MORGANTOWN -- Chelsea Allen signed up for a course on the Salem witch trials at West Virginia University out of sheer interest.
By the end of the semester, she had unearthed a personal connection to the notorious court trials that resulted in mass hysteria and the imprisonment of more than 150 people.
Allen, an elementary education junior from Weston, discovered that one of her ancestors -– Martha Carrier, accused of being a witch by her own children, was executed Aug. 19, 1692.
Had Allen not taken this class, she may have never known this fascinating factoid of her family history.
No, the Salem witch trials course is not just another class.
It's a study of the "facts" of the trials themselves and how the interpretation has changed based upon the time in which the interpreter lived. The class looks not only at scholarly interpretations but at cultural ones as well: poetry, fiction, theater, film, television and music.
And it's not just a look back, but – as in any good scholarly endeavor – tries to teach today's students how lessons from the past apply today.
"My approach as a history teacher is not to just throw dates and names out there for them to remember," says adjunct professor Kevin Gooding. "Rather, these are events, situations and ideas that have gone into forming who we are as a people, as a nation. We can't know who we are without knowing who we've been.
"I want [students] to compare us with them," he says. "How could they believe such things? It's thought that because of our greater knowledge of human psychology, we'd be less prone to such outbreaks today. But I ask, 'Are we more rational?'"
"For some students, it becomes not only a historical exercise," Gooding said. "In the case of Chelsea, it's not abstract anymore. This is part of her. This is part of us and shapes us as an American society."
The Honors College class is offered only in the fall and challenges students to approach history as something other than reciting the past. It also offers non-history majors the opportunity to experience higher-level historical work than they might otherwise be exposed to and to hone critical thinking skills. For example, a previous class included physics, French, political science, biology and music majors, among others.
"For the non-history folks, it's fun to have them look at the documents and engage in a critique much like a historian," Gooding said.
Gooding says he wants students to feel personally linked and affected by the iconic events in colonial American history.
The course was first offered in fall 2010. Gooding, who earned his Ph.D. in American history at Purdue and is a Methodist pastor, said he wanted to teach a course on the gloomy subject for several years.
"Here's an event that we're still not really sure why it happened," Gooding said. "There's no consensus on what really happened, yet it captured a corner of our national identity. It's still an open discussion and crops up in historical interpretation, poetry, drama, art, everything."
At the beginning of the class, students must choose one of the accused and study their trial. Allen happened to pick Carrier, not knowing they were linked. Allen discovered that Carrier's maiden name was Allen and connected the dots from there.
Allen is thankful she took the class and applauded Gooding's teaching style.
"He really has knowledge about what he teaches and he makes it interesting to learn," she said.
Students even get to watch episodes of "Bewitched" and "The Simpsons." Around Halloween every year, Gooding shows "Easy Bake Coven" from "The Simpsons'" "Treehouse of Horror VII" episode from season nine. The episode spoofs the Salem witch trials.
On the final class of the semester, students compiled a soundtrack for the course. The track listing, scribbled on the chalkboard, represented a wide selection of music, from Megadeth's "Take No Prisoners" to the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic?"
"I asked them to pull out their iPods and start flipping through songs that might summarize aspects of the trials," Gooding said. "I then asked them, 'Why these songs?' Other than the Lovin' Spoonful, many of the songs they selected are very dark. It helps them realize the depth of the tragedy involved."