Writing Histories of Witchcraft in a PandemicRoundup
tags: teaching history, pandemic, witchcraft
Richard Tomczak is a history PhD candidate at Stony Brook University.
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.
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