Core Curriculum Covers Covens

SU faculty member Tracey Pepper offers a course on witch hunts

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Story by: Annie Beckmann
Published: 2014-06-02

Move over, vampires. Witches are grabbing the limelight, with several TV series now devoted to covens, witch hunts and black and white magic.

Reinventing the Core curriculum gave Seattle University instructor Tracey Pepper (right), who teaches The European Witch Hunts, an opportunity to collaborate with students and share her intellectual passions with them.

"I do feel liberated with the new Core," she says. "To know that I can be a little bit indulgent is kind of fun. I've been able to pick out what I liked to teach most in my survey courses and focus on those. Students have more depth than breadth to explore the human experience."

Where's the academic rigor in witch hunts, you may wonder? This inquiry seminar in the humanities points freshmen toward the ways historians think and pursue knowledge.

Pepper, an SU faculty member for 12 years, is trained as an historian who focuses on Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. Her class examines witch hunts between the 15 th and 18 th  centuries and explores why some parts of Europe were virtually unscathed and others, particularly Germany, had serious problems with witch hunts in the 16 th century. In one German town, there were 1,500 victims.

"Why would it be most intense in German lands? One possibility is that it was the home of the Protestant Reformation and there was considerable religious anxiety about the same time as the witch hunts," she says. 

Centuries ago, women were defined by their domestic responsibilities. Female healers were challenged as witches, says Pepper, about the same time medicine emerged as a profession.

Students discover witch hunts are at the intersection of gender, theology, the legal system and politics.

"I liked the idea that students can't just separate out one aspect. It's a way to introduce them to the reality that history is very complex, not just dates and facts," she says.

Freshman Daniel Schiff, a student in the class this spring, was intrigued by the topic of witch hunts.

"I was looking for a real niche in the Core that would keep my attention-something I don't know anything about," he says.

Unlike survey courses of yesteryear, this seminar is more specifically designed to teach research skills and critical thinking, Pepper suggests. 

"As students answer the what-and-how questions, they'll have an opportunity to use evidence responsibly. That frees them up. They don't have to find a correct answer," she says.


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