Grad Stories

Rebecca MacAlpine: Examining Gender-Based Violence with Digital History

Rebecca MacAlpine is a PhD Candidate in History supervised by Dr. Ian Milligan.

My PhD thesis focuses on gender-based violence in seventeenth century Somerset (England). It examines a combination of “bastardy” and attempted sexual assault cases in the quarter sessions, a misdemeanour court in England held quarterly, to understand the ways in which violence, community, and non-prescriptive sexual practices intersect. It also explores the construction of female honour within these cases and how premarital sex, and gender-based violence challenged perceptions of honour within and amongst the community. To do this work, I employ a wide assortment of digital methodologies including constructing custom databases, performing text analysis (through custom designed software), and mobilizing handwritten text recognition modelling through Transkribus transcription software. While my research contributes to ongoing debates within the field of early modern history, it also aligns with digital humanities dialogues that contend that digital tools allow for a broader scope and scale of analysis that provides more nuanced and multi-dimensional analysis of, in this case, communal perceptions of gender-based violence.

In addition to my dissertation research, I have also spent a significant amount of time throughout my graduate program working to improve my teaching practice. While I am currently a certified teacher with the Ontario College of Teachers, I have worked to translate this practice into the realm of higher education through completing the Fundamentals of Teaching Program and pursing the Certificate of University Teaching, both through the Centre for Teaching Excellence. In the fall of 2020, I worked to develop a teaching assistant training and mentorship program in History, which aimed to build a community of practice among first year teaching assistants to promote competency and confidence in assessment practices. This work, along with other teaching activities I undertook in the department, was recognized by the Faculty of Arts Award for Excellence in Teaching.

The Department of History has been an excellent environment to develop not just my research practice, but also my passions for teaching and learning. While I wish I could provide some excellent imagery of the landscape of Somerset where I would like to travel to conduct archival research, the current COVID-19 restrictions have made travel untenable. As a result, I instead decided to include a picture of the best study buddy – Piper, the Golden Retriever – who has made the circumstances of my doctoral research much better.

Rebecca MacAlpine and her dog Piper

Left: Rebecca MacAlpine. Right: Her golden retriever, Piper.

Saif Zaman: Redefining Slavery in British Bengal

Saif Zaman is a PhD Candidate in History supervised by Dr. Douglas Peers.

My thesis looks at the redefining of slavery in British Bengal during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was a period of heightened abolitionist movements throughout the British Empire. My work specifically looks at the reaction of two groups within Bengal. One group, the Sufis (Muslim mystics), had long been critical of slavery and social inequalities. Sufi influence in Bengal is quite profound which lead to the region becoming a Muslim enclave in South/South East Asia. I have been conducting research into Sufism and slavery for some time now and my work has taken me to several Sufi shrines dotted throughout Bangladesh (former East Bengal) to access the archives appended to these institutions. The materials there are unique and not found in other libraries. One of the pictures here shows the entrance to Shah Jalal's shrine. Shah Jalal was a 13/14th century Sufi who flourished around the same time as another famous Sufi, Rumi. Shah Jalal migrated from the Middle East to establish Islam in the regions of East Bengal and Assam. He is regarded as the patron saint of the city of Sylhet and the international airport there is named after him. The other picture shows the shrine of Shah Syed Dayemullah, a 20th century Sufi who established several orphanages throughout Bangladesh and was a noted social reformer. In one instance, despite threats to himself and his family, he rescued some young girls who had been sold to a brothel. His shrine is a unique example of a Sufi shrine in Bangladesh since the carvings where done by a Hindu disciple. 

Sufi shrines in Bangladesh

Left: shrine of Shah Jalal in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Right: Saif Zaman pictured at the shrine of Shah Sufi Syed Dayemullah in the village of Ibrahimpur, Bangladesh.