Classlet four: Mad Women, Angry Men

Hi folks!

We’ve had a little hiatus here during which time my Research Seminar has covered much ground, including criminals in heaven and Spiritualists thrown in jail on sorcery charges.  Fun stuff!  If that or anything on the syllabus sounds particularly appealing I will be happy to put together a classlet on the topic.

But this week we are moving on to madness, legal rights, religious rights, and matters of self-definition.  The reading is a little snippet from Emma Hardinge Britten, famous medium and excellent historian of the movement.  (And the object of one of the most amusing searches I have ever been on, when my alumna Bridget and I spent an afternoon walking around a desolate Victorian cemetery in Manchester England looking for Emma’s grave.)   She discusses the looking up of Spiritualists in insane asylums simply for their religious beliefs.  You can find that here:

Britten, 377-383

And lecturelet four is here:


Oh, and correction–Pinel freed the mad at Salpetriere; he had worked at the other famous French asylum, Bicetre, earlier in his career.   Misspoke!


Classlet three: The Criminal Man

Hi everyone!

This week we meet the founder of modern criminology, Cesare Lombroso, who is once again a man at the crossroads of Darwin and Spiritualism.  We also encounter the ramifications of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, something I do actually try to teach all of my students.   (Both the phrase and the ramifications, that is.)

The reading for this week is Lombroso’s The Criminal Man, 109-110 and 115-119.  This book underwent five editions during his lifetime, each one expanding his range of evidence, but this is from the second edition because a. we read it this week in class and b. it’s what’s available on-line.  You can find it here:

And the lecturelet, with guest appearances by both dogs:


Classlet two: Unnatural Selection

Hi folks!

Okay, here we go!  Progress, Spiritualists, and the breeding of humans, with a snippet from the reading for our Research Seminar, Darwin, Deviance, and the Dead.  

Thank you all for your very insightful comments last week.  And I know a lot more of you are checking the videos.   I understand that you have busy lives and please feel free to drop in when you can!


Reading, Victoria Woodhull, “Children–Their Rights and Privileges,”  30-42

Lecturelet, with thanks to my friend Lisa Maurizio, Classicist at Bates and fellow scholar of women and trance speech, for the neologism:




Classlet one: Hopeful Monsters

Hi folks!

Welcome to classlet one! This is the (very) mini version of the Research Seminar I am teaching this semester.  The course is designed to teach upper-level students how to do research on a graduate and professional level.  It’s also designed to have the students work in the research area of the professor.  At a little college we don’t get too much opportunity to teach in our own area of specialization but this seminar is meant to do exactly that and so it is an extra treat for me.

My primary area of research interest is Spiritualism, the nineteenth-century religious movement that brought seances and table-tipping to homes across America and then quickly across the ocean.  This particular class will focus on some of the European intellectuals who were believers or at least sincere questioners about the living’s ability to talk to the dead.

Plus I created a youtube channel for this.  And yes, this video is done at my dining room table with my phone perched on a pile of books.  And it shows.  But I hope what is lacks in production value is made up for in interest and amusement.  Plus Zoe shows up at the end!

The reading this week is from Alfred Russel Wallace, Miracles and Modern Spiritualism.  I hope you will find the confluence of religion and evolution interesting and see how Spiritualists crafted their beliefs as objectively true.  (All of the readings for the classlet come from the historical material since we need them to be out of copyright for legal purposes.  I will post a reading bibliography of current scholarship for those interested!)

Please leave any comments or questions and we can have an electronic chat.  I will check in often.

And away we go!


Reading:  pages 115-125”progression+of+the+fittest”&source=bl&ots=_v0l6rPj_p&sig=uMMj5O


Much wandering and a few ghosts

Once again I find I have to apologize for my long disappearances—it is very clear that frequent but pithy blog entries are not my strong suit.   I recently discovered that my alumna Nell’s mom reads my blog (Hi Nell’s mom! I’m trying to be better, I swear!) and the thought of Nell’s mom checking her blog roll and seeing a big zero from me has catapulted me into action.  So, greetings!!!


Let me start out with a quick recap of the summer’s highlights.  First of all, I had a phenomenal experience at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina where I took a seminar with the incredibly prolific and knowledgeable scholar Bart Ehrman.  Our class was on the books that did not make it into the New Testament, and I got to share this fascinating experience with fifteen colleagues from other small liberal arts colleges.  It was very intensive course (look out fall students, I am guaranteed to play this card at least once)—hundreds of pages of reading every day, class for three hours, and we all had a ball.   Not

I know this looks random but it is not! You may recall I took a seminar at the Humanities Center two summers ago and my alumna Anne took me to see the lemurs. Well, she has been volunteering at Carolina Tiger Rescue and this year she took me to see the kitties! This handsome devil is Emerson.

only did I learn many things about the specific texts, most of which I’ve never read before, but I learned so much about the time period.   (My knowledge of the history of Edessa alone has increased by a factor of ten.)  These will all show up in my classes immediately and I will be adding some apocryphal acts to my syllabi.  On top of that, Chapel Hill is a great town and it was really a splendid way to kick off a summer thinking fest.








Following shortly on the heels of that learning extravaganza, the hubs Eric Casey and I went to New York for a long weekend where are we checked out the Met’s  temporary exhibit, “Byzantium and Islam: An Age of Transition,” and went for the first time to the Brooklyn Museum which has an amazing collection of Egyptian art.   I don’t know if I have mentioned that Eric has been very seriously studying hieroglyphic for a while now and he just dug in the summer and is sailing through the end of the text book.   (He is a little concerned about Chapter Thirteen since it is on verbs… and how hard do verbs have to be to be that late in a book?)  He was able to read a great deal of writings on stelae and such; I never seen anyone do that before who doesn’t have a very specific professional training and certainly not casually in a museum.  I confess I was a little worried that he was straining our friends’ ability to concentrate on water fowl and horned vipers but then a mother quietly started hovering behind him, explaining to her kids that this was a real language and see, that man can read it.




I spent last week in California with several old friends and some of my favorite alumnae at the Association for the Study of Esotericism.  The conference was hosted at the University of California at Davis which is a lovely campus and the meeting is on the small side, which is perfect for really meeting people and getting to most of the sessions.   I gave a paper on my latest interest, early criminology and Spiritualism.


And… this leads me to my last bullet point (ha!) which is either a great pedagogical move or a complete capitulation to the fact that I am really kind of a lousy blogger.   I am trying something new with this blog in the fall and I sincerely hope that you will all participate.  I mentioned on Facebook about a class I am teaching on Deviance, Criminals, and Ghosts and I got so much traffic that I thought that might be fun to run a little mini unit of that class here.  I would put up a brief section of the reading (for those of you who are not full-time students!) and then record a brief video introducing the time period or phenomenon.  You could watch the video right on the blog, hopefully, and could post about the reading or any questions or anything of interest.  I am hoping that students and alumnae and moms and any interested parties—everyone who is reading this who wants to— will take part in a mini version of the full course.   We can all think about these things together and I aim to be up and running by the first week of September.   I would love to hear all of your voices and I think we could have a great classlet!

Our Day at The Colony

My smart and charming Honors students (and yes, that is how I address emails to them) have been learning about the history of eugenics in America this semester.  First-year Honors students start off with a one credit-hour course in the fall and mine is called Crafting People.  We read historical accounts of eugenics models—Plato, and on the other end of nature versus nurture, Sparta—then we dove right into the writings of Sir Francis Galton, founder of modern eugenics and coiner of the term (plus cousin of Charles Darwin).  Then we took a spin through the Oneida Community’s eugenics program called “stirpiculture” and saw what a voluntary, religiously-based eugenics program might look like and spent some time with Victoria Woodhull, one of the few outspoken female eugenics advocates.


For the last month, however, we have been reading about government-sponsored eugenics programs that took place in America from the 1920s straight through the 1970s in some cases.  The college sits right in the epicenter of the Supreme Court case that made involuntary sterilizations of the “feeble-minded” legal: Carrie Buck, the test case for the court, came from the area and was held at the infamous Colony in Lynchburg where sterilizations were performed and all of the trial materials were delivered at the Amherst County courthouse, five minutes from campus.  The Virginia Eugenics Sterilization Act was passed in 1924, and in 1927 it was taken to the Supreme Court where it was upheld in an 8-1 decision, famously summarized by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who declared that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  (For a great source of information on this period, the folks at the historical collections of UVA’s medical library have put this site together: .)


We had the extraordinary good luck to give a screening of Rothstein’s First Assignment, a documentary about Arthur Rothstein, the photographer famous for capturing the Depression era on film.  The filmmaker, Richard Robinson, set out to explore the idea of truth in documentary and discovered a terrible secret behind his subject—many of the people photographed by Rothstein came from the same family, one that had been plundered of its children who were sent to The Colony and sterilized there.  With thanks to our good friend Paige Critcher, photography professor and director of the BFA here, Mr. Robinson spent the evening with my class at a pizza party and my students were able to ask him first-hand about the people he had met.  The screening was very well-attended and it is a fascinating piece.  I recommend this documentary to anyone interested in art, eugenics, or both—Richard’s blog about the screening is here: and you will see that we had another very special guest, Mary Francis, one of the survivors of The Colony.  One does not get a learning opportunity like that every day.


The graveyard at sunset.

Because my smart and charming students were so enthusiastic and they were asking to take a field trip, this year we got a private tour of the buildings and grounds of the former Colony, now the Central Virginia Training Center where they do great work in helping both residential and community members with disabilities.  Today we toured the grounds of the former Colony, where we got to see the building that the sterilizations were performed in (it was appropriately eerie and dilapidated, as several of the students noted).  We were brought around in a bus to see much of the 300-plus acre grounds where the people we have studied would have lived and worked on the farm and even spent time in The Colony’s version of solitary confinement for bad behavior.  We were given an awesome tour of the beautiful cemetery there, refurbished entirely by the gentleman who acted as our guide.  Carrie Buck’s mother, Emma, was buried there (the alleged first generation of imbeciles) and we knew only that she died in 1944.

Students hunting for Emma Buck's grave.

Luckily the graves were in perfect chronological order and my student Fiona managed to find her, much to the delight of the CVTC staff as well.  Finally, we went to the on-site little museum where the staff had been kind enough to make a special history of eugenics display in their library and we got to see things used and made by the people of The Colony and its later patients.


We have learned a lot, the students and I, this semester, and seen much of it first-hand.   This largely obscured corner of American history has had a lifetime impact on many people we have studied and even met and so much of it has occurred in our own backyards.

My Honors students.


Last weekend in utopia

The Society for Utopian Studies held its 36th annual conference last weekend at Penn State and I must say, that was an unusually well-named conference.  Eric and I had been contacted over the summer about it by a most fabulous alumna from the class of 2000 who is now a professor too so I get to see her at conferences much to my delight.  Both Christa and I work on American religions and the centerpiece of this conference was the unveiling of an archive devoted to utopian studies and a fascinating display of ninety-some books from its collection.


Some of the books were performative in the way they were crafted: one gentleman, prefiguring the Kindle by a century, decided that the aesthetics of the pages themselves could help us feel better while reading and creating large margins that he painted in bright, happy colors and inset the text in the center.  Another was a pair of copies of Gulliver’s Travels, one in a huge elephant folio and the other in a little tiny book of maybe four inches high.  (The Lilliputians need to be able to read it, too!)


Eric gave an awesome paper on the Great Library of Alexandria and the utopian ideal of collecting all of the world’s knowledge.  Christa gave an awesome paper on the Oneida Community’s eugenics experiment and how its children functioned like a community archive to preserve what was seen as the best in them.  My paper was on the Mormon fascination with hieroglyphic in the century when no one in America could yet read them.  (In fact, it wasn’t until 1866 that Champollion’s cracking of the Rosetta Stone was confirmed as correct, so hieroglyphic had over forty years of well, we think we know what it means.  Maybe.)


And there were images galore, of utopian buildings that glowed in different colors to sooth various moods and where drivers parked their hot-air space balloons on balconies designed for that.  We learned about French utopians who took over the site of Nauvoo, Illinois after the Mormons had vacated it and about the Open Utopia project that has free and interactive text of Thomas Moore’s Utopia and related images.


And to add to all of this, another of our alumnae happened to be working the conference registration table and we got to spend a good deal of the weekend with Shaheen and her beau.  The area around Penn State has wonderful restaurants and we chowed down on Indian and Thai food.  And I was told by everyone in the know to not miss the Creamery, the university’s on-site ice cream parlor that uses dairy from cows that the students raise.  That ice cream had the most milk fat of any I have ever tasted, thus rendering it sublime, of course.


So, cool books, smart people, lovely alumnae, great food, and ice cream with a density more suitable to astronomy than food.  Utopia rocks.

The Shrimp of Shame

It has been a very exciting summer with lots of great travel and the edited book is well underway.  We began with a fabulous trip to see the Junior Year in Spain facilities in Seville.  Our most gracious hostess, Dr. Celeste Delgado-Librero, director of JYS, gave us a tour of her utterly stunning hometown and the Sweet Briar classrooms and library there.  She and her staff facilitated every moment of the trip and I am so very grateful for all of their help.  Celeste also now has the singular distinction of teaching me that I do indeed like sardines.  And she drove me around to Christopher Columbus sites!  We all know I love Columbus!  (With great doses of pathos and irony, of course…)


Plus I learned one of the most excellent adages ever:  the shrimp of shame.  You know how when a group of people are eating together no one wants to take the last (whatever)  on the plate?  That is the (whatever) of shame in Spanish.  It picks out something so universally true and useful that I never had the vocabulary to speak of before.  And it is proactive, as in, Would somebody please eat the shrimp of shame?  It is going to waste otherwise.


Eric and I took many exciting day trips to Córdova, where I hung out with some of my favorite dead philosophers like Maimonides, Granada, where we trekked the Alhambra gardens and palaces, and Italica, the Roman ruins near Seville. We also caught a couple of days in Barcelona as well.  The oranges were literally hanging off the trees and I fear that orange juice has been permanently ruined for me elsewhere.

The Jewish Quarter in Cordoba.


This delightful excursion was all in an effort to bring students to Seville for a May-term sort of class.  I will be proposing it this fall so this is strictly and entirely speculative at this point but my hope is that we can do around three weeks using Seville as base camp and the classrooms at JYS for a course on the three major monotheisms in contact.  (Where better than Spain for that?)  The idea, as it is shaping up, is that we would have classes four mornings a week with an occasional afternoon trip somewhere in town followed by weekend excursions to near-by sites.  We would look at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in moments of both conflict and cooperation and we could visit the homes of some of the most important thinkers in western history as we were reading their works.

Our rain karma was not all that awesome in Granada but I now own a two-euro blue bag!


So that is what I am working on for the spring.  I will of course keep you posted.  And in the meantime, don’t waste the shrimp of shame.

The Mezquita, a prime example of multiple monotheisms on top of each other.

Aliens, elementals, and ghosts, oh my!

I am working on a couple of projects this summer, and first up is editing a volume that should serve as a companion to students or specialists who want to learn about Spiritualism and the phenomenon of channeling.  Like all scholarly books, this has been in the works for a couple of years now and is, also like all scholarly books, behind the schedule I had hoped.  But we are a go and this should be sent the press by the fall at the latest.


I’ve written about Spiritualism before here—the 19th century movement that inaugurated séances and wide-scale venues for talking to the dead.  We have an incredibly impressive roster of scholars on this topic who are writing about its predecessors, its rock stars, and its influence on later currents like New Thought.  We are also representing beyond the Anglo-American world and I am learning all sorts of things about strains of Spiritualism in France and how those emigrated to various Latin American countries.  One of the primary differences from American Spiritualism is that the French-influenced spiritisme made reincarnation a central tenet in the on-going education of the soul.


So the idea of talking to the dead morphs quite easily into the late 20th century with channeling, or having an ancient soul or guide or even alien speak through a living person and give advice to the audience.  The classic posture of Spiritualism here is often combined with the modern fascination with aliens, where outer space beings replace the dead or, more traditionally, saints.  According to these folks, our space brothers care about us and want to help us morally and technologically.  Like the spirits of the dead, aliens are wiser but not infallible or divine—they just know more than we do and wish to communicate that through a human medium.


This is my first solo run at editing a major collection and it has been more challenging and time-consuming than I knew.  But the best part is, this is going to be an amazing book and I am the first person who gets to read it!

An 1870 photo of Georgiana Houghton and her spirit guide.


Year end ritual

Our (somewhat famous, if I do say so myself) Senior Seminar dinner was a lovely evening once again.  I wrote about Professor Goulde’s Korean extravaganza here last year.  Well, the students this year decided on Ethiopian cuisine.  (We give them a list of options from our culinary areas of competency.  I learned how to cook some Ethiopian a few years back after taking many taxis through a snowy Montreal to procure it.  I figured my commitment level spoke for itself at that point.)


Senior sem dinner always begins with Spanish champagne with strawberries, and then this year chicken doro wat, vegetables alicha, and a spicy red lentil mush.  Probably the most distinctive aspect of Ethiopian fare is that one does not use silverware but rather eats by scooping the food with the spongy bread called injera.  For dessert Professor Goulde made a phenomenal pear tartine.  (He’s always the dessert guy.  I don’t approach his skills in the dulce category.)


We had a hilarious evening learning about the students’ lives behind the classroom and their plans for the future.  We are very proud of you and wish you all the best in the world.  And you had better come back to visit!!!

Nom nom nom

The dessert maestro.

Happy seniors!