Seminar examines slavery through research, snorkeling

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September 30, 2008

2:38 AM

Comparative Slavery seminar takes students to new “depths.”
Few students associate research opportunities in the history department with snorkeling in Martinique, but then again they probably haven’t met Professor Brett Rushforth.
Last year, Rushforth took a student to Martinique to assist him in a project designed to further his own specialized research in antique manuscripts and records. Along with paradisiacal snorkeling adventures, the trip provided his student with hands-on experience working with physical evidence of history.
“For this student, it was wonderful because it helped him get into graduate school,” Rushforth said. “The admissions people that I talked to were all stunned that he had gone on an archival research trip [as an undergraduate student], so the ability to do student-mentored research is something I really support.”
The research completed on the trip became the foundation for Rushforth’s new class, Comparative Slavery, which aims to answer a broad spectrum of questions spanning centuries of history. The class is a freshman seminar that fulfills the College of William and Mary’s writing requirement. Rushforth allows students to draw conclusions from primary sources and observation of filmic representations of slavery in both documentaries and Hollywood cinema. Finally, students complete a research paper focused on either a specific time and place or on a thematic cross-cultural question.
Rushforth, who also teaches a 100-level American history class and a research seminar of American history to 1815, wants his students to feel free to approach him about research opportunities. Although he currently researches 17th and 18th century indigenous Native American slavery and the French-Atlantic system, Rushforth welcomes new ideas concerning any area of history of interest to students.
“Say a student was interested in doing research on modern human trafficking, let’s say forced prostitution, which unfortunately is a massive crisis in the world right now,” he said. “It’s nowhere near my research, … but thematically it’s similar because it’s an example of one of the ways people have devised to profit off of others’ forced labor.”
The freshman seminar is writing intensive, yet Rushforth emphasizes the huge advantages of taking on such a class, especially in the history department.
“Whether [the students are] majoring in anthropology or business, having the experience of doing their own, individualized research is helpful,” Rushforth said. “It forces them not only to learn how to organize data, but also to present their ideas in a systematic way. They have to be persuasive. They have to be clear. They have to provide evidence for their claims. That’s a set of skills that’s useful across the gamut.”
Rushforth finds that providing these skills to students enriches his own work. He’s currently writing a book about indigenous slavery and French law, and teaching the material to those who know very little about it forces him to consider the casual reader and to write with precision.
“It’s hard to get fresh thoughts until you’re challenged,” Rushforth said. “Sometimes I know what I’m thinking, but to communicate it to a freshman requires another level of clarity. Those efforts to clarify subject matter for my students really help to clarify my writing and thinking.”
He also uses the resource of new ideas brought forth in his classes.
“Sometimes I’m challenged by a really smart student who will say, ‘Actually, that’s full of crap,’” Rushforth said. “That interaction is essential. The combination of research and teaching, which is what really drew me to William and Mary, is ideal because if you have a faculty that’s not researching, it is … easy for ideas to become stagnant.”
Rushforth joined the teaching faculty at the College this year, but spent 2003 to 2005 completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the College with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. He previously taught at McGill University in Montreal, the University of Utah and Brigham Young University.
“To never have your ideas challenged is never to have them refined,” Rushforth said.
Students hoping for a challenge can be assured of Rushforth’s intentions to continue student-mentor research at the College.
As for more snorkeling trips to the Caribbean this year, or at least perhaps more student involvement in research opportunities abroad, Rushforth is optimistic.
“I have to get my boxes unpacked first.”

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