We began with a statement by Paulina Wright Davis in her 1870 presidential address:
Were I to go back of these [first] conventions, to see what had roused women thus to do and dare, I should be obliged to go into a long history of the despotism of repression, which German jurists call 'soul murder'; an unwritten code, universal and cruel as the laws of Draco, and so subtle that, entering everywhere, they weigh most heavily where least seen.
How, we asked ourselves, "does one see that which weighs 'most heavily where least seen.' How does one spell out an 'unwritten code'?" And how does access to primary materials on-line aid or complicate answering such questions? To try to find answers, we divided into five groups.
· The first worked with G.P. Webster's "A Dream of the Period," a comic poem on the theme of the sexes exchanging social roles, as illustrated by Thomas Nast.
· The second used excerpts from A Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility, a popular guide to "proper" behavior ranging from how to mount a horse to what to do with your shawl once you have taken if off during a visit -- toss it negligently upon a table is the "proper" thing to do in those circumstances.
· The third set of materials dealt with the notion of the "ideal woman" and included an essay on "The Sphere of Woman," by the German romantic poet and philosopher Goethe, from the March 1850 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, the first and most widely read lady's magazine of the day linked one of Jane Gray Swisshelm's "Letters to Country Girls." Swisshelm edited one of the most influential "reform" newspapers, the Saturday Visiter [sic]. Along with Fanny Fern and several other women journalists, she pioneered both a new career and a new type of voice for women.
· The fourth group worked with materials reflecting the intense interest participants to the 1850 Convention had in opening the medical profession to women. This set contained a three advertisements for various "cures" aimed at women and an exchange of letters, in the pages of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison's abolition weekly, over the policies of the Boston Female Medical Education Society.
· The fifth group sifted through several accounts of Abby Kelley Foster's "odious" speech at the first national woman's rights convention (Lucy Stone's characterization) and tried to determine what she actually said.
However disparate the materials, all five groups grappled with the same questions. They were to:
1) Briefly describe the materials;
2) Describe the perspective of the author(s) of these materials and indicate what that means for assessing their reliability as evidence;
3) Describe how the materials illumine (or perhaps obscure) Paulina Wright Davis's notion of "soul murder";
4) Describe what other uses one might find for these materials, i.e., what other aspects of American history and/or culture they illumine.
Teachers were most struck by the iterative nature of this exercise, i.e., the use of diverse approaches to the same end. This illustrated what they saw as one of the great opportunities the Web affords, namely its hospitality to different learning styles. The first set of materials was highly visual; the last entirely verbal. The others combined varying sorts of materials. In the ordinary course of events, teachers have to choose what they hope will prove the "one best" way to achieve the goals of any given unit of the curriculum. Even if they had the resources, they would lack the time to pursue five different paths to the same end. Having the materials on the Web, however, permits their students to find their own way into the issues. Those uninterested in "gentility" or simply baffled by the complexities of sorting through the contradictory accounts of Abby Kelley Foster's speech could turn to other sets of materials and still able to contribute to the class's discussion of the underlying questions.
They were equally fascinated by the possibilities opened by the way one can "link" materials in hypermedia. In the 'net version of Swisshelm's "letter" on "Woman's Work And Man's Supremacy," there is a link to Goethe's essay on "The Sphere of Women" at the precise place in the text where she inveighed: "It is not the ignorant country boor, the pious old penurious farmer who acts out this philosophy, that is actually accountable for it. He is only living up to the spirit of the age--keeping pace with its authors, editors, poets, and divines!" Several commented on the way students tend to "pigeonhole" ideas. What, they asked, would happen if the student's explicit task was instead to explore connections by finding "links" and assessing their importance.
One of the most useful suggestions, and one highlighted by several participants, was that one can "embed" fuller, more detailed treatments of issues, or links to related materials, in web-based documents so that teachers can encourage especially interested or talented students to go beyond the assignment or undertake a special project.
In this context the workshop turned to a discussion of the relative value of web-based materials versus facsimiles such as the popular jackdaw series. Virtually everyone could agree that there was clearly a place for facsimiles, that there was an important educational value in students actually handling something that looked, and felt, like that used by historical figures. On the other hand, few teachers present actually employed facsimiles in their own classes in a systematic way. In part this is a matter of the practical difficulties of getting 25 students to share four packets of material. But it was also due to the limitations of the packets. Unlike the web, where one can post a virtually unlimited number of resources, the typical facsimile packet relies upon a handful of documents to convey the "flavor" of an earlier time. What made this discussion so useful was that it served to introduce the core question for each of the co-operating institutions: If web-based curricular materials were available, would teachers use them?