Celebrating the use of Internet Resources
Mark Goodacre is Associate Professor of Religion at Duke University and the editor of the New Testament Gateway (http://NTGateway.com). You can read his NT Blog at http://ntweblog.blogspot.com or listen to his podcast, the NT Pod, at http://podacre.blogspot.com.
I am surprised by how often I hear scholars making disparaging remarks about the internet. It is still commonplace to find university professors discouraging their students to use the internet in their research, and to play off electronic resources against print resources, as if the medium of delivery is itself an indicator of the quality of the resource in question. There is, of course, a great morass of utter nonsense and complete drivel on the internet, and Google will find all manner of rubbish in zero-point-hardly-any-seconds. But googling in the dark was never likely to be the strongest research method, just as randomly pulling books of the shelf in the local library might well cause the student a few problems of its own. The failure to use any kind of research resource intelligently is regrettable, whatever its format.
There was once a day, in fairly recent history, when the number of good academic resources on the internet was so limited that one could afford to ignore it altogether and to insist on print-only. That day is past. It is now absurd to draw hard lines of division between electronic and print. There are classic books and articles that have found their way to the internet, whether through the efforts of archive.org, google books or the individual enthusiast, and there are articles that begin life on the internet only subsequently to find their way to print. There is a constant flow from the internet to print, from print to the internet and back again. The fact that we now access most of our current journals in electronic format is itself a sign that the means by which we do our scholarship has changed. And yet we are often slow to show our consciousness of these changes in our teaching.
Part of the problem is that many scholars are innately conservative in their teaching methods, and they are working with a print-dominated mindset. They are used to print, they like print, they have always used print. They may even print out their emails. Exploring internet resources will be time consuming and difficult. It might take away from valuable research time, or might be squeezed out by the weight of the administrative burden that they are are already struggling under. Add to this the concern that their students probably know far more about the net than they do. Faced with the fear of looking inadequate in front of their students, it is preferable to go into denial, and to stick with what they know.
The good news is that there are solutions to these problems, and they need not involve a huge investment of time and effort. One of them is something I have been working on for over a decade now, the New Testament Gateway, at NTGateway.com. The idea of this site was originally to gather together everything decent that one could find on the internet that was connected in some way with the academic study of the New Testament and Christian Origins. When the sheer scope of the resources that were becoming available gradually exposed the forlorn nature of that ambition, the site began instead to focus specially on those sources that would be particularly useful for undergraduate students, and so to help not only them but also their professors. Teaching a course on the Historical Jesus? Go to the Historical Jesus section of the site. The Apostle Paul? Likewise. Looking for aids for teaching New Testament Greek? Go to the Greek NT Gateway.
So am I using my latest op-ed piece as an opportunity to peddle my own wares? Yes, I am afraid that that is exactly what I am doing, except that now the site is no longer mine. At least, it is not mine alone. My recent partnership with Logos Bible Software has seen a transformation of the site, with greatly improved navigation, a more dynamic interface, links with Facebook and Twitter, and, most importantly, the opportunity to team up with others to add their expertise and to lighten the load for me. Those who have visited the site recently will have noticed that Holger Szesnat has joined me in streamlining, tidying and repopulating the site with up to date information, new pages and new links. And there is lots more to come.
The NT Gateway is not, of course, a one-stop shop and there are other sites out there that I often use myself, and which are doing outstanding work. And that is one of the glories of the net, the opportunities for interaction and collaboration, for exchanging ideas, for talking to one another, for working out what we are doing well and where the problems and shortfalls lie.
Lest this sound too much like an unequivocal celebration of the glories of the internet, let me share a wistful thought with others who were brought up in a world where there was no web. I can't help at least a little sympathy with the crusty British watcher Giles, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as he bemoans the fact that students now prefer the internet to books. Books, he says, unlike the internet, have character and soul. Each has its own smell. In a world where we think that anything and everything of any use can be found on the internet, it is easy to forget the warm glow inside as we enter the stacks of the university library. That smell is the smell of accumulated wisdom and knowledge of many generations. But the joy of being in the library stacks, or of digging out some wonderful old volume, cannot any longer represent the full extent of our experience of the scholarship we pass on to our students.