This assignment was created for a 200-level course cross-listed between Classics and Women & Gender Studies, entitled “Women in Mediterranean Antiquity.” The website is a work-in-progress, and any questions or collaboration inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article introduces a project that I developed for an undergraduate course on the subject of Women in Mediterranean Antiquity at Mount Allison University in the winter 2017 semester. The aim of this project was to provide undergraduate students with an introduction to digital platforms in a historically archaic field and provide said students with skills that would impart digital literacy and valuable knowledge to benefit them regardless of their future career endeavors (see Macauley-Lewis 2015). The concept of the 21st-century university student as a “digital native” is problematic, and I echo Brandon Locke’s argument that although “many in higher education generalize their undergraduate students as being well acquainted with technology and approach their studies through a digital lens, students often struggle when it comes to critical content creation and mediation” (Locke 2017). I present here the methodology used in creating the assignment, its successes and failures, and future directions. The syllabus used for the course and instructions for implementation and evaluation are included as downloadable supplementary materials.
Description of the Assignment & Methodology
In lieu of a traditional research essay, students were asked to participate in what I termed a digital research assignment that required each student to submit 8–10 pages of research on a topic of their choosing (related to Women in Mediterranean Antiquity) with a comprehensive bibliography, and then to populate their own webpage within a larger website that I built using WordPress. This project was particularly well suited to Women in Antiquity because this was a course that seemed to have obvious topic selections for the student research that would then be placed into general headings on the website.
Once the traditional research was submitted, graded, and returned, students embarked upon the “digital” portion of this assignment. As mentioned above, I designed and set up a website through the WordPress.com platform (using the Gateway Theme). I chose WordPress for three primary reasons: 1) it is free to operate; 2) I had prior experience with the platform; and (most importantly) 3) WordPress is a useful platform with a lot of user support: as of May 2018, WordPress “runs 28.9% of the entire internet” (Karol, 2018; 31.6% on W3 Techs, n.d.). WordPress is user-friendly but also allows students to explore html options and coding language. Any party interested in adopting a version of this project for their own classroom would not be limited to WordPress but could instead explore the many options available online and select an alternative platform for a collaborative website (Kick, 2013)—although, as I repeated to my students throughout the semester, chances are that if they are facing a technical problem, someone else has already found the answer to it, and the resources available to WordPress users are extensive.
On the WordPress.com platform, the students each created a “blog post” that I later nested under parent headings so that it appeared instead as a static “page” to the website visitor. Within their posts, students had full creative license for design & media (including coding and CSS). I provided step-by-step instructions as to how to initially set up their pages, which are included here as Appendix B and are also freely available on the website under the Resources tab for any instructor interested in embarking upon a similar project. The students were strongly encouraged to set up their websites for a general audience and to make their pages as visually appealing as possible, but they were required to use only open-access images and media.
Final Product & Results
There were 47 original student contributions to the website, which I arranged into thematic groupings that appeared as drop-down menus on the main page (Greek Women, the Female Body, Roman Myth, etc.). I encouraged the use of real names and emphasized the merit of their contribution to this publicly available online resource; however, participants could remain anonymous in their authorship of the page through a chosen pseudonym, and any students who did not want their page to remain public could let me know and I’d remove it immediately following the end of the semester. My initial goal for this assignment was to include it every time I taught “Women in Antiquity” or a similar course, thus creating an ever-expanding resource on the subject of women in the ancient world. Anticipating a range in the quality of submissions, I informed students at the beginning of the course that their contributions would not necessarily be permanent, but that pages might be taken down and/or altered in future versions of the class. Due to the outstanding nature of several of the contributions, I decided that with the permission of the student authors, the best contributions would remain on the site long-term, with the ultimate goal that with each iteration of the course, further outstanding contributions would be added to the permanent version of the site, thus creating a growing open-access resource for the study of women in the ancient world.
Student Reactions & Feedback
The student feedback for this project was primarily—but not universally—positive. Anonymous feedback from course evaluations included comments such as, “The digital research project is fun and helped me hone applicable skills in website construction”; “Loved the digital component of the course and that we were able to choose from several topics, or our own”; “The website idea was great as it was a less stressful assignment”; and “Website making was so cool!” I asked a few students to provide more extensive feedback for this publication:
The Women in Antiquity website project is enjoyable as it allows students to write about a topic that they are interested in and be free from the usual boundaries of the traditional essay. I enjoyed being able to write in a less formal way and I felt like being able to share my research in this way helped me to gain a deeper understanding of my topics… this project not only benefits students within the class but also allows for others to access this wealth of information. —Caitlin McGowan
I really enjoyed the process of editing my research paper to see it evolve from one with a distinctive academic tone to a piece that was user friendly, engaging, and tailored to a blog platform, yet still maintained the credibility of academic writing. —Caroline Chamandy
I found the Women in Antiquity Digital Project component of Dr. Gardner’s course one of the most engaging projects of my undergraduate career. It taught me how to reconceptualize the way in which I thought about and approached my research. Being able to share my work with family, friends, and peers as a highly accessible and informative tool was very rewarding. —Janan Assaly
Negative feedback from students is also worth sharing since these provide important perspectives to consider for future improvement: one student enrolled in my course told me at the end of the semester that her friend had dropped this course as soon as he’d seen the digital project on the syllabus. In her words, he “just wanted to write a traditional essay and be done with it.” This student was an exception, but this reaction and the pushback against digital media does, in some cases, exist. Another student, who remained in the class and produced an excellent webpage, was the only individual (out of 47 students in my initial iteration of this course) who wanted their page taken down. This student generously provided feedback about their decision to remove their content, and I received their permission to share it here:
Personally, I am a private person, who tries to have as minimum a presence online as possible, therefore, I prefer not to have my name associated with something published on the internet. Overall, I felt that I was not in the right position to be educating the masses on my chosen topic because I was unsure if I truly believed what I had written. —Anonymous
This student’s insightful concerns are valid, because they bring up the question of whether there is any benefit to providing even more online content when students already have difficulties in evaluating the legitimacy of existing online sources (Basulto, 2017; Fleming 2018). Ultimately, I believe that researched, appealing academic content—even at the undergraduate level—is beneficial and valuable, especially in light of the inevitability that a large percentage of the population is accessing information online. By encouraging my students to provide reliable content with active hyperlinks to additional reliable, academic content (such as JSTOR, Diotima, and Lacus Curtius), we can strengthen the network of reputable online information.
Outreach & Impact
A recurring theme in this student feedback—both positive and negative—is the exposure of the site, which has far surpassed initial expectations. Students were encouraged to share their pages on social media platforms and to include many tags for their pages in order to generate search engine hits. In 2017 the site had 12,597 views; by 2018 the site had 63,290 views and as of November 2019 there have been 75,347 visitors. There is currently an average of 238 visitors per day. One of our most successful student contributions is the page Spinning and Weaving in Ancient Greece by Marion Blight, which was featured in the Seattle Weaver’s Guild May 2018 monthly bulletin and currently has 11,204 views. Links to our site are included in TedEd lessons (The myth of Arachne which links to Blight’s page and the legend of Medusa which links to Cheryl MacKinnon’s Medusa and her Sisters: The Gorgons); a post on Grunge (that links to Pregnancy and Childbirth by Keelin Howe); and an article on the Conversation (Barker, 2018; on Hetairai: The Ancient Athenian Courtesan by Samuelle Saindon). Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014), found the site and offered permission to use some of her images for the page The Amazons by Dexter Fennell. Our top referrers for website traffic are search engines (105,214 views) while Facebook is a distant second (1,756 views); the site is also included among the online resources of courses at universities including Colorado State University, Kansas University, The Open University, Sewanee: The University of the South, Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (SUNY), Vassar College, Charleston College, and Memorial University. I was not aware that these institutions were using the site for their courses until I consulted the online statistics, which means that we are gradually achieving our desire to be an open-access resource for general public and scholarly audiences alike.
Future Directions & Collaborations
I decided to transform this assignment into an international, collaborative project, inviting instructors from any institution to incorporate this assignment into their undergraduate or graduate courses. The motivation to do so was twofold: first, this would provide a way for the website to expand continuously with new contributions from institutions all over North America, thereby bolstering the content and availability of resources for the study of Women in Antiquity; and second, this project offers an opportunity for instructors and for students, a viable means to begin to engage with Digital Humanities and alternative scholarship. For those without the vast quantities of time required to master even basic DH skills such as website-building, digitization, and database creation, there is a continued need for introductory-style pedagogical projects that can provide a viable solution for all scholars who want or need to embrace digital applications in the university classroom (Boss and Kraus 2007; The Pedagogy Project).
A different instructor at a different institution can teach this course and assign this project each semester, in order to continually add to and improve upon the existing content and to strengthen the collaborative networks that are fundamental to the Digital Humanities (Griffin & Hayler 2018). It is my personal hope that this website continues to grow and improve with the contributions of the next generation of scholars, encouraging the study of Women in Antiquity and the production of open-access information for a global audience, ultimately creating a comprehensive and collaborative resource for the foreseeable future.