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Imagining the Inferno: Professor sparks students' interest with award-winning Danteworlds Web site

When Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote his masterpiece “The Divine Comedy” in the early 1300s, the most advanced technology for getting the 14,233-line poem down was with pen and paper.

Guy Raffa
Dr. Guy Raffa

If he were alive today, perhaps Dante would have chosen his writing tools differently. Given a Mac and Internet access, the epic poet might have designed a Web site instead to chronicle his allegorical journey from Hell to Paradise.

Fortunately for students at The University of Texas at Austin taking Dr. Guy Raffa’s course on Dante, that Web site already exists.

“In teaching the ‘Divine Comedy,’ you learn quickly that students need to visualize what’s happening,” said Raffa, associate professor of Italian in the College of Liberal Arts, who developed concepts over several years for the Web site that ultimately became Danteworlds.

“The user of Danteworlds needs to be able to see what Dante sees, as he journeys through Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory and through the spheres of Paradise. I was already thinking about how I was teaching the class and how this project would complement and enrich aspects of the teaching.”

Winner of a Silver award in the Teaching with Technology category in the 2003 Innovative Use of Instructional Technology Awards Program (IITAP) competition, Raffa developed the Danteworlds Web site specifically for use in teaching his course on Dante.

The Web site is structured around a visual representation of Dante’s Inferno. Each section or circle of hell shows and discusses the main characters that the fictional Dante meets on his journey—from Dante’s guide, the classical poet Virgil, to Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the mythical underworld.

Dante in the Dark Wood
At the beginning of the poem, Dante finds himself in the Dark Wood.

Although there are other Web resources available about Dante, most are text-based. These are good for scholars, but Raffa wanted a resource he could use with undergraduate students.

The Danteworlds site is distinctive with its original artwork by Suloni Robertson, graphic designer in the College of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS). The illustrations depict scenes from the text and audio recordings of passages in the original Italian.

Students in several other University of Texas at Austin courses have also used this eye-catching and informative way to present Dante’s Inferno. A humanities lecture class of 300 students at Stanford University has already included use of the Web site in the course, and Raffa receives inquiries and comments from other universities.

Support for Raffa’s visions of the site came through a College of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Grant in 2001, and another in 2003. Working with a team, including Robertson and technology specialists from LAITS, Raffa developed his ideas of how images of Dante’s Inferno could help his students better understand and interpret the text.

One of the goals for the project was to make it accessible not only to his students, but to anyone, anywhere, teaching Dante. For that Raffa needed programming and technical assistance, support from his department, college and university resources such as the Center for Instructional Technologies, and student feedback.

Raffa believes that instructional technology is a good way to bring together the different components of a faculty member’s teaching and research. The commentary and notes Raffa wrote for the project are a result of his Dante scholarship, as well as his teaching. The commentary for the site has even spawned new ideas for his research.

Cerberus, three-headed dog
Cerberus, a three-headed dog, guards Circle 3 of hell, the circle of gluttony.

More and more, technological advances are being introduced into the classroom, changing the way faculty teach and students learn. While technology can be a critical component to the educational experience, its use is not a shortcut to good teaching, said Raffa.

“The good technology we have now must go hand-in-hand with good pedagogy,” Raffa said. “Faculty members need to think long and hard about how they’re teaching their classes, and then how technology can help them to, maybe, do it a little differently.”

Student comments from course evaluations show that students appreciate the multimedia approach the Danteworlds site offers.

“The Web site was invaluable to my understanding of the Inferno,” said one student. “The pictures, both old and new, added a new dimension to the reading—as did the audio recordings.”

Raffa found that students are improving by several measures. Quiz scores are better than before he used the Web site in his course. Students use the site to prepare for class or to review and enhance what they’ve learned from the class discussions.

In class, discussion can get to a higher level more quickly. Raffa can spend less time on some of the basic information in class, and talk about other things in the course related to the poem. That’s one of the pedagogical advantages of this project, he believes—changing the way the classroom teaching occurs and enriching the students’ experiences.

Geryon, falcon with reptilian hide and scorpion's tail
Geryon, an image of fraud, is one of Dante’s most complex creatures.

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” has three parts. Raffa now is working on the second and third parts of the poem.

“We’ve been in Hell so far; now it’s time to move on, to Purgatory and then Heaven,” he said.

Experience from the Inferno project has helped. Raffa is in the process of writing the commentary, notes and study questions for the next parts, and collaboration with the Liberal Arts technology group is already in progress.

Raffa advises other faculty who are interested in developing instructional technology projects to start thinking early about how they are teaching their classes, how the technology will help that, and then to talk to as many people as possible who have technological expertise.

For Raffa, it has been a wonderful combination of factors coming together to develop the Danteworlds Web site, and he acknowledges the help he’s received. Raffa said he is fortunate because of the proliferation of support at The University of Texas at Austin for faculty using instructional technology in their courses.

Raffa’s teaching and scholarship have been energized through working on this Web project, and he’s eager to continue the journey.

Dawn Cizmar

Photo of Dr. Raffa: Marsha Miller

Illustrations from Danteworlds: Suloni Robertson

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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