The University Record, September 24, 2001

Online venture proves fruitful for many U-M faculty

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

Tom Fricke didn’t exactly jump at his first—or even second—chance to contribute content to, the online knowledge consortium that the University joined late last year.

“I got the generic e-mail asking faculty to participate sometime last semester, and I looked at it and deleted it because it seemed like a lot of work,” recalls Fricke, an anthropologist who directs the Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life in the Institute for Social Research (ISR). Then, when Fathom senior producer Matthew Howard approached him a short time later about developing an online course, “I think I was kind of abrupt,” Fricke admits. “I thought, ‘Great—another guy who wants me to do more work.’ Like all active researchers here, I was already buried.” Fricke figured he’d give Howard 15 minutes of his time and send him on his way, and that’s about how their first meeting went.

But Howard, fascinated by Fricke’s research on North Dakota farming families, gave it one more shot, attending a conference where Fricke presented a paper and proposing that the anthropologist turn his presentation into a 3,000-word “feature” for Fathom instead of contributing a full-fledged e-course.

Now, with his feature online, Fricke has become a Fathom booster, encouraging his peers at U-M and elsewhere to follow suit. “It was actually a very, very pleasant experience—a lot of fun,” says Fricke.

“It was nice to feel free of the need to cover myself as an academic, which is, in fact, to take a lot of the life out of things,” says Fricke. “This gave me the opportunity to stretch and talk to an imagined audience that includes a really diverse group of people. I could be more creative with the language and have some flexibility, which I very much enjoyed.” It also gave Fricke a chance to set an example for graduate students. “I think it’s very useful to show them that their faculty can write in a way that’s appealing,” he adds.

Denise Park, who wrote a Fathom feature about her research on the aging brain, says, “It’s fun to be able to talk about your science at a level that doesn’t require you to cite every detail, but just to say, ‘This is the way it is; this is what we know.’” Park cranked out the piece in her hotel room one afternoon while attending a professional meeting.

Fathom, an e-learning company founded by Columbia University, solicits material from faculty, researchers and curators at its 13 member institutions, which include Columbia University, The New York Public Library, the University of Chicago, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Then Fathom producers work with contributors to turn their words into interactive, multimedia offerings.

“You’re among other academics, and these are not minor players by any means,” says Fricke. “The museums and universities are all recognized places, so you don’t feel uncomfortable at all in that context.”

In addition to providing content, faculty contributors suggest relevant books, articles and other resources. Visitors to Fathom also can explore a directory of online courses (typically offered for a fee).

This fall, Ralph Williams, professor of English, will teach U-M’s first online Fathom course, “The Shakespeare You Never Knew: The First History Plays.” The e-course will examine three Henry VI plays, which are not as well known as many of Shakespeare’s works, and Richard III. The course draws on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s March 2001 residency at U-M, as well as artifacts from the University Library’s Shakespeare Collection.

Later this fall, a second e-course, “Daily Life in the Eastern Roman Empire (100 BCE - 100 CE): Trade, Travel, and Transformation,” will be taught by Susan Alcock, associate professor of classical studies; David Potter, professor of classical studies; Sharon Herbert, director of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and chair of classical studies; and Terry Wilfong, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies and assistant curator of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. The course will provide learners with a sense of what daily life was like in the ancient Roman Empire.

The U-M joined Fathom in late 2000. One of the goals of the collaboration is “to provide relatively painless opportunities for faculty to explore new online ventures,” says James L. Hilton, associate provost for academic, information and instructional technology affairs.

“I’ve been thinking very two-dimensionally up to now, and seeing that Web site, seeing what was done with my feature, has gotten me to think about more adventuresome possibilities,” says Fricke. Though initially resistant to the idea of developing an e-course, Fricke is reconsidering in light of his Fathom experience. He’s also thinking about ways to jazz up his center’s Web site.

“I’ve gotten something back from it professionally, in terms of having something I can use to present my work to other groups,” says Park, a senior research scientist with ISR.

Faculty who haven’t created their own Web sites can use their Fathom features as stand-ins, notes Virtual Reality Laboratory director Klaus-Peter Beier, who contributed a feature on the Virtual Football Trainer, a project that uses a virtual reality environment to simulate action on a football field.

“We’ve gotten incredibly generous increases in the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation budgets, and if we want to continue to get increases or even maintain current levels, we need to be out there saying, ‘Look, we’re doing something useful,’” says Park. “We can put out journal articles, but those don’t seem useful to a lot of people. So taking those articles and translating them into something that’s accessible but still intellectually honest is extremely important.”

U-M courses, seminars and features on Fathom can be found on the Web at For more information on Fathom and the University’s involvement in the consortium, visit the Web at

Faculty who are interested in contributing material to Fathom may contact James Hilton, (734) 764-2571.