Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Rebel women the focus of history course

An early modern lesbian nun, a female Spanish conquistador, 17th century English witches and 19th century Mexican prostitutes. These are the kinds of characters being studied in the history department’s Issues in World History: Deviant Women.

“We are getting students to think about history through this concept of deviance,” says department Chair Ingrid Tague.

This course, like others in the Issues in World History series, uses a historical issue or problem as a lens through which to understand world history, she explains. History majors are required to complete at least two of the four-credit Issues courses.

Tague, who specializes in early modern European history, team-teaches the course with Assistant Professor Martha Santos, a Latin America historian.

By focusing on a specific and reoccurring historical theme, the course rejects the traditional “Western Civilizations” world history course, the professors say. The class analyzes the variables that make up a historical problem rather than using a narrative style, in which the students are told history through an authoritative timeline of important dates and facts, Tague explains.

Because they focus on a single issue through a range of time periods, cultures and regions, students say they find the courses engaging and challenging. Megan Fields, BA ’06, says she thinks Issues in World History courses “are more interesting because they connect world history.”

“You are definitely forced to draw on more information and think critically in a class like this,” she says. Through the course, students crisscross the Atlantic as they compare issues women faced in Europe and Latin America. Students start with a study of religion and sexuality in the early modern period. From there, they study witchcraft and concepts of bad mothers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The class concludes with a look at prostitution in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“We want students to think about continuity as well as change,” Santos says. She explains that as students examine where ideas about female deviance come from, they also get a broad historical context.

Throughout the class, students write three four-page essays that discuss assigned readings. The coursework culminates with a final project that calls on students to analyze deviance today.

The problem of deviance is not set before students so that they can find a solution, Tague and Santos explain, but rather so they can think critically about an issue.

This article originally appeared in The Source, February 2006.

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