Teaching the history and culture of early America to undergraduates is challenging on many fronts. Students' familiarity with the best-known documents of the Revolutionary period can breed either contempt or a reverential awe indistinguishable from ignorance and boredom. The lesser-known material from earlier years presents formidable conceptual obstacles and seldom stays in print very long outside of the excerpts found in anthologies.
In the past decade, online resources have opened up some pedagogical opportunities that can help overcome some of these obstacles in the study of early America. Web-based lectures and research assignments have become indispensable to my own teaching at the University of California, Irvine, where I regularly use early American materials in my lectures for the Humanities Core Course.
Humanities Core is a year-long course that enrolls about 1,200 first-year students. Taught in the usual combination of large lectures followed by small discussion sections, the course satisfies several of our general education requirements, including freshman composition; it is usually the first—and often the only—humanities course students take. Lectures must therefore be challenging but comprehensible to a naïve audience, and they must also equip students with basic research techniques that will allow them to apply what they learn in lectures when writing their own essays.
I often lecture on the Salem witchcraft trials in this course. The Salem trials are immediately recognizable to most students, and the topic is exotic enough to inspire at least some curiosity in many of them. In addition, much of the primary material associated with the Salem trails is available online, including verbatim transcripts of the trials and copies of books published at the time by participants, advisors, commentators and critics of the trials. Among the most important sources are the Salem Witchcraft Trials Documentary Archive at the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia and, of course, the Readex Archive of Americana and its Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800.
These Web-based materials make it possible to incorporate genuine research into the writing assignments without sending 1,200 freshmen to the library, all looking for the same small collection of books and articles in print. [In the past that prospect led our librarians to picture apocalyptic scenarios of their own that rivaled anything the Salem judges may have imagined.] Moreover, along with increased accessibility, the increasingly sophisticated search capabilities of the Archive of Americana allow even beginning students to make their way through unfamiliar texts with a facility and precision that were formerly restricted to only the most experienced scholars.
For example, when teaching the Salem trials I usually have students read Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World (Boston 1692). Mather published his book to reinforce the conclusions of the judges that various bodily afflictions and other weird events plaguing the community were the result of evil spirits meddling directly in the visible world around us. If the judges were right, then the events were evidence of witchcraft because the spirits were confined to the invisible world unless invited into our lives by witches. On the other hand, if the choking and fainting and earthquakes, fires, comets, etc. were found to have natural causes, they were only symbols or metaphors of what awaits us at the Day of Judgment, not evidence of evil spirits at work in the world. The difference was literally a matter of life or death for the accused witch.
Students can discover what Cotton Mather had to say about this issue by finding Wonders online in Early American Imprints, Series I and then conducting a search of the book's full text. If they use "metaphor" as the search term, they find the following:
Sinners, Behold and Wonder, lest you Perish; the very Devils are Walking about out Streets, with Lengthened Chains, making a dreadful Noise in our Ears, and Brimstone, even without a Metaphor, is making an Hellish and Horrid Stench in our Nostrils. (66)
Other students might focus on particular events adduced as evidence such as earthquakes, a topic of much interest to students in California. A search for that term in the full text of Wonders produces the following careful distinction between natural causes of earthquakes in the present time vs. the spiritual causes that will determine events as the Last Judgment approaches:
One Woe that may be look'd for is, A frequent Repetition of Earthquakes, and this perhaps by the energy of the Divel [sic] in the Earth. The Divel will be clap't up, as a Prisoner in or near the Bowels of the earth, when once that Conflagration shall be dispatched, which will make The New Earth wherein shall dwell Righteousness; and that Conflagration will doubtless be much promoted, by the Subterraneous Fires, which are a cause of the Earthquakes, in our Dayes. (26)
The possibility that witches have called down demonic spirits directly into the streets of Salem, Mather argues, is a preview of the extent to which natural causes will be replaced by spiritual causes when Satan is punished for his rebellion against God. Consequently, it is incumbent on the judges in New England to punish the witches for their more local but no less heinous transgressions "in our Dayes."
Understanding the significance of these passages obviously depends on at least a rudimentary grasp of Puritan theology, but those basic concepts can easily be imparted in a brief lecture. The Web-based text and search engine allow students to make the much more difficult leap from abstract generalities to the specific ways those concepts function in Mather's argument. Furthermore, connections between Mather's text and the work of other writers can be established as easily by doing a title search for "earthquakes" in texts published between 1690 and 1710. That produces, among other texts, a work on earthquakes by Cotton's father Increase Mather, who was more skeptical than his son about prosecuting witches for purportedly "spiritual" offenses.
Using these Web-based resources, students can locate textual evidence more systematically and precisely (not to mention more efficiently) than even the most learned scholar could accomplish by memory. We might therefore think of these online resources as an electronic form of the scholarly intuition that has guided research for centuries through the vagaries of recollection and instinct.
As such, these tools can lead the most sophisticated researchers beyond the limits of one's personal reading, even as they help neophytes burrow into texts that might otherwise remain closed to them. What we do with what we find that way, of course, depends on the innumerable factors that have always separated insight from information and good readers from bad.