In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Society to Encourage Studies at Home (in a Pandemic)
  • Danielle Coriale (bio) and Sari Edelstein (bio)

In 1873, Anna Eliot Ticknor had an idea: to use correspondence to educate women. By establishing the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, Ticknor sought to expand the intellectual worlds of women confined to domestic spaces and excluded from institutions of higher education. Though Ticknor herself hailed from a prestigious Boston family with connections to Harvard and New England's literati, her society was premised on access, using the postal service to bridge geographical, racial, and socioeconomic differences and distances. From students in Japan to formerly enslaved women, the "silent university," as Ticknor called it, quietly constructed a potentially boundless network of individualized female education for over two decades, serving more than seven thousand students.

As many college and university professors now find themselves teaching from home by Zoom, Blackboard, Slack, and other online platforms, we wondered what we might learn from Ticknor, what inspiration we might draw from a society that aimed to provide an education outside of brick-and-mortar universities, and what new or old ways of connecting with our students across distance we might discover.

In the spirit of Ticknor's central epistolary exchange, our essay is structured as a dialogue; it reflects on the challenges [End Page 246] of remote teaching and explores how we adapted aspects of Ticknor's educational philosophy into our own courses in Fall 2020. We discuss how we have adjusted our pedagogy to meet the needs of the moment and how pedagogy, public health, and access are closely linked. Finally, we consider digital and print media alongside one another, exploring the points of contact and dissonance between in-person and virtual modes of teaching.


I remember when we started going for walks in the summer of 2020, just as lockdown was lifting here in Massachusetts, and I was anxious about the prospect of teaching remotely, particularly about how I would connect with students individually or replicate the dynamic of the classroom in a virtual context. A colleague who teaches in our MFA program mentioned that she was going to send her students care packages through the mail, and the idea of bringing material culture into those relationships really inspired me. It occurred to me that there were possibilities for supplementing, and subverting, the alienating aspects of technology, and I began looking into older models for long-distance learning. I came across Anna Ticknor's Society to Encourage Studies at Home, which was founded in Boston in 1873, and was fascinated by the dynamic, personal, rigorous models of teaching and learning it offered beyond traditional classroom settings.


I had never heard of the Society until you mentioned it to me, but I was intrigued by Ticknor's devotion to women's education and her pioneering work in distance learning avant la lettre. This semester I taught a novel devoted to that very subject: Sarah Orne Jewett's A Country Doctor (1884), a Bildungsroman that charts the development of Nan Prince from precocious child to medical student. As you know, I'm no Americanist (which is precisely why I reached out to you when preparing to teach this novel!), but my Medicine and Literature course didn't feel complete without [End Page 247] A Country Doctor. At every stage of Nan's development, the novel exposes the obstacles to women's education, from disapproving neighbors, antagonistic relatives (her aunt chief among them), and impassioned suitors. Although she finds encouragement and support in her guardian, an even-keeled country doctor fashioned after Jewett's own father, Nan is singular in her world; she is a woman alone in pursuit of education's promise. The real Nans of the world were not alone but they were separated from one another, marooned on islands not yet peopled with others like them. With the establishment of the Society, Ticknor sought to remedy that isolation by connecting them with one another and fostering a sense of community.


Yes, Nan's isolation and women's intellectual isolation in the nineteenth century felt more palpable than ever as the pandemic consigned us to our living rooms and kitchens, giving...