Aristotle in Hypertext

One of my favorite moments in teaching the history of science are the days when we discuss an assigned reading by Aristotle, and half the students are looking through the text on their phones. I love the juxtaposition of ancient text and modern technology.

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This experience got me thinking about how students today, or maybe more specifically, the students I have in my classes who are, for the most part, science majors rather than history or history of science or philosophy majors, interact with Aristotle. As anyone who teaches Aristotle is surely aware, he’s not an easy read! Perhaps a problem particular to history of science is that Aristotle’s views of the cosmos have long since been replaced by modern scientific concepts like the periodic table of the elements, gravity, and Linnaean taxonomy. By contrast, many of Aristotle’s ideas on philosophy, politics, ethics and morality are still deemed relevant to the contemporary world. Aristotle’s “scientific work” (or less anachronistically, his natural philosophical work) can look hopelessly outdated and can be very difficult for students, especially science students, to see as rational and informed by observation and experience. My students are inclined to want to dismiss Aristotle as “superstitious” and irrational, and as basing his ideas on very limited data about the natural world. While I certainly believe in the periodic table and not in earth, air, fire and water, I need them to see Aristotle as both a rational and a quite sophisticated thinker. If they don’t, then his long influence on science is hard to explain as anything other than blind following of authority.   As a teacher, I try to help students understand Aristotle’s views of the natural world, and how they provided a very coherent and logical explanation of an extensive set of empirical data.

But I’d also like to recapture the dynamism and interactive nature of Aristotle’s own teaching. Many of the texts of Aristotle that we have today originated as teaching notes or aids for his students. Although students today often find reading Aristotle difficult – and tedious! – in his own day he was a popular teacher. He was famous for teaching outside while walking, earning him the sobriquet, “the Peripatetic.” Aristotle did not just recite his ideas to his students. He talked through his ideas with them. He paused for questions. He stopped and asked students questions to test their understanding. And with more advanced students who were beginning to develop their own ideas, he undoubtedly argued.  The dynamic and interactive character of Aristotle’s teaching is key to understanding his incredibly long influence. Aristotle’s readers in the Middle Ages and early modern period, in both Europe and the Islamic world, never saw his ideas as fixed and static. They interacted with these ideas – they clarified them, they applied them to new situations, they modified them, they expanded upon them, and sometimes they flat out contradicted them.

As an attempt to achieve both these goals (that is, to facilitate understanding of Aristotle’s natural philosophy as well as to promote an interactive engagement with his ideas), I decided to create an interactive, hypertext version of a portion of Aristotle’ book On the Heavens. I enlisted the aid of my colleague Peter Barker, who has far more expertise in ancient cosmology than I do. We used excerpts of Aristotle’s De caelo (On the Heavens) translated by J. L. Stocks. (We used portions of the text that Professor Barker has been using in his undergraduate courses on the history of science.) We used a program called Twine, which is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories” (according their website). Twine is designed to be VERY easy to use, and does not require any knowledge of coding. The Twine website has links to multiple tutorials, all of which can be completed in a matter of hours. Twine was really designed to create interactive fiction, a hypertext version of those old “choose your own adventure books” some of us may remember from childhood. It can also be used to create games, where players have to work their way through a particular quest, and can earn points and move up levels. (The Twine website has examples of stories and games built with Twine.) We decided to use this program to create an interactive, hypertext version of Aristotle for our students.

One difficulty our students frequently encounter with Aristotle is the order in which he presents his material. Rather than beginning with his own ideas, he starts with the opinions of his predecessors, and then proceeds to critique their ideas. Then he outlines his own ideas and explains why they are superior. Our Twine Aristotle can be read in this order, but if students prefer, they can read about Aristotle’s own ideas first and then go back to his criticisms of earlier work. Further, we have broken the text up into bite-size chunks, and added in some further explanation, and sometimes images, to help students grasp Aristotle’s ideas about the universe. As they read each passage, they can decide whether they need more explanation, or whether they want to move on through the text. If they want more explanation, they click on the question that begins, “Wait, please explain to us . . .” This takes them to a more extended discussion of Aristotle’s point. This explanatory text was written by us.  If they don’t need the added explanation, they just click on the question that begins, “Please continue.”

We have each tried this out in classes once, but have yet to do any kind of systematic analysis of how students use this (do they choose to read it in a different order? how many of the explanations do they read? do students who read the Twine understand Aristotle better than those who read the conventional text?). However, we’d like to make our Twine available to other users and would welcome thoughts and feedback.  You can find it here on Professor Barker’s course website for HSCI 1113.

Given the ease of using Twine, I also intend in subsequent classes to have groups of students work to create their own Twines of primary sources, complete with explanatory material like what we have created for Aristotle, and then to have other students in the class use and critique these Twine texts. I am hoping this will encourage the very close reading and discussion of primary texts that is a hallmark of historical analysis.

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