Saturday, February 29, 2020

Pedagogical Possibilities: How to Teach Like Yourself

A purple roller beginning to paint an orange wall. Photo by cassidy muir from Pexels.

Since becoming a grad affiliate for the University of Illinois's Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning six months ago, I have become more acutely aware than ever how vulnerable it can be to teach, especially for a beginning teacher. As part of my work there, I meet with new teaching assistants frequently to discuss their teaching demonstrations from orientation or observe their classes. Many of them have the same concerns, and many of these are a.) not dissimilar from my own concerns about teaching and b.) rooted in deeply personal concerns about being liked, respected, or listened to.

Ostensibly, teaching is about the development of skills and the transmission of information; in practice, it can feel like a performance for an audience empowered to weigh in on all of your personal flaws and failings. Though my students have almost to a person been delightful and generous people, I still often have nerves going into the classroom. My desire to have things go well stems both from a strong interest in students' intellectual development and a deep-set fear that I suspect many of us have: that being disliked, or even just having an activity or lecture we've created fall flat, is a damning proclamation of our incompetence.

Many beginning teachers think of models that they've had in their own careers as students and attempt to model themselves on these people (I certainly have!). Yet often people's personalities differ from those of the best teachers they've had. Things that look and feel natural on one person on another feel stiff and uncomfortable, or too informal, or too overdone.

I don’t mean to suggest that the old chestnut "be yourself" will always lead you in the right direction or inoculate you from student criticism or hostility. Both anecdotal and data-driven evidence suggests that racial and gender bias impact student evaluations of teaching effectiveness (check out the related links for a few more takes on this topic). But keeping your own style and personality in mind can help you make decisions that work best for you in the classroom and to feel confident in the decisions that you've made. So, I want to share three things that I tell new teachers frequently:

The way you talk is fine (though maybe a little fast).

Too frequently, I think, we have been trained to think about presenting information as an opportunity to weigh in on people's style of speaking. Many beginning teachers, especially international students, who meet with me are worried about the way they speak, asking me if they were comprehensible during their lesson. Others hate the sound of their voice, or the way they pause and use filler words. Yet I have had almost no instances in which I had trouble understanding the teacher for any reason other than talking speed. Talking quickly is one of my own vices, and there are ways to manage this (which I may take up in a later post). Other than that, though, don't waste your life worrying about the way you talk. Students live in a world full of people speaking in all sorts of ways, and learning to listen well will only benefit them. What you say, and the interest you show when saying it, is so much more important than whether you're a beautiful speechmaker or sound like a native speaker of the language you're teaching in.

It's ok to be human-- in fact, encouraged.

I mentioned that talking quickly is one of my vices. I am very aware of this, and every semester I make my students aware of this too. I also let them know when I don't know the answer to a question they've asked, admit I'm wrong and correct the issue when they point out an error I've made, and give frequent opportunities for students to express ideas about the material that I may have missed. In short, my students are well aware that I'm human and thus fallible. This serves two functions: first, it helps them to know how they can relate to me-- if they have trouble understanding a lecture, they can ask me to slow down, for example. Secondly, just as being at the front of the room doing the instruction is vulnerable, being a learner is also vulnerable. To truly learn, a person can't just passively absorb information; they have to guess and check, get comfortable with being wrong from time to time, and identify areas for improvement. I try to model this willingness to be vulnerable. Not everyone may feel comfortable with this exact level or type of openness, which is fine (and gets to my next point); the important thing is that mistakes in the classroom are not the end of the world, and can even be part of the process.

There is no one perfect teaching style.

Sometimes advice-givers and workshop-leaders have a tendency to be a bit, well, bubbly. Outgoing. Irritatingly lively, even! I'll own up to it! This can give more reserved teachers pause-- they don’t know how to translate what they're hearing and seeing from this ball of energy into something they will actually be willing to do in the classroom. But there is no one way to be, as a teacher-- no singular method for presenting information, relating to students, or handling logistics. Part of your journey as a teacher is figuring out what works best for you, and students will respond to the strategies you use much better if you seem comfortable and confident in them. My classes have minimal lecturing and maximize time spent on group activities and class discussions, and I am fairly casual in chatting with the class. Students respond well to these strategies, expressing both mastery of concepts and enthusiasm for the course structure. I know other teachers who comport themselves more formally, who devote more time overall to lecture and have more limited, more organized class discussions and more individual projects. These teachers get positive responses as well. Both of these styles incorporate active learning strategies, skill development, and content delivery, but look very different. There are lots of good styles for teaching, and good teaching looks a little different for everyone-- so experiment, and find what works for you!

Related Links:

A sociological study of women faculty of color and their experiences of gendered racism from white male students in their courses.
An interesting Washington Post piece on trying to counter gender bias in collecting student evaluations through informing students about bias.
A professor of mechanical engineering reflecting in Huffington Post on his experience with trying to be a better teacher by modeling what other teachers had done, ultimately concluding it was best to "Be An Original: Be Yourself and Become a Better Teacher."

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Pedagogical Possibilities: Translanguaging for the College Humanities Classroom

Signs in various languages indicating different locations. 
Photo by Soner Eker on Unsplash.

Today I have teamed up with a fantastic guest-poster.
Logan Middleton is a PhD student in writing studies who works with the Education Justice Project, a college-in-prison program in Illinois. (You may remember him from my enthusiastic posts about his work as a workshop leader: Writing Across Curriculum and Staying on Track With Thesis and Dissertation Writing.) His words are in regular case throughout, and my contributions, largely about how these topics relate to particular types of classrooms and disciplines, are italicized.

What Price Grammar?

From my experiences in teaching writing, the number one thing I hear from students of all ages is “I’m a bad writer.” If I ask why and dig a little deeper, it’s usually because someone has been told as such by a former teacher. Dig a little more, and I hear refrains to the tune of “My English is bad” or “My grammar is bad.” 

It’s not uncommon to hear from instructors or administrators that we need to ensure students can use “proper” English and grammar. Not only must we uphold “correctness,” they say, but we can’t conscionably let students go out into the real world with their writing looking like “that.” 

Statements such as these hurt students. From my experiences as an instructor and as a tutor, they not only make them dislike writing but also make them afraid to write. I recall working with one first-year college student who, in introducing me to her assignment prompt, said to me, “I’ve been told by teachers that I don’t communicate very well.” Though I can’t speak for this particular student, I have a hard time imagining them as feeling excited or good about their work—in their first semester of college nonetheless.

The ideologies undergirding statements about proper English and correctness not only hurt students but the rest of us as well. This is in no small part because they’re racist. This isn’t a particularly new or novel idea; I’ll say more about it in a bit. But I want to stay with this idea of grammar and how it relates to writing, teaching, and English.

It’s striking to me that people who claim English as a first language can often tell that something is “grammatically incorrect.” I find myself in this position often. Less often can we explain with any certainty why that’s the case. I also find myself in this position a lot as do students. Oftentimes, the things native English speakers can identify as grammatical rules are based on outdated folk models of grammar that were handed down by family or teachers, the likes of which would hardly be recognized as legit by contemporary theories of language. So contrary to what we might think or believe, our ideas of what English grammar should look like aren’t really all that sound or accurate.

Intriguingly, this sort of knowledge or memory is often something historians feel like they are combatting in their courses, letting students know that what feels true about historical figures, places, and ideas is not always what is actually true. Good historians know that they fall prey to these same patterns of thinking even as they combat them; writing and grammar is an arena where we rarely think to look for such patterns. 

All of this discussion about English and language and correctness matters because instructors who teach writing—many of whom have not been formally taught how to teach writing themselves (through no fault of their own)—are often concerned with assessing grammar in student work, especially when it comes to emergent bilingual or multilingual student populations. We know grammar is built upon sets of rules, but how can we enforce these standards in student work if we can’t even describe the mechanisms by which they operate? All of this becomes more problematic when instructors wield grammar as a tool of punishment in grading and feedback contexts, as a means of marking down student papers. Such logics operate in accordance with deviation from a set, centralized, universal standard of linguistic purity.

I find this particularly interesting in History because often it is very difficult to 1. Teach historical thinking and 2. Make a quick case about why historical thinking, specifically, is important. I often hear people make the case that history courses’ most critical contribution is to teach students how to write (okay, I have been guilty of emphasizing this myself at times). The more I teach, however-- and the more I learn about writing-- the more I question whether this is actually the core thing we do, and whether it is a worthwhile goal for historians in particular to do. Few instructors of history think it would be a worthwhile goal to spend several weeks on English grammar and syntax, yet they grade for these details. One takeaway here, then, is to clarify the central goals of your course-- what are you actually hoping that students take away from this course? If better writing is one of your goals, is it more critical that students follow your preferred grammar, or that they learn to organize their thoughts, or make a clear argument?

Against Purity 

Linguistic purity is a guiding feature of Dominant American English (DAE) or White Mainstream English (WME). These varieties of English, of which grammatical correctness is a part, function as ideologies that fundamentally exclude rhetorical and linguistic traditions that aren’t white, western, abled, or middle-classed: African American Language, Spanglish, and neurodivergent communication, to name a few examples (see the work of Django Paris, Carmen Kynard, Steven Alvarez, Christina V. Cedillo, and others). And while some well-intentioned instructors might say, “It’s OK to communicate like that at home, but not in your writing for this class,” what this comment really says is, “You can write or speak like that at home, but you(r languages) are not welcome here.” We can’t pretend that we can separate language from identity since we know language is social and cultural in nature. As many students will show us if given the chance—whether they’re multilingual students or not—our language practices are part of who we are.

Whether we realize it or not, linguistic purity often goes hand in hand with racial purity. Those students whose language most gets targeted in writing contexts are likely students of color, many of whom are international students and/or multilingual students (though, of course, these identity categories are not mutually exclusive). 

So when instructors claim that adhering to Dominant American English is preparation for the real world, I’m reminded of “I Can Switch My Language, But I Can't Switch My Skin" by the brilliant Dr. April Baker-Bell (a piece that students have responded really well to for the most part). Speaking of linguistic racism, she notes that communicating in WME doesn’t lead to guaranteed success for Black folx, it doesn’t prevent Black folx from being impacted by racism, and it certainly doesn’t help Black folx from being murdered. 

As I’ve previously touched upon (though I am far from the first to so so), there are a myriad of ways in which the people who are supposed to be promoting progressivism or providing aid or combating inequity in some of their work shore it up in other arenas. Similarly, many academics shore up white supremacist and imperialist ideals of writing and classroom comportment even as they critique these frameworks in their research. Their day-to-day functions butt up against their ideals. 

Disability scholar Sami Schalk contends academic work about people with disabilities exists that is not actually an example of "disability studies.” Disability studies, she contends, should be at its base for the benefit of disabled people as embodied and political actors. Work about disability or disabled subjects that does not do those things is disconnected from the field’s purpose. Similarly, there is a disconnect if we as teachers and scholars claim to be advocating for immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, the subaltern, and/or the working class without also supporting the actual students from those communities by whom we find ourselves surrounded. 

Linguistic Justice 

By no means is what we do in our classrooms a solution to state-sanctioned murder or white (language) supremacy (for more on this term, see Asao Inoue’s 2019 conference address from the Conference on College Composition and Communication). But as instructors, we can do more to effect linguistic justice in the classroom. 

What’s this look like? For me, that means recognizing—and communicating to students—that academic language is a white, colonial, elite system of gatekeeping for people in power. It means making space for students to use their full linguistic repertoires in the classroom, to draw upon varieties of spoken and written languages in talk and text. And it means explicitly stating that language is not just linguistic in nature; it’s always entangled with visual, sonic, spatial, gestural, affective, and embodied communication. 

As a writing instructor, I speak with students on the first day of class about my course’s language policy—shoutout to MarĂ­a Carvajal Regidor for her work in writing this policy, which I’ve tweaked a bit. It appears in full below.

“The ways in which people are socialized into White Mainstream English and Academic English are often violent, damaging processes for multilingual and non-multilingual individuals alike. As such, I’m open to and encouraging of student work that represents or draws upon students’ full linguistic repertoires. That is to say, if you know multiple languages or codes and want to use them—either in written work you submit or verbally in the classroom—I’ll engage your contributions just as seriously as I would engage with more mainstream or academic forms of English. If there’s anything I can do to be more supportive of your language needs, please do speak with me so I can better support you. At any point in the semester, feel free to ask me, either during office hours or in class, about how I’d respond to work that isn’t communicated in ways that are traditionally valued in university spaces.”

I’ve found it important to frame things here in terms of an invitation. Just because students know multiple languages and language varieties doesn’t mean that they necessarily want to use them in a classroom setting. And so creating opportunities for students to possibly take up such practices—on their own terms and in a way that works best for them—can be a productive way of addressing language diversity in teaching situations, at least from a curricular point of view. 

Pedagogically speaking, I often invite students to interrogate their language histories, writing practices, and social identities by writing a critical linguistic autobiography. This assignment asks writers to take stock of the texts and contexts that shaped their language use and to address how their social identities shape how they use language. In the semesters I’ve used this assignment, students have written about affective interconnections between home, school, and Latinx identity; railed against gendered expectations about swearing in profanity-laced reflections; and blended autobiography with poetry in genre-bending mashups. Even for non-Black, non-brown, and non-POC students, this exercise can encourage students to think critically about how white (language) supremacy impacts dynamics of power when it comes to class, gender, sexuality, ability, and the manifold ways language is policed by others.

I’ll move to wrapping up here by returning to the issue of non-linguistic language as noted above. When we think of writing and language, English alphabetic text often comes to mind. But we’re always communicating beyond words—with image, talk, sound, movement, gesture, and affectively. Even though these forms of communication are critical in everyday life, they often go unrecognized as essential meaning-making practices. Such communicative practices are even more invalidated when performed by Black and brown populations (see Adam Banks and Geneva Smitherman) and disabled populations (see Melanie Yergeau) as well as other multiply minoritized people. 

So if we want to better enact linguistic justice, we not only need to address white supremacy through discussions of language diversity but we’ve also got to push back on narrow, restrictive notions of language, literacy, and writing—the likes of which exclude a host of rich, communicative practices. One of my former colleagues, Katherine Flowers, employs a language policy similar to the one discussed above that invites students to compose their work in whatever modalities (visual, sonic, etc.) that make the most sense for their project’s aims. Such a move both grants students the chance to critically think through what languages and modes will help them accomplish what they’re hoping to accomplish. When I’ve taken this approach in my own teaching, students have created final projects that I’d never have even thought of, texts as communicatively diverse and imaginative as choreographed dances and 3D-printed objects. So how we regulate the modes in which we communicate, too, is also a matter of linguistic justice.

Historians as well as other humanists already have the classroom tools for students to contribute their own knowledge or experience, and many of us have realized how much allowing students to do so invigorates a room full of thinkers. Consider how sparkling class discussions become when a student contributes unique knowledge of a source. In a discussion from this past semester on a selection of the Padma Purana, one of my students used his personal experience with the larger text not only to give the class additional context, but in doing so shed light on how the source was interpreted in the modern day as well as when the text was written. It became a living document in a way that I did not have the ability to make it. We encourage students to bring in their experiences frequently, or at least, we should-- their experience of language should be no different. 

Depending on your degree of teaching experience as well as what field you’re in, these steps toward teaching for linguistic justice might seem small or overwhelming, possible or inconceivable. In trying these strategies on, hopefully we can inch closer to a more just world—in our classroom and beyond.

Related Links:

A Pedagogy of Translanguaging offers some basic principles of translanguaging in classrooms of any level and discipline. 
For more on neurodivergent and neurotypical communication, Melanie Yergeau’s article from Disability Studies Quarterly examines these in the genre of the typical autism essay. 
Christina V. Cedillo’s “What Does It Mean to Move?: Race, Disability, and Critical Embodiment Pedagogy” is an excellent article that discusses connections between race, language, and neurodivergence.
Carmen Kynard’s website provides a range of scholarship, pedagogical resources, and commentary on race, writing, and teaching.
(Sub)title Talk: What Price Glory?

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Flashback Post: Teaching Without Teaching

I'll be heading to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in a couple of days for a roundtable I've organized on graduate and early career pedagogy. My contribution to the discussion was inspired by this post from earlier this year, so I'm reposting it here. If you're at the conference this year, we'll be Friday at 3:30 pm in the Riverside Ballroom at the Sheraton--come by and hear how these ideas have developed, hear from experienced teachers, and share your own concerns and solutions. 

An empty classroom.

While (crankily, reluctantly) sitting down to figure out what to compose this blog post about, I just desperately resorted to making a list of all the teaching related things I'd done this semester. While I was doing so, I realized that this semester served as an interesting reflection of a subject I am theoretically already supposed to be brainstorming about: ways to improve your teaching even while not teaching. I touched a bit on my intention to do so in my New Year's post, so we might as well check up on how I'm getting along!

In the history PhD program at UIUC, we often have the opportunity to teach quite a bit. However, many programs don't have such options-- because they have fewer undergraduates, different department cultures, etcetera, and even here there are people who end up only teaching for a year or a semester during their degree. So how does one accrue teaching experience-- you know, that little thing that is likely to make up a portion of many jobs one gets with a history PhD? How do you write a teaching statement if you haven't taught much and haven't had the opportunity to develop a practice-based teaching philosophy? These things I only came to after teaching, to know that they were useful and would have been useful even if I hadn't had the chance to teach, so I hope that collecting a few suggestions here will be useful to those of you who may be wondering about these questions.

First, times without teaching can be a great time to work on requirements for whatever teaching-related certificates you may be eligible to get. I completed my Graduate Teaching Certificate this semester, in part because I finally had some time to look through old evaluations and notes and write the reflections required. However, the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning has a variety of other certificate options which require less teaching, so look at your local offerings-- you may be able to get a teaching certificate based on study of pedagogy even if you don't get the chance to put theory into practice during your career as a student.

Non-teaching semesters and summers can also be great times to attend lectures or join in discussion groups or workshops on teaching. In a very on-brand move, I participated in our department's Reacting to the Past workshop, both as a panelist talking about my experience implementing the pedagogy and as King Louis XVI in a quick round of the French Revolution game. Many workshops such as this are available to you whether you have plans to teach using the techniques or not-- it’s a great way to learn about things that at best, you may want to incorporate into future teaching, and at worst, you may benefit from being familiar with in a conversation or interview.

I also had the opportunity to aid a few professors this semester by filling in for them in leading class or doing some extra grading. Others I know have had success with taking part-time work grading remotely for courses at other institutions. Again, this is a more comfortable role if you have taught before, but if you have the opportunity, activities of this sort can develop your comfort with speaking to strangers and making grading decisions, with the added benefit of feeling less momentous-- after all, you are setting dynamics for one day, not the entire semester, so the stakes are lower; if you're grading students you are not personally acquainted with, it can be easier to take one piece of work and evaluate it.

I'm carrying my teaching practice into the summer by returning to the Center for Talented Youth in June. This is another handy way of getting teaching experience-- seeking opportunities with high schoolers either locally (Urbana High School, for example, is often looking for tutors) or through programs like CTY. 

I mentioned above that I'm supposed to be thinking about how to practice/improve teaching while currently without a teaching position; this is not just due to my resolutions but also to a recently accepted roundtable I've organized for the 2020 American Historical Association meeting. I'll plan to speak more on this topic in this graduate teaching roundtable, so if you're attending, I hope you'll stop in.

How do you work on teaching while not teaching? I'd love to hear in comments. 

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Plug and Play: Three Teaching Resources I'm Thankful For

Boy with fierce expression pulling pumpkin in wagon
This tot is ready to take on the end of the semester-- are you? Photo by Evelyn Chong from Pexels. 

It's fall break for many of us, but it's also that time of the semester: when our teaching gas tanks are running low. We've used all of our favorite activities,  we feel unprepared to come up with anything novel in the face of mutual exhaustion and test panic, or we are grasping for lecture content and images as we run out of pre-prepared presentations. When all else fails, I fall back most often on these three favorite lifesavers to prep my teaching plans:
  • For any discipline: These active learning activity cards, courtesy of Ava Wolf at the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. We use these as part of our programming on active learning and interactive classroom spaces, and participants never fail to show enthusiasm for these straightforward descriptions of activities. It makes quick discussion planning a snap.
  • The primary source databases at the University of Illinois library. I, like many others, have spent time fruitlessly Googling for images or primary sources on a particular topic, because I KNOW they exist but I CANNOT be bothered to go back to a book or some obscure folder to find them (or-- my favorite-- they were part of some awful proprietary software package that is now unavailable to me). However, I have had much luck in more recent times using these databases to find things that will be useful to me. If you are outside of UIUC these will likely be less accessible, but there may be similar resources available at public or institutional libraries open to you. 
  • The Internet Archive. This is good for everything-- student research, lecture prep. Some favorite sources of mine that are available here:
    • The Oregon Trail-- I used this in my Fiction and the Historical Imagination class and we had fantastic discussions about settler colonialism, gender, and the gamification of history.
    • In the Suburbs-- a 1957 short promo film made by Redbook magazine promoting their ability to successfully target suburban consumers with advertising. Great for discussions of the postwar US, even if you only have time for the first few minutes.
Are there teaching resources that never fail you? Let me know in comments!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Flashback Roundup: Early American Witches

In honor of the season's plethora of pop culture references to witches, here's a roundup of all of my posts on teaching about witchcraft in Early America, with some updates and additional resources. I'd love to hear more about other witchcraft history resources--anywhere, anytime-- in comments!

Syllabizing Salem (originally published April 9, 2018)

I'll be teaching a course next fall under the shell "Fiction and Historical Imagination," which I am using to explore American historical mythologies from Puritan witch trials to the passing of the 19th Amendment. Since I've last written about this project, the title has evolved to "Fictionalizing US History, 1630-1920" and I've begun to try and tackle turning my Course Rationale into a functional syllabus. Today, I want to talk about my process of figuring out where to start and what to start with.

Hopefully this will provide a few items of interest-- to students who might be thinking about taking the course and would like a sneak peek; to anyone looking for readings to assign for courses on Salem or just for their own reading pleasure; or to any instructors wondering, "How do other people find things to assign?" These are not the definitive selections-- I may in the end need to add or subtract based on time, availability, or content-- but this is where I am for now.

Beginnings: A Reaction to Reacting

To set the stage: When I first conceptualized teaching my Reacting to the Past course, Conflict and Unity in American History, the early American setting of the first game we were to play was daunting. I had not previously had much interest in

So, Trial of Anne Hutchinson was an odd match. But I wanted to assign Greenwich Village, 1913, which I had played as part of my Reacting to the Past training, and I wanted to emphasize an aspect of the game that I thought could be easily overlooked in a course that attempted to focus on a narrow time period: the struggle for group definition that occasioned the conflict of the game. The players in Greenwich Village are ultimately struggling not only to decide whether they will support suffragists or labor activists with their time and art; they are also trying to determine what they as a community value. Trial of Anne Hutchinson, set in a vastly different time (the 1620s) and with far different consequences for winners and losers (various implied possibilities including: banishment, divine punishment, social censure), represents at its heart a similar attempt to figure out what parameters defined their group.

To truly appreciate this element of the trial, it was necessary for both the players and I to understand what, precisely, the debate was all about (who is really "saved" by God, and how do we know?), and what motivated the drive to ensure the Massachusetts Bay Colony was spiritually unified. The game materials were handy for providing context about religious debates that preceded the trial, the insecurities about the colony's survival, and the Calvinist convictions which made the unity of the colony a critical matter. In the end, these served their purpose well, and I left both semesters confident that students had, in addition to improving their argumentation skills, gained a greater understanding of some very unfamiliar points of view.

However, Anne Hutchinson and Puritan New England has stuck in my head, partially because I noticed an interesting trend when I discussed the course with people. Whether students on the first day of class or other graduate students, most only dimly recalled Hutchinson (I was unfamiliar with her when I first heard of the game) and thought that perhaps she had been tried for witchcraft. I was intrigued by how the complexity of Puritan religious thought, well expressed by my students in their roles as Governors, Pastors, and Teachers in the colony, has been widely translated to "those witch-burners."

Starting from Fiction

When I began conceptualizing this course, I knew I wanted to build upon the complications we had explored in Trial of Anne Hutchinson. I also knew that I wanted to assign The Witch (2015) as one of our fictional treatments of history. I had wanted to screen clips of the film as part of my Reacting course the previous year, but couldn't quite justify its incorporation. Yet I found the film very reflective of the spritual anxieties articulated by the major players in the Massachusetts Bay Colony: not just a censure of powerful womanhood (although, sure, that) but also a genuine belief that one's community must reflect compliance with divine will and a certainty that the devil did, in fact, exist. I now needed two things:

  • A secondary source which could provide the context to appreciate this aspect of the film
  • A reading which could provide a more traditional view of the witchcraft myth

I cast about for options, using the UIUC library catalog to seek out titles related to the history of witches, witch trials, and colonial America. I found Elizabeth Reis's book Damned Women, contemplated assigning it, and realized that her collection Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America not only contained an abbreviated chapter of her book but also additional readings that might come in handy.

My second task was more obvious: I quickly opted for the quintessential treatment of the witchcraft myth, Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953). Not only is it frequently cited in any discussion of real or figurative "witchhunts," it also represented a different form of fiction, and I wanted to be able to potentially incorporate a discussion of form and performance into the course. I decided to start the course, after introductory materials on source analysis, by delving into this text together.

From here, I wanted to provide some complicating counterpoints to the Salem presented by Miller. First, I knew that I wanted to include discussion of Tituba and the role of race in the Salem mythology. I plan to assign selections of Tituba, Reluctant Witch Of Salem, which attempts to use the sparse historical record to trace Tituba's life story and argue for rethinking both her racial identity and her role in the story of Salem.

Upon doing a little digging, it becomes fairly obvious that Salem's witchcraft trials were far afield of what most witchcraft trials looked like. Paradoxically, because the Salem incident was so unusual, they have been remembered; yet in being the only ones remembered, they have passed as the only available example and thus defined popular understanding of American witch trials. I chose Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 to call attention to this discrepancy. Godbeer focuses on a Connecticut incident which occurred in the same yea, but which unfolded very dissimilarly: if Salem was a "panic," officials' treatment of witch claims in Stamford could best be described as "cautious" (7).


So, below is the current list in order-- next step, assigning each reading to a date!

As you can see, the final order is very different than the order in which I conceived of the sources to use. Obviously, there are tons of other things that one could assign to talk about the American mythology of Salem-- these are just a few of my frontrunners, and not the final word (and I suspect I may need to cut this down a bit!). Likewise, there are other great approaches to figuring out what to assign-- I'd love to hear about yours.

* Yes, I know it's not really an f. No, I won't stop pronouncing it "Congrefs."

Related Links:

An interesting guide to the proper use of the long and short s.
Quite an extensive online archive of Salem sources exists at the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.
A Smithsonian Magazine article on Tituba.
I'm also considering using Veta Smith Tucker's article Purloined Identity: The Racial Metamorphosis of Tituba of Salem Village, from the Journal of Black Studies.


Interested in how scheduling and organization for this section of the course turned out? Check out my Fiction and the Historical Imagination syllabus. 

Time Travel and Crucible Critique (originally published September 5, 2018)

A shot of the original production of The Crucible, from

It's Week 2 of the semester, and History 365 is now in full swing. In this course, in addition to seminar style discussions, weekly response papers, and a final project, I'm using various creative projects to encourage students to make connections between the historical fictions we're reading and other primary and secondary sources of the eras under study. Today I debuted an activity which asks students to step into one of three perspectives and work together to argue about The Crucible's relevance to the experiences of their group.

How do you solve a problem like Arthur Miller?

I have to admit that I was stuck on what to do with The Crucible for a while. I knew that I wanted to include it as a starting point for our discussion of witchcraft and religion in colonial New England, as so many people's ideas about the topic and the period are already informed by the work. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to read and discuss it in class, so that we would all have a basis for understanding this influential portrayal of the Salem trials. I knew also that it was long enough that it would be difficult to pair with the longer companion texts in the section for a comparative discussion-- I didn't want to have it due the same day as Escaping Salem or The Witch so that we could compare the two immediately. It would not only be more reading than was reasonable for one day but also rush the discussion of both, leaving us little time to get to some of the smaller details. It would have to be the subject of a few days of discussion before getting to these newer texts.

Knowing this was the case, I still couldn't figure out what to do with The Crucible. As performance of a theatrical work can be an important part of its interpretation, I toyed with the idea of having students produce scenes from the work, with one as a dramaturg, one as a director, some as actors, etcetera. Perhaps pairing it with a performance of a HUAC trial transcript. But although I could see the potential value of doing this, I couldn't see my way into or out of it-- I couldn't make it make sense for this class and the kind of intellectual engagement with the text I wanted to encourage.

I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep in under half an hour for once when the solution finally came to me, as these things so often do. I had assigned the Christopher Bigsby introduction to the Penguin edition for the week before the actual play was due, and when I went back to consider it again I found a great deal which seemed delightfully questionable. No statement was so ripe for critique as that which came near the end of the piece, in which Bigsby claims that "the play's success now owes little to the political and social context in which it was written." Such a claim echoes the widespread interest in declaring this particular work as well as most other well-regarded literature as somehow good because they capture a universal humanity, a transcendence of context. How could I encourage students to avoid this mentality, which sounds very nice but is useless for an appreciation of history?

The Project: Time-Travelers and The Crucible

The conceit of the project I ended up designing is this:

In a mysterious and poetic quirk of fate, two groups of 1690s Puritans from Salem, Massachusetts AND two groups of Hollywood writers targeted by HUAC in the 1940s and 50s have been transported forward in time to the modern day. As coincidence would have it, they have landed in the midst of a conference of historians of race and gender who are analyzing The Crucible. In this project, you and your group will analyze Miller’s play in light of your particular viewpoint and come up with a plan to present your experiences to one another and to the curious world in a press conference.

In this project, students are in one of six groups. (For a smaller class, three could easily be used-- my class is too big to have only three groups).

  • Groups 1 and 2: 1690s Puritans who lived through the trials. They are tasked with answering the question: Does this play reflect our experience and values?
  • Groups 3 and 4: Targets of HUAC in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood. They investigate whether this play speaks to their experiences as suspected Hollywood Communists.
  • Groups 5 and 6: Modern day historians of race and gender. They have a more removed task, contemplating whether Miller’s play is more reflective of 1690’s ideas on race and gender, 1950s ideas of race and gender, or some combination of the two.

Each group confers with one another to consider Miller's work in relation to "their" experiences and interests. They create a 5-7 minute presentation, using evidence from the play and other sources provided, such as lecture, primary documents such as selections from Puritan sermons and HUAC trial transcripts, and secondary literature. They took the class period to work on this, and are free (but not required) to work on this outside of class as well. On Friday, they will present their conclusions to the group.

Project sheets and rubric are here.


I am pleasantly surprised to see how well the class has taken to the activity so far. I was a bit worried it would be confusing and I would get a lot of questions about the details of the project. In reality, many of the questions I got were complex historical ones about relationships between ideologies and actions in the Puritan context. From observations I made walking around the room, most of the class seemed to come to the questions and ideas I wanted to encourage, considering issues of race, religion, gender, enslavement, historical interpretation, and the nature of experience in relation to the texts. The questions and arguments raised in this section will serve as a nice platform to build upon for the final week of inquiry into the mythological role that Salem and the concept of colonial witchcraft trials have played in US historical memory.

Related Links:

Some of the sources I provided include the HUAC transcripts of Paul Robeson and John Howard Lawson; Gretchen Adams, "The Specter of Salem in American Culture," from the OAH Magazine of History, July 2003; and selections of John Winthrop's A Modell of Christian Charity; "Regulating Sexuality in the Anglo-American Colonies," from Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality; Elaine Breslaw's Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem; Steven J. Ross, Movies and American Society.


Interested in how to make this activity work on a more individual level, or help students who miss a day to catch up? I also created a project sheet for making up this activity.

Making a Course You Love (originally published June 18, 2018)

I've talked before about being a proponent of giving students an excuse to spend time on something that interests them, having relished those opportunities during my own education. There are so many obligations which face students that they must prioritize, and wrapping some freedom of choice into assignments allows them to reflect on what sorts of things they might be intellectually passionate about. Today I want to talk about the flip side of this concept-- instructors and the freedom they have to steer the content of a course toward things that pique their interest.

An empty page for only me to fill! Should I hold the light bulb over my head, or...

I've been prepping on and off for the last few months for my fall course, Fiction and the Historical Imagination. It's a fun one to organize not only because I'm always interested in how history is portrayed in fiction-- for this iteration of the course, I'm examining popular mythologies and narratives about American history in a variety of fictional sources from theatre to video games-- but because it's enabled me to expand on some topics and questions I've already taught in a much more limited sphere. Only semi-intentionally, this course positions itself roughly within the same time periods as my Reacting to the Past course. It begins with Massachusetts Puritans-- albeit to talk about the Salem witch trials in 1692-1693 rather than the Anne Hutchinson trial in the 1630s. And it ends in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, arguably the paramount goal of the Suffrage faction in Greenwich Village, 1913. So in many ways, it's as if I'm coming at much of this material backwards in planning this course. First, I helped two groups of students live the history; now I and a new group will together delve into the background, the historiography, and the popular memory which surrounds and bridges these two events.

It’s a great opportunity to incorporate the knowledge I have gained from the games into a (slightly) more conventional seminar-style course. Not only do the names and dates associated with these periods come more naturally to me than ever before, but also an appreciation of the humanity, subjectivity, and tendentiousness of historical moments that Reacting emphasizes. I feel I have a grasp on some critical theological ideas of Puritan life that I might not have appreciated without having led students to those realization in the Anne Hutchinson game. One of my former students commented that she had come into the course thinking the Puritans were nonsensical people, but that the game had given her an understanding of their priorities. It's also helping to me envision a future course that marries both approaches; for example, a deep dive into the Puritans which incorporates both the Salem material and the Anne Hutchinson trial.

The difficult part, as always, is transmitting knowledge and appreciation in an effective way to a new group. I know I will want to refer to the events of the games (much as I always make popular culture references in class that only two people understand), and being that there are only a couple of repeat customers I will have to restrain myself!

Tailoring a course to something you'd like to talk about in this way offers a lot of fun options, but it also threatens some pitfalls. Many of us, I'm sure, have taken or heard of courses that were clearly serving only the instructors' interests and not those of the proposed themes. How do we lean into the freedom to shape a course we're excited about without ignoring the needs of the course as a whole?

I don't claim to have all the answers-- hey, this is my first time doing something quite like this!-- but here's the general rules I've tried to make for myself in this process:

  • Lean into joy rather than expertise-- that is, try for a course that emphasizes the things you think are really interesting rather than the very specific thing you are personally studying. These can of course overlap, but enthusiasm draws in people who might not care about the topic, whereas no amount of encyclopedic knowledge on children's hospitals during the Depression era can convince folks to stay in your course past the drop date.
  • Related: Try not to be completely self-serving-- if something helps you with your reading to-do list, your prep for a conference, or just saves you time because you already have a lecture for that, consider whether it also serves the course well. There are many things I've considered incorporating that I've just had to cut because they weren't quite pulling their weight for my overall goals (but, okay, I'm still working on it).
  • Don’t hesitate to embrace the new/fun-sounding-- if you have the time, try to break out of what you've done before and use new resources-- you might find things you never knew existed. For this course, I decided to use Valiant Hearts: The Great War as a fictional source to discuss US involvement in World War I. This decision led me to learn of the Gaming Initiative and try out the Gaming Center at the Undergraduate Library, as well as learning the game had iPhone and Android versions. Now that I know that those things exist, how they work, and who to talk to about them, I can not only use them with greater ease in the future but also refer students to those resources and describe how to use them.
  • Related: Don’t embrace the new/fun just because it's new/fun-sounding-- this is particularly true for online materials, which bill themselves as being the newest most fun millennial/Gen Z appealing way to learn but in reality are often poorly structured and frustrating to both the computer unsavvy and the technology buff. If you don't have time to test the new thing and see if it's actually helpful, the old books/primary sources/paper copies/presentation styles are just fine.

You'll notice a pattern here-- there's a middle ground that I'm aiming for, a happy marriage of all the considerations of structure, effort, enthusiasm, knowledge. A balance between knowing and discovering which brings vibrancy to a group discussion of ideas-- which is, after all, what a seminar is at its base.

Do you have any tips for using intellectual interests to power a course?

The First Church in Northampton, MA (originally published October 23, 2017)

Sign outside of church, Northampton, MA. A link to the sign's text can be found here.

Being in Northampton is wonderful because one is surrounded by women of all ages who seem both smarter and more fashionable than you, and yet somehow it is motivating and not discouraging. Hence it was a little jarring to come upon this sign reminding me of the Trial of Anne Hutchinson, a Reacting to the Past Game I taught in my classes last year which, despite the title, features no women as playable characters --as a General Court of the period would not have contained any women. (See this post from the OAH blog for a description of both Reacting and The Trial of Anne Hutchinson by Mark Carnes, co-author of the Hutchinson game and Reacting Consortium Executive Director.)

In this game, it's 1637, and a variety of men of the Massachusetts Bay Colony have gathered to determine whether or not Anne Hutchinson, local religious thinker and midwife, should be banished from the colony. Her crime? Well, that's sort of complicated. Were I to tell you much more, I would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that those who have played the game come to a variety of conclusions about the charges and her guilt or innocence of them (but no, she's not a witch-- though some of these same Puritans' relatives will also be involved in the Salem Witch trials toward the end of the century. Puritan life was rife with religio-legal drama).

John Cotton plays a critical role in this game-- a noncommittal teacher whom all look up to, both pro and anti-Anne members of the General Court want to win his favor. Cotton is also in a precarious position within the conflict, not wishing to abandon any of his admirers or to upset the power players on the General Court. Historically, Anne is banished; Cotton escapes unscathed, becoming more conservative over the rest of his life. I give these historical details and more in the postmortem to the game (facts about the fate of their character which any student could look up were they inclined, so I'm not giving away any trade secrets here). During this postmortem, a clear theme emerges-- these people, and their descendants, have their mitts all over American history, especially on the East Coast. John Winthrop, Governor and main authority in the General Court, is perhaps the most famous example-- still quoted by a wide variety of politicians, he originated the "cittie on a hill" phraseology which has inspired many American-exceptionalist ideas. His son founded Connecticut and John Kerry is one of his notable descendents.

John Cotton has similarly notable descendents, particularly Cotton Mather, John Cotton's grandson who is known for his New England ministry and his historical writing (and, those darn Salem Witch Trials again!) This sign brings in another connection-- Eleazar Mather, cousin of Cotton Mather, was Northampton's first minister.

This tidbit suggests the reach of some of these families, a stark contrast to the way you meet them in the game. Despite some of their achievements and connections, or their apparent control over the colony, the colonists of Massachusetts Bay in 1637 are a small group in a tenuous position-- they're afraid of England; of attack by local Pequots, with whom they've recently warred; of sin, which lives within themselves; of one another, whose indiscretions threaten to bring down the wrath of God or England upon all of them.

Another connection to the problems and aftermath of the Hutchinson trial is the "Halfway Covenant" promoted by this church's second minister, Solomon Stoddard.

Previously, to join Puritan churches, parishioners had to stand before the assembly and tell them how they came to know that they were part of the elect few who were saved. During the Anne Hutchinson game, a third of the students play the roles of newcomers to the colony, who have to be admitted to the church before they can vote on the Anne matter in the General Court or pursue their own individual goals effectively. They do so through their comportment, the hope that no one can discredit them, and, most importantly, writing and presenting a conversion narrative. As illustrated by Hutchinson's case, the churches' main concern was restricting membership to "visible saints" who were definitely elect.

For example, here's John Winthrop's conversion narrative. Note the detailed chronological retelling of one's life experiences; the confession of one's sins; changing behavior as evidence of becoming sanctified ("the great change which God had wrought in me", pp 6) and yet the lasting struggle with sin ("continual conflicts between the flesh and the spirit", pp 12); yet, ultimately, assurance that he is elect ("when I have been put to it by any sudden danger or fearful temptation, the good spirit of the Lord hath not failed to bear witness to me, giving me comfort, and courage in the very pinch", pp12).

Fast forwarding thirty years or so, the exclusivity of the church resulted in reduced membership and thus a reduced power over public life. The Halfway Covenant allowed children of church members to be baptized into it (though as only "half," not full, members) without having had a conversion experience. This would increase church membership and address the issues that arose with second and third generations of Puritans, who wanted their children baptized within the church but often lacked a dramatic conversion to share. John Wilson, Pastor of the Boston Church at the time of the Hutchinson trial, supported the Halfway Covenant when it was proposed-- meaning that the arduous process that immigrants to the colony were forced to go through was downgraded in importance for the children of baptized members.

Why is this interesting? The church and sign showcases the reach of ideas and families across space and time (and suggests the familial ties between different New England cities), and illustrates the way a single place can echo to a variety of disparate, nationally relevant ideas.

Questions? Comments? Send them my way!

Related links:

Description of the Anne Hutchinson game on the Reacting site.
Winthrop's narrative at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Winthrop's journal at