HL90 EV: Sound and Color: Music, Race, and U.S. Cultural Politics

Listen to this! One of our popular HL90s is back this year: Lucy Caplan teaches “Sound and Color: Music, Race, and U. S. Cultural Politics,” Thursdays 9:45-11:45. Lucy told us more about the class and how you can learn more.

Tell us about your class!

I’m incredibly excited to teach “Sound and Color: Music, Race, and U.S. Cultural Politics” this fall. The class explores the relationship between race and sound in the modern United States. We’ll ask how what W. E. B. Du Bois famously called the “color line” is produced – and challenged – via music, noise, and sound. Answering this question will be an interdisciplinary endeavor: it entails reading novels like Invisible Man; watching musicals like In the Heights; and listening to a lot of music, from songs recorded by Arab American diasporic artists a century ago to music that was just created within the last few years. I’m also so excited for us to read a lot of fabulous scholarship, make our own creative work, welcome guest speakers and artists, and visit archives together.

What is something you’re excited to share with students?

One of my favorite items on the syllabus is “A Night-Club Map of Harlem” – I love this primary source so much that I actually have a copy of it hanging on the wall in my office! It was published in 1933 by the African American illustrator E. Simms Campbell, and it evokes the vibrant geography of the Harlem Renaissance, highlighting popular clubs, star performers, and the goings-on of Black residents and white spectators alike. I can’t wait to discuss how this image helps us listen to the Harlem Renaissance, especially in relation to literary texts like James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which we’ll be reading the same week that we look at Campbell’s image.

We heard there were some opportunities for creative projects last year. Anything planned for this semester?

Yes! Each student will give a creative presentation about a primary source, which can take many different forms. You might create a graphic score of a favorite song, for example. Another format, which students have really enjoyed in the past, is called Critical Karaoke. It’s a type of analysis in which the speaker analyzes a song while that song plays in the background – meaning that your academic analysis of the song is exactly as long as the song itself. (You can totally sing if you want to, but you don’t have to!) It’s a really fun and creative way to add your own voice – literally – to the conversation about a cultural text.

Do I have to be a musician to take this class?

Absolutely not! This class is open to everyone, and no prior experience with the topic is required. This is a classic Hist & Lit course in that it considers the relationship between cultural texts and the context of their creation: we’ll learn how music and sound can help us understand U.S. cultural history more broadly, and we’ll consider how historical methods can ground an analysis of popular culture. That being said, if you are a musician and want to engage with the course materials creatively, I will be really excited to brainstorm project ideas with you!

How can students learn more?

You can check out the syllabus on Canvas, and I will also be at the HL90 course preview on Wednesday, August 24 at 2pm! Please also feel free to email me at Lcaplan@fas.harvard.edu to ask a question or to set up a meeting. I look forward to meeting you!

HL90 FU: British Soft Power from Shakespeare to Dua Lipa

Looking for classes this semester? Don’t stop now! You’ll want to check out Laura Quinton’s new HL90, “British Soft Power from Shakespeare to Dua Lipa”!

What inspired you to teach this class?

I’m British, but I’ve lived in the U.S. for many years. I’m often struck by how fascinated Americans are with British culture – accents, TV shows, actors, musicians, books, the Premier League, Prince Harry… the list goes on. American media coverage of British politics and culture is also considerable. In this course, we’ll explore the history of “Anglophilia” in and beyond the U.S. and examine key British cultural products in order to think deeply about Britain’s past and present influence around the world.

What is a text/object/something you’re excited to share with students?

I’m excited to hear the class’s thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk. A global box office hit, the movie stars Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, and many other famous actors; its champions include the Brexiteer Nigel Farage. We’ll talk about Nolan’s directorial choices as well as the extent to which the film upholds myths about Britain and the Second World War.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

That dance has played a key role in British diplomacy around the world since the mid-twentieth century.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

We’ll explore how international influence operates not only through formal politics, economics, and military actions, but also through subtle, less expected channels like culture and art. These latter forces have helped Britain stay relevant in the world today.

How can students learn more?

Prospective students can visit the course Canvas page, or email me at lquinton@fas.harvard.edu.

HL90 FQ: Con Artist Nation: Scams, Schemes, and American Dreams

Don’t be fooled–there are lots more HL90s to check out! Angela Allan teaches “Con Artist Nation: Scams, Schemes, and American Dreams” Tuesdays, 9:45-11:45.

Tell us about your class!

There have been so many recent scam stories in both the news and in fiction, but I wanted to provide a bigger historical picture for how Americans have culturally thought about fraudulence, whether that’s how individuals represent themselves or how they market different things. The course is nominally about con artists, but the emphasis on “scams and schemes” is really a lens to think about a lot of different things like capitalism, politics, identity, and—of course—the “American dream.” I didn’t want the class to be case studies of infamous scammers (Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff didn’t make it onto the syllabus, but could certainly generate some great final papers!), or a psychological examination of why people commit fraud. Instead, we’ll be investigating why scam stories are practically part of the national mythology; Charles Dickens even said that one of the defining features of the American mind is “Universal Distrust.” So the class is largely going to work through the American fascination with scammers. Do we dislike them for violating the social contract, or do we admire them for pulling one over on someone else? It’s complicated!

Are there any particular texts you’re excited to share with students?

I love teaching film so I’m excited about the movies we’ll be watching in the latter portion of class, but I’m really looking forward to sharing some medicine pamphlets from the nineteenth century. There were a ton of different patent medicines being produced and advertised as miracle cures that could basically solve any and all ailments. While a many of these concoctions were mostly useless (or sometimes quite harmful!) products peddled by various quacks and con artists, the pamphlets advertise them as Indigenous remedies passed on to their white proprietors as a way to claim medical legitimacy. But while they’re touting the superiority of these cures, these pamphlets have incredibly racist depictions of Indigenous people as “uncivilized.” I think they have a lot of things to tell us about how many people in the nineteenth century thought about race, science, and advertising.

Another thing that’s interesting about them is that they are designed to both “educate” and entertain so you might be reading about how the liver works on one page and then a short story or poem on the next—all in the name of buying a certain medicine. They’re very weird documents, and I’m looking forward to all of the conversations we can have about them!

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

Printers in the nineteenth century were totally obsessed with cramming as many different fonts onto one page as possible.

On a more serious note, the banking system in the early United States is super fascinating when it comes to talking about fraud! Prior to the Civil War, there wasn’t a stable paper currency so different banks could issue their own and there were thousands of different bank notes in circulation. This naturally led to a lot of counterfeiting, which comes up in different readings we’ll do in the first few weeks of the semester. So a it created a culture of skepticism—banks would produce counterfeiting detectors, some of which you can see online at the Baker Business Library, but of course that could also work to the benefit of counterfeiters. In this kind of system, you get lots of conversations about legitimacy and arbitrary value which mirror the debates about cryptocurrencies today.

Do you have any interesting assignments or activities lined up?

I’m so excited about the final week of readings which will be up to the class to decide! I thought about a bunch of different texts that we might use to wrap the semester up, but given just how frequently scam stories arise, I wanted to give the class the opportunity to collectively choose a topic from the twenty-first century. So we’ll take a moment midway through the semester to reflect on what we’ve learned together so far and think about what might be a fascinating thread to follow to our present moment.

Have you ever been scammed yourself?

Hmm, I don’t think so? I hope not! But if anyone wants to claim the Mega Millions grand prize of 18 million dollars along with “the most awesome bonus prize ever” that I apparently won, I’m told that all you have to do is call the prize patrol office and make an immediate payment…

How can students learn more?

You can check out the syllabus on Canvas and email me at allan@fas.harvard.edu anytime. I’m always happy to meet with students during office hours and I’ll be at the HL90 preview event on August 26th.

HL90 FN: Speculative East Asias

More new HL90s to consider this fall! Adhy Kim’s course, “Speculative East Asias,” meets Mondays from 12:45-2:45. Adhy told us more about some of the ideas and texts to look forward to this semester.

What inspired you to teach this class? 

I’ve always enjoyed things that involve alternate world-building but don’t get trapped in too many tropes. I’m also really interested in the venn diagram between literary and genre fiction and the space where the two categories overlap. We often think of literary fiction as these realist novels about everyday events and familiar situations and the recognizable dramas of human life, but I’m realizing how discussions of what’s “real” or “realistic” quite often lead to what we might consider the boundaries of the realistic and what straddles or lies outside those boundaries. Which leads a lot of people, including myself, to think about what fictionality even is, and what kind of conditions and strategies of representation make up the worlds we consider plausible or imaginable, but also the worlds we live in ourselves. All of which is to say, this class is about exploring how certain places and people are represented and fabricated, in ways that shape so much of our actual lives. The various ways “Asia” is represented and imagined – by both people in Asia and people outside of it – have major implications for how we understand ourselves in society and the environment, how we interact with others, and how we respond to geopolitical situations.   

What’s something you’re excited to share with students this semester?

I’m excited that we get to watch an anime movie in this class. For my adolescent self, anime was a silly little pastime that allowed me to see an absurd, (literally) cartoonish, larger-than-life version of “Asian” people and places. I never would have guessed back then that anime could ever show up on a university syllabus, even though it really shouldn’t be that surprising, since plenty of them are interesting and well-made. Though I don’t watch much anime now, I feel like assigning one is a kind of like giving credit to the less serious things in life and then seeing how it could actually be pretty meaningful.  

Why should students take this class?

I think this class could be interesting for anyone who likes to mess with what we so often take to be a given about the world we live in. We’ll think about how history is contingent on a lot of different factors and has the potential to go in so many different directions, and how speculative fiction can be one of the most effective outlets out there for experimenting with a wider spectrum of how people can experience reality. At the same time, we’ll recognize how we’re molded by what’s happened before us and what’s been laid in place for us now and in the future. A lot of this is deeply tied to politics, ideology, power, empire. Our identities are built from these histories accumulating over time and moving across places and bodies. This class will be a great way to meditate on such things.   

If you could live in any of the speculative scenarios that show up in a class text, what would it be?

I wouldn’t be thrilled to be in any of these scenarios, to be honest. Maybe I could try being a Korean cyber-shaman for five minutes without imploding.  

How can students learn more?

Take a look at the class Canvas site or email me at adkim@fas.harvard.edu

HL90 FP: Atlantic Narratives and the Making of the Modern World

This heat wave calls for a trip to the ocean! Ali Glassie is teaching “Atlantic Narratives and the Making of the Modern World,” Thursdays 9:45-11:45 this fall. It’s one of the many great new HL90s to consider!

Tell us about your class!

One of my deepest interests is how people narrate their relationships to the ocean. It’s an interest that links my intellectual and personal lives. With Atlantic Narratives and the Making of the Modern World, my goal is to show students how the ocean made the modern world: how, for instance, currents, prevailing winds, and fisheries facilitated the development of racial capitalism, and how, by narrating the Atlantic, it’s possible to reclaim the ocean as an agent of racial and environmental justice. We’ll be reading everything from Viking sagas to abolitionist satire written by sharks, and speaking with dancers, scholar activists, museum curators and captains who narrate the Atlantic as part of their daily work.

What’s something you’re looking forward to sharing with students?

It’s so hard to choose! Writing this syllabus was really difficult because there’s so much that I want to share with students, and so little time. That said, I’m especially excited to share Rita Indiana’s novel Tentacle. It’s a novel about colonization and climate change in the Caribbean, written by a Dominican musician whose fans call her La Monstra (the Monster)—and it’s been reviewed as “The Tempest meets the telenovela.” If you’ve ever wondered about the connections between Santería and sea anemones, or slavery and sea level rise, this is the novel for you. 

Do you have any exciting activities planned?

Yes! We’ll be collaborating with a local nonprofit that operates a schooner in Boston Harbor and the Caribbean, developing high school humanities curriculum and designing an interactive, digital chart. So often, we think of history and literature as confined to the seminar room, the archive, and other overtly scholarly spaces. This project will help us practice cultural studies in the world—and at sea! It will also help us think in more expansive and inclusive ways about what constitutes expertise in the humanities; our collaborators live and work in a primary source (a 97-year-old schooner) and have lots of deep embodied knowledge.

What do you want students to take away from the class?

This course will help you understand how culture, history, and environment intersect, and help you identify, expose, and narrate these intersections. You’ll learn how the ocean made the modern world—how it mediates our cultural, historical, and economic experiences—and that this world-making is fluid (no pun intended), rather than linear or teleological. My hope is that taking this course will equip you to make interdisciplinary connections not just between humanities fields, but between humanities and the scientific and political realms.

If you could share one comment from a professor that’s changed you as a teacher, what would it be?

Once, in grad school, a professor in one of my seminars took me aside and said Ali, not everything has to do with the ocean. That comment raised my proverbial hackles, but also made me realize that my “sea eye” helps me understand history and culture in a unique way, and helps me make connections that others might not. If this class is a clapback, it’s also an effort to help students uncover their own critical lenses and understand the ways that critical approaches and lived experience intersect.

How can students learn more?

Contact me at aglassie@fas.harvard.edu, check out the class canvas site, and apply!

HL90 EJ: Espionage: A Cultural History

Any chance we can go undercover as a student and sit in on this?? Duncan White’s popular HL90, “Espionage: A Cultural History” is back this year, Mondays 9:45-11:45.

What inspired you to teach this class?

When I was growing up in Brussels the parents of one of my classmates were revealed to have been spies for East Germany. It was strange to look back on seeing them at school pickup or cheering on the sidelines at sports events and to think of them living this double life. I have been interested in espionage ever since but it was not until I started writing a book about writers in the Cold War a few years ago that I started to really think about how pervasive spy stories are in our culture, and how we use them to understand the world.

What is a text you’re excited to share with students?

I’m particularly excited to introduce students to the work of John le Carré, if they have not read him before. I think he is one of the great novelists of the last 50 years. There are few more assiduous chroniclers of the cynicism of the Cold War, and of Britain in sharp imperial decline for that matter.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

Espionage is everywhere. Over the last few years I have been addicted to tv spy dramas: The AmericansThe Night Manager and especially the brilliant French show The Bureau. At the same time the news has been full of real spying drama, from the Steele dossier to the attempted assassination of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the sleepy English town of Salisbury. Every week there seems to be a new cyberattack on American institutions, companies and individuals. Espionage is everywhere – and that’s just what clears the surface. All of which raises many questions: what is the relationship between real life espionage and the spy stories we consume for pleasure? Why are we so fascinated by the idea of a secret world? Are spy stories just escapist entertainment? Or do they tell us something more interesting about the societies which produced them?

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

That the CIA has admitted to doing things far crazier than you have probably imagined.

Are you doing any cool projects or assignments?

For the final assignment students will be able to write about their own favorite spy novel or movie. We will be thinking about how these spy stories relate to the ones in class and to the specific historical contexts in which they were created and consumed.

How should students contact you to find out more?

If you are interested please check out the Canvas site here, or drop me an email.

HL90 FK: Europe After the Cold War

Do you know what you’re taking this fall? Bri Smith’s new HL90, “Europe After the Cold War,” is one you won’t want to miss! Bri told us more about the class, Europe after 1989, and even the World Cup!

What inspired you to teach this class?

This class was inspired by my frustration with Cold War classes that end in 1989. The final week of my Cold War history classes typically features a whirlwind tour through the revolutions of 1989, the “Fall of the Wall,” and the demise of Soviet Union. I have always found this incredibly frustrating, because the question “what happens next?” was so important and fascinating to me! Thus, devoting a whole semester to Europe after the Cold War is really a dream class.

Making 1989 the starting point rather than the end, this class focuses on the ambiguous aftermath of the world historical events of 1989-1991 in Europe, and their longer-term consequences in the twenty-first century. We will examine how Europeans attempted to re-organize their social and political lives in a world no longer determined by Cold War divisions, how they addressed the traumatic and violent legacies of the 20th century, and how they confronted long-neglected racisms, xenophobia, and the definition of what it means to be European.

Is there anything in particular you’re especially excited to share with students?

I am really excited for students to watch the 2002 documentary Foreigners Out! Schlingensief’s Container, directed by Paul Poet, which chronicles notorious performance artist and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief’s provocative public art action and television show Foreigners Out!/Please Love Austria. The project was a response to the 2000 Austrian elections that saw far-right politician Jörg Haider and the Freedom Party join the country’s ruling coalition, bringing the openly xenophobic party to power. During the action, Schlingensief staged a satirical reality-TV show that featured a group of asylum seekers (played by actors) living in a shipping container in a Big Brother-esque setting in the center of Vienna. The documentary captures the massive public outcry and debates triggered by the action, as well as Schlingensief’s use of the reality show genre to lambast the Freedom Party and its supporters. It is a disturbing, sometimes humorous, and fascinating document of Schlingensief’s stunt and the power of art to provoke and critique.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

Students might be surprised to learn about the phenomenon of “Ostalgie,” which is a German term translating to nostalgia for the East. The events of “1989” and the dissolution of the Communist Eastern Bloc are typically framed from a West-centric perspective. In these narratives, the “former East” is positioned as having to catch up with the victorious—“normal”—West through the adoption of a competitive liberal market economy and the replacement of a collectivist culture with something more individualist and entrepreneurial. Many from the “former East” did not experience these changes positively.

In the 1990s, forms of Ostalgie emerged among Eastern Germans who felt German reunification had not provided the better life that was promised and who longed for aspects of the lost East German socialist state. Ostalgie manifested in many different forms, including consumption habits as well as in art and film. In this class, we will examine the 2003 film Goodbye, Lenin as an example of Ostalgie. In the film, main character Alex convinces his loyal socialist mother, who was in a coma as the socialist German Democratic Republic disintegrated in 1989/90, that East Germany not only still existed, but that the footage of people pouring through the opened Berlin Wall was actually showing West Germans fleeing from the West to the East!

What kind of assignments will you be doing?

This class is all about helping students become better writers. Students will start the semester writing a series of three VSEs. (VSE= Very Short Essay). The VSE format challenges students to write in clear and concise prose, and to learn how to distill their ideas. The skills learned from writing the VSEs will then be applied to a longer midterm essay and a research paper on a topic of their choosing.

What do you want students to take away from the class?

By focusing on the history of Europe since 1989, this class invites students to call into question the division between past and present or history and current events in order to examine how they are intimately connected. By focusing on a roughly thirty-year period, students will also gain a contextually-supported understanding of the contemporary moment in European politics, including the Russia-Ukraine War, the American GOP’s love affair with the “illiberal democratic” Hungarian Fidesz party and Viktor Orbán, and ongoing debates on European security and the future of NATO, the EU, and liberal democracy worldwide. As a result, we will spend a portion of our classes discussing contemporary events taking place in Europe in the fall of 2022.

One cool thing about studying contemporary history is that you might get to live through it. Were you ever a witness to historical events while doing research in Europe?

Yes! I was living in Berlin during the 2014 World Cup, and had the pleasure of witnessing Berliners celebrating the now infamous 7-1 victory over Brazil in the semi-finals. Though the German team went on to win the World Cup that year, the 7-1 victory was much more surreal and euphoric. People were positively giddy. I’ll never forget the conga line that spilled out of the corner bar below my apartment with participants chanting: “Sieben-Eins!” “Sieben-Eins!” followed by a burst of firecrackers going off in front of a city bus. (The historian in me made sure to make an audio recording of the moment, which I am happy to share!)

How can students learn more?

Students should join me in my breakout room at the HL90 Preview event on Thursday August 24th from 2-3pm on Zoom. Otherwise, please email me with questions at: bjsmith@fas.harvard.edu and visit my Canvas site to sample the readings.

HL90 FI: Race and Empire in the Americas

There are so many great new HL90s to consider this semester! Make sure you check out Hannah Waits’s “Race and Empire in the Americas,” which meets Thursdays, 12:45-2:45.

Tell us about your class! 

“Race and Empire in the Americas” is an examination of how empire has functioned across Central America, South America, and North America since the early 1800s. I have experience teaching and researching in both US and Latin American history, so I’m excited that a class on the Americas allows me to combine themes from American Studies and Latin American Studies into one course. I love transnational studies because I’ve found that looking at the relationships between places and people can highlight culture and politics that are less visible to us if we just think about a single country or region. Empire is such a useful framework because it keeps our focus on the role of power in transnational exchanges. And race is a vital category for studies of empire because race is central to imperial ways of thinking and ways of building and sustaining (and dismantling) social structures.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students? 

We will spend a few weeks looking at how imperial relationships are marketed to US audiences today by examining media like humanitarian aid commercials and tourism advertisements. 

Are you doing any cool projects in class? 

Yes! We will do a short public engagement project to connect course themes to a present-day topic or issue. Students in the past have created K-12 lesson plans, op-eds, advocacy letters, and educational TikTok videos. There will also be several options for the final paper / project. Students can write a traditional paper or select one of several creative options – an oral history interview, screenplay, historical fiction, or online museum exhibit. 

What does your class help us understand about the present?

We will cover themes directly related to this moment. We’ll look at the growth of mass incarceration and policing in communities of color. We’ll examine the ways that popular understandings of disease were connected to discourses about race and empire. And we’ll start the very first week with hurricanes to explore how climate change affects communities differently along lines of race and within the structures of empire. 

What do you want students to take away from the class? 

The practical takeaway from focusing on the topics that we will cover in this course is that taking a longer view allows us to wrestle with the pressing question “how did we get here?” and unpack the larger contexts, antecedents, and patterns that shaped the present moment. That work is essential because 1) the news cycle moves so quickly that it is easy to forget what happened just last week or last month, much less what happened ten years ago or 100 years ago, and 2) if there is something in the present moment that you want to change, historical context can help us understand the elements that made this moment and thus the elements that you can take inspiration from or you can try to alter in order to change the current situation.  

Sounds like a great blend of hist and lit! Have you always loved studying both history and literature? 

Literature yes, History no! And that’s surprising, since I now have a PhD in History. Before I went to college, I hated history because my history classes focused entirely on boring memorization of names, dates, and military battles. (This semester we will read one article about a military battle, and I promise it will not be boring and you will not have to memorize anything.) In college, I discovered that the study of history was really about examining two things that fascinate me – 1) stories, aka the voices and experiences of a wide variety of people from many different backgrounds, and 2) change over time, aka “how did we get here.” I fell in love with the field, and the rest is, well, history. 

How can students learn more? 

Students can visit the Canvas site to check out all of the course topics, readings, and assignments. I’m happy to answer any questions that students might have about the class over email. And I will be at the HL90 preview event and look forward to talking with students about the course then! 

HL90 EZ: The Global South Asian Diaspora

In addition to all of the new HL90s this year, we’ve got some great classes returning if you didn’t get a chance to enroll last year! Vikrant Dadawala teaches “The Global South Asian Diaspora,” Thursdays, 35. Vikrant told us more about one of the exciting additions (between “Tasting Place” and this, we’re getting hungry!) to the class this year!

Tell us about your class!

This class offers students a chance to think about migration, labor, and literature in a global and comparative spirit. Our popular understanding of the South Asian diaspora tends to be based on very recent American history. This class will explore older stories of South Asian migration that aren’t as well known–indentured laborers brought in to work in Caribbean sugarcane plantations after the abolition of slavery, sailors who jumped ship in London or New York City, and merchants who lived on the shores of east Africa. We will read literature in English as well as in translation from five South Asian languages. I’m very excited to offer this class again, to a fresh group of students.

Is there something you’re especially looking forward to share with the class?

I’m looking forward to our sessions in Weeks 3 and 5, that reconstruct nineteenth-century voyages across the Indian Ocean using a mix of autobiographies, diaries, and other fragmentary sources. I think of myself as a well-travelled person. But my experience of international travel has always involved the banal routine of applying for a visa, sitting still inside an airplane for a few hours, and queuing up to get my passport stamped at my destination. This is not how humans travelled for most of history. By the end of the semester, I hope students can have a real sense of what it was like to sail across a vast ocean towards an unknown destination – whether as a “lascar” in the crew of a British clipper or steamer, or as an indentured “coolie” who has signed away his or her freedom for the next five years.

What’s something surprising that students might not know about this topic?

That the word “shampoo” was introduced to English by Sake Dean Mahomed, a Bengali Muslim who migrated to England in 1784, and wrote what is probably the first book in English by a South Asian author. Or that California was home to a small but vibrant émigré community from Punjab in the early twentieth century. Or that Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis on temporary visas comprise close to sixty percent of the population of the contemporary United Arab Emirates (UAE).

I heard there’s going to be a food component to the class this year?

Yup, we’re going to be sampling a lot of the hybrid dishes that developed out of interactions between desi migrants and local food cultures – roti canai, doubles, African samosas…

How can students learn more about the class?

You can see the syllabus by visiting the Canvas site for the class. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, feel free to email me at vikrant_dadawala@fas.harvard.edu.

HL90 FM: Tasting Place: Food and Culture in America

It’s August! We’ve got lots of HL90 seminars this fall, with some returning favorites and some new exciting courses, including Rachel Kirby’s “Tasting Place: Food and Culture in America,” which meets Thursdays, 12:45-2:45.

Tell us about your class! What inspired you to teach it?

“Tasting Place” is an exploration of the relationship between, well, tastes and places. But it isn’t as straightforward as it may seem, since both words have multiple meanings. “Taste” can be a reference to a flavor, a verb for the process of eating, or a term used to signify class status (“they’ve got good taste”). “Place” can reference geographical locations, more abstract ideas of belonging (“home,” for example), or an arrangement of dishes and utensils on a table (a place setting). “Tasting Place,” then, can play in a variety of ways. 

Vocabulary lesson aside, this class will examine when, what, why, and importantly, where, people eat, and the various layers of history, society, and power that are intertwined with consumption. We will engage a range of theoretical, methodological, and primary sources to think expansively about foods that have shaped and been shaped by American culture and history. We will look at the local and the regional, the nation and empire, and food that has crossed national borders. Of course, in looking at food, we are also examining stories of people, communities, and their respective identities.

As for inspiration, this class is built upon my longstanding interest in the cultural capital of food. It’s also indebted to classes I took as an undergraduate. Course assignments about food helped me draw connections between scholarly concepts and my own daily life, making theory relevant on a personal level. Some of my current work is even rooted in my undergraduate explorations of food and community in my hometown (I’m looking at you, Mr. Peanut)! I’m excited to introduce students to the interdisciplinary world of food studies!  

What’s something you’re excited to share with students?

I’m really looking forward to the range of objects we’re going to look at over the course of the semester. Food can be tricky to study – unless you’re researching a particular meal in real time, you usually can’t access the very thing you’re studying. Furthermore, we’re often trained to study what we can see or read, and we receive far fewer instructions on how to understand smells and tastes. Despite these seeming challenges, there are plenty of ways to study food, particularly as related to place. Once you start looking, the connections seem to show up everywhere! Together we’ll look at some of the more obvious food-related sources (cookbooks and culinary memoirs), and we’ll also discuss paintings, advertisements, and (my personal favorite) kitschy souvenirs! 

Are you doing any cool activities?

Yes! I am so pleased about the timing of this course, as it overlaps with a relevant exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology here on campus. They currently have on view an exhibit called “Resetting the Table: Food & Our Changing Tastes,” which we will visit as a class in September. Not only will this be a nice change to the classroom setting, the exhibit was also built around the menu from a freshman dinner served at Harvard in 1910, which will allow us a very local entrance into conversations about taste and place! I’m looking forward to applying the course concepts to Harvard itself – what does this place taste like?

Since you study food, you must be an amazing cook. Right?

I can see why you might think so, but I would not call myself an amazing cook. Perfectly adequate? Absolutely. Good? Sure – I usually enjoy what I make. But amazing? Only on the rarest of days. I enjoy cooking for special occasions and for other people, but I lack the time and patience required to become a particularly good day-to-day home cook. My cookbooks get more use in my office than in my kitchen.  

How can students learn more?

Please feel free to visit the class Canvas site or email me at rachelkirby@fas.harvard.edu. I would be happy to hear from you!