Indiana State University Newsroom

English professor uses Renaissance surveying tools to teach students

October 14, 2009

With bulging backpacks weighing down their shoulders and umbrellas shielding them from the cool October drizzle, Indiana State University students gathered around a stick of wood and a measuring tape to learn more about literature Wednesday morning.

There were no desks or textbooks in this outdoor classroom on the ISU campus where English Professor Tom Derrick met with students of his English Renaissance literature class. Derrick's experiment, which had more to do with using crude homemade tools to measure distances and less to do with words on the page, stumped some of his students.

"I wouldn't complain if it wasn't raining," said Jeremy Wooley, a senior English major from Indianapolis. "But I honestly don't see the point."

The point, Derrick said, was a three-fold attempt to challenge students to look beyond words on the page.

First, he wanted simply to get into the hands of students a cross staff - a surveying instrument traditionally used by 16th century mariners to measure angles and altitudes of the sun or other celestial bodies.

Renaissance surveyors used a cross staff by placing one end of it near their eye and the other end half way between the horizon and the celestial body. The vane was then slid along the staff until its upper edge appeared to touch the celestial body, while the lower edge appeared to touch the horizon. The altitude could then be read off the staff.

But more important than obtaining an accurate measurement of distance, Derrick wanted to impress on students the importance of a carefully interpreted text.

Prior to their morning in the rain, students had been given a copy of "A Treasure for Travelers" written by William Bourne in 1572. In the text that's nearly indecipherable to the modern eye, Bourne offers a how-to guide for those looking to calculate their proximity to a given object.

"Bourne is writing about mundane affairs in a language that students don't often know how to construe," Derrick said. "In order to read literature well you have to be able to interpret the words in their context, and this text requires you to do precisely that."

Derrick also was striving to impress on students the importance of planning a strategy before they begin an activity.

"I want to modify the university's slogan ‘Learn by Doing' because you can't get down to the business of doing without a sound theory that directs your activity," he said.

In addition to his own students, Derrick invited ISU technology students to assist him with measurements using modern day surveying tools. At the end of 50 minutes of calculating, Derrick declared the results inconclusive and told students he would complete more calculations before their next class meeting on Friday.

"I don't know the result yet," Derrick said from beneath the brim of his rain-dampened ISU baseball hat. "If the goal is to get students to understand what the text means, I think we've had success."

If, however, the goal was to determine the accuracy of 16th century surveying methods, "it's no wonder Christopher Columbus ended up in Barbados," Derrick said.

Regardless of the outcome, English education major Sharon Gorman of Terre Haute left the experiment without her spirits dampened.

"I think half of us thought this was ridiculous," she said.

"With the other half ... as ridiculous as it seems, it's a way to make the literature seem more real to us," she said."I love [Derrick's] non-traditional teaching methods ... When else will you experience stuff like this if not in college."

Contact: Tom Derrick, professor of English, Indiana State University, at 812-237-3138 or

Cutline: Indiana State University students from Professor Tom Derrick's English Renaissance literature class use a cross staff to help them interpret 16th century texts. (ISU/Kara Berchem)

Cutline: Indiana State University Professor Tom Derrick assists a student in calculating the distance measured by a make-shift cross staff. (ISU/Kara Berchem)

Writer: Rachel Wedding McClelland, assistant director of media relations, Indiana State University at 812-237-3790 or