history of Berlin, all the way back to its origins in 1237. I am working with the Center for Digital Humanities to add a number of maps to fill out the history of Berlin since its beginning in the Middle Ages. Once the earlier maps are added, I will be able to show students the development of the city from its medieval origins. I also added demographic maps to the site so students can get information about population statistics and ages of buildings and see how these have changed over time. We are also working to add an architectural overlay feature which allows people to see projections of certain buildings on a map. For example by adding the overlay students will be able to see how the city would have looked if it had been rebuilt by the Nazi regime, enabling them to compare the projection with the actual map.

Oral Interview, February 2005