Computers & Texts No. 14
Table of Contents
April 1997

Tailoring the Textbook to Fit the Student Body

Kari Boyd McBride
Women's Studies Department
University of Arizona

In Computers & Texts 12 Kari Boyd McBride discussed the use of an email discussion list in the teaching of a women's studies course. In this article she develops further the advantages of making use of material on the Internet, in this case for the construction of customised hyper-textbooks.

One of the gifts of Internet technology is the possibility it offers for creating made-to-order textbooks. No longer need one be limited to a narrow range of print anthologies or introductions, often representing dated material or outmoded schematizations, nor need pedagogical developments in terms of new methods or new material be delayed for lack of a suitable textbook. Rather, the Web offers every instructor the possibility of creating a one-off textbook for each course, with the ability to tie weekly readings and assignments to the Webbed text. Thus, the Internet allows for a more fluid pedagogy that can respond to disciplinary developments and student needs. The only limitations to textbook creation come from the under-representation of particular fields on the Web. For example, I teach a variety of introductory and advanced courses in a Women's Studies Department, and while I now regularly post all my course syllabi to the Web, most of the time the students are directed there to textbooks, novels, or packets of photocopied readings. The lack of appropriate materials on the Web for, say, a course in Feminist Theories (or any other approach to critical or literary theory) makes it impractical at this time to create a Web text for that field. But I have found enough resources on the Net for the study of Women and Western Culture to provide the basis for a Web 'syllatext' that will one day allow me to teach that course entirely online (

Feminism as Supplement

Women and Western Culture (taught at the University of Arizona as a 200-level or second-year course) was initially conceived almost twenty years ago as a supplement or corrective to courses surveying Western Civilization that were at one time required of all university students. Early syllabi attempted to achieve gender parity by teaching Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Virginia Woolf as companions or perhaps antidotes to Homer, Aquinas, Michelangelo, and Ernest Hemingway - adding dead white females to the canon of dead white males - and by reading works like Medea or Petrarch's sonnets from a feminist rather than an androcentric perspective. Both the Western Civilization and the feminism-as-supplement approach have been challenged by the emergence of cultural studies and other cross-disciplinary approaches, by poststructuralist and postcolonial theories, and by critiques of earlier feminisms by women of colour.

Nearly three decades have elapsed since the feminist recuperative project began to critique established notions of the scope of the Western canon (in literature as well as history, art, and other fields) and one has seen the transformation of standard university classes and textbooks to represent a much more complete picture of Western culture in a variety of disciplines (though students tell me the 'completeness' varies greatly from course to course). But 'women' - their representation and their usefulness as objectified 'others' - still represent a significant (and, one might argue, signifying) feature of that culture, and one worthy of separate study. Once one begins to think about the construction of dominant identities, the notion of 'women and western culture' becomes not a question of supplementing the canon but an inquiry into the role of canonicity, in its largest conception, in the formation and maintenance of Western hegemony. It was that inquiry that I wanted to place before my students, turning Women and Western Culture into a course that critiqued the very terms of the course: what do we mean by 'women'? How did notions of the 'West' come into being, and how are they dependent on the 'Orient'? What is 'culture,' and how does it function to maintain orthodoxies and hierarchies?

WS200 Screenshot

Fig. 1. The Daily Syllabus at

Syllabus and Sources

Obviously, there was no textbook out there that would support me in this pedagogical project, certainly not at an introductory level. And the range of material I wished to cover ruled out the use of multiple readers or anthologies, if only for cost considerations. Of course, I could have relied exclusively on photocopied readings, but that is a costly and ultimately unsatisfactory solution. Photocopy packs also tend to marginalize their subject matter - a problem well known to instructors who wished to introduce works by Early Modern women authors, for instance, and found themselves using photocopies of photocopied microfilms alongside designer volumes of the works of John Donne or Ben Jonson. But where the contrast between photocopies and artful book jackets reifies canonical distinctions, the Web here becomes the great equalizer. While the Internet certainly replicates real-world hierarchies of gender, class, and race (traditionally canonized authors of the Renaissance, for instance, are far better represented than the recently recovered works by women authors of the period), in the context of my course, Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' has the same status as Aphra Behn's 'The Disappointment'. I don't wish to pretend that the generic influence of the two poems has been equal, of course; indeed, the construction of such inequalities is foregrounded in my teaching of the material. But I'm pleased to be able to cease replicating the hierarchies my course seeks to interrogate. So, while my online course still relies on photocopy packets for some readings, their number decreases as I continually add my own pages to the syllabus. When I am able to scan in articles for online library reserve (a development that I should be able to effect within the year), all course materials will be available through the syllatext. In the meantime, the only book I ask my students to buy is a collection of poems by Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso.

The course also seeks to undermine or, at least, complicate the chronological approach that defines most such studies. This was perhaps the most difficult part of redesigning the course, but I found - and continue to find - that reliance on traditional historical categories tends to mire me in the kind of periodization that privileges Western dominance. I have tried to disrupt those limitations by beginning with the Early Modern era as a place for looking at course terms (women, western, culture). This admittedly Western-conceptualized period - the time of the beginning of sustained contact between Europe and the Americas, of the genesis of modern colonialism, of the seeds of Orientalism, of heightened religious definition, both within and among religions, and of the pamphlet wars of the querelle des femmes-nonetheless provides a virtual laboratory for looking at the construction of Western hegemony.

Hildegard von Bingen Screenshot

Hildegard von Bingen at, one of the links from the hyper-textbook.

Beginning with the Early Modern period was also, paradoxically, part of an attempt to subvert my own disciplinary hegemonies. Trained in Medieval History and Renaissance English Literature, I found myself far outside my own comfort zones as I schemed various pedagogical approaches to globalizing and complicating the course. I came up with half a dozen creative models. (My favourite still is the syllabus that would attempt to see the sweep of Western culture through the eyes of a young immigrant girl living in East Los Angeles What did Hildegard have to do with her life? How did Aristotle's theory of the wandering womb affect her? If I couldn't answer the question, the reading dropped out of the syllabus.) But each of those approaches took me so far outside my competency that the imagined course structures repeatedly collapsed under the weight of my ignorance. Then, during a brainstorming session at a Ford Foundation Institute, a colleague suggested that I begin with what I knew, with what was familiar, and move into the unfamiliar from there. I think it fortuitous that what I knew well also turned out to be particularly fertile ground for exploring issues of hegemony, but I can imagine a course structure that played to one's strength in Classics or Drama or Modernism, as well.

From that introductory section that explores course themes in Early Modern Europe, the syllabus returns to a modified chronological approach, beginning with readings that investigate 'the creation of patriarchy' and moving from prehistory to Greek lyric, the Bible, women writers of the Middle Ages, etc. I am not yet satisfied with these categories, and plan to move away from them as I revise and develop the online text. In the meantime, to disrupt the tendency of such categories to diminish non-dominant histories, I frequently choose readings for those units that connect the ancient world to the present, the West to its others, the first world to the third. So students study biblical references to Mary, the mother of Jesus, learn about the Cult of the Virgin in the European High Middle Ages, and read Gloria Anzaldúa's article 'Entering into the Serpent' about the appropriation of indigenous American goddesses in the evolution of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In another unit, readings for the Early Modern period (which we return to in the chronological sequence) include three web sites on Pocahontas-one maintained by Disney, which promotes the recent movie, and two critiques of Disney, one by an amateur historian and one from a web site maintained by the Powhatan tribe. So, while I have maintained chronology as one of the course's organizing strategies for a variety of reasons, I try continually to disrupt its tendency to reinscribe Western dominance.

The Hyper-Textbook

Though the course and its readings are substantially online, students' first introduction to the course is through paper: I print out and distribute the 'cover sheet' or main page of the syllabus ( and the first page of the Daily Syllabus ( on the first day of classes (see fig. 1). Early in the course, students meet in a university computer lab for instruction in email, listserv, and Web basics. There they learn how to access the syllabus using both text and graphics browsers and how to navigate through the syllabus online. (I have learned from experience that failure to allow enough time at the outset for such instruction means more time lost in the long run.) During the first week of the course, class readings come from print sources and are chosen to interrogate course terms and introduce course themes. Students continue to meet in the computer lab every couple of weeks for the rest of the semester to work on their final projects, a group Web site.

Once students are weaned from the introductory print handouts, the online Daily Syllabus provides links to textbook-like overviews of course units, to Web sites that I have created specially for the course, and to other Web sites that I have found particularly useful to my purposes. I still depend on some photocopied readings, which will gradually become online readings as I scan them in. Class assignments - a Listserv Research Report Assignment ( and a group Web Site Assignment ( - are both accessible through the main page of the syllabus. Students earn course credit almost exclusively through online assignments; the only exceptions are the written final exam and weekly in-class quizzes that students take first individually and a second time in their assigned groups, working out the right answers together.

The first unit of the course, called 'Themes, Terms, and Terminals' (, includes a textbook-like overview describing the purposes and goals of the unit and introducing readings. Since students are not expected to be web-competent at the outset, most of the early readings are found in a course packet (, but by the second week they are expected to be able to get to a Web site via the Daily Syllabus. So, for instance, after having read Nabil I. Matar's article on 'The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England' and an excerpt from Edward Said's Orientalism, students make their first foray into Web readings via a link in the Daily Syllabus to a page introducing them to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her Turkish Embassy letters ( They are instructed to read a fine biography of Montagu, written and maintained by Richard Bear at the University of Oregon, and then sent to a site I created that excerpts Montagu's letters. The letters demonstrate the complexities of othering in the service of dominance: Montagu is intent on disproving false reports about the character of Muslim women, Islam, and Turkey in general, but reveals her own bigotry in the process (towards Roman Catholicism, for instance).

The next unit, on the creation of patriarchy, begins with an introduction ( linking the week's readings to each other and to course themes. As with the first overview, this and later introductions to course units make many of the same points and connections I make in class, so students have the opportunity to hear, read, and review these ideas for increased comprehension. And because I have written the overviews myself, they make the points I wish to make and tie large ideas or concepts to the particular readings of the course. I have also completed introductions to units on Women in the Ancient World, Women and the Hebrew Bible, Women and Christianity, and Women in the Middle Ages, and intend to continue revising and adding these previews to the syllabus as I can commit time to the project. Of course, that's another felicitous feature of the online syllabus - it's infinitely revisable. Whenever students finding the wording of any assignment or reading confusing, I correct the confusion immediately so that succeeding students won't repeat the error.

Many of the readings for the course are pages I have created because nothing like them exists anywhere else, online or in print. In addition to the page on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, I have put up half a dozen other sites that illustrate course themes. The page on Mary Magdalene ( excerpts biblical passages that mention her, links to the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, and shows the evolution of her characterization in Christian hagiography from the Apostle of the Apostles to the penitent whore. I combine students' reading of that site with a classroom slide presentation illustrating the diminution of her stature in the artistic record from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. A page on The Woman Controversy in Early Modern England ( provides an introduction to the woman question and links to excerpts from the prominent pamphleteers, including Jane Anger, Joseph Swetnam, Aemilia Lanyer, Constantia Munda, etc. (I initially used that page for a class listserv assignment wherein students took sides and had an online debate in the person of an assigned polemicist. I now use the page as a resource for a group report.) A site on Renaissance Lyrics ( introduces students to basic terminology (like sonnet sequence, Petrarchan conceit, and blazon) and to some feminist scholarship on the dismemberment effected by the catalogue of the beloved's body parts. I have then included a selection of illustrative lyrics from Spenser, Campion, Shakespeare, Herrick, Marvell, and Behn. I have also put up a biography of Artemisia Gentileschi, to which I hope in the near future to add scanned images of her paintings (assuming that permission from copyright holders can be obtained).

Links Beyond

Other course readings come from links to others' Web sites. The unit on Women in the Ancient World begins with a fine article on 'Sexuality in Fifth Century Athens' by Brian Arkins of University College, Dublin (gopher:// Ireland%201994/.arkins). After reading that, students are directed to two archaic Greek lyrics that form part of a University of Saskatchewan course and which illustrate the politics of ancient sexual practice. The other readings for that unit come from an excellent Sappho page ( and, again, two archaic lyrics that we read for comparison. The unit's introduction sends students to Diotima (, that treasure-trove of information for the study of women and gender in the ancient world. Other sites the syllabus accesses include an otherwise unpublished paper by a course teaching assistant, Kristine Jorgensen-Soelberg, on Native American women ( and the superb Hildegard of Bingen page maintained by Kristina Lerman ( The syllabus also links to sites produced by students who took the course in the previous semester. A student-produced page on Rosie the Riveter ( is used to illustrate the Web Site assignment, and sites on Women and Slavery ( and Navajo and Hopi artists ( serve as class readings for appropriate units. After reading the essays at the latter site, students visit the Arizona State Museum where they are treated to presentations on potters and weavers of the Southwest, lavishly illustrated from the museum collection. While not every university maintains collections of Native American artefacts and art, every campus has its own particular strengths and collections that could be supported by made-to-order readings like those provided by a syllatext.


Producing the Women and Western Culture syllatext has been - and continues to be - a long-term and time-consuming project, but the freedom it has allowed to teach my dream course has been well worth the effort. I spent a considerable amount of time at the outset looking for appropriate resources on the Web, but I would have done the same researching print resources. The time it has taken to put the textbook on the Web has been negligible. As I say to my students when I teach them HTML tagging, it's just typing: adding codes to one's documents takes little time and few special skills. My syllatext is not yet complete, and, indeed, given the possibility the Web provides for continuous revision, it will never be complete. But I will consider it 'whole' when all readings can be accessed online, which should be the case within a year of my first having begun the project. From that point on, I will no doubt continue to tinker with the form and content of the syllatext, as I would for any course, responding to my own continued learning, research, and writing in Early Modern literature and culture and to the larger evolution of theory and criticism. But perhaps most important is the way the tailor-made syllatext will always be able to respond to the changing university population, guaranteeing that students will always find their own histories in the study of Women and Western Culture.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 14 (1997), 8. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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