Robert Byrnes and Distance Learning: Then and Now

Over the past (very turbulent) month, I’ve been working on describing digitized media from Collection C388, the Robert Byrnes papers. I started my work on this collection the week before spring break, and for that reason my conception of the collection is overshadowed by the circumstances around my work on it. However, the transition to remote work over the past few weeks has highlighted one part of this collection in particular; a film series Byrnes produced in 1959 on the history of Russia. It stood out to me because of its intended use, which was as a correspondence course. I found myself in the interesting position of transitioning to remote learning while working on an approach which was used 60 years ago.

Robert Byrnes portraitj
Robert Byrnes in 1958, IU Archives P0020758

In some ways the contrast is pretty stark; Byrnes’s approach and our own are on opposite ends of a technological and educational revolution. The ability to speak with my classmates despite sometimes immense physical distance is extraordinarily powerful. In some ways, I imagine that the correspondence course of 1959 faced some of the same challenges as we do today. The lecture and the classroom are institutions with centuries of tradition. Physical, shared learning spaces were as or more important back then as they are now. The same can be said of student-professor interaction. There are few things which are valued more in the pedagogical process.

That said, there are some successes and failures with the Byrnes course which I think we can apply to our own attempts at remote learning.

One thing that Byrnes really succeeds at is his presentation of his material. As a lecturer and presenter, Byrnes is smooth and articulate on camera. He outlines his subject in clear terms and speaks on his subject matter with a formal yet conversational style. I think this sort of clear and direct presentation style is really important for remote learning; without the physical cues of a classroom and the pressure to reduce distraction during class, it is important to simplify and clarify a message for students.

Something else I thought was really important to the success of Byrnes’s lectures is that they don’t rely on graphics. This is something that I think we especially, as students and professors who rely on PowerPoint, could learn from the presentation of the past. We use presentation slides for a reason, but it’s important to consider their role in a classroom setting. Students look at the professor when they’re presenting information, so retaining that cue also helps retain attention. By using graphics sparingly and intentionally, they can serve their intended function; as a teaching aid, instead of as a teaching crutch.

Robert Byrnes on television set, standing at lectern
Robert Byrnes on television set, IU Archives P0048278

One downfall of Byrnes’s lectures is that they lack student interactivity. This is a genuine success of our modern educational tools. The ability for students and professors to talk is one of the most valuable aspects of a classroom environment, so its remote replication should be seen as a huge advantage.

While Byrnes’s lectures demonstrate clear understanding of the topic, the ability to engage his knowledge and ask interesting questions would elevate the experience greatly. Since this is one of the advantages we retain with an online format,  it is something we should turn to often in our lectures. In my few weeks of online instruction, I have yet to see student questions engaged with. I see this as a lack of integration with the system on Zoom; the tools for question asking/answering are there, but professors have to make use of them. Real integration of the tools we have for online teaching would improve the experience greatly. For example, Zoom includes a chat bar in its client; professors could use this feature to get information and field questions from students, while allowing moderation to ensure that there isn’t chaos in the audio channel. It will be interesting to see how teaching styles adapt to the tools available online; to succeed in this environment, a different skillset and teaching style is necessary, and I’m interested to see how learning changes over time as a result of this abrupt change to online courses.

One last downfall of Byrnes’s lectures is their bias. In many ways the lectures are a product of their time. An American series on Russian history, in 1959, is doomed to bias as a result of the political climate of the time.  While we are more aware of this issue today, it is just as important (or more so) to examine our discussions and beliefs for bias in our time.

Byrnes had a lot going on in the course of his life. These video lectures form an early part of his work, but his examination of Russian history, and the events of his time, never stopped. He was still thinking, writing, and speaking on Russia and Eastern Europe through the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lived through some of the most serious international crises of the 20th century, and indeed of modern history. To study an area of the world which was subject to so much bias, so much uncertainty, and so much speculation, must have been uniquely challenging. I hope that we can apply some of Byrnes’s perseverance in the difficult times that we’re living through, and continue to be the best students, researchers, and professors we can, no matter the circumstances.

Finding common ground: conversations on applied folklore in the Bloomington community

"What have Bloomington and Monroe County been like in the past? What can they be like in the future? Can we, should we, find any Common Ground?"
Excerpt from the 1998 call out letter.

This past summer, the Indiana University Archives hired me to focus on some of the Archive’s time-based media (i.e., tapes and film) that have gone through the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative. The goal has been to work on the description of the pieces — some of which had nothing more than “Side A” or “Side B” — and to work with the head of the Libraries’ Copyright Program to determine what level of access we can provide.

Given my background as a PhD student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, one of the first projects I was tasked with were the recordings digitized from the Department’s records here in the IU Archives. There are a few different chunks of recordings within the records; this post focuses on recorded conversations from a 1998-99 Visions of Place project sponsored by local businesses and the Indiana Humanities Council.  A subset of the larger project was Common Ground, a public folklore initiative of which the Indiana University Folklore Department was a partner. This project focused on understanding the meaning of community and neighborhood within Bloomington and Monroe County. Descriptions of the “Photo Days” and story collecting sound quite similar to modern-day “History Harvests” which we sometimes see hosted by local historical societies around the country. Included with these recordings are some from 1996; it seems likely that the interviews and conversations between folklore graduate students and professors at that time influenced the development of the Common Ground public folklore initiative.

The recordings in this collection document weekly summer meetings between professors and a team of six graduate students as they developed plans for a public service folklore project in Bloomington. Ultimately, the group decided to work towards building community between local senior citizens and children through joint folklore programming with the then neighboring community centers, Kid City and Older Citizens Center. The recordings, on audio cassette, capture the group’s discussions about team fieldwork methodologies, ethical concerns in public folklore, and the relationship between Indiana University and the Bloomington community, both historically and at the time of the recording. The topics remain prominent in folklore studies today.

The conversations include IU folklore graduate students and professors Henry Glassie and Phil Stafford, with the latter asked to reflect on his community service work in the Evergreen Project. The Evergreen Project invited a nursing home community in Bloomington to reflect on their sense of place. The team delegated tasks and then reported back on their progress in building connections in the field. They reflected on weekly readings, discussing problems in teamwork, volunteering, and race and class relations in fieldwork and public folklore.

Also included is an interview by folklorists John Cash and Inta Carpenter with Keith Enright. Enright worked on a public folklore project to preserve Indiana folklife and heritage with one of IU’s most prominent folklorists, Dr. Warren Roberts. Their work focused on analysis and preservation on the oldest farmstead in Monroe County, the Mayfield Homestead. Enright’s research and preservation work on the pioneer homestead revealed centuries-old architectural evidence that the design was likely inspired by mystical symmetry invoked by the Freemasons. Enright also discussed the history and future of development in Bloomington and his own family heritage in the Midwest.

Headshot of Anya Peterson Royce
Anya Peterson Royce, Chancellors’ Professor of Anthropology

Additional recordings include Chancellors’ Professor and anthropologist Anya Peterson Royce on the topics of public folklore, fieldwork relationships, and service learning. Her interviews discuss her experiences with fieldwork, race, and service in Indianapolis and Martinsville, Indiana.

Finally, the Common Ground initiative closed with a group oral history interview with Russell Shaw, a local photographer and photography shop owner who shared information about his extensive collection of historic Bloomington photography.

Although all of the project participants verbally acknowledge they are being recorded, because they could have never imagined they would be streamed online, at this time researchers must contact the Archives staff for access. Further description of all of the recordings can be found within the collection description for the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology records.