In New Online Course, Alice Kessler-Harris Focuses on Role of Women in American History

June 27, 2017
An African American woman in 1943 with a red bandana on her head uses a hand drill to add screws to a metal sheet.

“Operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville, a woman is working on a ‘Vengeance’ dive bomber,” Nashville, Tennessee, 1943.

One of the founders of the field of women’s history, Alice Kessler-Harris earned her Ph.D. in the late 1960s and then realized that history books had omitted the entire gender from their pages. It was the dawn of the women’s movement, and she was one of many like-minded young women who set about amplifying the historical record through new methods of research.

Now, a year after retiring from teaching full time, Kessler-Harris, the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor Emerita of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower, is again advancing the field. This time it is with a MOOC, or a Massive Open Online Course, titled “Women Have Always Worked.” The free course, offered in two parts, aims to show the central role that women have played in American society since before the Revolution.

“Women’s history is a relatively new field, but one that has influenced how historians think about the past by introducing new questions, new evidence and new perspectives into the historical canon,” she said. “It has grown with the collaboration and cooperation of all kinds of women within the historical profession, and sometimes outside of it.”

A number of universities offer MOOCs, enrolling participants on platforms like edX or Coursera. The courses typically include video lectures by instructors, homework assignments and online discussions with instructors and teaching assistants who answer students’ questions in real time. Most offer a certificate upon completion.

Because Kessler-Harris had just retired and was no longer teaching when filming began, she addresses the camera directly, interviews other professors in the field and talks with current and former graduate students. The production team visited archives and sites in New York City such as the Merchant House, which illustrates the lives of servants and the occupants of a 19th-century middle class household, and the Tenement Museum, which illuminates the lives of generations of immigrant women. “Those places all bring history to life,” Kessler-Harris said.

“Women Have Always Worked” contains more than a dozen interviews with a veritable Who’s Who of scholars who founded and practice in the field of women’s history. Kessler-Harris recalled that “every one of them said, ‘Oh my God, the first MOOC on women’s history, we want it to be good!’” All contributed their time and expertise, making the MOOC a collective project that reflects the development of women’s history over the past half century.

The New-York Historical Society, which partnered in the production, had just opened its Center for Women’s History, the first of its kind within the walls of a major museum. It granted access to many artifacts and documents examined in the course and supported the recording of a number of interviews, which were filmed by Intelligent Television.

Kessler-Harris’ MOOC was produced by Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which partners with faculty, graduate students and colleagues across the University to support excellence and innovation in teaching and learning.

“MOOCs allow us to share our knowledge with the world, showcase faculty, departments and programs, and experiment with new pedagogies and technologies to benefit teaching and learning on campus,” said Soulaymane Kachani, vice provost for teaching and learning and a professor at Columbia Engineering.

Among Columbia’s most successful MOOCs was one with Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, who adapted the lectures for his popular course “Civil War and Reconstruction.” Filmed in the classroom speaking to his students, Foner’s lectures are segmented by topic, and class activities include quizzes, polls and discussion topics. His three-part MOOC debuted in 2014 and has attracted close to 50,000 enrollments from more than 140 countries.

Kessler-Harris’s MOOC, which is offered on the edX platform, is in two parts, each with 10 sessions. The first part focuses on 1700-1920 and the second on the century that follows, up to 2016. Participants can view the sessions chronologically or by themes, such as “Rebellious Women Who Challenged Gender Norms.”

Kessler-Harris sets the scene at the beginning of each session with a short narration, interspersed with images of key figures and events, interviews with distinguished scholars and discussions of artifacts. There is a syllabus for further reading, a discussion page where participants can share questions or observations and links to archival sources that participants may wish to explore.

“All of us who teach about women and gender know that as we expand the definition of history, we increase the sum total of knowledge about our shared past,” said Kessler-Harris.