OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Catherine Denial

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

Catherine Denial is the Bright Professor of American History and the chair of the history department at Knox College. Her current research examines the early nineteenth-century experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing in upper midwestern Ojibwe and missionary cultures. By analyzing oral tradition, Ojibwe pharmacological knowledge, and the documents left by traders, missionaries, and government officials, she explores the differences between each cultural group’s ideas about infancy and childhood. These differences add to our understanding of why the Ojibwe so firmly rejected the practices of the missionaries through 1850: to Ojibwe eyes, the missionaries practiced something close to child abuse. This research is an outgrowth of her book, Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and the American State in Dakota and Ojibwe Country (2013), which focuses on marriage as a means of understanding gender, sexuality, race, and nation building in the upper Midwest. Through the stories of married, and divorcing, men and women in the region, Denial traces the uneven fortunes of American expansion in the early nineteenth century and the nation-shaping power of marital acts A first-generation college student and former director of SPARK, Knox College’s summer bridge program, Denial currently directs the college's Bright Institute, a program that supports fourteen faculty from liberal arts schools across the United States in their teaching and research. She is a member of the Educational Advisory Committee of the Digital Public Library of America and the winner of the 2018 Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Historical Association.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Pedagogical kindness is a subject that — when raised — often initially elicits baffled responses from faculty. There are pressures that are bought to bear on our classrooms from outside our colleges and universities under the banner of standardization, testing, and rote assessment that seem incompatible with kindness. We are sometimes also asked to “be kind” in a way that suggests we’re pressing a band-aid over deep fissures in our communities. Many of us internalize rigor as if it is antithetical to compassion in the classroom; we want to do the best for our students, but confuse that with severity. We often perceive that offering sustained kindness can be draining, or is the ineffective strategy of simply “being nice.” Yet kindness as a pedagogical practice is not about sacrificing ourselves, or about taking on emotional labor, but rather about being on the cutting edge of pedagogical practice. Rigorous pedagogical kindness is about believing students and believing in our students, allowing them to be co-creators of their learning experiences. This means rethinking the ways we construct our syllabi to encompass skill-building as well as content delivery, and making room for students to offer feedback on the subjects about which they have a hunger to learn. It means offering transparent assignments that clearly show students how to succeed, and thinking about grading as an active conversation instead of a chore.
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.