Professor of History Bruce Dorsey on His Book, Teaching Experiences at Swarthmore, and Advice for Students

Professor of History and History Department Chair Bruce Dorsey specializes in early American history, ranging from Europeans’ first contact with the Americas through the Civil War. His area of expertise covers the ways in which American culture, politics, religion, and sexuality interact, as well as the storytelling that shapes these elements of American life. This semester, Dorsey is teaching “Remembering History,” a first-year seminar about how personal history and memory shapes the collective histories produced throughout American history, as well as “American Popular Culture,” a course that examines the ways in which culture is produced and consumed. Outside of the classroom, Dorsey is completing his book “Murder in a Mill Town,” which will be published this summer by Oxford University Press. The book details a popular nineteenth-century murder investigation and sex scandal that captivated the public eye through gossip, rumor, and conspiracy. This week, The Phoenix spoke with Dorsey about his book and experiences studying history and teaching at Swarthmore. 

Lauren Mermelstein: What areas of history do you study and why?

Bruce Dorsey:  I’m interested in the intersection of culture and politics, religion, gender, and sexuality. Those are the areas of my scholarly research, and in American life, those are important places where conflict has happened on a regular basis … I’m getting started on a project that’s about the origins of culture wars because those same exact issues come to the forefront and are the places where people are dividing and fighting their political struggles, and as social movements emerge around people’s identities.

LM: Can you share a bit about the book that you have been working on?

BD: I’m excited about it. It started as a course called “Murder in a Mill Town” that I taught for a number of years at Swarthmore, where students were able to dig in with me in this particular murder case that was revealing of the beginnings of the industrial revolution when a Methodist minister is accused of murdering a female factory worker. It’s about women entering the workforce and the kinds of sexual risks and violence they encountered. It’s about people’s divisions over how to conduct a criminal case in the midst of popular democracy and how much something that’s tried in the public sphere and in the public realm is really just public opinion, so to speak.

LM: What was the research that students conducted as part of the “Murder in a Mill Town” course that you taught? 

BD: In that class, students were able to dig into the sources themselves, and make their own judgments about the case. They wrote a biography of the woman who’s murdered in this case … It was a great exercise because I spent time watching students learn how history is done in a very hands-on way. I learned a great deal from all the students I taught in that course about how I would think about the conflicting sources in this case, and each time I encountered those same sources, I had to come to my own interpretation.

LM: Why did this research inspire you to write the book? What makes this particular murder case so interesting?

BD: Another part of my interest as an historian is how history is so inflected by the stories that people told at the time, and so my book is about storytelling. Think about a courtroom. People come in – and in this case, in my book, there are about 250 witnesses – and each one of them is telling their particular story, and they’re not all in agreement. People were already starting to tell those stories outside the courtroom, but now they come in as witnesses and repeat those stories. So the book becomes, in the midst of telling my story of this case, a history of the collective act of storytelling.

LM: What has been your favorite course that you have taught so far at Swarthmore?

BD: One of the best of many great teaching experiences at Swarthmore has been that course [“Murder in a Mill Town”]. It was a moment where I got the chance to see students. Their eyes kind of opened up and they got the idea of ‘oh, this is the complex and nuanced way in which people made sense of the world around them’ — asking themselves how is it related to the way I’m encountering the world and how is it so distinctly foreign and different than the world decisions that I have to make?

LM: More generally, what inspired you to begin studying and teaching history in the first place?

BD: I was always interested in politics and the ways in which people in the past did politics. But more than that, there’s something exciting about being around the table with a set of books or readings that you share. I was always so enamored by those conversations that take place when you’re actually thinking about ideas together. My students are eighteen to 22 years old, and they’re experiencing the readings for the first time, but for me, it’s just as exciting — it’s alive. I wanted to be in that setting where influential books are being thought about deeply and talked about critically. From that, I learned the craft of being an historian who does the deeper archival research and the writing, but that wasn’t always the only thing that motivated me. It’s just as important to be in the classroom.

LM: Do you have any specific memories that stand out from your time at Swarthmore?

BD:  One I remember is a student-led discussion in my honors seminar on the history of gender and sexuality where we were learning about reproductive rights and the history of reproduction in America. One of the students brought in a board game made to resemble a set of birth control pills. As we were picking up items and answering and discussing the questions, we would move around the board. I thought it was a creative way of imagining and thinking about something where it was just as much as deep discussion of how and why the struggles for reproductive rights became a part of multiple feminist movements at different times, but it was just a great sign of Swarthmore creative notions.

LM: Do you have any advice for students and prospective students who are beginning their journeys at Swarthmore?

BD: I want to tell prospective students to stop planning out every step of their life. The career plans that you’re sort of imagining will all work themselves out. Come here with the idea that it’s a space where you can engage in the process of learning and finding out about the world and about yourself. It doesn’t matter what you major in in my mind: it’s that you come here to be exposed to how to think critically about the world, in a liberal arts perspective. So take as many different kinds of courses that you can from as many different departments as you can to see the world in different ways. Think outside the box. 

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