A Conversation with Professor Donna Seger

Donna Seger, PhD, is the chairperson of the department of History and faculty coordinator of the inaugural Summer at Salem State Institute Series

You teach a wide range of courses in world, medieval, Renaissance, European, and comparative history. What is your favorite topic to teach and why?

I have definitely become a generalist here at Salem State, but I was trained in late medieval and Renaissance European history and that remains my favorite period to teach: the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in particular. Nearly every institution and belief was called into question during this period, resulting in new and radical perceptions of human capabilities and the physical world. These shifting perceptions brought forth revolutionary changes in the religious, political, and cultural structures such as the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, both “broadcast” via the new medium of printing, which itself intensified this emerging culture of questioning and critical thinking. Students come to this era interested in a string of accessible topics—everything from the Hundred Years’ War (now trending because of Game of Thrones), to the perennially popular Tudors, to the succession of geographical and scientific discoveries—but hopefully they leave with an understanding of the seismic cultural changes that have taken place over this era.

One of the many things that you are known for locally is your popular blog the Streets of Salem. What inspired you to start a blog and what is your vision for it?

My blog is a constant surprise to me: I started it on a whim and I’m rather embarrassed to admit I have no vision for it, other than to indulge my own curiosity on a regular basis and expose its readers to things I find beautiful and interesting. It’s really an indulgence as well as an exercise in self-indulgence and I can’t believe that it has endured for so long—over five years—and has so many followers!  In retrospect, I started it because I wanted to share aspects of Salem’s culture and society—both in the past and the present, with some sort of audience. In the beginning it was all about architecture--- as I’m simply obsessed with historic houses and have been fortunate to own several—and then it evolved into little-known aspects of Salem’s history that I was curious about myself, my own endeavors involving gardening, or teaching, or travel, or even shopping, and coverage of Salem’s cultural scene, which is very vibrant. There’s always something to write about, from the latest exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum to weekly events at the Salem Athenaeum to the Salem Film Fest. I’m a long-term critic of the commercialized witchcraft industry here in Salem, and writing about Witch City in all of its incarnations seems to be interesting to my readers. There really is no plan: it’s a day-by-day process and Salem continues to be inspirational. I will say that writing the blog has been an immensely gratifying experience in more ways than one: I have learned to write for, and connect to, a relatively large audience, and people from all over the world write me lovely notes and send me photographs of their Salem ancestors. My favorite present was sent by a lovely lady up in northern Maine: a handwritten journal from the later nineteenth century compiled by a Derby family matriarch for her grandchildren. There are photographs and drawings pasted into the text, and a first-hand account of experiencing the War of 1812 in Salem! My benefactor found it at a yard sale and thought I should have it: I’m going to donate to the SSU Archives and Special Collections, which is developing a very nice Salem collection.

What makes Salem a particularly compelling place for aspiring historians to study history?

Salem is a historical microcosm through which students can study anything: the colonial era, the industrial revolution, global trade, urban development, historic preservation, and the contemporary uses of heritage. There is a rich infrastructure of sources here, both textual and material. There is also a very vibrant historical community, centered around Salem’s heritage institutions and comprised (I am very proud to say) of several of our department’s graduates. It is kind of an accident that this most historic of cities actually has no historical society: that role was traditionally played by the Essex Institute before its incorporation into the Peabody Essex Museum. Last year, some of our graduates established the Salem Historical Society to fill this gap and their action is reflective of the role of history here in Salem: it’s not just about the past, it’s about the present, and it’s not just passive and academic, it is active and PUBLIC. Our Public History concentration, which trains students for museum and/or archival work, is increasingly popular among our majors, about a third of whom complete internships in the region.

What book are you reading now?  Is there a book that has made a particular difference in your life that you would recommend to others?

Next year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation so there has been a rush of publications that I am plowing through in order to update several of my courses. Right now I’m reading Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk turned his Small Town into a Center of Publishing, made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation, a very accessible history of the early Reformation focusing on Luther’s absolute mastery of the new communications technology. It’s really good; if it wasn’t so long I would assign it in class but I know my students will protest its 400+ pages. I read a book as a history undergraduate that was very influential in my life: Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Miller. Ginzburg uses inquisitional records to reconstruct the life, times, and world view of a semi-literate Italian miller who cobbled together a rather curious cosmology based on his rather spotty reading of the texts that came his way. I was astounded by Ginzburg’s historical methodology all those years ago and remain so now: this is the book that convinced me to become an historian, and I regularly assign it in my Renaissance and Reformation course. While not all of my students have become as ardent an admirer of Ginzburg as myself, some certainly have. 

Debra Longo