Putting Theory in Action in the Classroom


Women on Trial: Exploring the History of American Women Through Criminal Trials

[cp_dropcaps]F[/cp_dropcaps]or my final project for Dr. Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age course, I created a 200-300 level course women’s history in America, which incorporates three major theoretical contributions from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning:

  1. “Uncoverage” and using consistency and patterns in assignments by Lendol Calder,
  2. Historical thinking by Sam Wineburg, and
  3. Kelly’s own thoughts on teaching using digital technology.

The Topic

Using the periodization put forth by Linda Kerber, et al, in their textbook Women’s America: Refocusing the Past,  I divided the history of America into four major sections for this course: ((Gerda Lerner suggested the writing of women’s history can be arranged in these four stages of development, each stage more complex and sophisticated than the last))

  • 1600-1820: Early America –> The Salem Witch Trials
  • 1820-1880: The Many Frontiers of Industrializing America –> The Trial of Laura D. Fair
  • 1880-1945: Creating the State in an Industrialized Nation –> The Trial and Execution of Virginia Christian
  • 1945-2010: Struggles Against Injustice –> The Trial of Cheryl Crane

Within each major section, I chose one sensational trial involving at least one woman. The goal is to then “read out” context and content from each of these trials to explore changes in roles of women and anxieties about those changes. I hope to examine women’s public and private experiences in American society, and explore the social and cultural anxieties of American life by using various primary and secondary source materials about the trials and the surrounding topics.

My logic was to begin the course with a very well-documented set of trials–the Salem Witch Trials–to help students understand the bounds of trial evidence and the possibilities for good scholarly writing. Each subsequent trial is considerably less well-documented. So by the time we get to Cheryl Crane, students must use their new skills to help them make sense of the scarce resources that are actually available. Moreover, my hope is that they will have learned how to judge online resources as scholarly or not. (The Crane case is notoriously and comfortably enmeshed in the realm of Hollywood Reporter, People Magazine, and TruTV.)

The Underlying Theories

I was drawn to Lendol Calder’s writings on “Uncoverage,” specifically his argument that in order to teach more, you need to teach less content. By choosing only four trials, I was forced to make hard choices about the content to cover from each. The brutal reality is that I could teach an entire course on any one of these trials. In order to cover them all, I made hard choices about which anxieties or beliefs to cover from each. For example, while I cover lynching and Progressive Era anti-lynching campaigns in the Virginia Christian case, I do not adequately cover the National Association of Colored Women or their involvement in (unsuccessfully) getting Christian’s sentence commuted. However, my hope is that by covering less, I’m asking my students to think more and practice doing the work of an actual historian.

Calder structures his course with repetition of activities and a clear pattern of assignments to help provide a solid framework for his students. I believe this to be incredibly powerful for the students, so I adapted it to fit my course content. You’ll see that the main content of my course covers four modules, each lasting three weeks. The first week in each is devoted to analyzing evidence. I begin with evidence to help unsettle students in the notion that they will not start with the complete picture of the “facts” of the case–that is something they will have to earn by reading and uncovering it as they go. The second week provides some context so that they can understand the issues raised by the evidence. The third week covers the scholarship on the topics we covered in the first two weeks.

Sam Wineburg has written extensively on the skills that constitute Historical Thinking. Both he and Calder specifically mention six skills that make up historical thinking, and I would argue good critical thinking in general: questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, and recognizing limits to one’s knowledge. My overarching goal with the course is to teach these skills while teaching students to understand specific elements of women’s history in America.

Lastly, the course has a heavy digital element. As I was creating the course, I bounced between two extremes in using digital tools; I either expected  the students to just know how to create history with digital technology or I turned the course into a digital methods class. Thus, I tried to strike a balance by asking students to do both digital and analog assignments, while giving them the option to do a digital or multi-media project for the final, if they are so inclined. The bulk of the work in the course is dedicated to finding and/or using online primary sources. In fact, I’m proud to report that ALL of the primary source materials used in this class are available online. Mills Kelly argues that the future of teaching history lies in the “making, marking, mining, and mashing” that students do online already. I tried to provide some structure to help students make sense of online documents while also teaching them how to discern good from bad information online. For example, two of the assignments deal specifically with Wikipedia entries on the trials. In one, I ask students to evaluate the entry based on the information covered in the course and in another, I ask students how they’d edit an entry.

Then again, I could do an entire course on Wikipedia and editing entries. Another time, another course perhaps.

Managing the Uglier Side of Historic Research

Immersing yourself in 19th century crime, death, autopsies, forensics, and executions can make you forget that you’re actually studying people. Who died. Violently. Often painfully. And before they were “supposed” to.

I often liken it to the gallows humor that homicide detectives, FBI agents, medical examiners, and first responders all tend to develop. When you witness the worst of human nature, I’m told you come up with ways to cope. I readily admit, I am neither homicide detective nor medical examiner; I am a historian. And all historians are supposed to keep a healthy distance from our subjects. If we can remain objective, can we also keep the human element? (With all due respect to Peter Novick, I don’t think  objectivity is entirely dead.) Can we empathize enough to find the heart–the humans–in the narrative? Can we disassociate ourselves from the nastier side of human history to find a broader meaning in how we got here?

This semester, I’m working on a database project for one of my classes. That database happens to contain all (well, a majority) of the sanctioned executions in the United States. I really just started and until today, the “data” had been a series of meaningless numbers attached to names and dates. Today, I undertook a massive “normalization” project wherein I took those numbers that had no meanings and applied meanings to them. For example, using the data dictionary (the handy document that usually accompanies large data sets,) I changed all the 1’s in the “crime” column to “murder,” as that is the crime that that particular integer represents. I changed all the 1’s in the “method” column to “hanging,” and so on and so forth. My database has all the typical columns one might find in a collection of historic information–names, ages, places, dates, race, sex. It also contains the type of crimes committed by the executees and how they met their demise. And this is where I paused.

I expected to see murder, rape, kidnapping, witchcraft, piracy, even horse thieving. I wasn’t prepared for the other crimes in the database, such as “aiding a runaway slave,” “concealing birth,” or “slave revolt.” I’m not naive. I know these things happened and I know that people were punished for doing them. It’s one thing to know they were punished, it’s quite another to know that the state sanctioned execution for these crimes. When you put these crimes next to someone’s name and realize that helping another human being find freedom cost a man his life. With one click of the mouse, the reality of the sacrifices made by some in the name of others hit me. And I wasn’t prepared for it.

The methods of execution were just as troubling. Integrated among the hangings, lethal injections, and electrocutions were pressing, gibbetting, burning, death by firing squad, and breaking on a wheel. Breaking on a wheel is a particularly horrific brand of torture from the Middle Ages. In this case, between 1712 and 1754, in French-controlled Louisiana and New York, eight African-Americans and four white men were “broken” on the wheel.

History is messy. And often gut-wrenching.

I was told by several of my advisers that undertaking this type of project would be emotionally difficult at times. One told me of a colleague and friend who studies historical cases of suicide and how she manages during those times when she has to record and analyze particularly explicit primary sources. As I dive deeper and deeper into the line of inquiry that I’ve chosen, I’ll have to come up with my own methods to cope with the messiness.

I can only hope that my studies of crime, particularly by women and children, and their resulting acquittals or punishments will help shed some light on our past, on our shifting concepts of “reasonable doubt,” and hopefully, how these concepts affect the issues we face today. That’s my goal. Until then, I’ll endeavor to find that healthy balance of objectivity AND humanity that seems to coexist effortlessly in the professionals I hope to emulate.