HL90 EU: The Rise of the Far Right in Europe

The deadline to apply for an HL90 seminar is Tuesday, August 24. Do you know what you’ll be taking? Check out John Boonstra’s new course, The Rise of the Far Right in Europe, which meets Mondays, 3-5.

What inspired you to teach this class?

In April 2002, I was living in France on an exchange program, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the demagogic leader of the far-right National Front party, shocked the country by placing second in the first round of presidential elections, marking the first time a fringe party candidate had advanced to the run-off for the presidency.

While it would be a stretch to suggest that I had this class in mind nearly two decades ago, these elections did signify a watershed moment for the rise of the contemporary Far Right in France and in Europe—or at least for its apparently sudden entry into the political and cultural mainstream. Even more recently, of course, we’ve seen extremist movements across—and beyond—the continent seemingly advance ever further into the realms of politics, society, culture, and ideology, inspiring fearful invocations (some seemingly hyperbolic, others uncannily prescient) of several countries’ fascist pasts.

By juxtaposing today’s incarnation of the Far Right with its historical predecessors of nearly a century ago, I’d like for this class not so much to trace right-wing movements’ rise and fall (and rise) as to query how their effects are remembered and forgotten, their legacies rehabilitated and distorted, and their ideas reanimated and remolded. The question, then, becomes less about whether a given movement can be considered “fascist,” than about what this designation means, at different moments, in different contexts, and as refracted through different cultural sources.

What kind of texts are you excited to share with students?

I’m looking forward to reading works like those of Natalia Ginzburg and Irène Némirovsky (Family Lexicon and Suite Française, respectively). We’ll approach these books not only through the lens of their authors’ tragic experiences—the husband of the former was tortured to death by Italian Fascists, and the latter was sent by Vichy French authorities to die at Auschwitz—and their status as Jews, as women, and as resistants, but also as windows into how Italian and French societies had turned toward collaboration and coexistence with extremism.

I’m also eager to look at the monuments, films, and artwork we’ll be considering—in the case of Spain alone, these range from Francisco Franco’s ostentatious tomb (out of which he was disinterred just this past year), to Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical take on the Spanish Civil War in Pan’s Labyrinth, to Picasso’s iconic representation of violence in Guernica—as well as novels that transport the reader between past and present, between memory and mystery, and (aptly enough) between genres of history and literature, such as Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis and Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder.

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

I first came across at least two of the sources we’ll be reading—Soldiers of Salamis and Pap Khouma’s I Was an Elephant Salesman—thanks to…Hist and Lit students! You are often our best resource, and I’ll be happy to encourage creativity and exploration in developing your assignments for this class.

How should interested students learn more about the class?

I’d be happy to connect with interested students by email (jboonstra@fas.harvard.edu) and/or to meet over Zoom (or in person!) at their convenience. I’ll also be at the exciting Hist & Lit HL90 Course Preview on Monday, August 23 at 2 pm EST, and would be thrilled to talk with anyone who might be interested then.

HL90 EK: American Noir

Some more returning HL90s this semester! Angela Allan told us about American Noir, which meets Thursdays, 9:45-12:45. Read on to find out more about the class and what other movies Angela watches.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I spent a lot of time early in the pandemic watching movies as an alternative to doomscrolling (although I did plenty of that too), and realized that a lot of the films I turned to were not exactly “feel good” movies. While there’s a lot to love about noir—snappy dialogue, great clothes, amazing cinematography—it’s also incredibly unsettling stuff. But audiences in the 1940s and 50s loved it (and given the number of neo-noirs, audiences still do)! Life called it “Hollywood’s profound postwar affection for morbid drama.” In the haze of popular narratives about the postwar period, we so often think about the end of World War II as this quick pivot to the nuclear family in the suburbs but the end of the war also marked a kind of social and psychological reckoning with what the national identity would be. So we’ll be talking about noir as the cultural counterpart to these conversations.

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

I’m so excited to talk about…everything! But one of the things we’ll be doing as an activity on the first day of class is looking at some true crime magazines from the 1940s and 1950s. I’m not a podcast person, but I find it super interesting that things like Serial have been so popular in the last couple of years. The magazines we’re looking at show that this public appetite for true crime is nothing new. It’s amazing how many different magazines existed: True Detective, Front Page Detective, Uncensored Detective, Inside Detective, and so on. They also have these totally salacious headlines, photos, and illustrations, so I’m looking forward to our discussion about who the audience for them was and what purpose they served.

Do you have any interesting assignments planned?

I like to give a bunch of options for final papers and projects. So while there are options to “remix” the syllabus, do a research paper, and write a “Week 15” of the syllabus using texts of your choice, there’s also a creative option where students can write their own short noir, supported by the historical context we cover in class and placed in conversation with some of the other texts we’ve analyzed.

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

One of my informal policies for the classroom is banning the word “problematic” from discussion. The texts in this class have many, many, many flaws but I think that’s why they’re also so interesting and important to study. What’s more, so many of the novels and films are about the problematic. Noir is all about individuals who break norms or rebel. These characters don’t “fit” into an idealized model of society that is largely built by and for cis-heterosexual white men. Some of our texts are invested in the restoration or affirmation of this society by purging the “bad” individual, while others are invested in critiquing the harm that society inflicts upon individuals who don’t conform. I’m hoping we’ll have a lot of great conversations about how popular culture participates in navigating these ideas.

So is noir your favorite genre?

I love all kinds of movies! I’ll always be excited to watch a noir or neo-noir, but my Netflix suggestions are all over the place. I’m really interested in genre fiction and film more generally, so I also like action and crime movies, rom-coms, animated movies, comedies, and sometimes horror (I’ll read horror novels, but am not cut out for most of the movies!). I admit I haven’t been keeping up with too many Oscar movies lately, although I thought Parasite was amazing. I could also talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe for ages, and don’t even get me started on a certain blockbuster franchise set in a galaxy far, far away which I could discuss/rant about forever…

How can students learn more?

You can check out the syllabus on Canvas, sign up for my office hours (link is on Canvas!), or shoot me an email (allan@fas.harvard.edu)! I’ll also be at the HL90 Course Preview on Monday, August 23 if you want to talk to me while you’re shopping all of the great 90s Hist & Lit has this semester.

HL90 EW: Migrants and Displacement in the Modern Middle East

We’ve still get lots of HL90s to share before the deadline to apply (August 24)! Sam Dolbee answered our classes about his new class and some of the texts it will explore–and may or may not have thrown in a question of his own. Migrants and Displacement in the Modern Middle East meets Wednesdays, 3-5!

What inspired you to teach this class?

According to the UNHCR, Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world, and as I have been there over the years the presence of so many displaced people is obvious. When I was in the southern city of Urfa in 2014, I remember seeing a sign with directions in Arabic, English, Persian, and Turkish (the city receives many tourists as well as pilgrims because it is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham). At the bottom of the sign, someone had drawn a map of Syria, and written some phrases in Arabic about the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs. My class is in part an attempt to grapple with all of the dynamics brought together in the graffitied sign: how routes of one kind of migrant (religious pilgrims) intersected with those of others (refugees); how the imprints of one place end up in new places; and how people far from home work to make their surroundings their own.

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

I’m excited about a lot of materials: the autobiography of a man enslaved in the Ottoman Empire who eventually came to the United States and fought in the Union Army in the Civil War; a 1911 newspaper column from the perspective of a Muslim peasant in Ottoman Palestine; and Alexandra Chreiteh’s novella of mid aughts Lebanon Ali and his Russian Mother. But one that I’m especially excited about is a podcast in which Richard Breaux discusses how a record collecting hobby in the present day led him to learn about the Syrian and Lebanese communities of the U.S. Midwest in the early twentieth century. He uncovered not only unknown histories of Arabic-language music produced in the United States, but also sources more intimate, including, most poignantly, audio from a Syrian wedding near Detroit around 1940. The audio records give us insight into the history of migration, and also raise broader questions about archives.  

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

It’s probably overdetermined that a historian would say there’s a longer history to something than people realize, but there’s a longer history to migration and the Middle East than most people would realize from newspaper headlines!

In fact, Boston itself has had a significant Syrian and Lebanese community since the early twentieth century. This is in addition to the city’s Armenian and Greek communities, many with roots in the former Ottoman Empire. In fact northeast of Cambridge in the tanneries of Peabody, Massachusetts, there were so many laborers that hailed from the Ottoman Empire that Walnut Street with its coffeeshops echoing with the sounds of Greek, Kurdish, and Turkish became popularly known as Ottoman Street. Some returned to the Ottoman Empire, while others stayed in the United States. I went for a walk in the cemetery of Peabody several years ago and saw glimpses of this community, such as the gravestone of Halid Naman of Diyarbakır, the shaky Ottoman Turkish engraving of which suggested it was done by someone unfamiliar with the language.

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

The goal of this class is to think about big structures like capitalism or empire and events like the 1923 Population Exchanges or the Iraq War from the perspectives of people whose everyday lives they shaped, whether they went somewhere new or stayed where they had been. A secondary aim is to consider how the discipline of history—so often based on state archival records—can account for people who often moved beyond the scope of states.

Will you find an exceedingly tenuous excuse to make the class listen to iconic Lebanese singer Fairuz at some point?

Who wrote these questions? I mean, yes, probably.

How can students learn more?

They can attend the HL90 open house on Monday, August 23rd at 2 pm on Zoom or contact me by email at samuel_dolbee@fas.harvard.edu.

HL90 EV: Sound and Color: Music, Race, and US Cultural Politics

We’re so excited to share more of this fall’s HL90 seminars, and Lucy Caplan told us all about her new course, Sound and Color, which meets Thursdays, 12:45-2:45. She also shared some podcast recommendations!

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 a century ago to others that were just created within the last few years. I’m also excited for us to read a lot of fabulous scholarship and to engage in some soundmaking projects of our own.

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

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.

Are you doing any cool projects or activities in class?

Yes! Each student will give a creative presentation about a primary source, which can take many different forms. You might create a visual score of a favorite song, for example, or produce a brief podcast based on a close reading of a passage from a novel. 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.

Speaking of podcasts…what are some of your favorites?

I was thrilled earlier this summer to listen to Radiolab’s “The Vanishing of Harry Pace,” which tells the story of a historical figure who will feature prominently in our class! Pace was a founder of the first Black-owned record label in the United States, Black Swan Records; we’ll be listening to a bunch of recordings from the label this semester. The series is in six episodes, so it’s great for a long drive and/or beginning-of-the-semester unpacking. Check it out here.

How can students learn more?

In addition to the HL90 course preview on Monday, August 23 at 2pm, I’ll be holding drop-in Zoom office hours on Tuesday, August 24 from 10-11am. You can also email me at Lcaplan@fas.harvard.edu to ask a question or to set up a meeting. I look forward to meeting you!

HL90 EI: Islam in Early America

Lots of HL90s to consider! Arianne Urus’s class, Islam in Early America, meets on Wednesdays, 9:45-11:45. Arianne told us more about some of the texts and topics covered in the course:

Tell us more about your class and what students can expect to learn.

Bringing together the Spanish Inquisition, Atlantic slavery, West African politics, and European imperialism, this course will examine how Islam and Muslims have been present in the Americas for centuries, even if this history is largely forgotten. While focused on the early modern period, the course concludes with a reading of Malcolm X. Together, we will open up questions about the connections between the past and present place of Muslims in the United States and the Atlantic World more broadly.

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

I’m looking forward to reading the autobiography of Omar ibn Said. Originally from West Africa, ibn Said was enslaved in the Carolinas and wrote his autobiography in Arabic in 1831. Rhiannon Giddens has created an opera, “Omar,” based on his life,  composing music with Arabic and African influences as well as African American folk traditions. Considering the text and the opera side by side, we can think about how the position of Muslims in the United States today might have influenced Giddens’s opera as well as how ibn Said’s experiences as a Muslim in early America might complicate twenty-first-century narratives about Muslim Americans.

How can students learn more about the class?

You can see the full syllabus on the course Canvas site, as well as reach out via email asurus@fas.harvard.edu

HL90 EY: Human Rights and Humanitarianism

Now that registration period is open, do you know what courses you’ll be taking this fall? We’ve got lots of great HL90 seminars this year, including Yan Slobodkin’s Human Rights and Humanitarianism, which meets Wednesdays, 12:45-2:45.

What inspired you to teach this class?

The past few years have given us plenty of opportunity to ponder the question of why and how we care – or not – for other people. All too often, we see the coexistence of the language of human rights and humanitarianism with the most appalling cruelty, and this strikes me as an important problem to explore. Appeals to humanity and rights carry a heavy load, humanitarianism as the first duty of social beings and human rights the last line of defense. But what exactly are human rights and humanitarianism? How effective are they at preventing suffering? What happens when they fail? Are there better ways to safeguard human dignity and prevent suffering? These are the questions this course will consider.

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

Can I choose two? “Killing a Chinese Mandarin” by the historian Carlo Ginzburg is one of my favorite essays. It’s a beautiful thought experiment exploring the moral implications of distance in space and time, asking what we owe people who are far away from us – perhaps a mandarin in China, or people who lived thousands of years ago, or those not yet born who will live in a world shaped by our decisions. Sindiwe Magona’s novel “Mother to Mother,” on the other hand, is grounded in a particular time and place, the South African township of Gugulethu during the tumultuous end of state apartheid in South Africa. For those living through such moments, the abstract reflections of people like Ginzburg are overwhelmed by the urgency of the moment. Part of what this course seeks to do is explore this distance between the theory and practice of care.

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

What’s so interesting to me about this topic is how ideas that can seem timeless in fact changed through history. Being called a humanitarian today is taken as an obvious compliment, but in the 19th century it was often used as an insult for a silly, naïve person who let emotion overpower reason. The myriad ways these concepts were deployed can help us better understand how they function in our own world.

How can students learn more?

You can visit the course Canvas page, attend the HL90 seminar preview event on August 23rd, or get in touch over email.

HL90 FB: Asian America in Popular Culture

We’re so excited about all of our new HL90 seminars! Karen Huang told us more about her new course, Asian America in Popular Culture, which meets Wednesdays, 3-5.

What inspired you to teach this class? 

I’ve been really excited by the influx of Asian American mainstream media in recent years, and how it’s helped Asian American popular culture become a more visible and less othered part of the American cultural imaginary. On the other hand, I think it’s important for us to contextualize the contemporary mainstreaming of Asian American pop culture in the history of Asian America at large, in terms of things like what stereotypes of Asian America have prevailed in the default cultural consciousness, how representations are shaped by yet transcend the historical experiences of Asian Americans, and what broader political and imaginative possibilities Asian American cultural representations gesture towards. I’m looking forward to unpacking these and other related issues with students throughout the semester, and hope that this class will give us an opportunity to collectively build a critical vocabulary for talking about Asian American pop culture, while still appreciating the media we study on an affective level. 

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

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. It’s a lovely film with a relatively straightforward plot, but I’m so excited to discuss with students the ways in which it complicates the narrative framework of the American Dream immigrant story — something that’s been popularly ascribed to the film in mainstream media. 

Do you have any cool assignments planned? 

This course is designed to help students think about the origins and evolutions of Asian American popular culture, but it’s by no means an exhaustive survey. This means that there’s a wide swath of texts and issues relevant to our course that we won’t get a chance to discuss; something that immediately comes to mind is the techno-orientalism of recent films like Blade Runner 2049 and, of course, Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson. For the final project of the semester, then, I’m asking students to propose a new week to add to the syllabus, with a theme, and primary and secondary sources of their own choosing. I can’t wait to see what students come up with! 

Who’s your favorite Asian character in American media? 

This is probably a cliched answer, but it would have to be Mulan from the 1998 animated film.  

How can students learn more? 

You can take a look at the syllabus on the course Canvas site, and email me at karenhuang@fas.harvard.edu with any questions! 

HL90 EJ: Espionage: A Cultural History

What’s that we spy in the course catalog? One of our popular HL90s! Duncan White told us more about his class, Espionage: A Cultural History, which meets 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. He died earlier this year and 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. Just a few days ago a British spy was arrested in Germany for passing information on to the Russians. 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 DR: American Speeches

A returning favorite HL90 seminar! Drew Faust talks to us about what she learned from being the President of Harvard and how it impacted her class, American Speeches.

Tell us about your class!

American Speeches will explore speeches across the sweep of American history both as windows into their historical moment and as texts in and of themselves — in other words, as both history and literature. We will be asking how people across four centuries have sought to persuade others, so in many ways this is a course about an essential tool of leadership. 

What made you want to teach this class?

When I was contemplating my return to teaching after 11 years as university president, I thought about what I had learned in that role that might be shared in an undergraduate class.  I had spent a lot of time writing and delivering speeches, and I found that I often reflected on speeches I had encountered in my work as a historian and what had made them effective—or not.  I got excited thinking about how that might be captured in a course. I also knew that students in the College had expressed great interest in having more opportunities in the curriculum related to speaking—in addition to existing courses and requirements on writing, reasoning and calculating.  I imagined designing a course that reflected self-consciously on oral communication — not as a public speaking course but as a more general investigation of how speeches work.

What do you hope students will take away from this class?

I hope students will leave this course with a deeper understanding of the traditions of American oratory, with insight into how effective speaking works, and with new critical self-consciousness about the speeches they hear and the speeches they will almost certainly be delivering over the course of their lives.

For more information, see the syllabus on Canvas or send an email.

HL90 AT: The Postwar American Road Narrative

Buckle up–one of our popular HL90s is back this semester! Patrick Whitmarsh teaches The Postwar American Road Narrative, Thursdays, 3-5.

Tell us about your class!

This course examines the road narrative as it has been taken up by writers of color. Together, we will study the ways that writers (as well as filmmakers and musicians) adopt this narrative mode to critique the racial injustices built into the laws and infrastructure that dictate travel in the post-World War II United States.

Do you have a text you’re especially excited to read with students this semester?

I’m looking forward to reading Hari Kunzru’s novel White Tears with students. It’s a dark, haunting, challenging text, and has a little bit of something for everyone: road novel, ghost story, techno-thriller, detective fiction, family drama, and more.

Do you have any activities planned?

One cool activity in our course is the “road trip playlist.” For each class, students will listen to one or two songs, not all about the road but all relevant to topics and issues we will discuss in the course. By the end of the semester, we’ll compile a set of brief commentaries on each track. You can’t go on a road trip without a good playlist!

How can students learn more?

If students would like to learn more about the course, I’ll be holding two informal drop-in Zoom sessions on August 18 and 19 from 1:00-2:00 EST. If you can’t make these sessions, you can also feel free to send me an email. I’m happy to answer any questions about the course! You can also see the syllabus on the Canvas page here.