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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 49-59
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Learning, Reading, and the Problem of Scale:
Using Women Writers Online
The pedagogical aims of the Brown University Women Writers Project (WWP) go back to its very origins; at its core, the WWP aims to improve teaching. 1 In a deeper sense, however, this attempt arises from a relocation of the ground of teaching. That is, the project attempts to make student work more like that of professionals in the field; it attempts, in short, to make learning more like research.
What do I mean by this? When the WWP was founded, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (Gilbert and Gubar 1985) had just appeared. Of its 2,300 pages, 230 were devoted to writing before 1830, and the volume conveyed the impression, both tacitly through its structure and explicitly in its introductory materials, that this history of "literature by women" had not really commenced until the early nineteenth century. 2 Those who knew better felt that this was an unfortunate turn of events, since it authorized the continued omission of women's writing from a large section of the canon, and it deprived those who were trying to teach early modern women's writing of what could have been an important teaching tool. Some of these visionary malcontents decided to create their own collection of teaching texts, and thus the WWP was born. But what was created at that moment was not simply a replacement for the Norton Anthology, a seizing of the opportunity that the Norton Anthology had allowed to slip by. On the contrary, the WWP entered the field as a new term, displacing the very idea of the anthology and the pedagogical assumptions it supports, and in their place proposing [End Page 49] something quite different. 3 What it offered was a reading space in which the excerpt and the entire text, the individual item and the context, could be equally available to the student. Instead of a tiny, compressed sample of women's literate culture, the student might find a closer approximation to the thing itself: huge, unmanageable texts; difficult texts; long, beautiful texts; absurd texts; poignantly misguided texts; fascinatingly dull texts; texts whose footnotes are the most interesting thing of all. The collection thus encourages students to think and act like their teachers, at least qualitatively--by asking the kinds of questions that only the full textual world can answer. The challenge the WWP faces is how to mediate such a large and complex textual universe for the reader. Its achievement has been in effect to solve the problem of scale--a problem that the anthology also sets out to manage but can only do so in a severely limited way.
Even now, most people--certainly most students--could name, if asked, only a handful of women writers active before 1830. One of the most significant facts about the WWP collection is thus its unfamiliarity; the collection functions not as a place to locate instances of the things one knows about but as an exploratory space whose contours are largely unknown.
It is, of course, possible to minimize the effects of this unfamiliarity. Confronting an unknown body of knowledge is one of a researcher's most challenging tasks; however, it is a challenge that the American educational system, with its emphasis on syllabi, is designed to avoid. Students are offered careful guidance on what to read, and since they are held accountable only for the contents of the syllabus for a given course, their incentive to explore is limited. Coming to the WWP collection through the medium of a syllabus, students encounter it only as a way of accessing a particular set of prescribed readings, not as a space that itself poses any kind of intellectual challenge. Knowing already that these texts exist--knowing that they represent a reliable destination--helps students navigate the collection as if it were fully known to them.
Anyone with prior knowledge of the existence and general location of a book can find it in even the most arcanely organized...