CENES Courses: Spotlight on CENS 307

The Department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies (CENES) is thrilled to host an exciting array of courses in Winter 2022-23. Among these is CENS 307: Witches: Myth and Reality, taught by Dr. Kyle Frackman, a three-credit course that examines the cultural, social, and historical construction of the witch in central and northern Europe with comparisons to recent history, current events, and popular culture.

CENES: What is the main focus of this course?

Kyle Frackman: CENS 307 focuses on the idea of the witch, how it evolved primarily after the 1400s, and how it has changed and appeared in various cultural products. The “witch,” which has often meant a magic-using or wise woman who was formerly a benefit to society, provides us a way of understanding cultural and social concerns. We follow early depictions of the witch from pre-Christian and early Christian beliefs through to fairy tales and other media like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

CENES: What gave you the idea to design this course?

KF: I was inspired by my doctoral supervisor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Prof. Susan Cocalis, who was skilled at teaching large classes and finding course topics that encouraged students to connect the material to their own experience and to think critically about our contemporary society. I was her teaching assistant for a version of a course on witches and have found the material to be an endless source of interest both for me and my students.

CENES: Have you recently updated the material, and why?

KF: Fears about witches often resemble some of the cultural anxieties circulating today. In the wake of the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic, I added material about the term “witch hunt” and conspiracy theories and misinformation. There are always new portrayals of witches, so the options are almost limitless.

CENES: What do you think are the most important insights students can take from this course?

KF: Using witches as a model, we can examine how other groups have been turned into outsiders or dangerous forces blamed for various things: Jews, LGBTQ and BIPOC people, immigrants. Students leave the course appreciating how complex the figure of the witch really is.