Computers & Texts No. 12
Table of Contents
July 1996

Making Connections with a Listserv

Kari Boyd McBride
Women's Studies Program

Ruth Dickstein
Main Library
University of Arizona

Using an email forum in the classroom is a low-cost and pedagogically-rewarding way to connect students to each other, to their professors, to library resources, and to the larger computer revolution that is transforming education. We present here the methods and results of our use of a listserv in a Feminist Theories classroom. Our pedagogy could be appropriated by scholars in any field who are interested in teaching all students to be competent and confident users of computer-assisted research, in adapting traditional pedagogies to the possibilities offered by computer technology, and in providing better integrated instructional services.

Resource Provision

Ruth Dickstein is a social sciences librarian specialising in Women's Studies at a large research library with over four million volumes and a large collection of maps, government documents, microforms, video and films, music, and manuscripts. In addition, the library is becoming increasingly computerized and has over sixty CD-ROM indexes as well as access to a dozen periodical indexes on its online catalogue. The reference room in the Main Library has nine computers devoted to Web access and many other computers for searching the online catalogue and the CD-ROM databases. Simply learning to use the library is a major part of students' first-level training at the University, and many of them never become confident users of its resources. The computerisation of resources should, in theory, make the library more accessible, and Dickstein has attempted to make Internet resources for the field of Women's Studies conveniently available by organising them on her home page, 'Women's Studies on the Internet' (, which connects students and scholars to the best and most comprehensive Women's Studies Web sites. But the usefulness of even well-organised Internet resources, computerized catalogues, and data bases is, of course, dependent on the computer literacy of individual users, so the library offers ongoing training programs for various campus groups, including students, faculty, and visiting scholars.

[Screen Shot]

Ruth Dickstein's web page of women's studies resources.

Women's Studies Program

Kari Boyd McBride is a lecturer in the Women's Studies Program with degrees in history and literature. Insofar as it is the goal of Women's Studies to make women full and equal participants in the professional world of the future, it is essential that Women's Studies courses (which serve mostly women) make teaching computer technologies integral to their courses. While some recent studies minimise the significance of gender-based differences in computer use (Leite, Nolan et al., Ogletree and Williams), the majority of research on the intersection of gender and computer use indicates that women tend to be less competent and less confident than men in their use of computers (Dambrot et al., Nickell et al., Reinen, Sproull, Wilder) and usually have less experience with computers before they come to college. At the same time, research seems to indicate that, given the opportunity to work with computers in a structured environment (i.e., as integral to course assignments), women succeed at rates at least as high as men (Arch and Cummins, Kersteen, Linn), though women may use both computers and online resources differently (Hall, Herring, Nolan et al., Shade, Truong et al., Vernon-Gerstenfeld) and respond differently to various pedagogies (Gilroy). Because expertise in computer technologies will determine access to a wide spectrum of employment, both within and outside academia, McBride is working to integrate an ever-increasing variety of teaching technologies into her classes. To that end, use of an email forum tied to assignments using Internet resources proved to be an effective means for introducing students to computer technologies and making them enthusiastic users of online resources. Indeed, both Dickstein and McBride see the use of the listserv in the class as having facilitated student access to both print and online library materials.

Introducing the Listserv

Email forums-computer mediated communication systems-allow authorised users to engage in an online conversation: a message sent to the list by any one participant is delivered to all other participants' emailboxes. We chose the listserv rather than a bulletin board or other kind of system because it includes all students in the virtual conversations (rather than segregating discussions in different 'rooms', as do bulletin boards); it is as easy to use as email, and requires participants to use their real names rather than aliases, a feature which we think discourages flaming and other irresponsible behaviour that can undermine the effectiveness of a forum. We used the listserv as part of a feminist theories course, a small class (twenty women and one man) designed for upper-level students who we thought would make co-operative and responsible subjects for an experimental use of computer technology. Because there is little material on theory (feminist or otherwise) available on the Internet, students had two textbooks of readings for the course which were supplemented by Internet resources. The weight of anecdotal evidence suggests that most students will not engage in online discussion if given an option; therefore, they were required to make one contribution per week to the listserv, which was graded and counted as 20% of the course grade. Listserv contributions took the place of weekly written reflections on assigned readings, usually articles by theorists. Students were asked to identify the premises of the article, to respond analytically to its thesis, or to compare one theorist's position with another's. Dickstein and McBride participated in the listserv conversation, providing expertise and encouraging analysis as appropriate.

The students came to the course with a wide range of computer capability. One student worked in research and data entry for an online database, and a couple of others were recreational internet surfers who already belonged to many listservs. But most of the students had never been online, and a few had never before used a computer in any capacity. We spent the first two weeks of the term struggling to get all the students' email accounts functional and to get them signed-on to the listserv, an unanticipated delay. Once they got going, however, initial expertise did not necessarily translate into a higher grade. Many computer novices got A grades for their listserv contributions, and one hacker scraped by with a C.

Early in the term, the class met in a computer lab equipped with enough terminals for all students. Dickstein introduced the class to the vocabulary and concepts of the Internet and World Wide Web using a PowerPoint presentation lasting about ten minutes. The students were then shown how to use Netscape and Lynx (for text only browsing) and were allowed to explore Dickstein's home page. (At this class meeting we were also able to solve some of the students' minor problems with email access, so the session was twicw as productive.) At that point students were given their first listserv assignment: to explore Dickstein's Women's Studies on the Internet, find something of interest, and share the discovery on the listserv. The initial assignment had three purposes: to teach students to navigate on the Internet, to provide an initial listserv assignment that was unintimidating (it was ungraded, but required), and to break the ice and begin to create community. Many initial entries expressed hesitancy about using computers at the same time that they enthused over what was available on the Internet. Nonetheless, the assignment was a success that exceeded all expectations, producing an exchange of forty-plus entries and many conversations that spilled over into succeeding weeks.

Early Discussions

In spite of the fact that the syllabus asked for 'thoughtful and informed' contributions to the listserv conversation, early entries were more personal and enthusiastic than analytical. Initially, McBride responded to almost every student post, encouraging original ideas and pushing students for more analysis of what they found. For instance, one student, a self-styled 'film junkie,' reported finding a Web site for feminist film reviews, but provided little in the way of critical or analytical response. McBride asked why there would be a need for such a site, prompting the student to respond with an impressive catalogue of movie reviewers for major news syndicates, news magazines, and television networks. McBride jumped in again to ask what constitutes a 'feminist review,' eliciting a variety of thoughtful responses from many students. So the listserv provided a forum for instant feedback where the student could be prodded to ponder the resource she had discovered, becoming a critical thinker about the technology and its content while she learned to use it. And since this exchange happened 'publicly' where all the students could follow it, the listserv served to model for others the level of critical thinking that would be demanded by the class, even in this first 'throw-away' assignment.

In addition, the initial student entry about feminist film reviews elicited engaged discussion from other students. Some commented on the Academy Awards, which were staged during the term, prompting one student to wonder about the genesis of gendered categories (like Best Supporting Actress). Dickstein replied instantly with information about the history of the various awards. A handful of students discussed the portrayal of strong women in recent movies, characters who are required to be sexually desirable in ways not expected of a male lead. As students continued to respond to the whole question of feminist films and film reviews, postings became increasingly analytical and began to bring in class readings and terminology. Students also began to bring their developing critique to movies they were seeing. In the midst of this discussion, McBride sent the students an online essay by feminist critic and scholar, bell hooks, a scathing critique of Jane Campion's The Piano, which prompted thoughtful commentary on the movie as well as hooks's article. So that initial foray into feminist film reviews became a substantive, theoretically-grounded discussion about gender and race in film and an opportunity to make students aware of both print and online resources for further research. Movies, of course, weren't the only topic of discussion. Many students were interested in more traditionally 'scholarly' Web sites. One student commented on her discovery of a site chronicling the 1835 Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society Constitution and her surprise that all participants were white and based their supposedly revolutionary ideas of equality on the very U.S. constitution that inscribed slavery. McBride asked the student to analyse her response, to think historically about the era. The student responded with a defence of her original critique, this time more fully articulated and historically grounded. Another student reported on barriers to women's breast-feeding their children at work, which prompted a discussion of the fetishising of breasts and other body parts, male and female, in various eras and various cultures. One exchange arose from a student's report on the overuse of caesarian sections, another from a report about date and acquaintance rape. One student reported on a sociological study of the reinforcement of traditional gender roles in school, prompting informed responses from other students and allowing Dickstein to provide on-the-spot reference librarian assistance by steering students to a Web site devoted to the analysis of gender in the classroom. This feature of Dickstein's participation in the listserv would become increasingly valuable as the semester progressed.

Remember that these postings represent only a small part of the first week's online discussion and were in addition to three class meetings a week in which we discussed assigned readings (one hefty article per class meeting). So the initial assignment worked better than could have been anticipated, creating a community of thinkers, getting the students using email and the Internet, and getting them excited (rather than frightened) about computer technologies. In fact, their enthusiasm about online conversations created some frustration about classroom interaction. Students knew each other by name on the listserv, but had no idea who that person was they'd had an exciting exchange with online the previous evening. They introduced themselves in class ('Hi, I'm so-and-so and I wrote about such-and-such'), but once wasn't enough-we needed to repeat the introductions many times during the semester.

Developing Discussions

Succeeding listserv assignments served various pedagogical purposes. The second week's assignment helped the class catch up on the discussion of class readings, a problem that developed because of the unanticipated use of class time to discuss problems with email accounts and listserv registration. So McBride chose the most understandable, least densely written assigned reading for the week and had the students discuss it online rather than in class. Again, this second week's assignment produced far more entries than the one-per-student required as students responded to each other's analyses as well as to the article assigned. They also began to bring other class readings and newly-learned terminology into their discussion, and their postings rapidly became more sophisticated.

Notable from the beginning was students' support of each other's responses and respect for other's opinions. Indeed, listserv contributions began to take on a fixed form, usually beginning with an acknowledgement of the wisdom of the class as a whole or of a specific student's entry before proceeding to offer an alternative opinion, a rhetorical feature that may be typical of women's use of email forums (Herring). McBride's cheerleading efforts very quickly became unnecessary, as students took responsibility for encouraging each other. Instead, McBride focused on elaborating and clarifying theoretical positions to which students' entries alluded. For instance, when one very well-read student brought up Michel Foucault, McBride provided a quick overview of the theory in question so as not to leave other students behind. When another student mentioned French feminist theories (before we'd got to that point in the syllabus), McBride again provided commentary and definitions to bring all students into the conversation, tying new vocabulary and theory to current class readings. McBride also used the listserv to clarify in-class discussions or assignments.

Other listserv assignments asked students to analyse poems and to respond to particularly challenging articles, and mid-way through the semester, students were asked to lay out a prospectus for the final project, an assignment for which they were to analyse from a particular theoretical perspective a personal experience, current event, cultural production (e.g., poem, novel, pop music lyric, movie) or cultural practice (e.g., marriage, student social gatherings, prostitution). In the process of fulfilling that week's assignment, the students used the listserv to tap the knowledge and expertise of their classmates-many asked for specific help or advice-resulting in a discussion that produced over a hundred entries from twenty students in a one-week period.

This assignment also provided Dickstein with many opportunities for steering students to appropriate library resources in support of their projects. For instance, one student decided to write about Taiwanese 'comfort women' drafted by the Japanese to serve their soldiers during World War II. Dickstein directed the student to Web sites with substantive material about comfort women and made an appointment to meet with the student in the library to show her applicable print resources. Quite a few students were using interviews as part of their projects, and Dickstein directed them to a web site with guidelines for conducting research interviews. Another student mentioned an article she had found useful for her project, and Dickstein pointed out that it was written by a University faculty member whom the student could consult personally. All of these interactions, and many more, made the library and its reference librarians far more accessible and approachable than they would otherwise have been. Indeed, many students admitted at the end of the semester that they would not have asked a librarian for help if they'd had to do it first in person rather than by email.

Grading the Discussion

McBride graded the listserv assignments by sending email messages to each student individually. Each week's posting received a letter grade and a short, two-part response: 'I like the way you [reference to salient strength of contribution]; in future entries, work to [encouragement to greater depth of analysis or suggestion of class reading applicable to the entry]'. All student contributions and grade messages were filed each week in the email filing system, a task that would have been far easier had students been instructed to put the assignment date on the email 'subject' line of each posting. Staying on top of such filing is imperative or listserv postings and student email can easily become overwhelming at fifty to 100 messages per day. Good record-keeping need not-indeed, should not-rely on a paper trail, but instructors must to be able to consult and verify student records efficiently. At the end of the term, McBride downloaded all course postings onto a floppy disk-a space-saving method to archive class records.

The final examination was a take-home essay that asked the students to evaluate a recent story in the news (about an woman from Togo seeking asylum in the United States to escape genital mutilation) from five assigned theoretical perspectives. The final exam counted as 40% of the grade and was intended to focus students' review of course readings. The students were initially daunted by the task, but dealt with their anxiety by using the listserv to arrange group study sessions. They ended up holding two long sessions (with no instructor present), and produced impressive essays. In other words, they had claimed the listserv as their own and were using it to take responsibility for their learning. The final listserv assignment asked students to evaluate the use of the listserv in the course. (Formal anonymous evaluations distributed at the end of the term asked for broader analysis of the class.) While offering advice on specific details of listserv use, they were nonetheless uniformly enthusiastic about the listserv as a learning tool. Many of them expressed gratefulness for having been forced to learn to use a technology that they had found overwhelming. As one student put it, expressing a common response,

At the start of this semester, I was terribly afraid of all this new computer stuff: email, Internet, whatever. I thought I would never be a part of it and had settled into life as a Luddite. So when the listserv was made into a mandatory, graded part of class, I was a bit wary and worried that I wouldn't know what to do. But it was so easy! Once you jump in, you wonder why you were such a baby about it. I am still quite Web-illiterate, but I am hoping to catch up on that this summer. I really benefited from all the listserv discussions. You are all so brilliant! Everyone brought such interesting things to it, whether it be forwarded articles or horrible jokes and news.

Another student referred to having mastered the computer and email as 'a huge accomplishment' and said the class was fun and, significantly, due to the listserv. In fact, the word 'fun' came up repeatedly in students' comments-not necessarily the word one would expect to encounter in the context of a demanding, frequently dry subject like critical theory. As one student said at the end, 'What a concept-learning can be fun'.

Two problems with the listserv were repeatedly expressed in these online evaluations. The most frequently voiced complaint was of students' inability to put a face to the name on the email message. In other words, virtual community isn't enough when you are meeting with the same group of people in a classroom week after week. Second, students without personal computers and modems (most of the class) also commented that they would often feel overwhelmed by the number of messages they found awaiting them in their email inboxes when they went to a campus computer lab once a week to complete their assignments. With limited time available to them, they were often forced to skim through their classmates' postings simply to leave enough time to do their own assignments. But even these students loved the listserv.

Some students who were shy about talking in class commented that the listserv gave them a place to have a voice. A native Chinese speaker said that she could understand more of the listserv conversation than she could the classroom discussions, and being able to put her thoughts in writing allowed her to participate in ways she couldn't in class. Another student said she especially liked the idea of the 'ongoing class' that happened even on weekends. While some might think that would be oppressive, she said, it was interesting because the listserv was an ongoing conversation, not an ongoing lecture. Most students mentioned the advantage of Dickstein's presence on the listserv and said they would never have had the nerve to approach a librarian, especially with what they considered 'unimportant' questions, if she hadn't been repeatedly offering information and encouragement.


The listserv, then, served a wide variety of pedagogical functions in the classroom, making this small group of students confident users of computer technology and online resources. The class developed a cohesiveness-one student said, 'We have class consciousness!'-that was productive of rapid and profound learning in a setting that never became competitive, despite the disparity of expertise-both in feminist theory and in computer competence-that students brought to the class. This fall we will use the listserv in larger, introductory-level classes and will make two changes: the listserv contributions will count as a higher proportion of the overall grade, and we will compensate for the difficulty we experienced getting students email- and listserv- functional by integrating the services provided by university technical support staff into the first week of the class. Otherwise, we are enthusiastic about the listserv's potential to enhance learning, to connect students to each other and to university professionals, and to bring all students, male and female, into the computerized world of the future.


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[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 12 (1996), 7. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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