Teaching Tags and Metadata in Women Writers in Review

Teaching Tags and Metadata in Women Writers in Review

By Jason M. Payton, Sam Houston State University

Note: Jason M. Payton is a pedagogical development consultant for the WWP.


My course is a junior-level survey of American literature to 1865, and my students are primarily English majors and minors (course syllabus here). Most of my students have never had a class in women’s and gender studies, so I wanted to use the survey course as an opportunity to engage students with some of the critical issues raised in these fields. In addition to wanting my survey classes to engage students on women’s and gender studies issues, I also wanted to shift my teaching toward project-based models that would introduce students to important developments in the field of early American studies. The chance to partner with the Women Writers in Review team provided an opportunity to pursue both of these pedagogical aims.

I framed the WWiR project as an exercise in discovery. During the first week of class, I introduced the critical issues that would be explored at length during the course. These included nationalism and imperialism, colonialism, religion, race, class, and gender. I explained that these were intersectional issues and that we would return to them persistently to learn how the material and discursive practices associated with these concepts took shape at specific moments, and how they changed over time. While I framed this course as one that would reflect on the issue of gender, I purposely did not bookend the WWiR project with any specific theoretical readings, nor did I attempt to fully articulate how the WWiR project would fit into the course as a whole. I wanted students to do that discovery work on their own.

My students were tasked with a multi-phase project constructed in collaboration with Sarah Connell (assignment sequence here). They were given an introduction to the archive by Sarah Connell in the second week of the course and were also given a scavenger hunt exercise designed to familiarize them with the site’s organization and content. On completion of this initial site overview, I broke students into small groups and asked each group to identify one or two thematic tags for review. They were to read all the reviews published in America under their tags and compile two documents in response to their research. The first document was a group report. This report distilled important research findings and offered a series of specific illustrations of general trends; it also made recommendations regarding WWiR metadata, user interface, and user experience. The second document was a personal report on the most significant reviews and insights for each individual group member. The group reports allowed students to begin identifying trends in the archive through a collation of their individual notes on particular reviews under their chosen thematic tags. The individual reports allowed students to engage in more extensive close reading of particular archival documents than the general report permitted, and it also allowed me the opportunity to assess individual students’ levels of engagement with the project.

This two-part assignment structure allowed me to teach students about the WWiR archive itself, while also allowing me to teach them about the research process in early American studies. I believe that students benefit immensely from immersing themselves in an archive, but access to physical archives and well-managed special collections in early American studies is limited for most students at most U.S. colleges and universities. The digital archive can give students this experience of immersion without requiring physical proximity to an archive. I also believe that students benefit immensely from learning to balance the desire to find meaning in individual texts (recorded in students’ personal reports) and to find patterns of meaning across the wider archive (recorded in the group reports). The WWiR archive allows students to perform both kinds of analytical work, and the assignment structure I used ensures that students articulate both types of findings and make conscious decisions about how to weigh individual textual utterances in their assessment of the tenor of the archive as a whole.

Each group chose its own tag(s) for review. The tags they chose included:

  • Class or socioeconomic status
  • Education
  • Gender identities
  • Moral impacts of literature
  • Nation or empire
  • Slavery and abolition
  • Racial identities
  • Religious identities
  • Women as writers and readers

While not exhaustive, my students’ reviews covered over two-thirds of the thematic tags in the archive and covered the full range of sources published in America under those tags.


The individual and group reports showed that students were indeed making synchronic and diachronic judgments about the discourses on women and women’s writing in early America that I hoped they would make. The individual reports also showed that students made important connections between this project and the work of the course.

Indya F. writes, “The WWiR project is a concentrated version of what I really believe this course is about. To give students the most unedited version of history that we can take. There is some sanitization that we can’t rid ourselves of. But the WWiR takes these ideas of what misogyny used to be, and without verbalizing it, compares to the misogyny of now and allows us to take a hard look at what prejudice looked like and how far we haven’t come. Students involved in this process really have to bare [sic] witness to it.” As Indya notes, the archive’s choice to present reviews to readers with a minimal interpretive apparatus allows students to encounter historical discourse about women and women’s writing directly. The force of this encounter registers for Indya, who recognizes the ethical dilemma the encounter poses to the reader: With the knowledge provided by WWiR about misogyny in early America, how shall contemporary students of this material respond to misogyny in the present?

Hannah T. writes, “Before this project, I never realized the weight of gender inequality among literature during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through a careful analysis of 3 reviews, I noticed a running theme of discrimination against women writers…Two of my articles concerned moral impacts, and one concerned religious identities. However, although they were reviews of different authors, pieces, and themes, I still noticed the recurring bias against the literature simply because they [sic] were written by women.” Hannah’s observation focuses particularly on how WWiR helps students understand the nature and scope of the discrimination women writers experienced in our period of study.

These general reflections demonstrated that the inclusion of WWiR into a traditional early American survey course can do important critical work. Students are encouraged to think about specific historical moments and about change over time. They are also encouraged to let the encounter with the archive reshape their understanding of early American history and of their own cultural moment.

Such broad reflections were also accompanied by several specific insights about the reviewers and their subjects that are worth sharing for the way they illustrate the pedagogical potential of using WWiR in undergraduate courses.

Elizabeth C. recognizes “just how much context matters” when considering the reception of women’s writing. Having read reviews of Benger’s Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton and Hand’s The Death of Amnon, Elizabeth observes that in both cases, the authors’ personal lives are invoked as relevant interpretive contexts. For Benger’s reviewer, the choice of Elizabeth Hamilton is especially worthy because of Hamilton’s ability to “follow traditional domestic gender roles,” as Elizabeth surmises. If Benger’s review is relatively positive in its rhetoric, the review of Hand is less so—it labels her a “poetess” and reminds readers that she is “the wife of a blacksmith.” Elizabeth found in these reviews telling evidence that “When a man produces literature, no one mentions what his wife does for a living. When a woman produces literature, they can only be as successful as their husband.” Elizabeth’s observations highlight two running themes in my classes’ reports. The first relates to Benger specifically, and the second relates to the relation of women’s writing to men’s writing more broadly.

Several students found the reviews of Benger’s works curious. Josh A. was particularly drawn to the footnote at the end of The Christian Observer’s review of Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which lists “E. Benger” as an author. The note at the end of this review explains the reviewer’s choice to refer to the author as “Mr. Benger” as an act of benevolence: “[I]n such a case of doubt, the ambiguous person out to be supposed of the nobler sex.” Rebecca R. focused on The Christian Disciple’s review of Benger’s Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton, which, Rebecca notes, mentions Benger only once in the review, while mentioning Hamilton fifteen times. Donald M. further observed that reviews of Benger’s work are ambivalent in their assessment of the author. The Christian Disciple’s review praises Benger’s choice of Elizabeth Hamilton as a subject but states that it “cannot bestow a similar commendation upon what she has written on the Revelation of St. John.” In that work, Benger “seems to have taken up an hypothesis with relation to this very obscure and difficult book, without sufficient consideration, and apparently without a proper acquaintance with the labors of others upon it.” Whereas The Christian Disciple calls Benger’s fitness for exegetical work into question, The Literary Gazette, or, Journal of Criticism, Science, and the Arts says in its review of her Memoirs of the Life of Anne Boleyn, Queen of Henry VIII, that “The works of Miss Benger have so fully established her in the literary world, among the female ornaments of the times, that the praise which these interesting volumes would otherwise extort, may well be spared.” Donald’s analysis of reviews of Benger led him to conclude that the assessment of a writer’s worth could have much more to do with the reviewer’s sense of what women should or should not be writing about as with the writer’s actual merit.

The repeated return in both group and individual reports to reviews of Benger’s works highlights several critical issues that can be discussed as a whole class and related to broad course themes. First, the purportedly benevolent assumption of “E. Benger’s” masculinity raises questions about historical assumptions about the construction of gender and gender difference that can be pursued in my course from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Anne Bradstreet in the seventeenth century to Judith Sargent Murray and Hannah Webster Foster in the eighteenth century. Second, the elision of Benger’s name in the review of her memoir of Elizabeth Hamilton raises questions about recognition and attribution that can be pursued along similar lines. Third, the ambivalence of reviewers toward Benger depending on the subject matter of a given work raises questions about the notion of separate spheres. These questions intersect with gender and race, and as such, can be pursued in the context of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century epistolary and sentimental novel, but also in the context of Jefferson’s “reviews” of Phillis Wheatley and Ignatius Sancho in Notes on the State of Virginia. In this way, the WWiR archive can be placed in conversation with more easily recognized and more frequently anthologized texts in the survey course. Such an approach can help students see how archival research can enhance and challenge dominant field narratives, such as those about gender in early America, about public and private spheres, and about print culture.

In addition to helping students see the more canonical texts in early American literature differently, working with the WWiR archive also stimulated students’ curiosity to read across wider swaths of the archive than their original group assignments demanded. Bailey A. reviewed texts under the “education” and “racial identities” tags. In order to have a confident sense of how reviews under these tags were representing women and women’s writing, Bailey read across other tag collections to get a sense of general rhetorical trends, and she observes “women [being] ridiculed for being smart” at various points in the archive. Marlisa E. reviewed texts under the “slavery and abolition” tag. Her work on reviews of Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (Benger, et al. This review, as noted above, presumes “E. Benger” to be a man) led her to read extra reviews, including reviews of Hannah Adams’s The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion Exhibited and Maria Edgeworth’s Works of Maria Edgeworth. This analysis highlights the difference in length of reviews presumed to be written by men. The review of Poems is fifteen pages in its original format, while the other two ran just nine pages in total in their original format. It also highlights key differences in the language used to talk about women’s writing. The review of Poems speaks with praise about the presumptively male “Christian poet,” while the reviews of women’s writing struck Marlisa as “extremely misogynistic.”

Bailey’s and Marlisa’s reports show that the structure of the archive can encourage students to explore more of the collection than they had originally planned to do. They also suggest some ways that the curiosity sparked by the archival encounter can be used to drive important thematic conversations in the broad survey course. Marlisa, for example, wanted to know after reading all of the American reviews under the “slavery and abolition” tag what the role of women’s writing in the abolitionist cause was. Because I introduced this project very early in the course, Marlisa’s question came up before we had begun our unit on the Atlantic slave trade and American slavery. I answered this query via a whole-class discussion about the poems of Phillis Wheatley and Sarah Wentworth Morton, as well as the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs. Similarly, Briana P. raised questions about what it means for a reviewer to describe Maria Edgeworth as the “Franklin of novelists.” These questions can be answered in part by a reading of anthologized selections from Poor Richard’s Almanac and The Autobiography, as well as by reading texts such as Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette.


Using the WWiR archive in my survey course has inspired several ideas about undergraduate pedagogy and research that I wish to share with those who are considering using the archive in their classes.

My survey courses have traditionally been anthology-based, largely out of consideration for the financial constraints faced by many of my students. While a single course text that can be used in multiple sections has the benefit of being more affordable than a litany of individual texts, the drawbacks of the anthology-based course are many. One set of problems involves questions about selection and representation in the production of the anthology. Another set of problems involves questions about breadth of coverage and depth of understanding in anthology-based survey courses. These problems are particularly vexing for early Americanists, given the capaciousness of the field. My undergraduate pedagogy is moving away from the anthology-based course and away from breadth-of-coverage models in an effort to include voices normally excluded from popular anthologies and to privilege a depth of understanding of a few key issues in early American studies over a comprehensive coverage of major authors and movements. I am also moving toward project-based courses that engage students with cutting-edge developments in literary studies and related fields. The WWiR archive is an ideal teaching tool for teachers who are similarly inclined. The project I devised gets students out of the anthology and into the archive, it helps students rethink the narrative of literary history implicit in major anthologies, and it engages students with critical issues in the digital humanities.

Ideally, undergraduate survey courses that use the WWiR archive will leave space in the course to explore critical issues raised during the research process. Students in my course raised a host of excellent questions on the basis of their work with WWiR that we simply did not have time to answer. A period of one to two weeks at the end of the term would have allowed my class the opportunity to do additional research on the question about women and abolitionism raised by Marlisa E., for example. My class would have benefitted from additional research on the writings and speeches of Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, and Lydia Maria Child. Reserving time for additional research allows students to shape the direction of the course. It also allows instructors to teach the research process by showing how research questions often develop in ways that demand that we consult new archives and develop new competencies. Additional research on women and abolitionism would lead to students from the anthology to the WWiR archive to other print and digital archives; it would also encourage students to practice intersectional thinking as they untangle imbricated historical discourses about gender and race.

An additional research period at the end of the course can also include a specific focus on critical issues in the digital humanities raised by students’ work in WWiR. Sarah Connell’s introductory presentation to my class included a demonstration of the XML markup behind the front-end WWiR display. This demonstration raised students’ awareness of the many interpretive decisions that have to be made to render a document digitally in WWiR. It sparked a course-long conversation about information architecture that could have been explored more fully through additional research on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print culture or on the relationship between book history and the digital humanities.

Queries such as these provide excellent material for undergraduate research. The incorporation of WWiR into the undergraduate curriculum is thus an excellent way to foster students’ professional development via presentations at undergraduate research conferences. It is also an excellent tool for generating undergraduate thesis and capstone projects.

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