"Democratizing Student Learning: The 'Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1820-1940' Web Project at SUNY Binghamton"*

Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish Sklar

History Teacher, 35 (February 2002): 163-73.


We are in the midst of a revolution in the teaching and research of History, one whose ultimate impact on the profession is hard to discern. The growing use of electronic resources--worldwide web sites, online discussion groups, and CD-ROMs, to name just the ones most commonly employed--has dramatically increased creative possibilities in high school and college classrooms. History teachers will surely benefit from a broadening discussion of this new world. Yet no amount of discussion or array of creative lessons on how to access materials on the web can change the reality that the educational possibilities for teachers and students are limited by the kinds of materials that are published on the worldwide web.

Worldwide web technology is a perfect match for teaching about history because it permits us to analyze documents that otherwise would remain inaccessible. The technology thereby boosts our capacities as teachers because it gives our students access to the documents that reveal the processes of historical change, and it helps our students develop better analytic skills by learning to interpret documents. This amazing conjuncture of new technology and the possibilities of the history classroom has generated enormous potential for improvement in the way we teach history. But much remains to be done. We need to develop new course content and new teaching formats that use the new technology.

In U.S. women's history, for example, most available material focuses on "famous" women. On the web women remain marginal to American history rather than integrated into its mainstream. Despite its enormous possibilities, the worldwide web does not reflect the richness of recent scholarship in women's history, nor does it exploit the field's potential to reinterpret U.S. History by viewing it through the experiences of women.[1]

In women's history, as in other fields of U.S. history, the web presents more problems than solutions to the classroom teacher. By greatly expanding the available information and the uses to which it can be put, the web complicates the history classroom in three ways: it makes it necessary for teachers to distinguish between authoritative and non-authoritative information; it challenges teachers to generate and use new materials that students can explore effectively on their own; and it makes it possible for teachers to focus on history as a process of interpretation.

This more complicated view of history is more than the study of the past. The web makes it possible for students to acquire skills that enhance their ability to interpret social change in the present because they know how to interpret social change in the past. Yet that potential cannot be realized through technology alone. It also requires the use of new materials and innovative teaching formats.

During the past four years we have tried to develop new materials and new teaching formats in a project that collaborates with students to produce online resources in U.S. Women's History. Our classroom strategy is to teach history by teaching students how to become producers of historical knowledge for use on the web. Inspired by the idea that their work might be read on the web as a new contribution to historical knowledge, students are more willing to learn the nitty gritty features of historical scholarship that enable them to produce that knowledge. They want to learn how to locate and evaluate evidence and how to put it into an interpretive framework.

This new classroom format has generated editorial projects that form the basis for our website, "Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1820-1940." The website has carried us into a new realm where research and teaching have merged into one creative activity. This year we have begun a broader collaboration with eleven faculty across the country, drawing them into the teaching format that we have developed for the Women and Social Movements website. We hope this collaboration will further enrich the body of interpretive primary materials available online for use in American History classrooms.

The Women and Social Movements website, co-directed by Kathryn Sklar and Thomas Dublin, began operations in December 1997, aimed at offering web-based primary materials within an interpretive framework for use in college and high school classrooms. Now, almost four years later, the site consists of about 30 editorial projects with 650 documents, 150 graphics, and hundreds of links to related websites.[2]

Each editorial project poses a central interpretive question and provides about twenty primary documents that address the question. To address the question in more detail, each project also includes an interpretive introduction, individual headnotes for the documents, a bibliography, and a list of related web links.

The editorial projects provide a central core for an ever-growing array of resources. In early 2001 we added a Teacher's Corner to the site and there are now about one hundred lesson ideas to facilitate the use of the site's primary documents in college and high school classrooms. We are also beginning to create a database that will permit users to access primary documents and photographs independently of the site's editorial projects, thus in effect allowing them to create their own author- or subject-based groups of documents for teaching or research.

Work on the "Women and Social Movements" website has entailed a number of distinct transitions for the two of us as scholars and teachers. For historians who prior to 1997 had worked primarily with traditional print media and who published their scholarship almost entirely in the form of books and articles, it has been quite a change to immerse ourselves in the electronic medium. While the interpretive concerns of historical scholarship continue to dominate our thinking, we have become attuned to new issues of organization and presentation. We are excited by the way the project has grown out of teaching and has led to an unusual scholarly collaboration between students and teachers.

The vast majority of editorial projects we have mounted on the website began as student research projects in a senior seminar taught at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In the winter of 1997 Kathryn Sklar began teaching what she conceived initially as an undergraduate research seminar on Women and Progressive Reform. She had organized a number of likely research topics for students based on the extensive microfilm holdings of the university library. But her expectations for the course changed that January, when she attended a funding panel at the Library of Congress. Meeting with librarians, professors, and K-12 teachers to award grants to digitization projects under a program supported by Ameritech, she learned from high school teachers that what they most needed from the web were sites where information was focused in such a way as to permit students to learn something significant in an hour. Browsing the web might be a way of life, but learning meaningful history could not be achieved by web browsing. At that meeting she also found that U.S. Women's History was dramatically underrepresented among the submitted proposals, symbolizing the growing gender digital divide in U.S. History on the web. This set her wondering how the need for meaningful materials in U.S. history could be met by women's history materials, a strategy that would solve both the general and the gendered needs of U.S. history teachers. Returning to her seminar classroom in U.S. women's history, she offered students the alternative of creating document-based projects for the Worldwide Web. From that unplanned beginning emerged the website that has taken an important place in our professional lives ever since.

While students in the first seminar had not expected to be engaged in work for the worldwide web, they responded enthusiastically to the prospect. The first two projects that we mounted on the website in December 1997 came from that course, focusing respectively on African-American women and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the National Woman's Party and African-American women's suffrage after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Since that semester, we have offered this course three more times and our sophistication in providing training in historical editing and programming with HTML has increased markedly over time. While the projects go through a very full process of revision and reformatting after the undergraduates have finished their work, the final products clearly reflect the students' contributions and we credit them as the original editors of the projects.

Work on website projects proceeds in two distinct steps. First, students in the senior seminar work with and mount their projects on a course website that we have created on an instructional server at Binghamton. This site is separate from the Women and Social Movements website. While it is accessible to the outside world, we do not advertise it, since it is the place where students mount their work in process. Typically, at the end of the term there are 10-12 projects on the course website, about half of which we are likely to revise for mounting as part of the Women and Social Movements website at some point in the future. The revision and mounting of projects occurs as a second step in this process. Given our emphasis in this article on the classroom dimensions of this work, we focus here on the original student work and subsequent teaching applications using the website, and move relatively quickly over the work we do in the intermediate revision phase.

    The course website provides students a place to "publish" their first work, but it also provides important learning resources. Our students, like most undergraduates at American colleges and universities, have little previous exposure to thinking historically with primary sources. To produce new historical knowledge students have to learn about a wide array of methodological issues, most of which we discuss on the course website under "project guides." There we offer guidance on such matters as:

    • the distinction between primary and secondary sources;
    • compiling a bibliography of secondary sources and developing a perspective on historiography;
    • learning what constitutes authoritative information (especially on the WWW);
    • locating and selecting documents for inclusion in the project;
    • considering editorial practices to be employed in the transcription process;
    • writing headnotes;
    • citing documents and secondary sources properly;
    • writing an interpretive introduction for the documents as a whole.

Mastering these technical issues and addressing substantive interpretive questions in the selection and editing of historical documents are challenging tasks for students in a single semester, but most of them have risen to the occasion and done quite remarkable work in the short space of three and a half months. The key to their success is that they become energized by the goal of putting their project on the web as a learning resource for other students of U.S. history. Initially students mount their editorial projects on the course website. They understand that their project will be considered for inclusion in the Women and Social Movements website, which is accessed by students and teachers around the world.

Because ours is a course in U.S. women's history, most of our students are women, and, representing the gendered construction of web expertise in our culture, most consider themselves technologically inept. Most do not take the course as a way of learning HTML (hypertext markup language); in fact most are relieved when we assure them that they are not required to learn HTML. Nevertheless, every student who has ever taken the course has mastered HTML through the tutorials we offer on the course website. Written by Dr. Melissa Doak, Associate Director of the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender, these tutorials help students use HTML effectively.[3] Melissa Doak has also co-taught the course, bringing her technological expertise into our seminar classroom. Partly because our students are empowered by their new technological skills, the course usually becomes an important focus for their energy that semester, and they eagerly absorb the technical, interpretive, and methodological issues that they encounter in shaping their projects.

At the end of the semester, we invite university administrators, librarians, and history faculty to attend the final meeting of the class where students give oral reports on their work and display the products of their labors with large-screen projection facilities. This event rewards the extra effort that most students have put into their course projects. It also reinforces their identity as producers of historical knowledge.

During the past year we have tried to make the website a more effective resource for teaching. While we are impressed with student learning in the senior seminar course that produces these editorial projects, we are equally convinced that students of American History more generally can benefit from this work. With support from Houghton Mifflin we implemented a Teacher's Corner with numerous lesson ideas for students and teachers using the primary documents on the site. To gain a clearer sense of the teaching possibilities of the website we focus the remainder of our discussion here on an editorial project about a 1938 strike by San Antonio pecan shellers.

This editorial project had its origins in our concern that the website not focus exclusively on the northeast and midwest--a common issue in U.S. Women's History. Responding to a general call in which we asked historians for ideas, Vicki Ruiz of Arizona State University suggested we try to work up a project on this important strike. Good secondary literature existed on the strike, so by combing the footnotes in that literature and contacting Texas archives we were able to assemble a good array of research materials, including microfilm of a local English-language newspaper, a Spanish-language paper, and the Communist Party's Daily Worker, all three of which gave the strike extensive coverage.[4]

Two Latina students enrolled in the senior seminar prepared to use their Spanish skills on this project. The two worked independently and each made real contributions to the final project that we subsequently published on the website. Rosalyn Perez did the initial translations of Spanish-language articles, while Taína DelValle found an effective way to present the original Spanish sources and their English translations. Their two editorial projects chose different ways to present the primary documents they selected from the materials we had assembled. The projects' two titles-- "What Were the Different Media Interpretations of Mexican Womyn's Participation in the San Antonio Pecan Shellers' Strike of 1938?" and "What Does a Focus on Women Tell Us About Civil Rights in the Pecan Shellers' Strike of 1938 in San Antonio, Texas?"--reveal the distinct approaches each took. One student focused on differing media representations of women's participation in the strike, while the other explored the suppression of civil liberties by public authorities. The first project organized the documents around treatments by each of three newspapers; the second paid more attention to the chronology of the strike.

As we reworked and combined the two projects, we added more documents and developed the civil liberties issues still further. As is evident in the final document list for the revised project, we employed both English and Spanish sources and English translations. In the end, the published project followed one student's emphasis on civil liberties, but we drew on the other's interest in media representations for the lesson ideas about the project in the "Teacher's Corner."

We and the staff at the Women and Social Movements website expanded the project's documentary base and formatted the new documents to reach a broad audience. For example, to take advantage of a rich photographic record of the strike, we included photos and text from an illustrated pamphlet published by the Texas Civil Liberties Union, which charged municipal authorities with violations of strikers' civil liberties. We also had access to oral history interviews of strike leaders and a former pecan sheller and included excerpts from both transcriptions and an audio clip in the project. After the project was mounted we learned about a 16mm film about the industry and the strike deposited in the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University.[5] We are in the process of preparing a 5-minute video clip for mounting on the site. With this project we have begun to take full advantage of the multimedia possibilities of the electronic medium.

With the recent implementation of the Teacher's Corner, we have enhanced the classroom use of the projects and their primary documents. In the case of the pecan shellers' strike, our questions follow the interpretive perspective of one of the student editors, Taína DelValle, by asking students to read several newspaper accounts and consider their varying perspectives on the strike. This project offers teachers the opportunity to employ Spanish language skills in their classes. We have other bilingual materials in a project on a 1933 Puerto Rican needleworkers strike. By permitting students to address issues of historical interpretation and by drawing on foreign-language skills, the primary documents assembled on the Women and Social Movements website go beyond most of the classroom resources available to U.S. history teachers at both the college and high school levels.

Convinced that we have a format that teachers and students are finding valuable, we hope to expand the website dramatically in the coming three years. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we have enlisted eleven faculty from colleges and universities across the country to improvise with the course and website models at their own institutions. In this way we are drawing on faculty and students throughout the country--from Brandeis, New York University, and Rutgers, from Swarthmore, Oberlin, and Grinnell, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Tennessee Techological University, and St. Louis University, from the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Arizona. In July 2001 we held a two-day training workshop in Binghamton to orient these colleagues, who will teach courses similar to our senior seminar at their home institutions and help students draw on their institutions' archival and microfilm resources for new editorial projects. They have designed a variety of promising research topics and over the next three semesters will in their own courses help students produce editorial projects for mounting on the Women and Social Movements website. If we meet our goal of doubling the number of editorial projects during the next three years, we should make almost 1,400 documents available on the site. There will be new projects on Jewish women reformers, on women and the Depression in New York City, on women and abolitionism, prairie women and reform, women and Indian reform, and the women's liberation movement of more recent years. This new chapter in the project's history will dramatically expand its scope and will launch additional historians into the use of electronic media in the interpretation of U.S. Women's History. It's not exactly a thousand flowers blooming, but it’s a lot more than we could ever tend in our Binghamton home garden.

We see the worldwide web as offering rich possibilities in the teaching of U.S. Women's History, both for its own sake and as an integral part of U.S. History. Our research seminars offer real challenges to undergraduate students and at the same time promise to disseminate otherwise hard-to-access primary documents to students and teachers at colleges and high schools far removed from the nation's leading research universities. In a recent month the website was accessed more than 10,000 times by users from more than sixty countries. We can imagine many more users accessing the site three years from now when the resources we have to offer will be much greater. We invite you to join us in this revolution in the teaching of history--either by teaching with the documents on the Women and Social Movements website or by contacting us about the possibility of working with your students to create projects like those we and our students have produced. Putting women's history on the Worldwide Web makes a real contribution to the democratization of learning that is unfolding around us.


* This article is a revision of a paper originally presented at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Los Angeles, April 27, 2001. We are particularly grateful for the comments of Nancy Page Fernandez and John McClymer on that occasion.       Back to Text

1. For a discussion of the limits of some early women’s history scholarship, see Gerda Lerner, “New Approaches to the Study of Women in American History,” in The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 3-14. Many of the concerns she expressed more than twenty years ago continue to apply with regard to the first women’s history materials appearing on the world wide web. For a good discussion of the way that recent women’s history is forcing a revisioning of U.S. History more generally, see the introduction to Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar, eds., U.S. History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).       Back to Text

2. Readers and viewers of this article should note that most websites are living, growing undertakings. All numbers describing the site are accurate as of the writing of this article in the summer of 2001, but they will doubtless be out of date when the article is published.       Back to Text

3. We do not use web-pagemaking software because it introduces its own constraints on our editing, because HTML is simple and easy to learn, and because our seminar has only 10-15 students and we can tutor them individually.       Back to Text

4. The most useful secondary sources included Julia Kirk Blackwelder, Women of the Depression: Caste and Culture in San Antonio, 1929-1939 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984), pp. 130-51; and Vicki L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican-American Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 72-98.       Back to Text

5. Our thanks to Zaragosa Vargas, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of "Tejana Radical: Emma Tenayuca and the San Antonio Labor Movement During the Great Depression," Pacific Historical Review, 66 (1997): 553-80, for letting us know about the pecan shellers' film clip at the Reuther Library.       Back to Text