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Beth Sorensen
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Poetry in motion: Reed professor blends poetry and technology in innovative web-based tutorial

Portland, Oregon, September 28 - Almost every time Ellen Stauder got to the rhythm analysis section of her class in introductory poetry and poetics, some student would say, "I didn't think this was going to be a physics class!"

It’s not exactly physics--but Stauder, a professor of English and humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, could understand her students' confusion. After all, modern students often see poetry as a highly private, subjective art form. Using hard and fast (not to mention extremely complicated) rules to examine it seems to many students practically sacreligious.

Which, to Stauder's way of thinking, is a shame. Stauder, who did her undergraduate work at the Eastman School of Music and has always been interested in the relationship between poetry and music, is an expert on the way that rhythm shapes the way we see the world and understand poetry. In effect, rhythm creates time for the poetry reader, providing a glimpse into the organization of an inner world. "I see rhythm not as one among many features of poetry like images or similes," said Stauder, "but as one of the most central ways language is organized and time is perceived."

But try telling that to a student struggling to diagram a generative tree, or to master the nuclear stress rule. "Traditionally, rhythm analysis has been taught as a dusty science of accents, Greek names, and abstruse metrical variation," said Stauder. But she could see that her students were hitting their heads against a wall when they tried to master the new technique on their own. Often students walked away from class thinking they understood everything, only to get stumped when they attempted exercises at home.

So Stauder tried something totally new. She created a unique fusion of technology and poetry called Intra: an Interactive Tutorial on Rhythm Analysis ( The web-based tool allows Stauder's poetry students to identify and diagram rhythmic structure through a series of interactive exercises.

Stauder, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, had the academic expertise, but she needed someone tech-savvy to translate her ideas into virtual reality. After securing a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Stauder turned to student Nik Anderson ’00, an English major and employee of Reed's faculty multimedia lab (FML). The FML offers equipment and assistance to Reed professors to develop multimedia course materials. "I had no idea how to make it work," said Anderson.

But, eventually, he did make it work. Over the summer of 1998 Stauder worked closely with Anderson to write the program for Intra. By late fall they had created a workable alpha version in JavaScript. After experimenting with Intra that year, Stauder and Anderson modified the program and rewrote it in Java.

In 1999 a beginning poetry class test-drove Intra. Stauder and Anderson, encouraged by the positive response, made adjustments to the program to incorporate student suggestions. Intra is now being used by a second group of poetry and poetics students.

With Intra, Stauder hopes to make rhythmic analysis relatively painless for her students and to make it easier for them to see what makes the technique so fascinating. "The tutorial is meant to reduce frustration with learning the techniques while at the same time leading a student to think about the larger conceptual issues of rhythm more quickly and with greater sophistication," said Stauder.

Intra's premise is fairly simple. The tutorial provides students with detailed information on rhythmic analysis. The text is embedded with a series of increasingly difficult interactive Java applet tutorials that ask students to understand the connections between stress and syntax, the way poets achieve rhythmic complexity, and the relationship between meter and phrasal rhythm. Students work through the poems and then check their work. They can scroll backward and forward through the exercises, view solutions, and link to help.

The result, Stauder hopes, will challenge her students' basic understandings about poetry, and perhaps even about the perception of time. Rhythm analysis, Stauder believes, is a way of mapping an inner world of cognition and time; her own research, in fact, focuses in part on understanding the rhythm of Ezra Pound's free verse. And though the idea of subjecting poetry to such close and systematic scrutiny is often anathema to students, Stauder hopes Intra will change all that.

"We do read by ourselves," Stauder said, "but ultimately reading is a shared experience with the author and with other readers, and it is meant to be talked about. Intra is one way to develop the common vocabulary we need to do that."