Man on the Beat: Jerry Goldman, Founder of the Oyez Project

Katie Zhu

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Professor of political science Jerry Goldman has been teaching at Northwestern for 34 years and is a technological visionary. Goldman is founder of the Oyez Project, a multimedia archive of the Supreme Court, complete with all the audio ever recorded in the Court since it was first possible in 1955. Here, Goldman discusses the relation between baseball and the judicial system as well as the future of technology at Northwestern. Why “Oyez?”

It’s the French word for “hear.” French was used in English courts for several hundred years, and the tradition carried over when the colonies broke free of their British masters. Oyez is recognition of that tradition.What prompted you to start Oyez?

Oyez has been part of my bag of tricks since 1990. I was in Wrigley Field watching a Cubs game and I got to thinking, is there a way to merge my interest in baseball with the Supreme Court? A light bulb went on, and I realized a baseball card would be an interesting metaphor. After all, there are nine players and nine justices. So, I started building a series of HyperCard stacks – electronic baseball cards with images of every justice – and links to all their cases. We added audio and video, creating this multimedia database. After receiving financial support from the National Endowment for Humanities, it grew to be a pretty big enterprise. What would you say is the most interesting feature of Oyez?

I’m just amazed at the amount of traffic that it attracts. We get about 25,000 user sessions a day… If I selectively chose a few arguments here and there, it probably would’ve been a good project. But what made it into a really exceptional project was creating an archive, making it authoritative for all the audio in the Supreme Court; about 9,000 hours, going back to 1955. And now, we have a way to search the audio. If you said, “I want every instance where Antonin Scalia uses the expression ‘strict scrutiny,’ you can find it without having to listen to hours of audio… Oyez to me is a way to bring a remote institution alive, to make it vibrant. When you first started Oyez, did you envision it growing to become what it is today?

No, I couldn’t dream of that. I did step off the safety of the analog world, entering this miasma of information technology. I wasn’t sure where it was leading me, but I actually felt compelled to do it.Do you think being at Northwestern affects the projects you’re working on?

There are more students to invite and collaborate. I’m fortunate enough to work with a few of them whose skill set fits well with my own. But I think the University in many respects is slow to leverage information technology. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Harvard put their courses online; they experimented with podcasting. And Northwestern, well, what’s Northwestern doing? It’s late to the game. So you’re doing a little bit of leading by example?

Well, following by example might be a better way to say it. MIT, Harvard and Stanford do some pretty good stuff. Why aren’t we doing it? I think NU needs to act in the area of online courses. The real value in your education will come from close engagement with fellow students and instructors. Why not transform gateway courses into online experiences? I’m trying to put myself out of business! Students pay a lot of money to sit here. A class that runs 80 minutes, like mine, is $160. That’s probably worth a three-day pass at Lollapalooza. You get a lot of entertainment of Lollapalooza, and that’s three days. I’m doing this in 80 minutes. Any future projects?

I always thought Oyez was my last project, but I keep thinking there’s so much more information in the human voice. If we reduce everything to text, we lose the sense of commitment or hesitancy that comes with the way people speak. Imagine if you could train machines to accurately identify the emotional state when you speak. That’d be a pretty cool thing. Emotion bears on our political beliefs, we just need a good way to capture it. And I really am interested in exploring that.