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Today is my first day in Palo Alto, where I had planned to spend the next few days going to Patrick Suppes’s papers at Stanford University.

It hasn’t worked out as planned.

I had this suspicion, I admit, when I struggled to 1) make an appointment with Special Collections and 2) see the details of what his papers contained. But there were four boxes – the same number that Ohio State University had for Sidney Pressey – so I assumed there would be plenty for me to go through.

There wasn’t. It took me about 90 minutes to go through all the boxes and all the folders – mostly copies of overhead projector transparencies. That is, notes from lectures.

Next-to-nothing on Dial-a-Drill or on Computer Curriculum Associates – two of the things that had prompted me to include Suppes in my book proposal as representative of early computer-based teaching machines. I snapped a photo of the folder labeled CCC. It was empty.

I have been incredibly lucky with what I’ve found in both Skinner and Pressey’s archives. So perhaps I’m just due for a disappointment. And fair enough: unlike those two more “historical” figures, Suppes only died a few years ago – perhaps there are things that just haven’t made it into the university archives. (And perhaps this was why his papers were a total mess – no labels on the folders. No organizational framework other than someone took all the papers that were in a file cabinet and stuck them in a box and moved them to an offsite storage facility.)

Perhaps too the lack of material, particularly personal correspondence, reflects a technological shift. There were two folders of handwritten correspondence – one from a childhood friend and one from a French philosopher. There were very few copies of letters to those individuals. Gone, one can tell by the 1990s when these letters were written and sent and received, were carbon copies of typewritten correspondence. Suppes answered in letters he typed himself on a computer. Perhaps there were digital copies saved somewhere. But perhaps not. It’s a notable shift from the flurry of correspondence generated – and kept – by Skinner and Pressey.

I don’t plan to change my chapter on computer-assisted instruction. Yet. Suppes is a figure that makes sense for the story I’m constructing. But I just expected to be able to find a bit more out about what that story could be while here in Palo Alto. There will be some newspaper articles about Dial-a-Drill, to be sure. I’ll have to do a different kind of journalistic legwork here to answer my questions about Suppes and “the business of teaching machines” in this time period.

Some of that means that I’ll have to do some digging into corporate and foundation records – IBM, the Carnegie Foundation, Simon & Schuster, Pearson – to be able to reconstruct the struggle to fund, develop, and distribute these particular teaching machines. That will likely be a more challenging task as these organizations are less likely to be governed by the the ethos of (some) academics that it is important to preserve papers for future scholarship.

Audrey Watters


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Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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