Teaching Women's History with the World Wide Web Discussion/April 1998

Query From Elizabeth Pleck e-pleck@uiuc.edu 06 April 1998

I wanted to share my experience using web sites in teaching U.S. women's history. I assigned a five page research paper using web-based sources. I gave the students a choice of about seven different topics. Several of the topics had to do with word searches, for example: trace how and why the meaning of the term "old maid" changed. The source was usually the Making of America, a collection of about 1600 magazines and books in U.S. history in the 19th and 20th centuries. I am encountering many complaints from students. In their searches they came across the use of the word but not enough related material. In order to salvage the assignment I have had to go to the library to supplement their research with other documents.

After this fiasco I think that web-based research can only be assigned for topics where the instructor knows what the student will find. In other cases, it seems that library research or handing out a printed set of documents is still the best way to proceed.


From Nancy Marie Robertson nmrobertson@erols.com 06 April 1998

One thought (easier said than done) might be an assignment where people compared what they learned from Web sources vs. the library (with or without a trusty reference librarian). I sympathize that the students became frustrated, but if they learned that the Web/Internet is limited, they have learned a good lesson. One might turn it into a larger lesson about why the differences are there--are there limitations to the Web or is it sexism that some things are put on earlier than others, etc? It may be that the teacher needs to know what there is or that the assignment can be designed to accommodate several different results.

From Joan R. Gundersen gunderj@numen.elon.edu 08 April 1998

Liz Pleck's experience with web searches points out that the web is still an evolving arena for research. Historical materials are spotty and assignments relying on systematic screening of data will not be able to rely on the web. On the other hand, neither would the library at my current institution (or the last 3 for that matter). All were small colleges with limited library budgets and fragmentary holdings, especially of primary materials. In choosing assignments for a whole class to do I played to the strengths of the library. We need to do the same with the web. What IS the web strong on? Current data - demographics, economic, etc. Legal history - several law schools maintain impressive sites with full text supreme court opinions, etc. on a wide range of historical cases. Newspapers - especially for the last 5 years. There are surprising pockets of historical material, such as the documents and photos being put on line at the National Archives, by groups such as the Emma Goldman papers, and specialized collections such as the Duke Library on-line materials on women's history.

Right now the web is best compared to a university library at a campus founded in the last 10 years with a hefty budget for purchases. There's still a ton of stuff that hasn't made it to the shelves yet, but more is getting there every day. Recent collections are good, but the further back in time you need to search, the more fragmentary are the holdings. Good research these days neither overlooks the web nor relies solely on it.

From Melissa Walker melissa.walker@Converse.edu 13 April 1998

I've been trying an assignment which has the students locate a 2-page primary source document on the web and analyze it-- what does it tell us about women's, colonial, Chinese(etc) history? What was the purpose of the document and POV of author? That sort of thing. It has worked well as a way to get students to use the web for a course and to acquaint them with primary sources available on the web. Some have gone on to use the primary sources in longer papers. It solves the problem of needing to find enough sources for a long paper and still gets them to dip into historical sites on the Web.

I also set up a web page for each course that is then posted on our our college's intranet. That page includes links to sites that I know contain primary sources. Students are not limited to those sites, but it gives them a starting point.