Centre for Research in Communication and Culture

About us

Catherine Armstrong

Photo of  Catherine Armstrong

Lecturer in American History

Profile

I studied History at the University of Warwick, and also undertook an exchange year to the University of South Carolina. My MA, also at Warwick, was in English Religious and Social History 1500-1700. I stayed on at Warwick to do my PhD, supervised by Professor Bernard Capp, on 'Place and Potential in New World Travel Literature, 1607-1660'. After temporary appointments at Warwick and Oxford Brookes, in 2007 I took up a post in American History at Manchester Metropolitan University, where, among other posts, I was programme leader for the taught MA history degree. I became a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2013 and I was appointed Lecturer in Modern History at Loughborough in January 2014.

I am an historian of colonial North America and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My main area of focus is the relationship between representations of the landscape and a changing conception of identity in migrant groups. I examine print cultural networks in the Atlantic world, looking at the authorship, production and distribution of printed material from 1660 to 1800. In the field of book history, I am co-editor, with Simon Eliot, of the journal Publishing History. Another focus is the history of slavery in a transnational context and I am especially interested in the ways that slavery in different times and places is taught in the school and university classroom.

Currently I am working on several projects. With Lydia Plath and Lawrence Aje I am researching non-traditional slave holding in the Atlantic World, bringing together scholars working on slave-holding by free blacks, Native Americans, poor whites and women. I am personally interested in slavery on the margins: how slaves understood the physical landscape at the edges of and off the plantation. A second project reflects my interest in oral history as a therapeutic tool and explores how reminiscing might be used to improve the wellbeing of isolated elderly people. Finally, I am leading a project which will gather the histories and memories of members of the transgender community of the East Midlands, working in collaboration with academic and non-academic partners as part of the ‘Gendered Lives’ research group.

I am involved in several team-taught modules such as Atlantic World and Crafting a Dissertation. I run American history options on Slavery in a Global Context (Year 2) and Jim Crow, Bootleggers and Okies: American Cultural History 1890-1930 (Year 3). I welcome doctoral students on a wide range of aspects of American History.

I am senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy and I run the North American History Teachers' Network, which in the past has been funded by the HEA. This brings together scholars from across disciplinary boundaries who are interested in teaching American history and sharing pedagogical best practice. I have also been involved in HEA 'New to Teaching' events where I have presented advice on getting an academic job.

Modules

Atlantic World Module

In the fifteenth century, according to the traditional historical narrative, European heroism and innovation triggered exploration and settlement in the Atlantic region, first along the coast of West Africa, and then across the Atlantic in 1492. While this account gives us part of the story, what about the histories of the places and peoples that Europeans encountered?

Europeans’ descriptions of Africans and Native Americans were often unflattering, depicting them as uncivilised savages or childlike innocents. Their unfamiliar dress, skin tone, religion and economic culture caused Europeans to distance themselves from these societies and to assume their own superiority. This helps to understand the coercive relationships as the Native Americans were ‘conquered’ and the Africans fell victim to the transatlantic slave trade.

But for centuries West Africans had engaged in slave trading and the Europeans only adapted to these pre-existing networks. In the Americas, European ‘conquest’ was far from complete and would have failed completely had it not been for support from their Native allies.

The desire for independence, the rise of nationalism and the abolition of slavery are three movements that define the eighteenth-century history of the region. Religious belief and scientific innovation also affected the lives of individuals in the Atlantic World. The transmission of news and ideas through print and oral culture was a key driver of change.

This module traces the history of the region from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries and helps us to understand why the Americas is such an unequal region today, why Africa struggles to achieve economic stability despite its wealth of resources and why issues of racial difference pervade the histories of the three continents.

Topics covered:

This module explores the history of contact between Europe, Africa and the Americas from approximately 1450 to 1850. We move chronologically through the history of the period, charting the moment of first contact, the development of European settlements in the Americas, the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade, and the origins of the movements for self-government. We look at the impact of European and American contact on Africa and explore how far African culture influenced the development of the other regions. This module also encourages students to challenge the concept of the Atlantic world: is it a useful means to explore the history of the region or are local, national or global histories preferable?

Learning:

The module is taught through four hours of lectures per week and a fortnightly seminar. During lecture time I will introduce students to the historical context by giving them an overview of the important dates, people and places. I will also present the opinions of key historians in the field and perhaps also look at some important primary sources. Visual materials such as maps are crucial to this topic. In the seminar, students discuss particular aspects in more detail. They may be assigned reading to prepare them for the seminar and may be asked to discuss their ideas. It also gives an excellent opportunity for students to ask questions if there is an aspect of the topic that they haven’t understood.

Assessment:

There are three parts to the assessment. An essay (including footnotes and a bibliography) will examine one of the topics covered in the first half of the module, such as contact between Europeans and Natives, or the origins of the slave trade. Second, students will be asked to keep a seminar diary, recording their preparation for, participation in and response to three of the seminars. Finally, there will be a two hour exam at the end of the semester examining students’ understanding of the entire module.

Reading:

Catherine Armstrong & Laura Chmielewski, The Atlantic Experience (2013)

Douglas Egerton et al, The Atlantic World (2007)

Jack Greene & Philip Morgan, Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (2009)

Slavery in a Global Context

When they think about slavery, most people imagine the transatlantic system in which millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic to be plantation labourers in the Americas. They believe that this trade was abolished by the British in 1807 and that slavery itself ended by the middle of the century, in the United States’ case after a destructive civil war. While this is true, it does not give us the full picture of the history of slavery.

Transatlantic slavery is only one of many slaveries. Almost every society for which we have historical records had slaves or bonded labourers. It is only through exploring slavery across historical periods and on a global scale that we can truly understand the scale of this coercive type of labour. Slavery was part of life in China, India, the Middle East and Africa and of course the Americas. In Western Europe, slavery developed into serfdom in the early Medieval period. Later, in Eastern Europe, serfdom was not ended until the nineteenth century.

In each of these places the nature of slavery varied. Can we define the essence of slavery, defining aspects of it that exist regardless of time or place? Some scholars claim that slavery is about ‘natal alienation’ or removal from one’s kinship and social networks. Others argue that it is about possession of another person, or about withdrawing the right of ownership from another.

Treatment of slaves has also varied, with some laws passed to protect slaves and enshrine their limited rights, while others restrict their movement and permit harsher and harsher punishments. The fear of slaves’ ability to rebel crossed many cultures from Ancient Rome to the eighteenth-century Caribbean. Slavery’s harshness may also be judged on whether a slave could free himself or be freed by his master. In many historical periods, being a slave was only a temporary condition. In others, such as the nineteenth-century United States, there was little opportunity for escape or freedom.

By understanding these slaveries in the past, we can better contribute to the ending of slavery in our own time. Often, the term ‘slavery’ is used indiscriminately. But we still need an abolition movement to end slavery today and by examining past attempts, we can learn about techniques and arguments that work.

Topics covered:

In this module we undertake a chronological study of slavery from the earliest recorded mention of it in roughly 2000 BC in the Ur law codes from Sumeria through to the present day. We use comparative history to assess the characteristics of slavery and the slave trade, while also reflecting on the viability of comparative history as a method. We use the antebellum United States as a case study and explore this period for several weeks in the middle of the module. Throughout we explore key themes such as the mechanisms by which people are enslaved, the ethnic dimension (are slaves always the ethnic ‘other’?), the legal definition of slavery and how this differs from their actual treatment, and resistance to slavery, by slaves themselves and by others within the society. We finish the module by examining contemporary slavery in the twenty-first century world and asking what we can do as historians to contribute to the abolition effort today.

Learning

The course is taught through two hours of lectures and a one hour seminar per week. During the lecture time, I will introduce students to the topic giving a basic understanding of the key dates, people and themes. I will also introduce the recommended reading and primary sources for that week. The seminar hour gives students the opportunity to discuss their reading and their understanding of the topic through small group work. Sometimes during seminar time we will also discuss the assessment of the module. There is the opportunity to meet with me one to one outside class time to discuss progress.

Assessment:

This module is assessed in two ways, by a piece of coursework and an end of semester exam. The coursework involves designing a museum exhibition to illustrate an aspect of the theme ‘Slavery in a Global Context’. Students choose the aspect that most interests them and research the topic by choosing artefacts, documents and pictures that illustrate the subject. They write captions to accompany these items to explain their significance to museum visitors. They also write a 2500-word catalogue introduction to explain the historical context of their exhibition. The exam will be two hours long and will involve primary source work and formal essay answers.

Reading:

Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor (1987)
Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (1982)
David Turley, Slavery (2000)

Jim Crow, Bootleggers and Okies Module

At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was on the way to becoming the world’s super-power. Unsure whether to maintain its isolationist and anti-imperialist stance, it used its vast resources of land, mineral wealth and people to great effect. The devastating war in Europe from 1914 to 1918 confirmed the strength of the United States. However, this story of political and economic domination is underpinned by a cultural story full of tragedy. The land of plenty and the American Dream was built on unsure foundations.

Progressives exposed the corruption and inequality within American society, arguing that the government should take a greater role in caring for its citizens. A government policy of laissez-faire would no longer suffice. Government tried to reform the morality of the people through the prohibition of alcohol (1919-1933) and, during the first three decades of the twentieth century, of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis. Prohibition sparked a crime wave that produced illegal ‘stills’ in rural United States and gangsterism in the cities, epitomised by Chicago’s ‘boss’ Al Capone.

There was also an hardening of racial attitudes as a fear of immigrants, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe pervaded American culture. This was the zenith of race-relations as the ‘Jim Crow’ era saw African-Americans stripped of every advantage that they had won since the end of slavery in 1865. They were victims of an oppressive regime and personal prejudice, and lynching was commonplace. However, the African-American middle class in towns such as Harlem responded to this with artistic creativity and campaigning that reinforced their African identity and also their rights to equal treatment within the United States.

At least the economy was flourishing, until 1929 when the Wall Street Crash and ensuing Great Depression affected the United States and had global ramifications too. The government’s response to the Depression - the New Deal - has caused debate among historians ever since. The cultural outpouring of this period, by authors such as John Steinbeck, heralded significant popular political change in the years leading up to World War Two.

Topics covered

We look at the cultural and social history of the United States, from the boom and bust era of the 1890s to the depression years of the 1930s. The module examines issues such as race, gender, crime, imperialism and religion using literary, artistic and film sources as well as more traditional historical sources. We focus on immigration, Jim Crow racism, the Harlem Renaissance, Prohibition (of alcohol and drugs) and gangsterism and the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.

Learning

The module is taught through 2 weekly lectures and an hour-long seminar. In the lectures I will introduce the topic for the week, giving a broad overview of the historical context. Sometimes we will watch a documentary or a film or I will discuss art or literature from the period in question. In the seminar/workshop, students will have the opportunity to analyse primary source material in much more depth, preparing informal presentations and also leading discussions on the attitudes of historians.

Assessment

The module is assessed in three ways. First students write an essay (including footnotes and bibliography) about a key historical debate covered in the module.Second they produce a poster presentation about a non-textual primary source (such as a piece of art, a photograph, a cartoon, a film or a radio broadcast). Finally, there is a two hour exam including questions covering the content of the entire course.

Reading

Claude Fischer, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Cook., Glickman & O’Malley, eds. The Cultural Turn in US History (University of Chicago Press, 2008)

 

Books

Published chapters

Articles

  • ‘Atlantic Explorations: Europe discovers a Wider World’, Modern History Review, 18 (1), (2015) pp. 24-28.
  • ‘Imperial Borderland? Fear and Rivalry in representations in print of the landscape of Carolina and Louisiana 1660-1753’, E-Rea: Revue électronique d’études sur le monde anglophone, 13 (2) 2016.
  •  ‘Combining Reminiscence Therapy with Oral History to Intervene in the Lives of the Isolated Elderly’, 4000 word narrative review, Counselling Psychology Review, 2017.
  •  ‘Frederick Law Olmsted and the Cultural Geography of Southern Slave Autonomy’, Slavery and Abolition, vol. 38 (2017).