Writing Histories of Witchcraft in a Pandemic
The Power of Publishing Student Writing Online
On March 1, 1692, 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard testified to the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem that Sarah Good cast a spell on her that caused an agonizing illness. Hubbard claimed that Good “did also most grievously afflict and torture me,” and snuck into her house at night “bare foot and bare legged” where she “did most grievously torment me by pricking and pinching.” The mysterious symptoms, the court decided, had been committed through Good’s supposed contract with the Devil. Marginalized by a community fractured over bickering and in-fighting, the court found Good guilty. For students in my Witchcraft and Magic in American History class, primary documents, like Hubbard’s testimony, have always illuminated the lived experience of the Salem trials and how people in the 17th century navigated unexpected misfortune. Records shed light on their fears and aspirations, religious beliefs, gender roles, and, most importantly, why certain groups of people have been targeted for trespassing outside the constructed social boundaries of the community. In the wake of COVID-19 and its required “pivot to digital,” I saw an opportunity to extend my students’ understanding of these issues by rethinking their writing assignments.
Last spring, when COVID-19 forced my campus to go fully remote, I embraced the chance to have new possibilities for my online classes. As the pandemic led universities, museums, and historic sites to expand their operations in a virtual space, I suddenly found myself in the enviable position of having many more resources available for classroom use than I did before. These resources inspired me to create a new assignment for my students: an essay where they could write for a public audience on the connections between witchcraft, fear, and the pandemic, while utilizing online collections and new distribution platforms.
I have taught a version of this course four times. Three of those times I delivered the courses entirely online, either as a condensed three-week winter session or as a six-week summer “witch camp,” as my advisor affectionately describes the course. Whether teaching online or face to face, I expect my students to consider a variety of historical sources for credibility and craft well-supported arguments based on their research.
In the past, students have written essays that address the origins of witch-hunting, the Salem trials, and gender in colonial New England. This summer, I decided to augment that assignment with an optional public writing assignment, which I saw as a unique opportunity for students to connect contemporary crises with the psychological tensions that produced witch-hunting. Students worked with me and the team behind Crisis & Catharsis, a new digital humanities initiative run by the Stony Brook University History Department, to write for a wider audience.
When COVID-19 forced my campus to go fully remote, I embraced the chance to have new possibilities for my online classes.
Crisis & Catharsis, a multimedia site run on Stony Brook’s blogging platform, “was created in response to our current global crisis.” Using podcasts, blogs, virtual exhibitions, and essays, Crisis & Catharsis explores how people have “persevered through periods of great adversity.” Keeping this mission in mind, I encouraged my students to frame their papers around how colonial witchcraft trials, gender restrictions, and legal persecution helped them understand challenges that we face today. Our discussions connected fear of the unknown and the rigid hierarchies of the colonial world to contemporary issues like the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and debates over who decides what histories are important
Organizing the class around producing articles for Crisis & Catharsis helped us focus our analysis of colonial social divisions and to rethink the enduring legacies of persecution, marginalization, and, most importantly, fear. Ultimately, the fear of witchcraft—and the harm caused by the Devil who stalked their godly villages—caused neighbors to point their fingers in accusation. This message resonated with students during a time period characterized by uncertainty and the rapid politicization of the virus, mask-wearing, and quarantine.
After using the Crisis & Catharsis materials in class, I encouraged my students to draft a version of their final essay appropriate for that outlet. Unlike the typical paper—in which students receive a grade, feedback, and then move on from the assignment—my students and I got to work together as colleagues, workshopping their essays for a public audience long after they submitted the papers. Of the seven students who agreed to participate in this optional assignment, five ended up submitting fully revised drafts to the series. Most of them incorporated content from their own personal or educational backgrounds, including psychology, gender studies, creative writing, and folklore analysis.
What began as “just” an assignment became the production of historical knowledge during a time of great instability.
The class already met asynchronously, so the entire workshopping process took place remotely through Zoom meetings and emails. While working remotely may present technological challenges, students developed new strategies to tackle assignments, fine-tuning their arguments through discussion forums and collaborating with the editors of Crisis & Catharsis to help their analysis connect to contemporary issues. In the process of revising their essays, I witnessed them shift their thinking about writing. What began as “just” an assignment became the production of historical knowledge during a time of great instability. The project also pushed me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to re-think how I provided feedback using new technology, such as recorded interactive lectures and workshopping essays via Zoom.
The series, published weekly from August through September, was collected under the heading “Witchcraft & Crises in the Early Modern Atlantic.” The students’ articles tackled complex topics that connected their research about 17th-century witchcraft to the current moment, such as the gendered narratives of witch-hunting and religious responses to crisis. Moreover, they experienced the publication process. They worked with the Crisis & Catharsis editorial team, choosing images for their pieces, chasing down citations, and thinking of their essays as a product that would inform people about the supernatural in American history.
Partnering with a digital humanities initiative provided my students with a creative outlet to think historically about current crises and communicate their thoughts about them in writing. The model of collaborating with an established digital humanities project was so successful that I am looking for opportunities to incorporate it into other courses. By building opportunities for students to write for the general public and supporting them as they develop that skill, we help them develop skills they can take to the workplace long after they leave the classroom.
Richard Tomczak is a history PhD candidate at Stony Brook University.
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