This page is updated as of 8/26/2021.
1984: Orwell’s World and Ours
Sections 206, 207
When George Orwell wrote 1984, the year that gave the book its title and setting lay 35 years ahead. Today, it is more than 35 years in the past, and yet Orwell’s prophecies are as relevant as ever. 1984 has surged to the top of the best-sellers chart three times in the last decade, always at moments when Orwell’s fiction and our reality seemed eerily similar: in 2013, after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA’s secret mass surveillance program; in 2017, when a Trump spokesperson debuted the concept of “alternative facts” to an incredulous public; and in 2021, following the insurrection at the US Capitol and then-President Trump’s suspension from Facebook and Twitter. Even if you’ve never read the book yourself, you’ve probably heard – maybe even used – some of its iconic phrases: Big Brother, Thought Police, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, or 2+2=5. Orwell invented all of this because he wanted to give his readers a handle on what was happening in the world. Much has changed since then, including the fall of the totalitarian regimes that inspired the novel, and yet it seems we still cannot put Orwell’s premonitions behind us.
In this course, we examine the enduring significance of 1984 from three different angles. In the first unit, we’ll grapple with the text itself, close-reading key passages from the novel and using them to explore the underappreciated nuances of Orwell’s masterpiece. In the second unit, we’ll consider the text in its historical context, drawing evidence from Orwell’s non-fiction writing to add depth and sophistication to our analysis. In the third unit, we’ll consider whether and how Orwell’s novel illuminates our future. You’ll have the opportunity to pursue independent research on key Orwellian themes such as authoritarianism, post-truth, censorship, and surveillance, in order to see how the arguments of contemporary scholars and thought leaders have updated Orwell’s insights for the twenty-first century.
Money is famously difficult to talk about: too awkward, too divisive, too complicated, too abstract, too personal. In this course, we look at how contemporary American writers, philosophers and filmmakers have chosen to talk about money, and how these conversations involve questions of class, justice, work, race and gender. In the first unit of the course, students will watch the 2015 film The Big Short and read a sociological analysis of Wall Street culture in order to explore how the film portrays the values and practices of the financial industry. Unit Two focuses on arguments made by contemporary philosophers and journalists about how individuals and governments should spend their money in order to reflect their values and create a just and healthy world: readings will include Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations”, Silvia Federici’s manifesto “Wages Against Housework” and excerpts from Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy. We will ask questions such as: What is money? How do we decide what monetary value to place upon love, or a nation’s racist history, or body parts—and is there anything that should not have a price put on it? How does money interact with race, class and gender in the United States, and how does it mediate our personal relationships? The final unit of the course presents students with a selection of recent films that raise questions about the relationship between money, work and gender. Focusing on one of the suggested films, students will undertake their own research to make an original argument in conversation with the work of other scholars.
Animals and Politics
Sections 229, 230
This is an Engaged Scholarship Course.
Nonhuman animals play a major role in the lives of human animals. Yet, their contribution and impact is often ignored or understudied due to anthropocentric norms that are embedded in human systems and institutions. This course is an introduction to animals and politics through an interdisciplinary lens, drawing on political science, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and environmental science. In the course, we ask several questions. Why should humans care about animals and their wellbeing? How are (prejudicial) attitudes toward animals related to prejudicial attitudes toward humans (racism, sexism, homophobia…etc.,)? What is animal agriculture’s impact on the environment, and why have politicians failed to put this issue on the agenda? How is our relationship to animals central to understanding the causes and likelihood of pandemics like COVID-19? Is there an alternative to anthropocentrism in politics and society? In Unit 1, we begin by thinking through several prominent theorists’ arguments about how and when humans should care about the wellbeing of animals. Should animals have rights? In this unit, you will also have a chance to interview friends and family members to gain an understanding of different perspectives on this question in your immediate and nearest ‘community.’ In the next unit, we turn our attention to four different areas that intersect with animals: the environment, health and pandemics, prejudicial attitudes (racism, sexism, homophobia…etc.,), and political candidate evaluations. Students will have the opportunity to write an original research paper based on their own interests. Since even most disciplines and subfields are anthropocentric, there are many research questions that might benefit from ‘bringing the animal in.’ The semester will wrap up with a team-based capstone project that is presented to our community partner for the course. Based on your individual work in your research papers, the capstone project asks you to synthesize that work (within your team) to unlock your team’s message to the world within a medium that YOU define (poster, art, social movement, website…etc.,). What do you want the world to know about the collective research your team has done? You will also write a blog (500 words or 1000 words depending on whether you opt to write this as a team or individually) that you will pitch to an online journal or informational website of your choice.
Are Prisons Obsolete?
Sections 239, 240
This is an Engaged Scholarship Course.
With 1.8 million Americans currently locked behind bars, the United States imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world. But calls to reimagine our country’s carceral system are on the rise. Black Lives Matter and other movements are asking urgent questions: why are Black Americans imprisoned five times more than white ones? Should there be for-profit prisons? What crimes merit confinement? What is the purpose of prisons? And do we even need them? In this course, we will grapple with these questions by examining a variety of scholarly perspectives on the United States prison system. We will begin by analyzing the arguments for prison abolition versus reform in Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003). To situate ourselves within a broad debate over the history of mass incarceration in the United States, we will then compare recent scholarship on the subject by Michelle Alexander, James Forman Jr., and Elizabeth Hinton. We will also read first-hand accounts of prisons in Reginald Dwayne Betts’s memoir and poetry. Over the course of the semester, we will receive visits from prison abolitionists, civil rights attorneys, and formerly incarcerated people, who will help us understand the movement to end mass incarceration in the United States.
The Art of the Con
Sections 219, 220
Scammers, flimflammers, snake oil salesmen: no matter what you call them, con artists have long haunted the American imagination––from the pages of The Great Gatsby to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. And with good reason. “The con,” writes critic and journalist Jia Tolentino, “is in the DNA of this country.” In this course, we will study con artists both real and invented, exploring what these larger-than-life characters––and our culture’s boundless fascination with them––reveal about American notions of ambition, opportunity, and success. In unit one, we will begin by familiarizing ourselves with some of the ways that contemporary writers and thinkers have tried to define the con artist, and then apply these ideas to the story of Anna Sorokin––a self-styled “wealthy German heiress” who famously defrauded a long line of banks, hotels, and wealthy New York acquaintances between 2013 and 2017 with little more than empty IOUs. Next, we will consider the role of the con artist in popular media, both as a literary archetype and a target of cultural commentary. Texts will include the novel and film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley as well as recent coverage of the Fyre Festival debacle from Hulu, Netflix, and Vanity Fair. Finally, in unit three, students will research a con or a popular portrayal of a con––a book, a documentary, a movie––and make an argument about what it helps us understand about one or more facets of American life.
Civil and Uncivil Disobedience
Recent years have seen a renewal of protest in the United States: against racism, police brutality, inaction on climate change, and much more. Notably new is the way in which conservatives have taken up the banner of resistance: a county clerk in Kentucky refused to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples, huge numbers of people have rejected public health mandates, and many have retroactively described the events of January 6 at the Capitol in minimizing or even positive terms. When, if ever, is it justifiable to break the law for moral reasons? How can we fairly assess acts of civil disobedience by those of different political views? To begin the course we will read influential selections, spanning the political spectrum, from thinkers such as Plato, Kant, Gandhi, and John Rawls about these questions and their intertwinement with issues of free speech, non-violence, and our obligations in society, with students writing a paper evaluating one of their arguments. Next, we will turn to a number of concrete historical cases. These might include: Thoreau, who was jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax out of protest against slavery and imperialism; Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, who defended his actions by claiming that his obedience, a virtue, had been taken advantage of by his superiors; or Martin Luther King’s and Malcolm X’s different visions of the struggle for civil rights. Students will write a paper putting one of these examples in conversation with a bit of theory, testing its claims, or using them to deepen their analysis. Finally, at the end of the course, we will consider selections from a range of different approaches and methodologies about whether uncivil or even violent resistance is ever justifiable as students develop final research topics of their choosing, which might examine a philosophical argument, a particular protest movement or action, or a film or other work of art about civil disobedience.
Culture and Politics of Inequality
Sections 249, 250
The 21st century bears witness to alarming trends in social and economic inequality. Major disparities in income, wealth, and opportunity underlie our anxieties about structural violence and climate change, which disproportionately affects the global south. Continual reports on the United States’ racial wealth gap coupled with the recent Black Live Matter protests beg the question: How long can we settle for incremental solutions to such alarmingly imminent problems? We will begin by interrogating the Enlightenment philosophy of Rousseau in Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, which attempts to understand how inequality manifests from the moral complications and social conflicts of civil society. Next, we will examine The Wretched of the Earth, a landmark work of political philosophy by the psychiatrist and revolutionary fighter Frantz Fanon, and we will explore how mass incarceration and contemporary forms of structural violence stem from colonialism and what one historian of the Black Radical tradition, Cedric J. Robinson, calls racial capitalism. In our final unit, we will read literature from the natural and social sciences to enter a debate about how global capital stokes the kind of human activity that has led to a troubling new geological epoch, the anthropocene. Throughout the course, we will pursue rigorous answers to the following questions, among others: What responsibilities do we share for increasingly fragmented social and economic spheres when many forms of inequality are at a century high? To what extent is the violence waged by states and private interests endurable or unacceptable? In what ways has the pandemic affected inequality? What must we do if climate change continues to outpace our timelines for environmental solutions?
Courtney Pina Miller
Sections 208, 209
Domestic work, according to labor activist Ai-jen Poo, is “the work that makes all other work possible,” yet the people who clean, cook, and care are so often invisible and undervalued. Because domestic labor takes place within the home rather than the factory or other industrial sites of labor, what are the consequences of the erasure of boundaries between home and work, for both the employer and the employee? To what extent do domestic workers possess agency when their very occupation is to serve their employer? In addition to physical and mental labor required, what forms of emotional labor are also expected? What are the individual and societal ramifications of this labor force being largely unregulated, underpaid, and unappreciated? This course considers the complex forces of classism, racism, and sexism that have contributed to the subjugation of domestic workers and the labor they perform. In the first unit, students will closely read the popular British television series Downton Abbey, Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” and Maya Angelou’s biographical fiction “What’s Your Name, Girl?” to consider how the text illustrates servants possessing or lacking agency. In unit two, students will use sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s theory of emotional labor as a lens through which to examine Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma, which features the perspective of an indigenous housekeeper and the blurry boundaries between work and family. In the final unit, students will focus on a text of their choosing, situating their work alongside the scholarly work of others. By thinking about how domestic labor is imagined in literature, television, and film, students will investigate the dynamics of privilege and power, exploitation and identity, and the care economy.
Sections 221, 222
Biology traditionally has encompassed the study of organisms and living systems, and as evidenced by the myriad tomes, articles, and symposia devoted to subjects as diverse as microbiology, physiology, and genetics, our knowledge of these and other areas is vast. However, some have predicted that the emerging field of synthetic biology will require us to develop new ways of thinking about, researching, and regulating the science of life. With synthetic biology, a field that uses approaches from genetic, molecular, and computer engineering to construct and redesign “biological parts, devices, and systems,” scientists not only can—but have—reconfigured existing biological components for specific purposes. Currently, for example, researchers are able to create synthetic proteins that destroy cancer cells, are able to extract portions of DNA to provide diagnostics for Zika and Ebola, and are able to engineer microbes to create fuel. One scientist has suggested as a motto for this new field: “Life is what we make it.”
But while the potential benefits of synthetic biology are impressive, the field unsurprisingly has attracted controversy. Scholars have raised such questions as whether synthetic biologists are desecrating the “natural,” and if so, whether this is necessarily harmful. We will explore these queries in our first essay unit, using the following sources to guide our discussion: “The Case Against Perfection” by political philosopher Michael Sandel, “A Bias for the Natural?” by psychologists Kristi Lockhart, Frank C. Keil, and Justine Aw, and "Choosing Disabilities and Enhancements in Children: A Choice Too Far?" by Timothy F. Murphy, whose research focuses on bioethics. For the second essay unit, we will examine scientists’ efforts to resurrect extinct species, a subject that helps us think through the broader critique that synthetic biology is diverting resources from more pressing areas of research. We will draw from a range of sources: The Rise of the Necrofauna by science writer Britt Wray, Nature’s Ghosts by historian Mark Barrow, and De-Extinction and the Genomics Revolution: Life on Demand by Amy Lynn Fletcher, whose most recent research focuses on biotechnology. For the third and final unit, students will devise a research project about the ethics of synthetic biology and will deliver a short presentation about their research to the class.
Family Trees and Family Sagas
Sections 247, 248
The age of Ancestry.com and 23andMe has given people instant access to a wealth of information about their family histories. Census data, birth and death records, and other sources essential to genealogical research have become vastly more accessible. At the same time, genetic testing continues to open up radically new ways to learn about one’s ancestry—though scientists are still debating what exactly DNA evidence can tell us about our distant forebears. Yet all this information newly at our fingertips means little until shaped into a story of some kind. So how do the facts of ancestry combine with the art of narrative? How do stories about our ancestors affect our sense of who we are as individuals? What happens when newly discovered information about a person’s ancestry disrupts the story they previously told themselves? And how do family histories intertwine with the great events of history itself, with wars and revolutions, religious persecutions, mass migrations, and legacies of enslavement and colonization?
This course is about ancestral stories, and how those stories contribute to our sense of self. We begin by interpreting a classic example of family history raised to the level of art: The Saga of the People of Laxardal, one of the so-called “family sagas” composed by Viking Age Icelanders. In our second unit, we shift focus to modern America, to ask how Americans’ sense of racial identity is shaped by knowledge of their family histories. Readings will include W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay “The Concept of Race,” an episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, hosted by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and recent articles from sociology and cultural studies on the contemporary phenomena of ancestry tests and “genealogy TV.” Finally, in the third unit, students craft an argument about what a selected work of art reveals about the significance of ancestral stories in contemporary society, choosing a modern “family saga” to write about from a list that includes The Godfather Part II, Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, and the HBO series Succession.
Sections 253, 254
Would a real friend help you hide a body? Is our natural tendency to look at our friends under the best possible light an admirable act of kindness or a pernicious form of partiality? What makes someone a friend in the first place? Philosophers since Aristotle (circa 384-322 B.C.E.) have been wrestling with these questions and in doing so, they have added crucial details, distinctions and depth to our understanding of friendship. In this class, we will join this conversation by considering several key claims that philosophers have made about friendship. We will begin our journey by studying Aristotle’s foundational question of what makes someone a friend. Next, we will visit early modern England to investigate the rewards of friendship by considering philosopher Mary Astell’s (circa 1666-1731) argument that friendship can solve social problems and promote social justice. In the final unit of the course, we will consider the dark side of friendship as we research contemporary cases where friends have led each other astray. Students will have the opportunity to choose their own cases as they attempt to answer the question of whether friendship can be dangerous.
From Homer to Jay-Z: Craft and Complexity in Verbal Art and Oral Traditions
Sections 232, 233
From ancient Greece to modern rap battles, we have gathered to hear and create stories that reflect the way we define ourselves and our communities. What accounts for the persistence – and complexity – of the oral tradition? How are the performances of artists such as Homer and Jay-Z uniquely characterized through the verbal art form? In this course we will attempt to answer these questions by studying oral storytelling in ancient and modern contexts. In Unit I, we will look at historically oral traditions and delve into the paradox of studying verbal art that has been passed down to us through written texts and material effects? We will study one of the oldest and most famous of oral epics - Homer’s Iliad - along with ancient Greek artifacts at the Harvard Art Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In Unit II, we shall ask what correctly categorizes something as verbal art. We will apply theories of oral epic to more recent verbal traditions by listening to the freestyle rap of Eminem, and watching performances of TikTok artist, Ayanna Albertson. Finally, in our third unit, we will take a step back to consider how oral tradition functions in opposition or subversion to dominant culture by researching different contemporary sources. We will consider the modern podcast as exemplified by ‘The Joe Rogan Experience,’ multimedia exhibits in museums such as Harvard’s Peabody, and BiPOC rap artists such as Tupac and Nicki Minaj, among other subjects. Throughout the course, we will consider together what orality and verbal art communicate that writing cannot, what we mean by “literacy,” and if we can ever even clearly distinguish the “oral” from the “written.”
Fall 2021 Syllabus: From Homer to Jay-Z: Craft and Complexity in Verbal Art and Oral Traditions
Immigration and Incarceration
Sections 226, 227
The course aims to answer a series of questions fundamental to an understanding of the nation: What role have the fences and bars of carceral facilities—including jails, prisons, detention centers, and concentration camps—played in American immigration? Furthermore, what role do such places play in the stories Americans tell themselves about immigration? This course examines both the historical and contemporary significance of migrant incarceration, broadly construed, in the U.S.: from the ‘processing’ and interrogation of new migrants at Ellis Island and Angel Island to forced encampment of primarily Japanese Americans during World War II to the present-day detention of undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers. Throughout the course, students will consider larger questions about American immigration and traditions of incarceration: In speaking about these subjects, how, and why, do words matter? How does one shed light on experiences and spaces that are intentionally obscured? And finally, is the incarceration of migrants in America an exceptional practice, or is it the norm? In responding to these questions, we will look at a variety of representations, from poetry to the graphic memoirs of Miné Okubo and George Takei to the federally-impounded photography of Dorothea Lange and ethnographic observations of contemporary detention.
Loyalty & Betrayal
If you heard that someone protected their family members faithfully, you would probably consider that person to be acting in a loyal and virtuous manner, but if you then learned that this person was a member of the Soprano crime family, you might feel a bit differently. Likewise, it’s hard to know how to act if an institution to which we have historically been loyal comes under morally bankrupt leadership or if someone close to us holds beliefs we disagree with—especially if we risk being considered guilty by association in the public eye. Clearly, then, it matters to whom or what we are loyal, under what circumstances, why, and at what cost. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising, then, that some philosophers have gone so far as to argue that loyalty and morality are fundamentally incompatible. In this course, we will explore some of the big questions about loyalty and its counterpart, betrayal, that have occupied humans for millennia: what role, if any, should our personal history and identity play in our loyalties? How can we act ethically when two loyalties come into conflict? Can betrayal ever be virtuous? Can we exit a group but still be loyal to it? And must loyalty entail personal cost to be meaningful?
In Unit 1 we will read short stories from Edith Wharton, Alice Munro, and Lesley Nneka Arimah, which provide rich material for thinking about the ties that bind us and what happens when they are tested. In Unit 2, we will shift our gaze to politics. We will deepen our understanding of the contemporary American political landscape as we grapple with fundamental questions of the role that loyalty plays in partisanship: what is the promise and peril of party loyalty? Should we remain loyal to our party even if (or especially when) we see its flaws? How do we decide what is worthy of loyalty to begin with, and can we be loyal to a cause but maintain independence of thought? Finally, in our third unit, students will have the opportunity to choose their own example of loyalty or betrayal (or a loyalist or traitor) to explore in a research paper.
More Than a Game
Sections 237, 238
“Shut up and dribble,” snarled a broadcaster when basketball star LeBron James voiced concerns about the competence of then-President Trump in 2018. The message was clear: sports and politics don’t mix. In fact, as we will find across various media this semester, few things in the past century have been as closely intertwined. At the same time, the relationship often appears lopsided. Politicians show little hesitation to wade into issues pertaining to athletics, but athletes—like LeBron James himself—are discouraged from anything resembling an opinion on matters with a wider societal bearing. Through units navigating the NFL’s suppression of concussion science, the complex relationship of race to American sports culture, and the political dynamics of consequential events within the sporting world, we will consider the following questions: what makes the world of sports such a significant setting for political activism? What authority lies in the manipulation of athletic culture by politicians? In what ways do athletes become avatars of their cultural moment, and can they ever really exist “above the fray”?
Personhood in U.S. Constitutional Law
Sections 245, 246
According to philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the world—including human selfishness—is violent, immoral, and ultimately unjust. Therefore, societies establish supreme laws to uphold contracts, preserve property, serve the general welfare, and secure peace. However, a problem arises from Hobbes’ standpoint: if societies thrive upon arbitrary authority, it is only insofar as beneficiaries are able and willing to abide by the law. But given that humans are naturally uncooperative in the Hobbesian worldview, societies must invent something that recognizes and is in turn recognized by the law: a “person.” As a result, humans, non-human entities, and corporations can be “personated.” Jurisprudence consequently grapples with criteria whereby persons are defined. While Hobbes is not the architect of the U.S. Constitution, his influence on the issue of personhood is most apparent when we ask, “who are the ‘we’ in ‘we the people?’” What counts as a person? No question is more urgent in the course of U.S. events than when personhood is defined by the Supreme Court. From Dred Scott v. Sandford to Brown v. Board of Education, from Roe v. Wade to Citizens United v. FEC, this course explores numerous landmark decisions that have made and unmade people.
We begin in the first unit by focusing on race and citizenship, asking questions about how personhood figures into the history of U.S. slavery and segregation. In the second unit, we move to Supreme Court decisions on the topics of gender and civil liberty.
Finally, in Unit Three we examine some of the most contentious cases within the Supreme Court’s purview in recent decades, highlighting a range of controversial topics, including abortion and Citizens United. While we will read scientific and sociological articles in addition to reading cases as a group, assignments in preparation for your independent Research Essay welcome various interdisciplinary approaches as opportunities to cultivate your own investments which, in turn, makes for better writing.
The Politics of Nostalgia
Sections 217, 218
In 1688, a Swiss medical student coined a new word to describe the painful symptoms suffered by people displaced from their native lands: “nostalgia.” Today, most of us have experienced this intense form of longing for places and times past. But what happens when this unattainable personal desire affects whole communities? What are the social, artistic, and political consequences of wanting to return to the past? And what does it mean to long for a time you never actually experienced? In this course, we will explore the enduring power of nostalgia not only as a lived experience, but also as a social phenomenon. In our first unit, we will closely examine nostalgic rhetoric in both presidential speeches and memoirs written by first- and second-generation immigrants (including Eva Hoffman and Audre Lorde). In our second unit, we will use the work of leading nostalgia theorists to interpret the representation of mid-century America in recent movies and television series, including Mad Men and Carol. Finally, in our third unit, students will make research a nostalgic artifact, practice, or movement of their own choosing. Possible topics include the aesthetics of Instagram, the music of Lana Del Rey, plantation weddings, or political movements that promise to restore the past.
Privacy and Surveillance
Sections 255, 256
Most of us are vaguely aware that our online activities are extensively monitored by corporations in search of profits and that the government may be watching or listening to our communications in the name of national security. It is easy to decry this state of affairs as Orwellian or, on the other hand, to reassure ourselves that surveillance only harms those with something to hide. In this course we will seek to move beyond these simplistic responses by considering the rights underlying privacy claims and by closely examining how surveillance operates in practice. We will begin by exploring the powerful, but surprisingly elusive, concept of privacy. Are we concerned only about the possibility that information gathered about us will be abused? Or is there something more fundamentally troubling in the government reading people's emails, or in corporations having records of our internet browsing histories? We will then consider government surveillance, specifically the National Security Agency’s power to monitor the content of calls and emails originating from non-American citizens who are outside the United States. Finally, we will examine what privacy rights we have with respect to private entities such as corporations, universities and charities.
Sections 257, 258
As a repository of treasured cultural objects or a labyrinth of imposing masterpieces, museums can loom large in the public’s imagination. Because they often command reverence as hallowed institutions of culture and education, it can be difficult to decode museums beyond the authoritative guides and scripted tours. Sometimes, as art historian Svetlana Alpers notes, “[m]useums can make it hard to see.” In this course we will learn to “see” museums for ourselves – as cultural critics and personal stakeholders, examining the museum as a vital mode of cultural representation. We will analyze its visual language (e.g. its architectural design and layout, the curation and staging of its collections, its use of lighting, installations, and multimedia) as well as its written one (e.g. wall text, signage, and catalogue). Moreover, we will explore different genres of museums (e.g. large public art museum, private house museum, local gallery, natural history museum, etc.). We will investigate how these categorical differences can affect the way museums tackle the following questions: How do museums attempt to represent a nation’s collective past, its singularity and diversity, and what do they reveal about our present values? How do museums grapple with the haunting legacies of historical atrocities in the case of slavery and colonialism? How do museums open themselves up to diverse (and sometimes contradicting) perspectives of race, class, and gender? Those questions allow us to examine how museums communicate and mediate our most cherished and contested values about who we are as individuals, as a society, and as a nation.
Religious Pluralism in the United States
Sections 243, 259
The United States is arguably the most religiously diverse nation in the world. Americans possess a dizzying array of religious beliefs and behavior. And despite predictions to the contrary, levels of devout religious belief remain high, evidenced by recent controversies over a proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, as well as Supreme Court rulings on female access to contraception and same-sex marriage. How do people—including nonbelievers—experience this religious multiplicity? How are these vast religious differences negotiated socially, culturally, politically, and legally? Moving beyond theology, this course will explore the broad concept of lived religion in the United States. Through readings in fiction, law, history, and sociology, we’ll tackle these fundamental issues. In Unit One, we’ll read Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced, to explore how religion affects intimate relationships among spouses, friends, and co-workers. In the second unit, we’ll wade into the constitutional quandary surrounding the First Amendment, dissecting legal scholars’ arguments over the limits of religious freedom. Through a series of case studies involving snake handling, home schooling, and drug use, we’ll examine the frequent tension that emerges from a Bill of Rights that both guarantees the free exercise of religion and requires some degree of secularism. Finally, in Unit 3, students will focus on a religious topic of their choosing, design a research proposal, examine both primary and secondary sources, and write a substantial research paper.
Remembering the Civil War
Sections 204, 205
In the summer of 2020, cities across America exploded into protest. As the weeks dragged on, civil unrest that began with the murder of George Floyd shifted focus. Protesters across the US, and then across the globe, began to tear down statues. And not just any statues – memorials to Civil War generals. Since the violent protests in Charlottesville four years ago to the banning of Confederate flags at NASCAR, from Plantation weddings to drama on The Bachelor, the Civil War is at the center of American conversations. How did we get here? How is it that in 2020 symbols and flags of a war a century-and-a-half old still dominate our political landscape?
This class will examine the fine line history and memory, and explore the history of memory. Using pop culture, guest speakers, walking tours, and scholarly studies we will explore where the mythologies around the War came from and try to understand how they affect our current understandings of politics and identity. In Unit One we will begin by looking at Harvard’s own Memorial Hall. Then, in Unit 2, the class will turn a critical eye on one of the most iconic films of all time: Gone with the Wind. Finally, students will pick their own piece of memory – be it a country music star, an HBO special, reenactors or a statue, to research. At the end, we will engage in the public, political conversation with a capstone Op-Ed.
Republic or Empire? Debating Imperialism in American History
Can a nation be both a republic and an empire? Americans have debated this question for over a century. Today, many believe that the United States has never been an empire, arguing that American influence abroad differed from European colonialism, focusing on extending democracy rather than creating colonies. Others disagree, countering that the United States has long maintained an invisible empire through its territories and spheres of informal control. In this seminar, we explore a pivotal period in American expansion: the Spanish American and Philippine American Wars of 1898-1902. For the first essay, students will analyze William Jennings Bryan’s famous speech against what he described as America’s imperialist policies in 1900. Next, we shift to historical scholarship that explores questions of race and gender in understanding the actions and views of diverse Americans during these wars. For the final essay, students engage in independent research regarding the ways that Americans - particularly Harvard faculty and alumni - responded to these wars and American foreign policy. Students select an individual of their choice and research his or her views regarding American expansion and democracy.
Sections 223, 224
Written from the late 18th to the late 19th century in the United States, slave narratives recounted the harrowing story from slavery to freedom, the escape from the South to the North, and the intellectual journey towards literacy and public speaking. This course examines some famous representatives of this genre as well as post-Civil Rights modifications of such narratives. In the first weeks, we will analyze what roles literacy and rhetoric played in the popular Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). We will hone in on the complex relationship between black American writers of slave narratives and their white editors, who oversaw what was published, edited the narratives, vouched for their truth-value, and appended them with documents. In our second unit, as a point of comparison and continuing dialogue, we will examine the neo-slave narrative, a modification and updating of the genre after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In particular, we will look carefully at one of its most famous examples, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and address the following questions: How do African American authors rewrite the slave narratives and their conventions? How does their language of slavery differ from their predecessors? How do they understand the lasting legacy of slavery and trauma, seeking to make sense of past injustice and atrocity? Finally, this course will examine a contemporary iteration of the neo-slave narrative, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016). Specifically, we will examine how this next generation of African American writers experiments with the genre. What role does fantasy play in the representation of slavery and its history? And, in light of recent cinematic adaptations of slave narratives, how may the market influence these texts? Our primary readings will be accompanied by seminal essays on the literary genres of the slave and neo-slave narratives, their historical development, and their high political and cultural stakes.
Society and the Witch
Riding broomsticks and dancing in the woods at night, witches are often imagined to be outside society. But in these representations may be keys to understanding social norms, norms that get articulated through the witch’s very violation of them. In this seminar, we ask what discourses about witches tell us about the societies that produce them. We begin by examining anthropologists’ depictions of witchcraft among people who come to find magic believable: how do we understand others’ beliefs in the seemingly irrational idea that magic is real? Closely considering evidence from classic ethnographic accounts, we critically examine other scholars’ answers to questions such as this one by thinking across competing approaches to the study of magic. Next, we closely analyze the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the television sitcom Bewitched, bringing these pop-cultural phenomena into conversation with Mary Douglas’s treatise on Purity and Danger and Pierre Bourdieu’s critique of Masculine Domination. Using these theories, we examine the aesthetic and cultural significance of imaginative representations of witches. For the research paper, each student chooses their own example of witchcraft on which to conduct independent research. Sample topics include postmodern fairy tales like Frozen and Maleficent, Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Wicked, historical witch-hunts and contemporary occult practices. What unites our diverse inquiries is a common interest in the social significance of this seemingly marginal figure: the witch.
Telling Her Story: Narrative, Media, and #MeToo
Sections 210, 211
In a powerful essay, the late writer and activist Audre Lorde suggested, “Where the words of women are crying to be heard we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.” Lorde is not alone in asking us to pay attention to and take responsibility for women’s stories; for centuries scholars and activists alike have championed the words of women, including women of color and queer women, whose stories have routinely gone untold or unheard. Yet if this issue has always been pressing, the call to heed women’s stories seems especially urgent at a moment when such stories have come to dominate the cultural landscape and public consciousness – from news accounts to popular shows, literature to social media. This course responds to this moment by examining how women’s stories are narrated across a variety of media and exploring what impact the sharing of them can have. Our first unit focuses on short stories by contemporary authors Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jenny Zhang that raise questions about the body, family, love, and intersectionality. Our second unit engages visual and performance art alongside “hashtag activism” movements like #MeToo and #SayHerName. We’ll probe the relationship between art and activism, considering how - and whether - art and social media can achieve what Sarah Lewis has termed “representational justice.” Students develop independent research papers surrounding these topics. The semester ends with a capstone project that asks students to “curate” an online, public-facing exhibit related to their research.
Truth Claims in a Post-Truth World
We often describe an idea or phrase as having “the ring of truth,” but what does truth sound like? And what happens when politicians, news organizations, and advertising agencies learn to reproduce or mimic that sound? This course addresses recent claims that we are living in a “post-truth world,” and considers the fate of argument in a world in which truth is subjective, and fact divided into mainstream and alternative forms. Is it possible to draw clear lines between fact and fiction, truth and lies? In Unit 1, we’ll consider the methods we use to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from lies, as we examine fictional texts that blur these lines, philosophical texts that seek to define them, and non-fictional texts that explore the real-world stakes of these distinctions. In Unit 2, we'll focus on subjective truths (or truths that differ for each individual) and examine the challenges these truths pose. We’ll also explore podcasts, social media platforms, and interviews to explore how the internet has shaped our relationship to truth and argument. Unit 3 will take us where the quest for truth reaches its extremes: the conspiracy theory. We’ll look at the complex anatomy of conspiracy, and students will have an opportunity to design original research projects that fit their interests.
Hell is popular. In fact, it’s been doing much better than heaven. It’s practically a literary consensus that Dante’s best book is his Inferno not Purgatorio or Paradiso, and that Milton, a Christian believer, got so carried away in describing Satan and hell that he ended up being “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (Blake). And the world today may be more secular than in past generations, but hell is doing just fine. Harvard presents its own interesting case: Currier House’s annual “Heaven and Hell” party has situated “Hell” in a room that can hold about 500 people whereas “Heaven” can fit only about 50. (In recent years heaven has been eliminated entirely.) But what are the components of hell – what archetypes or depictions of hell and the underworld helped to cement their importance in culture? And why is hell so alive in secular culture? Why do those people who don’t believe that hell is real want to keep imagining it again and again (in Lucifer, in Good Omens, in The Good Place, etc.)? In our first unit, we will examine famous underworld themes and archetypes as we look at short excerpts from Gilgamesh, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Jonathan Edwards, the story of Persephone, and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In our second unit, we’ll consider how these themes and archetypes are taken up by recent secular texts such as a Stephen King short story, the film Pan’s Labyrinth, and a New Yorker article by Harvard Professor Danielle Allen about her cousin’s experience in the American prison system. Finally, in our third unit, students will select and research a contemporary depiction of hell, and make an argument about how that hell works as a metaphor for a real-world issue or fear (such as the sleaziness of Hollywood, or bickering families, or mental illness, or the vastness of outer space). Throughout, we will try to better understand the curious attraction of hell, and why its 4,000-year-old story shows no sign of ending.
Sections 202, 203
The impenetrable wilderness of The Revenant, the diseased streets of Children of Men, the trash heap cities of Wall-E—these are the wastelands that fascinate our pop culture. On the screen, they come to life as horrifying alternate universes and dead civilizations—the very fates we must avoid at all costs. And yet wastelands are not exclusively the stuff of science fiction. In this course, we will grapple with both imaginary and actual wastelands. We will begin with short stories by Jack London, Thomas King, and Octavia Butler. From the icy wilds of the Yukon to the borderlands of Native American exile, these writers question the way wastelands have been imagined, especially in North America, over the past century. Next, we will turn to real wastelands—to the garbage dumps and arid landscapes where nothing grows. We will ask what these places reveal about their inhabitants, their struggles, and their achievements. Finally, students will research a wasteland of their own choosing—anything from the mega slums of Mumbai to the sprawl of Boston's unused rooftops. Along the way, we will investigate how wastelands form and evolve, and how people adapt to them. Are wastelands actually the places we should avoid at all costs, or are they the places we can no longer afford to ignore?
What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Climate Change?
Sections 251, 252
This class will explore how to write, think, and talk about the complexities of global climate change. We are living in a moment where the reality of massive, human-made global climate change has become unavoidable. In the face of our changing plane--the loss of ordinary seasons, bugs, expected weather, known landmarks--language can seem hard to find. While fires burn in California and coastlines disappear, artists, politicians, business owners, and citizens seem to still be casting about for a way to comprehend and talk about the changes that are already taking place, and the ones that are coming. How can we write about a world in flux? How does the effect of environmental disaster change depending on our class, or race, or gender, or location? How do we create narratives about environmental loss?
In unit one, we will investigate how different experts describe the current effects of the climate crisis. We will read the newest IPCC report on the climate crisis, and use it to analyze a series of green or eco advertisements in light of this scientific and international understanding of the crisis. In the second unit, we will turn to competing stories about the origins of the climate crisis. Some scientists and historians claim that the Anthropocene, a name for this geological era of human-made change, begins with the start of agriculture or the beginning of the nuclear age; others place the beginning in the rise of the plantation system in the Americas. Reading poetry by Tommy Pico, fiction by Karen Tai Yamashita, and watching the film Daughters of the Dust, alongside selections from the scientific journal Nature and excerpts from work by ecofeminist Donna Haraway, we will compare how each starting point tells a different story about the cause, and the continuing effects, of climate change. In unit three, we will turn to the future, asking why so many of our climate crisis narratives imagine the end of the world and asking what it means to imagine the future in the moment of crisis. Final research papers will evaluate visions of the future, with such examples as seed-saving projects, Octavia Butler’s novel The Parable of the Sower, the student-lead climate change movement “Fridays for the Future,” and the Green New Deal.
Sections 241, 242
Shakespeare, we have been told, is extremely important. You may agree or disagree, but do you know why Shakespeare matters to so many people? Why did England choose Shakespeare as its literary figurehead? Why does every high school in the US assign Shakespeare? Why did the British government decide to pay £1.5 million to have his works translated into Mandarin? In this section, Shakespeare lovers and haters alike are invited to consider the question of Shakespeare’s popularity by looking into the relationship between his methods of artistic creation and the values of the modern world. We'll track the playwright’s afterlives throughout time, around the world, across the academic disciplines, into new artistic forms from painting and music to film and social media, from colonizers and NAZIs to civil rights movements and prison theater, and in light of identity categories such as gender, race, sexuality, class, religion, disability, and the intersections among them. We’ll practice thinking and writing in different academic disciplines—from literary studies and sociology to economics and computer science—by asking how and why Shakespeare shows up across the concerns and cultures of modern life. We'll begin with the most famous artwork of the past millennium, Hamlet, about a young scholar (like you) who finds the injustice of the world overwhelming (like you?). Then we’ll turn to Macbeth—a play about the quest for self-determination when society has told you to stay put—in conversation with two recent texts: business journalist Rachel Bridge’s Ambition: Why It's Good to Want More and How to Get It (2016) and Whitney White’s Macbeth In Stride, a play about being an ambitious Black woman in the twenty-first century (which, if COVID safety protocols allow, we’ll get to see in its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in October). Finally, we’ll ask, “Why Shakespeare?” and entertain answers ranging from the skeptical (Shakespeare is a dead white male that other dead white males have used to promote the values of dead white males) to the euphoric (Shakespeare is universal; Shakespeare invented the human).
Work: Culture, Power, and Control
This course explores the structure and experience of work in the contemporary political economy with an eye toward both its liberating and oppressive potential. We will take up enduring sociological questions with respect to power, control, autonomy, surveillance and self-determination on the job. How do different forms of work affect our life circumstances, personalities, and connections to each other? In the first unit we will examine corporate culture and how it affects the experience of professional work. Does a strong corporate culture enhance professional autonomy or management’s power? Does it facilitate or undermine community? In unit two we explore the crucial issue of workers’ control over their own labor and the concept of alienation. We examine accounts of deskilling, the separation of mental and manual labor, and the consequences of these processes for workers’ experience on the job. To what extent does alienation occur in offices versus factories versus service counters? For the final unit we will critically engage in a debate about the development of “flexible” labor and the ways in which workers’ connections to employers, occupations, and locations have become more fluid and transitory. We will explore what flexibility means in a variety of contexts and ask: does flexibility lead to liberation or loss of identity? Does it bring self-fulfillment or insecurity? What does flexibility mean for tech workers in Silicon Valley, bankers on Wall Street, and gig workers? Our texts consist of case studies and ethnographic accounts representing a variety of workplaces along with readings from prominent social theorists who in different ways seek to elucidate the conditions of work under modern capitalism.