“Fighting the Atlantic Slave Trade”
Daniel B. Domingues da Silva, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri
Nominated by: Rachel Brekhus, Humanities Librarian, University of Missouri
A good educator knows that the best way to teach is to somehow bring the “experience” to the classroom. Fighting the Atlantic Slave Trade is a sophomore seminar course created by Dr. Daniel Domingues da Silva, assistant professor at the University of Missouri, with support from the Campus Writing Program. The university’s Canvas learning management system supplied students access to a total of 150 18th-and 19th-century primary source materials on the British abolitionist movement from a variety of free online repositories, university-subscribed databases, and tangible library-owned rare items and reprints, including pamphlets, sermons, speeches, satirical drawings, reports, registries, committee prints, petitions, court testimony, letters, and tracts.
For an initial journal assignment students created a persona or character based on biographical sketches of historical figures in leading abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s circle. All personas were to be London-based members of Clarkson’s Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (founded in 1787), but individual backgrounds varied; students might choose to write from the perspective of religious and political reformers, merchants, Enlightenment philosophers, or former slaves.
In later assignments students were instructed to create a written product with appropriate evidence and arguments for a particular 18th-or 19th-century audience, initially basing their writing on a single primary source, and then on a structured list of linked primary sources. After completing each week’s writing, students wrote a journal entry, in which they detailed the challenges they encountered in understanding and using primary sources, and—as their characters—reflected on their latest goals for abolition, their current projects, the political climate, and their personal fears and hopes for the movement.
Students were placed in the center of a transformational journey that enabled them to engage in an activity that enhanced their learning experience. An award reviewer wrote, “Abolition work (and hence history) becomes a lived experience in this course.”
One student wrote (in an article under review for publication): “Students struggled to answer the same questions voiced by abolitionists. Can imperialism be used for good, or is it the source of all evils? How, and with what, do you replace a major component of the economy? How do you persuade producers, consumers, and legislators to abandon profit in favor of morality? These questions and others provided a continuous challenge over the course of the semester. The unique format of the course encouraged students to move beyond research and fully engross ourselves in the campaign. Increased empathy, for both the abolitionist and millions of men, women, and children victimized by the transatlantic slave trade, proved an unavoidable consequence of this project. With that empathy came the understanding that the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade did the unthinkable, triumphing over wealthy opponents, powerful lobbyists, and public indifference. As a result of ‘Fighting the Atlantic Slave Trade’ students witnessed that by utilizing writing and research activists can overcome the most daunting obstacles to change the world.”