Sleepy Hollow continues to be weird

My students asked today for a Sleepy Hollow update – which I wasn’t fully prepared to give.  After they found the Lost Colony of Roanoke (on a magic island in the Hudson Valley, no less), I had sort of given up on the show.  I caught up tonight – and it continues to be terrible, but in some rather odd ways.

For one, some officers of the British army are also demons, which takes the moralization of American history that the show has been doing all along to new and strange places.  The premise is that Washington and a band of good guys was tasked with protecting the world from evil (via the British), so perhaps its not surprising that the writers decided to literally demonize British officers.  Nevertheless, it seems like a very literal way to make the point that Americans were the good guys in this fight, and the British were the bad guys.

The second sort of bizarre thing was that Ichabod’s wife, the witch, who was burnt at the stake in 1782 (she wasn’t really killed, but not because there weren’t witch trials in the late 18th century) is first introduced to Ichabod as a Quaker nurse.  It’s not clear if she was also a witch at that point – but it struck me as odd that her Quakerness and witchyness seemed so easily integrable.  I’m not an historian of religion, but it seems like the writers might have surmised that since Quakerism today allows a fair amount of latitude in terms of religious practice, perhaps 18th century Quakerism did too.  It does, though, seem like a very marginalizing move, to cast Quakers as insufficiently religiously serious to object to one among them also being a witch.

Finally, the witches were allied with the Freemasons, which I have no way to explain.  I’m teaching the U.S. survey again next semester, and I’m trying to figure out how to use one of these episodes in class.  With popular historical perspectives this semester – in particular Ask a Slave and the soundtrack to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – I didn’t give my students enough of a framework to talk about the sources.  They thought that Ask a Slave was funny and that Bloody Bloody was selectively accurate, and a bit vulgar, but I need to find a better way to connect the production of popular historical material to what they’re learning in class.  In the past, I’ve asked students to evaluate pop history in light of what they’ve learned in the class so far – but since we don’t get to Washington’s plantation, Andrew Jackson or the American Revolution until the middle of the course, I’m on the lookout for something that I can ask them to consider in the first few weeks, or that they can use as a jumping off point for their first set of response papers.  Perhaps the Roanoke episode of Sleepy Hollow (or, for that matter, Supernatural) might fit the bill afterall.

Let us talk about Sleepy Hollow

I am an unabashed fan of badly realized history in books, TV and movies.  I started my U.S. survey this semester with the opening scenes from National Treasure, I legitimately enjoy Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy (though, to be fair, the history in that is spot-on, with the exception of the witches, demons and magic bits) and, predictably, I really liked the new Sleepy Hollow TV series premier.  It’s not that I think that badly done history is something that ought to be celebrated, its that a lot of the romanticized historical genre (in which historians lead dramatic and dangerous lives, or in which discovering something about the past is crucial to the advancement of the plot) seem to willfully get things wrong (again, Harkness is the exception here).  The opening of National Treasure for example, involves one Charles Carroll, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, as the keeper of a long-held secret clue to find a treasure originally hidden by the Freemasons (who, apparently, morphed from the Knights Templar, but I’ll leave the problems with that to a medievalist).  So quoth the film:

“It didn’t reappear for more than a thousand years when knights from the First Crusade found hidden vaults beneath the Temple of Solomon. You see, the knights who found the vaults believed that the treasure was too great for any one man, not even a king. They brought the treasure back to Europe and took the name… the Knights Templar. Over the next century, they smuggled it out of Europe and formed a new brotherhood known as the Freemasons, in honor of the builders of the Great Temple. War followed. By the time of the American Revolution, the treasure had been hidden again. By then, the Masons came to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere. They knew they had to make sure the treasure would never fall into the hands of the British, so they devised a series of clues and maps to its location. Over time the clues were lost or forgotten, until only one remained. And that was the secret that Charles Carroll entrusted to young Thomas Gates.”

The problem?  Charles Carroll was a Catholic – the richest Catholic in Maryland, in fact.  He would not have been a Freemason.  It’s not like there weren’t myriad other ways to start the story in National Treasure.  The hoarded gold could have been taken from Spanish privateers, or (as in the sequel) some kind of Aztec treasure.  So, my friends and colleagues have asked, what?  Bad movies, bad TV shows are made all the time with less than plausible premises.  But I think that the willful manipulation of history – what seems to be the intentional getting-it-wrong, is often quite revealing.  In setting up National Treasure the way they did, the writers were implicitly making an argument about the long, noble and storied history of the United States – tying American liberty to the glory of the crusades to the nobility of the Templars to the antimonarchicalism of the Freemasons.  Much of this is just flat-out wrong, but it’s wrongness serves a rhetorical purpose, and stakes a particular claim about America’s place among other glorious causes.

The visual pun in this poster is also fantastic.

So, when I came across Sleepy Hollow yesterday, I was quite taken with the myriad things that show got wrong, and wonder what that wrongness means about the kind of American myth the writers are trying to tell.  (As a totally un-ironic and genuine aside, I’m thrilled that the main character is a woman of color – and that her superiors are, respectively, an African-American and Latino man – and that none of this is treated as surprising or weird within the world of the show.  It’s sad that having a diverse cast is a cause for celebration, but there it is)  Perhaps the biggest error from an historical perspective is that Ichabod Crane’s wife is (a) a real witch, (b) was apparently burned for witchcraft in 1782 and then (c) buried in a church graveyard with a notice to the effect of her witchery on her tombstone.

The witch trials at Salem took place about 100 years earlier, and while people accused of witchcraft were still being killed in Europe in the 1740s, formal trials in America had ceased by the beginning of the 18th century.  On top of that, people who were excommunicate, which I’m fairly sure being convicted of witchcraft would have made Crane’s wife, didn’t tend to get church burials.  Ultimately, this piece of anachronism is sort-of solved by the fact that Crane’s wife isn’t really dead, but trapped in a witchy forest, and in her grave is the horseman’s skull, which must be kept from him at all costs.

But, by creating a world in which witch burnings continued into the early republic, the show’s writers seem to be suggesting two things.  The first, is that the world of early America was less rational than we tend to think, and that the Hudson River Valley was particularly irrational.  The second, is that the problems of Colonial America persisted at least until after the Revolution, and with the re-awakening of the Headless Horseman in 2013, into the present day.  Or maybe they just thought being accurate wouldn’t make such a good story – but I still think that these inaccuracies, willful or no, paint a very interesting picture of Colonial/Revolutionary America, and tell us something interesting about American historical memory.

Why major in history? -or- the thrill of the archive

Well, to be fair, that’s probably a more provocative title than needs be, but it was also the header on a packet distributed by my department this year.  All of the reasons were good ones – careers in journalism or policy making; development of writing, speaking and research skills and (though this wasn’t included in the departmental list) good tidbits for cocktail party conversations.  Recently though, I’ve noticed that the media – and particularly TV and movies – provide another compelling reason for undergraduates to major in history: the thrill of the archive.
From shows like Alcatraz to movies like National Treasure to books like People of the Book, it seems like every third thing I see or read has characters who spend their time leaving through boxes of old documents, discovering dog-eared diaries of long-dead molls (a recent episode of Castle) or thumbing through newspaper archives to discover the vital clue in an unsolved crime.  Most of this archival work happens in the context of detective work, but it (perhaps inadvertently) glamorizes the work that historians do in our archival comings and going.
Now, I don’t want to suggest to the students in my methods class that the chances are good that a stray or unexplained letter they might come across in an archive can plunge them into a world of glamourous spies and international intrigue, or put them on the trail of some long-lost treasure (an aside: I’ve been reading through Elizabeth Peters’s non-egyptology series featuring sassy historian Vicky Bliss, which, like The DaVinci Code, present the world of academia as one long car/foot chase with brief research interruptions) but I do think there’s something to be said for conveying the trill of archival research.  For the first time ever, I’m having students blog both responses and about progress towards their final paper, and I hope that once we get into working with actual sources that the students will begin to both express and pick up on each others’ excitement.  In the mean time, I’m playing around with the idea that research and detective work are the same kind of projects.  On the one hand, detective work is concerned with finding the answer to a problem, not necessarily understanding why the problem happened.  History is also interested in the ‘what’ questions, but (as a recent session on asking historical questions reminded) more with the hows and the whys.  Maybe, though, the work we do is more like fictional detective fiction.  In books, the plucky heroine or hero always wants to understand the criminals’ motivations – otherwise the books or shows might make for a dull read or watch.  Maybe there’s something to extending this comparison, and thinking about historical writing like Holmes explaining something to Watson.  In the meantime, though, I wonder if the quite regular appearance of archives in pop culture is another way into piquing student interest.  If the U(C) could say things like “want to be Indiana Jones?  Come study archaeology” then can’t we say things like “want to be Nicholas Cage/solve crime/find treasure?  Come study history!”

“Teaching with technology”

The NYU teaching workshop last week was all about teaching with technology, and while we talked a lot about the pros and cons of online teaching, we didn’t really move beyond blogs/blackboards as teaching tools.  I’m relatively new to teaching with online components – this semester is the first time I’m using a blog for student posts instead of blackboard – but I’ve been thinking about how to change some of my standard classroom exercises to include online components.

First, the blog.  I should say that I hate Blackboard, which is what both NYU and the U(C) used.  The message boards are clunky, threads are hard to follow, and the interface is so user unfriendly as to be non-intuitive.  This term, I’m trying a wordpress site for student responses, and so far its working pretty well.  I’m asking students to read each others’ posts before class, to link back in their own responses, and to tag each post with three or four key ideas.  I’ve also been pretty upfront with them about the pedagogical intentions of these tasks – this is all new ground for me, but so far I’m pleased with the results.  I think some of them are skeptical of something from “their” world – blogging – being used in academia, but they all seem pretty game to try.

Now, other social media.  This is a pretty unformed idea, but on Friday I was following the live tweet of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library.  Now, as a murder mystery fan, I was thrilled with this project – especially how the tweeters (twitterers?) adapted the voice of Miss Marple.  I’ve seen similar approaches to history, like the now infamous (among historians, at least) Facebook news feed of the Hundred Years War.  I’m also a really big fan of this series of youtube videos explaining historial events/eras.  I know some teachers who have their students put together their own historical videos – which I think is a great way of engaging students who are interested in history, but who aren’t necessarily equipped or inclined to write research papers, but I was thinking about how these live tweeted/facebooked events might translate into a classroom setting as well.  One of the exercises I’ve been playing around with recently is something I borrowed from my exams at Trinity.  We were asked to argue for or against certain major events (the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Boyne, the siege of Limerick) as turning points in Irish history.  I really like the idea of having students do something similar at the start and end of the class – identifying what they think are turning points in the history of the United States, the Atlantic World, or American immigration.  The idea is that at the start of the class, this exercise gives me a baseline for student knowledge, and by the end, they’ll be able to use the designation of turning points as a way to make arguments about their interpretation of American history.  I think it might be fun to combine that with the live tweet history/facebook news wall meme.  I’m all for encouraging students to get creative with their relationship with history, and I think it would be really interesting to see how students characterized historical actors in the parlance of the present.

From the AHA

I was at the AHA in Boston this weekend, and was able to meet/talk to/listen to a lot of people who are doing really innovative things in historical research and teaching.  I like to treat big conferences like this as an opportunity to think about methods, more than about new findings or interpretations, and the AHA planning committee made this particularly easy by including many many panels on teaching and pedagogy.  I am still sifting through all that I heard from those, and a whole other chunk of my brain is devoted to parsing what I saw on social network theory, so some more in-depth thoughts on both of those will come later.  I do want to play around with some ideas that came out of the coincidence of those teaching panels, some others on the uses of narrative and “reading against the grain” in historical scholarship, and a video podcast walking tour that I stumbled across while looking for something to do in Boston over a particularly long lunch break.

Murder on Beacon Hill is both an iphone app and video podcast, made by the creators of the documentary Murder at Harvard, which is about the murder of George Parkman by John Webster, a Harvard doctor.  The murder and subsequent trial have turned up a lot in my own research, because they were widely reported in both the New York and the Cherokee press in 1849-50.  I had idly wondered who this Webster was that papers kept referencing, but I put it largely out of my mind because the case seemed to have no relevance to Irish famine reportage and relief.  I am a big fan of podcasted walking tours, and also of murder mysteries, and I was trebley happy to find that this particular podcast was dedicated to a relatively un-remembered event that I happened to be familiar with. 

But I think that this thing (podcast, art piece, cultural artifact – I’m not really sure what to call it) also connects in interesting ways with the panels on teaching I’d been attending in the past few days.  It’s creator, Eric Strange, says that he was compelled to make it because

People have told us they now understand connections become the geography of the area and the cultural history, and between the architecture and the social and political climate of 1850s Boston, that they never realized before.  All because of a 45-minute walk.  We want people to take the tour and afterwards never see the streets and buildings the same way again.  I think we achieved that. (Interview with history news network)

A lot of what I try to do as a teacher is to help students to never see the events of the past, or what follows them in the present the same way again.  I don’t mean that in a radical way, but in my ideal world, students who leave my classroom after, say, an intro to British imperial history class will pause when they hear about sectarian violence in Pakistan, and remember what they learnt about the historical circumstances that lead up to that event.  Although at its most basic we might think about Murder on Beacon Hill as entertainment, salacious and murderful at that, it makes me think about alternative approaches to teaching, and the incorporation of the oft-ballyhooed “digital humanities” into the classroom.  Even more so, about the nature of the “classroom” itself.  I am teaching a class on natural disasters in America this summer, and I am trying to find ways to get students out of the physically inscribed space of the classroom, and into the world in which historical events have happened.  It might be worthwhile to think about how to trouble the boundary between academic space and the “real world,” and if troubling that boundary can serve students well by connecting the often dry text of their readings with tangible lives.  C and I are going to play around with the idea of creating an interactive tour of New York this summer – we’ll see how that goes.