WOMEN'S STUDIES AND THE NET EFFECT!

by Lynne Alice (from FEMINIST COLLECTIONS vol. 17, no. 2, Winter 1996, pp. 40-41)

What follows is very much a field report from a rapidly developing women's studies program in New Zealand where communication technology is central to courses offered in most departments. In Women's Studies, we have not yet been able to develop new databases and computer programs, but we are focused on utilizing networks and existing information sources to augment our resources and empower our students.

The Women's Studies Programme at Massey University includes an extensive distance education component. Currently all but one core undergraduate course is also taught by correspondence. Recently the program added World Wide Web pages and e-mail discussion lists to its facilities. The rationale for this was four-fold. Firstly, we want to enable wider participation in issue-specific tutorials between on-campus and extramural students. Not only does this break down the barriers of isolation for extramural students, but reminds internal students that the courses are constantly attracting more interest than they are aware of on what is essentially a provincial campus setting. Many extramural students are older, professional persons whose demographics contrast markedly with on-campus students. Connecting these groups through technology is beneficial for both. Face-to-face connections are more difficult to achieve within a thirteen-week semester.

We also teach (through participation) computer skills relevant to areas of potential employment for Women's Studies graduates. This coursework does not include computer languages and programming, but rather focuses on encouraging students to feel comfortable and become more adept at networked communications. Staff are encouraged to thoroughly learn programs that access the Internet and informally pass this on to their students. Although, as in most universities, workshops are offered by computer personnel, we've found that they are not always sensitive to the needs of women and not often aware of the extensive feminist resources available to Women's Studies students. While we are working towards changing this situation, in the meantime, one-on- one tutoring speeds up the process of helping students to claim their own spaces. Assigning projects that require first-year students to access and evaluate online feminist resources available in this country has been a positive and useful beginning. Workshops offered at national conferences have created a great deal of interest, not only in women's studies areas but also in lesbian and gay databases. Like most women's studies programs offering an undergraduate major, we see the following two categories of skills as necessary for graduates who will most likely work in community- based organizations, government departments, service industries, teaching, and research: familiarity with communication technology programs such as e-mail (Eudora), file transfer (Fetch), gopher (Turbogopher), the Internet (Netscape); as well as some educational "chat" programs. Students are also introduced to bibliographic search engines like First Search, Current Contents, and Carl Uncover. Their learning, both through assignments and informal workshops, includes a detailed grasp of how these programs and protocols work and the social contexts that have produced them. We consider that over the period of taking their undergraduate degree, students should also learn the basic skills to design and compile databases. This mostly entails working their course topics and bibliographic sources into hypercard stacks, but we are also hoping to extend this to create "knowledge webs" of hitherto unpublished research in this country. The impetus for this comes from a lack of oral histories of women's lives and the sense that networked knowledge bases that have social issues as their focus may be able to become learning and activist tools of use to both university- and community-based feminists. It is important to us that students learn quickly to access the variety of existing materials available electronically all over the world. While this is an outcome of our isolation, perhaps, it's also building on an attraction for electronic technology that is widespread here. It is said that New Zealanders buy more technology per head of population than most other `induistrialized' countries! Women's Studies at Massey shares the typically limited financial and equipment support endured by most women's studies programs, but maintains that identifying the skills and knowledge required by employers of our graduates enables us to mainstream into core courses an ongoing process of computer skills-building for students.

The Programme's web pages were designed not simply as publicity, but as resources for students seeking materials not commonly found in libraries or bookshops. While in New Zealand it is important to make available overseas information that is difficult or expensive to access, we have also prioritized the storing of student and staff articles, reports, and reviews. The highly successful feminist electronic journal Feminist Studies in Aotearoa was a result of this demand for unpublished or not-yet-published feminist writing to be distributed more broadly. Publishing of New Zealand feminist work is difficult because of the hegemony of international publishers and the inevitable popular-readership focus of many local presses. Information technology may potentially resolve some of these difficulties for feminists, as long as knowledge about access and what is available is shared. The monthly electronic journal is available through email and the Web (fmst@stonebow.otago.ac.nz; http://www.massey.ac.nz/~wwwms/FMST/Info.html) and contains original content from academic scholars and students, about seventy percent of whom are local. It's our view, from the isolation and distance of the southern hemisphere, that the importance of using information technology in women's studies cannot be underestimated. Not only does it enable repositories of materials that may otherwise be lost, it also offers a means of communicating and debating local and global women's issues in a world where physical location, social, economic, and cultural specificities continue to make more personal contact unlikely in the same depth.

[Lynne Alice is the Director of Women's Studies at Massey University, New Zealand, where she teaches feminist theory and queer studies. Her book Feminism Beyond Gender

will be published by Macmillan this year and she is currently working on a Women's Studies textbook for second- and third-year students. The Women's Studies Programme at Massey University may be reached at P.O. Box 11-222, Palmerston North, Aotearoa (New Zealand). The Web address is: http://cc-server9.massey.ac.nz/~wwwms]

 


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Updated May 17, 1996