OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Catherine Denial

Portrait of Catherine Denial
Image Credit: Peter Bailley, Knox College

Cate Denial is the Bright Distinguished Professor of American History, Chair of the History department, and Director of the Bright Institute at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. The winner of the American Historical Association’s 2018 Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching award, Cate is a former member of the Digital Public Library of America‘s Educational Advisory Board. She currently sits on the boards of the Western Historical Quarterly and Commonplace: A Journal of Early American Life. Cate is at work on a new book, A Pedagogy of Kindness, under contract with West Virginia University Press. Her historical research has examined the early nineteenth-century experience of pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing in Upper Midwestern Ojibwe and missionary cultures, research that grew from Cate’s previous book, Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and the American State in Dakota and Ojibwe Country (2013). In summer 2018, Cate was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA. 
As Director of the Bright Institute at Knox College, Cate oversees a program which supports fourteen faculty from liberal arts schools across the United States in their teaching and research for three years, while providing them with $9000 in research funds and convening an annual summer seminar.
Cate is a pedagogical consultant who works with individuals, departments, and organizations in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

FORTHCOMING IN 2023: A Pedagogy of Kindness (West Virginia University Press)

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

To be pedagogically kind is to be deeply committed justice, to believing students, and to believing in students. It is a far cry from niceness - the effort to always be agreeable and to avoid conflict - focusing instead on empowering students to be the active co-creators of their learning experiences. Being kind means rethinking our syllabi, our assignments, the homework we ask of our students, and the way we run our classrooms. It prioritizes accessibility, and creates the conditions for everyone involved in teaching and learning to experience delight. At every turn, it is rooted in a simple question that asks us to wrestle with both our hopes and our teaching fears: why not be kind?
Motherhood and spiritual practice deeply intersected with the politics of U.S. imperialism at Waaswaagoning (in what is currently Minnesota) between 1835 and 1839. These dates reflect the years in which Catharine Ely, wife of missionary Edmund Ely, kept a diary, providing a rare glimpse into a female missionary’s perspective on the American colonial venture in the Upper Midwest. It is in the details of Catharine's motherhood that we find evidence of her adherence to evangelical Protestant perspectives on child rearing – perspectives that placed Catharine and Edmund in direct opposition to the ways in which Ojibwe children were raised. While the birth of Catharine’s children represented the Christianizing of the region in action – the missionaries’ greatest hope made manifest – the Ojibwe women bearing children were ensuring the physical and cultural continuance of their communities, refuting the popular U.S. narrative of a disappearing Native people, and in the raising of their children in accordance with their own cultural-spiritual beliefs, offering de facto resistance to white America’s plans for Ojibwe bodies and lands. Ultimately, the clash of spiritual expectations between the Elys and their Ojibwe neighbors undermined the Ely's attempts to convert the Ojibwe to their spiritual and cultural point of view. To the Ojibwe, the Elys practiced nothing less than child abuse in the name of God.
In 1840, Margaret McCoy, an Ojibwe woman, and her American husband, Joseph Brown, were divorced by an act of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature. The avowed cause of the divorce was the “hostile incursion of Sioux Indians” against the couple – a cause that did not meet the legislative or judicial standards for divorce in the region. This lecture explores this divorce and the snapshot of a northern borderland engaged in tumultuous change it provides.
In 1820, Pelagie Farribault, a Dakota woman, received ownership of an island in at the junction of the Mississippi and St. Peter’s Rivers in a Dakota-U.S. treaty. Pelagie’s presence in the document tells us a complicated story. While treaties were instruments of imperial expansion in the hands of the U.S. government, this treaty also indicated – through Pelagie – the strength of the cultural systems already in place in the region, and the ability of native and mixed-heritage individuals to frustrate the transformation of Indian country into an American state. In Euro-American law and custom, Pelagie should not have received land in her own right. But she did, and she not only received it but maintained ownership over it even as Euro-Americans became more populous in the region and insisted that a married woman of French and Indian ancestry should own nothing at all. As late as 1858, the United States government paid Pelagie's heirs $12,000 for the land. It is through Pelagie's life, and the lives of other women like her, relegated to the fringes of the documentary record, that we discover a more complex story than many conventional histories allow.
Time is at the very heart of what western-trained historians do. Timelines are a regular feature of almost all history education. As teachers and students, we create them on chalkboards, white boards, and an increasing number of web-based programs that allow multiple users to collaborate on a timeline's shape. Textbooks offer timelines to accompany the material they cover – chapter by chapter, students are told which important events merit inclusion on such a chart. Timelines are, without question, deeply useful. They help students create order out of a mass of information, map the context that surrounds a particular event, and assess cause, effect, and correlation. Yet timelines can also be limiting. They can rarely capture multiple perspectives on a single event, and they tend to elide the question of authorship – a timeline seems to simply be rather than being tied to a person, or a group, with a particular view upon the past. Timelines suggest a certain completeness – especially the versions presented in textbooks – that is at odds with the fragmentary, interpretive work a historian undertakes. It's hard to construct a timeline that adequately shows the influence of ideas over hundreds of years, or which can connect events happening thousands of miles apart. Timelines privilege a Western, linear vision of time over alternate explanations, and, too often, timelines are also dissociated from a sense of place, existing with little reference to landscape or environment. So how can we come up with a better understanding of time? This lecture offers suggestions, rooted in active-learning practices in the college classroom.
In an age of “fake news,” historical thinking skills are perhaps more vital now than ever. This lecture argues that all students – from kindergarten on up – can learn those skills by doing exactly what professional historians do: analyzing primary and secondary sources and corroborating their findings. This lecture focuses particularly on how to teach students – from their earliest years through to college – how to analyze a primary source and use primary sources as the foundation for their learning. Concrete suggestions for class activities at all levels are included.
Many contemporary political debates about women’s health assume that birth control is a modern invention, and that the way in which women relate to their health providers is the only way things can or should be. This lecture provides a long view on the subject of birth control and reproduction, putting contemporary debates into a larger context of women’s – including trans women’s – ongoing work to define their relationship to their own bodies.