Yale University: The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

by James R. Vivian


Published Essays and Testimony | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute


As early as 1980 two national panels issued their findings on the state of student learning in the humanities and the sciences: a joint National Science Foundation-Department of Education study spoke of "a trend toward virtual scientific and technological illiteracy" (ix) and the Commission on the Humanities concluded that "a dramatic improvement in the quality of education in our elementary and secondary schools is the highest educational priority in the 1980s" (25). The commission called for curricula to teach children to read well, to write clearly, and to think critically. They also found that "the need to interrelate the humanities, social sciences, science and technology has probably never been greater than today" (6).

National problems in secondary education are no less important to Yale than to universities generally, and Yale's reasons for becoming involved in seeking solutions transcend altruism or a sense of responsibility to the New Haven community. As Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti pointed out in an interview on the David Susskind television program on 7 December 1980, "it is profoundly in our self-interest to have coherent, well-taught, well-thought-out curricula" in our local schools and in secondary schools throughout the country. Yale acted on such a view in 1970, when the history department began the History Education project (HEP), which assisted a number of New Haven social studies teachers in developing improved curricula for courses in American history, world area studies, and urban studies.

The success of HEP led to discussions about organizing a more ambitious and demanding program that would include additional disciplines. Teachers and administrators from the university and the schools quickly reached a consensus: the relationship between the university and the schools must be both prominent and permanent within any viable larger relationship between Yale and New Haven, and of the many ways Yale might aid New Haven none is more logical or defensible than a program that shares Yale's educational resources with the schools. Because of changing student needs, changing scholarship, and the changing objectives set by the school system and each level of government, school curricula undergo constant revision. Because of Yale's strength in the academic disciplines, all agreed that the university could most readily assist the schools by developing curricula, further preparing teachers in the subjects they teach, and helping teachers keep abreast of changes in their fields.

Our intent was not to create new resources at Yale; rather, it was to make available in a planned way our existing strength, that is, to expand and institutionalize the work of university faculty members with their colleagues in the schools. Even at this early stage, both Yale and the schools sought a course of action that might have a substantial impact. The superintendent of schools and the board of education asked that the expansion of the program begin with the addition of seminars in English, the subject in which they saw the greatest need. The objective was eventually to involve as many teachers as possible and to include a range of subjects that would span the humanities and sciences, so that the program might address the school curricula, and thus students' education, broadly. In 1978, then, the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute was established as a joint program of Yale University and the New Haven Public Schools, designed to strengthen teaching and thereby to improve student learning in the humanities and the sciences in our community's middle and high schools.

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The Program

From the outset, teachers have played a leading role in determining how Yale and the school system together can help them meet all their students' needs, not only the needs of students who later will enter college. The institute seeks to involve all teachers who state an interest in any of the seminars and who can demonstrate the relation of their institute work to courses they will teach in the coming year. The institute does not, then, involve a special group of teachers who teach a special group of students; rather, it is an intensive effort to assist teachers throughout the school system, grades 7 through 12.

Each year about eighty New Haven school teachers become fellows of the institute to work with Yale faculty members on topics the teachers themselves have identified. Many of the university's most distinguished faculty members have given talks and led seminars in the program. Seminar topics have included geology, the environment, medical imaging, Greek civilization, architecture, the arts and material culture, the American family, and a variety of topics in literature, history, and culture. The materials that the fellows write are compiled into a volume for each seminar and distributed to all New Haven teachers who might use them. Teams of seminar members promote widespread use of these materials by presenting workshops for colleagues during the school year.

Culminating with the fellows' preparation of new materials that they and other teachers will use in the coming school year, the institute's intensive program lasts 4-1/2 months and includes talks, workshops, and seminars. The talks are intended to stimulate thinking and discussion and to point up interdisciplinary relationships in scholarship and teaching. Presenting institute guidelines for curriculum units, the workshops explore the fellows' own approaches to writing a curriculum unit and stress the audience for whom fellows are writing: other teachers. The seminars have the related and equally important purposes of increasing the fellows' background and developing new curriculum materials on the seminar subjects. As a group, fellows study the general seminar subject by discussing common readings; individually, each fellow selects a more limited aspect of the subject and researches and develops it in depth for classroom use. Each seminar must balance these complementary, but in some ways distinct, activities.

In applying to the institute, teachers describe the topics they most want to develop; Yale faculty members circulate seminar proposals related to these topics; and teachers who coordinate institute activities in the schools, after canvassing their colleagues, ultimately select which seminars will be offered. In effect, New Haven teachers determine the subject matter for the program each year. Because English is the largest department in the schools, a high proportion of teachers, requests have been for seminars on language and literature; nineteen of the forty-three seminars the institute has offered have been in this area. These seminars may be categorized as studies of a particular genre, interdisciplinary approaches to history and literature, thematic approaches to literature, and approaches to teaching writing. Teachers of languages other than English have frequently participated, and two interdisciplinary offerings were organized specifically for Spanish and bilingual-education teachers.

In an early seminar, Strategies for Teaching Literature, led by James A. Winn, the members as a group discussed a variety of literary genres, and each fellow individually researched and wrote on a particular genre. Other seminars have concentrated exclusively on a single genre. Readings in the Twentieth-Century Short Story, led by james A. Snead, considered the unique form of the short story, various styles, and questions of interpretation, especially those related to the teaching of literature. Thomas R. Whitaker twice led a seminar on drama. In his first seminar, members addressed a range of pedagogical strategies involving drama: how dramatic improvisation can increase students' motivation for studying the language arts, how it can provide a context for exploring the situations of bilingual and black students or of adolescents as a group, and how nonverbal performance can be a useful preparation for engaging a text. In a second seminar on drama, the fellows explored the implications of assuming that, even in a classroom, a play is best read as a "score for performance." they engaged a variety of plays, sampled some theater games and exercises, and shaped their group work so that it would encompass each of the curriculum units the fellows were preparing. Autobiography, a seminar led by Richard Brodhead, considered autobiography both as a literary form and as a human act. Participants looked at some distinguished examples of autobiographical writing and discussed ways in which the study of autobiography could provide the focus for a program in student writing.

Each of the genre seminars emphasized how best to introduce middle and high school students to the genre, how to relate what students would study to their own experience, and how, simultaneously, to encourage various forms of student expression. As Brodhead wrote:

While our seminar was reading classic writings and discussing abstract questions about autobiography, our concern was always with what this study could yield for New Haven high- and middle-school students, and specifically with how it could help develop their powers of verbal expression. This concern is constantly reflected in the units, each of which uses autobiography as the basis for a program of student writing. Our idea, in making autobiography the matrix for writing assignments, is to connect the often troubled act of writing with a broad activity of communication that students are already competent at and comfortable in. But while they draw on this reservoir of existing communicational skills, the units do not promote casual or uncontrolled self-expression as an end in itself. Rather they aim to use autobiographical self-expression to make students more conscious of the nature and power of expression, as well as to promote the forms of self-discovery--that new knowledge of who we are, where we came from, what matters to us, and why--that the writing of autobiography can produce.

Institute seminars with an interdisciplinary approach have combined the studies of history, literature, and culture. Society and the Detective Novel, led by Robin W. Winks, examined the transfer of the American Western novel" to the asphalt of the city, showing how detective and, to a lesser extent, spy fiction reveals the nation's preoccupations. Drawing on the visual arts as well as literature, An Interdisciplinary Approach to British Studies, also led by Winks, explored recent approaches to English literature in connection with recent trends and new interpretations in modern British history. The "City" in American Literature and Culture, led by Alan Trachtenberg, explored the usefulness of the category "city" or "urban" in the teaching of American cultural history. Drawing from readings in fiction, poetry, social theory, and urban history, as well as from knowledge of their students' backgrounds and needs, seminar members attempted to reconcile the detached view of the scholar with the more practical, urgent view of the citizen. Twentieth-Century American History and Literature, an early seminar, was divided into three sections, one on American domestic affairs, led by Richard W. Fox; one on foreign policy, led by Henry A. Turner; and one on the feminine experience revealed in various forms of literature, led by Cynthia E. Russett. In the Afro-American Culture of the Twentieth Century, led by Charles T. Davis, seminar members studied, comparatively, black and white literary traditions and historical accounts of the experiences of blacks and Italians in New Haven; examined origins of the black migration from the South and of the black ghetto in the Northern city; and investigated qualities in AfroAmerican achievement that were distinctly black--always, however, with a concern for a debt to the host American culture.

Two seminars in literature took a thematic approach. Adolescence and Narrative: Strategies for Teaching Fiction, led by Ross C. Murfin, examined ideas held by adolescent characters and the way these characters relate to, reflect, or oppose the surrounding culture. In the broadest sense, the seminar considered the relationship between adolescence and fiction: what fiction can reveal about adolescence; whether, in fact, novels with adolescent protagonists most often represent some difficult human condition other than adolescence. The Stranger in Modern Fiction: A Portrait in Black and White, led by Michael G. Cooke, considered the idea of human freedom in such contexts as family history, political and legal systems, financial need, social customs, nature, personal failure, and myth. The Oral Tradition, also led by Cooke, explored the relation between the oral tradition and the civilization in which it is developed in three literary environments: classical Greek poetry and drama, British poetry and German folktale, and black American fiction.

The institute has offered a series of four seminars on the teaching of writing. In the first of three seminars entitled Language and Writing, discussions were based largely on the members' work in Progress. The seminar leader, James A. Winn, remarked,"No synthesis or consensus emerged from these sessions; indeed, many of the differences in theory and practice between the participants may now be more sharply defined and more deeply felt than they were. But I can state confidently as the seminar leader that the marks and dents of all that vigorous shoptalk are visible on every unit." the seminar the following year, led by thomas R. Whitaker, was intended for teachers who were preparing curricula dealing with some aspect of grammar, reading, speaking, or writing. In a third seminar, again led by Winn, common readings included material on rhetoric and linguistics, and fellows were encouraged to design a curriculum unit substantially unlike anything they had done before. The fourth seminar on writing, Writing Across the Curriculum, led by Joseph W. Gordon, involved teachers from all disciplines, not only English. They investigated both current research on the composition process and teaching methods that grew out of that research, and they drew up model assignments for getting students to write more often without a proportional increase in the teacher's work. As Gordon wrote:

The seminar out of which these units developed engaged in spirited and extended disputes that, we hope, clarified the differences among us. There are units here that regard writing as a means, and others that regard it as an end in itself. There are units that advocate the use of drills, and others that instead use poetry and art to teach syntax and vocabulary. Some units suggest using haiku, others suggest writing postcards and letters, and one even speaks of the advantages of formal outlining. Some concentrate exclusively on techniques for developing the students' self-confidence and creativity. There are units here for teaching writing in the history and science class, as well as in English and foreign language classes. And a few units address students for whom English is a second language or who are classified as Developmentally Disabled. There are, in short, strategies here for almost any student in the middle or high school. Out of all this variety, we hope, the thoughtful and energetic teacher may discover, or just rediscover, a reason and a motive for "assigning more writing."

For all fellows, whether in English or in other disciplines, working on writing and on the teaching of writing is a central purpose and activity of the institute. Almost two-thirds of them have stated that the process of writing an institute curriculum unit improved their own writing, and over three-fourths have reported that the experience improved their ability to teach writing effectively--whatever their field. To fulfill the requirements of the program, each fellow must prepare a curriculum unit of at least fifteen pages containing four elements: (1) objectives--a clear statement of what the unit seeks to achieve; (2) strategies--a unified, coherent teaching plan for those objectives; (3) classroom activities--three or more detailed examples of teaching methods or lesson plans; and (4) resources--three annotated lists: a bibliography for teachers, a reading list for students, and a list of materials for classroom use. The discussion of objectives and strategies must be in prose and must constitute at least two-thirds of the completed unit.

What fellows write, then, is not "curriculum" in the usual sense. They are not developing content and skill objectives for each course and each grade level, nor are they preparing day-by-day lesson plans for their courses. Institute units also differ from traditional curricula in form; they are not composed mainly of outlines of topics to be covered. Instead, teachers research and discuss in writing some aspect of the seminar subject that they will use in their own teaching.

Fellows develop their curriculum units in six stages, each a month apart. Initially, in applying to the institute, teachers describe the topic they wish to develop and its relation to school courses. At the second meeting of the seminar, each fellow, having consulted with the seminar leader and other seminar members, presents a refined statement of his or her topic and a list of basic readings for research. Each then writes, based on preliminary research, a two- to four-page prospectus that describes what the final unit will contain and that provides all seminar members with an overview of their colleagues' work. The next stage is the first draft of the statement of each unit's objectives and strategies, which is distributed and discussed in the seminars. A second draft includes the revised statement of the objectives and strategies of the unit and a first draft of the unit's other elements. The completed unit is due about three weeks after the seminar's final meeting. At each stage, fellows receive written comments from the seminar leader as well as responses from other teachers in the seminar, a part of the audience for whom fellows are writing.

The institute, in short, regards the preparation of curriculum units as a process, and this concept is widely understood and accepted by the fellows. One participant wrote that "the process provided a comfortable format, a logical progression of reading, thinking, and writing." A veteran fellow wrote:

After five years' experience, I find the process for unit writing a very balanced, flowing process. The more experienced a unit writer I become, the more convinced I am of the necessity and wisdom of the stages of the writing process. The prospectus gives the Fellow the momentum to move from the reading to the writing stage, although it does not necessarily curtail the continued research; the first and second drafts give the author an opportunity to refine his presentation.

From a university faculty member's point of view, Brodhead wrote:

The system of repeated drafts for the curriculum units was especially important in my seminar: I was very rigorous in my evaluation of the early drafts, and I was insistent that Fellows work at strengthening and clarifying what was weak and vague in those drafts; and I'd have to say that they without exception faced the challenges I set them, and moved, draft by draft, toward a much more significant. and much more fully-articulated, proposal. Touchingly, many of them said that it had been years since anyone took their work seriously enough to criticize it; in any case, the way they use the seminar leaders comments as a means to a fuller grasp of their own thinking was enormously impressive to me.

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The Institute's Governing Principles

Four principles, all implanted in the first institute in 1978, and each shaped over time by experience, guide the program and constitute much of its distinctiveness. They are (1) our belief in the fundamental importance of the classroom teacher and of teacher-developed materials for effective learning; 2) our insistence that teachers of students at different levels interact as colleagues, addressing the common problems of teaching their disciplines; (3) our conviction that any effort to improve teaching must be teacher-centered and our consequent dependence on the institute coordinators, teachers in each school who meet weekly with the director and who constitute an essential part of the program's leadership; and (4) our certainty that the university can assist in improving the public schools only if we make a significant and long-term commitment to do so.

The institute differs from conventional modes of curricular development. Classroom teachers, who best know their students' needs, work with Yale faculty members, who are leading scholars in their fields. The institute does not develop curricula on certain topics only because these topics are important in recent scholarship; rather, it brings knowledge to the assistance of teachers in areas they identify as their main concerns. The institute involves no "curriculum experts" in the usual sense, who would themselves develop new materials, train teachers in short-term workshops to use these materials, and then expect the materials to improve classroom teaching. Instead, the institute seeks to demonstrate that intensive and long-term collaboration between a university and its neighboring school system--between schoolteachers and university scholars--can produce curriculum materials of high quality that pertain to student needs and can significantly influence teaching and learning in the schools.

By writing a curriculum unit, teachers think formally about the ways in which what they are learning can be applied in their own teaching; we emphasize that the institute experience must have direct bearing on their own classes. In the end, their units reflect both the direction provided by the Yale faculty members and their own experience in the classroom, their sense of what will work for students.

This balance between academic preparation and practical classroom application--as well as the depth and duration of our local collaborative relationship--are the central features of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Our outside evaluator in 1980, Robert Kellogg, pointed out:

That Yale does not have a school or department of Education is in this instance a blessing. Without an intermediary buffer, softening, exaggerating, or explaining away the contrast of intellectual milieu between secondary education and higher education, the two groups of teachers (the Institute Fellows and the Yale faculty) are free to explore for themselves the extent to which they share values and assumptions about their subject and its role in the development of children's minds and characters.

The institute is the only interschool and interdisciplinary forum enabling schoolteachers to work with one another and with Yale faculty members. In referring to the collegial spirit of the program, we are speaking of a dynamic process that brings together individuals who teach very different students at different levels of their subjects and who bring to the program a variety of perspectives and strongly held points of view. The tensions and disagreements that arise from these different perspectives are a source of vitality and innovation. Each challenges the preconceptions of the other, with the result that university faculty members understand something more about teaching at the secondary level while schoolteachers often reconsider their expectations of their students' ability to learn. With our emphasis on the authority of the secondary school teacher, the bond between fellows and Yale faculty members is one of mutual respect and a shared commitment to the best education for New Haven students.

The institute is organized to foster this sense of collegiality. Fellows are not students paying tuition for regular graduate-level courses. Instead, they are remunerated, each fellow receiving an honorarium on successful completion of the program. As full members of the Yale community, fellows are listed in the university directory of faculty and staff; this symbolizes our recognition of them as colleagues and has the practical value of making Yale resources readily accessible to them. Through the institute, teachers gain access to human and physical resources throughout the university, not only to those specifically organized by the institute.

Also contributing to the collegiality is the informal, flexible style of the seminars--a tradition established by the first group of Yale faculty members who taught in the program and maintained by some continuity of faculty and by faculty meetings with the coordinators and the director. This makes the institute utterly unlike the graduate-level courses in education most of the fellows have taken and often unlike the graduate seminars most of the Yale faculty members ordinarily teach.

To practice collegiality in the day-to-day workings of the institute, we devised an administrative structure that would reflect the primacy of teachers. We did not wish the program to be something concocted by Yale and imposed on the fellows, nor did we wish to create different classes of fellows by involving New Haven school administrators in administrative roles in the institute. At the most practical level, to avoid placing the Yale faculty members in authoritarian roles, we hoped to use peers to solve problems of absence or lateness. The coordinators have provided a solution to all these potential difficulties. Again, Kellogg's report puts the matter well:

In order that the "managerial" aspect of the school administration not be reflected in the operation of the Institute, a small group of teachers, the Institute Coordinators, serves to "represent" both the schools in the Institute and the Institute in the schools. The conception is ingenious, and the individuals who serve as Coordinators are, more than any other single element, crucial at the Institute's successful operation. The Coordinators I met were thoughtful and intelligent men and women who understood the purpose of the Institute and were effective representatives of the two institutions of which they were members.

Through the coordinators, who collectively represent every middle and high school teacher in the humanities and in the sciences, teachers are directly involved in the cyclical planning, conduct, evaluation, and refinement of the program. Through them we have developed and maintained both rigorous expectations and an accommodating schedule, so that there has been a high level of participation by New Haven teachers. Between 1978 and 1983 forty percent of the New Haven secondary school teachers in the humanities and the sciences successfully completed at least one year of the institute. The participants' evaluation of the program confirms the crucial role of the coordinators; one fellow wrote, "as long as there are teacher Coordinators, the program will belong to all the participants." This proprietary feeling of teachers toward the institute, the feeling that it is "teacher-centered," is essential to our success.

To participate in so demanding a program, teachers must believe that the institute can assist them in their own teaching and that, by extension, it can eventually improve teaching and learning throughout the schools. Our evaluator in 1981, Ernest L. Boyer, wrote in his report:

The project has teacher-coordinators in each participating school who clearly are committed and who pass on their enthusiasm to colleagues. One of the most impressive features of my visit was the after school session I had with these Coordinators from the New Haven schools. Arriving after a fatiguing day, the teachers turned, with enthusiasm, to key issues. How can the Institute best help us meet our goals? How can we improve our work? . . . The dedication and optimism of these teachers was impressive, almost touching. . . . The significance of teacher leadership cannot be overstated.

Using common sense, we know that the impact of the institute will be roughly proportional to the number of teachers who participate on a recurring basis. The institute's influence on teachers' preparation and curricula is cumulative; we must annually involve a large enough proportion of New Haven teachers to be credible in claiming that their participation can improve the public schools. Each curriculum unit a teacher writes represents only a fraction of all he or she teaches, and the very nature of the academic disciplines and their teaching is not static but constantly changing. Should the institute ever become so limited in scope or duration as to appear trivial, it would cease to attract a sizable percentage of New Haven teachers and would become ineffectual. In one of its principal recommendations the Commission on the Humanities concluded:

Because schools change slowly, we endorse models of school-college collaboration that emphasize long-term cooperation. We recommend that more colleges or universities and school districts adopt such programs for their mutual benefit, and that funding sources sustain programs and administrative costs on a continuing basis. programs of school-college collaboration offer the best opportunity to strengthen instruction in the schools while providing intellectual renewal for teachers. (56)

As our evaluator last year, Theodore R. Sizer, noted, "Such renewal does not come quickly. It benefits from sustained contact, from supportive conditions, from simmering." It is therefore most encouraging that, after five years of developing the Teachers Institute as a model of university-school collaboration, Yale decided to seek a $4 million endowment to give the program a secure future.

Yale and New Haven together have supported a major share of the total cost of the Teachers Institute. A considerable portion of our remaining need has been met through strong and continuing support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We have been pleased also to receive operating funds from numerous foundations and corporations--including more than fifty local businesses that see our efforts to improve the education of all young people in the area as a good form of community development. The present endowment campaign underscores our deep belief in the long-term significance of the Teachers Institute for the university and for our community's public schools. It also represents our determination to demonstrate that effective collaborative programs can be not only developed but sustained.

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There is, in my view, no more important recommendation in the Carnegie Foundation Special Report on School and College than the one--contained also in the Carnegie report High School--that calls for universities and schools to develop genuine partnerships based on the needs of schools as determined by their principals and teachers. Both aspects of that recommendation are essential: not only that universities and schools work together but especially that those of us in higher education encourage our colleagues in the schools to show us the ways we can marshal our resources to address their needs.

I would offer the following guidelines for the successful implementation of the Carnegie recommendation:

  1. Collaboration is a term currently used to describe quite varied activities. I mean by the term something specific. Collaboration arises from a recognition of mutual interest between school and college--between city and college--that must become more widespread if we are to improve our public schools. To be authentic a partnership should be a coequal relationship of colleagues, a volunteer association of individuals who choose to work together, of allies in league to improve our schools. Equal importance must be attached to what each partner brings to the relationship. The aim is to have teachers work together without having to change places.
  2. Because institutional and other resources are never adequate, an early step in establishing a collaborative program is a assess the resources that can be made available to meet the needs of schools and then to apply these resources in an intensive way where the need is greatest. Institutional support must come from both sides of the partnership; tangible and visible evidence of such commitment is essential.
  3. We especially need to encourage partnerships between schools and universities that concentrate on teaching and on the continuing engagement of teachers with their fields. Cooperative efforts should insist on a direct application in school classrooms.
  4. A tendency in establishing collaborative programs--indeed in school reform efforts generally--is to be too ambitious. programs will succeed only if they have well-defined and manageable goals; they should avoid making impossible claims.
  5. Precisely because each collaborative project can achieve only limited, though important, results, participants must be confident that their efforts are worthwhile. An ongoing evaluation process is therefore integral to a program's design and should be used perennially to refine both goals and activities. Because collaborative programs are often seen, unfortunately, as nontraditional--because they may not be regarded as central to the mission of either partner--they have a special burden of providing good evidence of their results.
  6. The most successful projects may well begin small, investing real authority in teacher leadership and developing organically according to the needs teachers identify. In that way, programs are not guided by preconceptions but grow from their own local experience. Efforts at school improvement will not succeed without teacher leadership. In this country we have for too long held teachers responsible for the condition of our schools without giving them responsibility--empowering them--to improve our schools.
  7. For all the above reasons and--I cannot overemphasize this point--for the benefits to be lasting, collaborative programs must be long-term.

Not all teachers are sanguine about the prospects for public secondary education. But the vision of our institute, which many share, is that the problems confronting us are not intractable and that teachers, working through the institute, can improve the education and the lives of their students. By assigning greater prestige and power to schoolteachers and by engaging them in study and writing about their disciplines, the teachers Institute implicitly questions whether teaching in school and teaching in college should be regarded as markedly different. The educational levels and institutions in this country are not discrete and separable compartments but parts of a whole educational process, for teacher and student alike. Continuing study and writing about a subject benefit schoolteachers no less than their university colleagues. In both cases, their students are the ultimate beneficiaries.

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Portions of this essay are based on material in Teaching in America: The Common Ground, rev. ed., New York: College Board, 1984. Copyright © 1983 and 1984 by James R. Vivian.

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