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Teaching Atlantic History in the Time of Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter

Robin Hermann
University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Professors in the humanities agree on very little, but our collective weariness of the regular calls by Washington Post 1 and Inside Higher Ed 2 op-ed writers, to say nothing of state governments,3 to “justify” our existence and funding by making our disciplines and fields of study “relevant” must be virtually universal. Sometimes after reading the latest version of “make the humanities relevant again” I wonder how long it has been since one of these columnists or politicians took a course, or attended a class, in the humanities, where, on our good days, we provide our students with the tools and occasions to make the connections between our subject and the world they live in. In fact, my primary challenge when teaching the early modern period is not to somehow make it relevant—students are eager to locate modernity’s origins in the early modern past—but to remain true to the period’s alterity without losing sight of the roots of the modern. Such was my plan for my spring 2020 upper-division history course, “Slavery and Freedom in the Early Modern Atlantic World.” As most of us who teach this kind of course do, I began just before the Portuguese first ventured into the Atlantic, and planned to conclude with the Atlantic revolutions and abolition. I hoped that by the end of the semester, our discussions about colonialism, witch-hunts, global commerce, and slavery would have afforded the students some new and valuable insights about the roots of many of our modern problems. As I discuss below, remote delivery challenged me on many levels, but it also gave me numerous opportunities to demonstrate how the history of the early modern Atlantic directly shaped our present moment and unlocked forces whose foul harvest we continue to reap. Any class that devotes weeks to slavery, the slave trade, and the plantation complex will probably always be relevant in America’s Gulf South, but I had no way of knowing when I began the class how the novel coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement would converge soon after its end. My now-former students reached out to me to talk about how they could now connect Black Lives Matter to the early modern world. I believe they were able to do this, in part, because the transition to remote delivery had forced me to create a new course structure that increased students’ agency and investment in the class.

Ever since I began “remote delivery” of my courses (with four days’ notice!) the aphorism that I keep coming back to is not “this too shall pass” or “may you live in interesting times,” but Wilde’s “when the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.”4 I had opened the first lecture of the semester talking about the Black Death, setting the stage for Europe’s exploration of the Atlantic basin; one of our last classes before moving to remote instruction and learning discussed the Columbian exchange and the “virgin-soil” epidemic that decimated the indigenous population of the Americas. Two weeks later, the class read and responded to J. R. McNeil’s excellent and revelatory “Yellow Jack and Geopolitics,” which compares Yellow Jack to SARS in the first paragraph!5 As several of my students pointed out at the time, reading that article, which had been on the syllabus since the beginning of the semester, two weeks into distance learning during a global pandemic was a profoundly surreal, yet instructive, experience.6 It does not usually require a lot of work in the classroom to convey the horror of the bubonic plague, smallpox, or yellow fever; but this semester, of course, discussions of the havoc an unknown and seemingly unknowable disease could wreak on society were all too urgent, visceral, and relevant. As we all struggled through the constraints of “remote delivery,” we could apprehend perhaps more keenly the early modern experience of a world quickly and irrevocably changed by disease.

As we all learned, very quickly, such massive changes in the world necessitated profound pedagogical changes to our classrooms. When I first began teaching at the collegiate level in 1997, technology in the classroom still meant slide projectors. To say I am leery of educational technology is an understatement, and the learning curve in that first week of remote delivery was steep. I replaced our class meetings with asynchronous learning “modules” because I wanted my students to be able to listen to the lectures, complete the readings, and answer the module questions on a pace and schedule that would work for them (within some constraints).7 Before the transition to remote delivery our class had met for two seventy-five minute meetings per week. Therefore I tried each week, at roughly the time of our regularly scheduled class, to post two PowerPoint slideshows with my narration embedded in each slide, and to try and keep each within the normal timeframe of a face-to-face class.8 As soon as I posted the PowerPoint, I next posted a variety of primary and secondary sources to the course management software for the students to read, and four questions per module for the students to answer. The module questions required them to engage with all the material posted, and also encouraged them to make connections not just between the readings for that week but also the material and context of what had come before. Students were responsible for both modules during the week and to demonstrate how well they had retained the information in those modules with detailed answers (always due on the Sunday after the modules had been posted on Monday and Wednesday) to a set of questions about the lectures and readings. There were thirty students in the class, which to my Luddite mind was too many for a Zoom meeting; I interacted with them instead mostly through my weekly written responses to their module answers. I spent most of my Monday responding to their answers, describing in detail the strengths and weaknesses of their answers. If their answers were insufficient, I gave them the opportunity to review the material in the module and attempt the questions again.

Although I now realize that this kind of workload is perhaps untenable for the future, should campus remain closed in the fall, there are elements of this structure I wish to retain. Most of our junior-level upper-division classes are capped at thirty to forty students in normal times, which makes class discussions manageable but not optimal. With that many students, it is simply not possible for all of them to make meaningful contributions in a regular class session. I thus opt for written assignments and tests to assess how many students are doing the reading. In a regular 300-level class, I assign two written essays, three take-home exams, and about sixty pages a week of reading for in-class discussion. Before our campus shut down, however, I had also noticed that even the brightest students, who usually did do the reading, struggled with early modern texts, precisely because of the alterity of the period. Our face-to-face discussion, for example, of the tensions in New England Puritan communities, as visible in John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” and the 1637 examination of Anne Hutchinson foundered as much on early modern vocabulary, grammar, and style as it did on Winthrop and Hutchinson’s differing understanding of Calvinist religiosity.9 In part this is my fault: I divided each of our classes roughly in half between lecture and discussion, and to try and contextualize early modern Puritanism enough to make Winthrop make sense in that time is, in retrospect, ill-advised. After we made the transition to remote delivery, there was simply more time for the students to process the material. I have provided in the appendix the questions they had to complete in the module about the Salem witch trials. Arguably this module is more challenging than the Winthrop selection, but I know from corresponding with them that because they were able to process the lecture and the readings at their own pace, many of them achieved a deeper and richer understanding of, for example, Cotton Mather’s “Enchantments Encountr’d” than they had with Winthrop and Hutchinson and grasped how the early modern conception of the Americas as the Devil’s territory shaped the events at Salem.10 I also wanted them to be able to make connections between specific historical events such as the Salem witch trials and the larger context of Atlantic history, as the appendix indicates. I used the module questions to ask not just specific questions about the material immediately at hand but also to encourage them to think about the links between the modules. Our first module after the transition to remote delivery covered King Philip’s War, and our second covered Salem. I wanted them to see the two as discrete events but also as part of a larger narrative of Anglo-American empire building. To help the students feel slightly less overwhelmed and to make those connections, we talked throughout the six weeks of remote delivery: over email, and in Teams conversations and Moodle office hours. In all of these conversations I tried to assist them in crafting strong, and capacious, answers. It feels odd to write it, but I genuinely liked reading the students’ responses week after week! After a few weeks of remote delivery, I understood that answering the module questions required far more investment and work on the students’ part than the essays or exams, so I removed one essay and one exam from the syllabus. Students therefore had the opportunity to ask me for help individually or participate in the ongoing conversation among much of the class on Teams. Nearly all of the students produced solid to outstanding work by the end of the semester, because, I think, this structure gave students more agency over the material and the class. They could now choose how, when, and to what extent they engaged with the material, which seemed, in most cases, to heighten their interest and involvement. What I had stumbled upon was a course structure in which students knew that much of their grade depended on their ability to answer the module questions, but they also knew that could revise those questions as often as they needed, with my help. This freedom relieved a lot of the pressure students often feel when faced with exams or essays, and allowed them to approach the strange material without quite so much anxiety. Whenever face-to-face instruction resumes, I very much want to find ways to similarly increase students’ agency and investment in my classes.

I graded their reading responses along similar metrics to those I had used on their essays and exams during face-to-face instruction: for full credit, they needed to be able to synthesize facts into a broader narrative, assess the content and context of primary sources, and read secondary sources actively and critically. Because their reading responses became the main graded activity during the pandemic, I now found that since I did not have to focus on preparing them for the formal essays and exams, I could really delve into the material in a way that is normally difficult in such a large class. The number of pages they had to read per class stayed the same (most weeks I actually assigned less reading than was on the syllabus) but because they knew were being assessed on their answers to the module questions, they read much more critically and actively than they had before the transition to remote delivery. Moreover, when it came to grading, because I sought mostly to guide them towards better answers, I spent more time reading, reflecting on, and responding to those answers, as opposed to simply assigning a grade and moving on. Because the questions were fairly open-ended, I found myself genuinely interested in how each student responded, and I usually tried to incorporate at least one or two insights from a given set of module answers into my PowerPoint lecture for the next module. In this way I tried to continue the conversation among the class that had begun during face-to-face instruction and demonstrate to the students that their contributions still shaped discussion, even during remote delivery.

Moreover, as the shutdown continued, and the politicization of the novel coronavirus increased and intensified, I came to understand that the present situation had afforded me a different kind of pedagogical opportunity. It became increasingly important for me to direct their attention to the intense debates throughout the early modern Atlantic world over religion, treatment of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, slavery, imperialism and colonialism, and witchcraft. I usually find it challenging to convey to students how different the early modern period was from the medieval past: how the Black Death, “discovery” of the Americas, and the Protestant Reformation shattered the consensus and community of the High Middle Ages. During the pandemic, however, I found that in our new circumstances they could look at all the primary and secondary sources they had available and form their own conclusions, even when, as was often the case, the sources presented multiple and usually divergent interpretations of the same event. We talked in various forums about how frightening and frustrating it was that those nominally in charge of managing the novel coronavirus failed to even agree on the same facts, while in the module about King Philip’s War, for example, we talked about the contested meaning of atrocity in the early modern world,11 and how all combatants in that conflict saw themselves as victims.12 As we began to comprehend COVID-19’s staggeringly high mortality rate among African-Americans, the students read and discussed Arthur Wendover’s dispassionate and clinical description of African slaves as merchandise and Olaudah Equiano’s passionate and eloquent argument against the slave trade.13 As the students undoubtedly learned during the pandemic, such a lack of consensus over interpretations or even basic facts is hardly unique to the early modern period, but that period does seem to have been a seminal moment for that kind of disagreement and disunity.

I think the class felt this perhaps most keenly as the course was winding down; in the last week we had one module on slave reparations and another on the legacy of Columbus. We had already begun to learn, of course, how the novel coronavirus had proved to be disproportionately deadly in Black and Native communities; that stark reality made our discussions in the last week feel much more urgent. Some of my sharpest students have reached out to tell me that they have used the material from the “remote delivery” modules on the slave trade, slavery, slave reparations, and indigenous rights to interpret the largest racial protest movement in history. The world has watched Black Lives Matter connect the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to the past injustices and atrocities of the Atlantic system embodied in the statues of Louis XVI in Louisville, Edward Colston in Bristol, England, and (as of this writing) several different statues of Columbus. In fact, one of the last slides I showed in the semester was one of the first Columbus statues to be decapitated, in Caracas, Venezuela. The next time I teach this class I will remember to remind them that such decapitation of statues is very much line with early modern practice of similar dishonoring of the individuals these statues memorialize.14 As the 4 July toppling of one of Baltimore’s Columbus statues into the harbor demonstrates, such iconoclasm appears to be only accelerating; the fraught present of the novel coronavirus and the occasions of Black Lives Matter has made painfully clear how much of our troubled past we have failed to reckon with.15 As ever, the early modern Atlantic remains, unfortunately, relevant.

Robin Hermann is the Richard G. Neiheisel professor of European History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has published several articles on English, imperial, and Atlantic history. He teaches classes on early modern Britain and Europe, the British Empire, the Atlantic world, and the history of European witchcraft.

Appendix: Module Questions

HIST 324 Atlantic History Checklist and Questions for the week of March 23–29

REMINDER: Your answers to these questions are due by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Mar 29th. Checklist:

  • • Read Moodle reading one, “Tituba’s Confession: The Multicultural Dimensions of the 1692 Salem Witch-hunt”
  • • Read Moodle reading two, “Cotton Mather Wrestles with Witchcraft”
  • • Listen/watch to the VoiceThread Powerpoint for Mon Mar 23
  • • Answer the following four questions:
    1. According to the article “Tituba’s Confession (secondary source),” what were the multicultural dimensions of the witch-hunt in Salem? How did Tituba manipulate the Puritan magistrates interrogating her?
    2. In the primary source “Cotton Mather Wrestles with Witchcraft,” why, in Mather’s view, was New England plagued by witchcraft? Why were the New Englanders being punished?
    3. In the VoiceThread powerpoint, in what ways did the Glorious Revolution shape colonial American history?
    4. In the VoiceThread powerpoint, identify at least three of the probable causes of the outbreak of “witchcraft” at Salem. What seems to be the ultimate significance of the events at Salem in 1692 for colonial American history?

1 Edward Conrad, “We Don’t Need More Humanities Majors,” Washington Post, 30 July 2013.

2 David Steiner and Mark Bauerlein, “A Future for the Humanities,” Inside Higher Ed, 2 Apr. 2019.

3In Kentucky, A Push For Engineers Over French Lit Scholars,” U.S. News and World Report, 29 Jan. 2016.

4 Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2000), 36.

5 J. R. McNeill, “Yellow Jack and Geopolitics: Environment, Epidemics, and the Struggles for Empire in the American Tropics, 1650–1825,” OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 3 (Apr. 2004): 9–13. See also his Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

6 When she emailed me her answers for the module that included the McNeil article, one of the brightest students in the class wrote that “reading about an epidemic while sheltering at home because of a global pandemic was eerily appropriate.”

7 In this I followed the extraordinarily helpful advice found in Rebecca Barrett-Fox, “Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online,” Any Good Thing, 12 Mar. 2020. 

8 It is important to note that VoiceThread allows the students to pause the presentation at any time.

9 These texts are excerpted in Brett Rushforth and Paul W. Mapp, eds., Colonial North America and the Atlantic World: A History in Documents (Upper Saddle River, NJ.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009), 125–36.

10 Rushforth and Mapp, Colonial North America and the Atlantic World, 137–45. On the topic of the Devil in the New World, my students also enjoyed in this module reading excerpts from Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra’s Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 120–77.

11 James Drake, “Restraining Atrocity: The Conduct of King Philip’s War,” The New England Quarterly 70, no. 1 (Mar. 1997): 33–56.

12 For a relatively impartial account of Metacomet (King Philip)’s grievances, see Edward Randolph’s description of the war in Albert B. Hart, ed., American History Told by Contemporaries (New York: Macmillan Co., 1897), 1:458–60. For one of the most famous Anglo-American captivity narratives of the war, see Mary Rowlandson’s account in Rushforth and Mapp, Colonial North America and the Atlantic World, 152–70.

13 Wendover’s account can be found in Alison Games and Adam Rothman, eds., Major Problems in Atlantic History (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008), 203–5. For Equiano, see The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (Auckland, N.Z.: Floating Press, 2009).

14 John M. Hunt, “The Pope’s Two Souls and the Space of Ritual Protest during Rome’s Sede Vacante, 1559–1644,” in Sacralization of Space and Behavior in the Early Modern World: Studies and Sources, ed. Jennifer Mara DeSilva (New York, NY.: Routledge, 2016), 177–96.

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