The following is a copy of a Spring 2001 review that appeared in
American Nineteenth Century History.
We have all heard about the explosion of information on the World Wide Web. But if you are looking for a website that will help you teach American Women's History, you will not find much. There are a number of reasons for this vacuum. Historians are still catching up in documenting the lives of women. Academic historians have been slow to build large-scale websites for teaching, research, or the general public. Good sites are often expensive to construct and history departments rarely have the resources necessary to do so. Grant writing is time consuming and web production is not rewarded by tenure or promotion. And universities are not institutionally organized to facilitate the kind of interdisciplinary teams requisite to creating complex, rich, and robust historical sites. We ought, therefore, to be especially grateful for the excellent site, 'Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1830-1930,' edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, distinguished scholars who both teach at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
The goal of 'Women and Social Movements in the United States' is pedagogical, primarily designed for college faculty and students. Sklar and Dublin state their objectives on the home page: it is to 'offer students an opportunity to understand historical research and writing as an interpretive process based on documents.' Toward this end undergraduate and graduate students at Binghamton have put together twenty-two distinct projects. Each project poses a question and provides fifteen to twenty annotated documents that address that problem. In addition, the project editors provide fully footnoted essays of about 3,000 words contextualizing the issue and suggesting further readings. Sklar and Dublin intend to add a supplementary section that will help grade school and high school teachers employ this site.
The web has a number of obvious appeals for this kind of documentary reader. There is the issue of distribution. The web provides a way to disseminate this kind of collection free of charge - at least once schools have paid for the computers and connections. Sklar and Dublin have limited their programming to basic tools (mostly html) so that even early versions of Netscape or Internet Explorer will have no trouble displaying this entire site. Furthermore, by limiting the tools in their programming kit, they have kept down the cost of producing their site. Second, the web allows Sklar and Dublin to add on to their product periodically. The web is an extensible medium. They have gotten their project up and running, tested it out, promoted its use, and provided its resources, while working on further additions. The web is uniquely suited for this kind of serialized approach. Finally, Sklar and Dublin have included a search engine. Users can type in a word and bring up a list of where that word, either name or concept, appears. Thus the reader can type in 'rights' and find 269 responses. Or she can enter abolition and get thirty-five, abolitionist and get forty-six, or 'abolition*' and get seventy-three responses. She can then read the title of the document in which that word appears - and click to that document.
The choice of documents has been shaped by the questions Sklar, Dublin, and their students consider important. This allows the authors to limit the number of documents they include in each section. While the questions are kept narrow and manageable, the range of textual choice is very broad, including reports, essays, newspaper articles and editorials, letters, speeches, sermons, petitions, and court testimony. Each document, moreover, is prefaced by a brief contextualizing paragraph. This all has its advantage. Students will not get lost in a superabundance of materials. Teachers will find it easy to assign limited readings appropriate for weekly assignments or short papers.
In summary, this web site does a simple and effective job of putting on line a documentary reader conceived of, and fashioned in, the style of a traditional book. It is in the mold of the kind of works that college teachers have been assigning for years, indeed that publishers send round to college faculty hoping for course adoption. Despite its appearance in a new medium, it is a work shaped and formed by an older medium, and this has its advantages in terms of accessibility and use.
This strategy, however, also has imposed limits. It is striking that only a few of these projects makes use of visual texts, yet the web is well suited to high quality digital representations of the visual, ranging from paintings to political cartoons to material culture. Nor is there any employment beyond the occasional chart of statistical data which computers are so adept at processing, such as church, census, or tax records. The length and complexity of the essays and documents makes one suspect that many of the students print out the materials rather than read them on screen, which adds to the cost of the product, albeit one largely absorbed by the student. The search engine is simple to use, but the reader is limited to seeking answers from the whole of the site, rather than any of the individual projects. Programmed in html, there is no use of other mark up languages that might allow for more flexible or interesting searches.
In turn, this reflects the basic pedagogical approach of questions asked and documents provided. The web, however, does allow for a less directive and structured approach, an archive supplying a range of materials. These sorts of projects have advantages in the number and kind of questions that teachers and students can ask of their content, and the range and variety of materials may create a complex and robust medium, although their size and complexity may create problems for some users.
In short, 'Women and Social Movements in the United States' provides teachers with a wonderful teaching tool. It is navigationally well structured, simple to use, and thoughtful in its choice of questions and documents. It is a site that will reward readers' time and attention.
Holly Cowan Shulman
University of Virginia
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