Class profile: Slave rebellions discussed in History 355

History buffs, majors or not, may want to check out History 355: Slave Rebellions and Resistance in the Atlantic World. It is offered every spring and is taught by professor Justin Behrend.

Behrend developed the class while completing his graduate studies at Northwestern University. When he joined the Geneseo faculty in 2002, he brought his plans with him and quickly implemented the class into the general history curriculum.

Apart from the occasionally brutal subject matter, what makes this class most striking is its uniqueness within the department. Most history classes focus on a place (Modern Ireland, American History) or a time (the Early Middle Ages, the World Since 1945). Rarely do classes function as this one does, placing an in-depth focus on a common theme spread over several places and times.

The course addresses independent slave rebellions across the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It touches on the American institution of slavery, but there is equal focus on other areas of rebellion in the Atlantic area, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean.

"I thought using rebellions would be an interesting way of exploring slavery," Behrend said. "These little ruptures can illuminate what was really going on at the time, can suggest an underlying problem or idea that was growing."

Discussions center on the causes of rebellion. Students must also consider the issue of race-based slavery and the acknowledgement of this human wrong in our history.

"Students that come into this class do so with a high level of maturity for the subject. One of the things we get into is the brutality of slavery, because that is a main cause of rebellion. It's very bloody, and the majority did not end in success for those rebelling," Behrend said.

At times, the class challenges students to acknowledge upsetting facts. "There are very hard realities to sort through," Behrend explained. "Wrestling with the idea of debasing another human is very difficult, and even within our own country this happened."

The class format thrives on participation and is fueled by the student discussion that takes place week to week. Students are expected to read in preparation for each class, and that reading sparks the discussion for the day. There are also four analytical essays, all of which link to the class discussions and the outside readings.

Despite the 300-level coursework and the heavy content, and the fact that it is not a mandated course, the class has maintained steady enrollment since its inception. Behrend explained the success best when he said, "There is just a yearning to respect those who stood up for freedom."