HL90 ES: Prison Abolition

Tomorrow is the deadline to apply for an HL90 seminar this spring! Read more about Thomas Dichter’s returning class, “Prison Abolition”:

Tell us about your class!

This Mindich Engaged Scholarship course will give students an opportunity to apply historical and literary methods to studying the prison abolitionist movement, while also getting hands-on experience working with primary historical materials and conducting oral history interviews. Alongside our readings and class discussions, students will work in small teams to build an online archive documenting local prison organizing history.

How will this class help students understand the present?

The idea of prison and police abolition has garnered a lot of public attention in recent years, and since 2020 especially. But these ideas didn’t just appear that summer, and in fact there have been other times, like the 1970s, when the notion that prisons might be abolished received remarkably widespread support. We’ll also explore different social movements that many prison abolitionists have drawn on for inspiration or claimed as political ancestors. 

Do students need any particular experience or familiarity with this material to take the class?

Nope! Everyone is welcome, whether you’re new to thinking about these issues or you’re a committed prison abolitionist. I really want the class to offer something to everyone, and for everyone to be able to offer their own perspective to our collective exploration of this complex and difficult topic.

What are the assignments like?

Rather than ending the class with a long seminar paper, this course has a handful of shorter written and collaborative assignments. For one thing, your archival digitization and oral history work will count towards your grade, and you’ll have opportunities to reflect on it in writing. You’ll work with a team to scan and organize pieces of the 1973 Walpole Prison Takeover Archive, and you’ll conduct an oral history interview with a person who participated in those events. There will be also some writing assignments to practice key close reading and historical contextualization skills.

How can students find out more about the class?

You can reach me at dichter@fas.harvard.edu with questions or see the syllabus on the Canvas page.

HL90 FW: Carceral Empire

There’s still time to apply for one of our spring HL90s! Balraj Gill told us about her new course, “Carceral Empire,” which meets Thursday, 9:45-11:45.

What inspired you to teach this class?

Mass criminalization is one of the most pressing problems in the United States, but rarely is it considered from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and communities. This course confronts this invisibility by delving into the long history of Indigenous confinements under ongoing colonialism—from enslavement in the sixteenth century to current entanglements with criminal legal systems. This course thinks about carcerality in a capacious way to include geographic confinements in the form of reservations and reserves and institutional confinements beyond the prison such a boarding and residential schools. As folks organize for prison abolition, this course wonders what the implications of an expanded understanding of carcerality—one that has and continues to serve colonialism in North America—might mean for this organizing.

Are you doing any cool assignments?

We’ll be compiling a Resistance Mixtape/Exhibition! So much of the course content is focused on different forms of colonial subjugation and violence, but it’s important to remember that Indigenous peoples resisted in all kinds of ways. I’ve already added some songs and a poem to the mixtape that speak to this resistance: Lyla June’s “All Nations Rise,” Tanya Tagaq’s “Colonizer,” Frank Waln’s “Concentration Camp Blues,” Joy Harjo’s “Calling the Spirit Back,” and Dakota Bear’s “Freedom.” We’ll be listening to these on the first day of class. I’m excited about what students will add to this over the course of the semester.

How can students learn more?

Check out the syllabus on Canvas or reach out to me at bkgill@fas.harvard.edu.

HL90 FY: Culture Wars

There are more great HL90s to take this spring! Steve Biel and Lauren Kaminsky shared more with us about their new course, “Culture Wars,” which meets Monday, 12:45-2:45 this spring.

What inspired you to teach this class?

You don’t need to look further than the latest news story about a purge of books from a school library to be aware that culture wars are raging again and that politicians and the media are thriving on them. We thought it would be timely to venture back from the current moment to explore the culture wars of the 1960s-1990s, and to take seriously the ideas and beliefs that informed them. If culture wars tend to produce more heat than light, making the effort to understand them historically—to reconstruct their contexts, to pay careful attention to both their vehemence and their substance—strikes us as a very worthwhile challenge. We’ll do this by spending time with a variety of materials: polemics, speeches, essays, memoirs, fiction, television, films, and photography.

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

There’s such a rich variety of events and materials connected to the culture wars that we had a hard time making choices for the syllabus. We could have probably spent a whole week discussing how and why Vice President Dan Quayle decided in 1992 to take on a popular TV sitcom character, Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen), for choosing to be a single mother. As it turned out, we’ll be starting the course with that incident to help set the scene before moving back into what the historian Andrew Hartman describes as the threats posed to the “normative culture” of the U.S. by the New Left and counterculture of the 1960s, and the reactions to those threats.

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

William Bennett, a leading culture warrior, went on a date with the singer Janis Joplin long before he became President Reagan’s Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education. More substantially, we think that the course will bear out how much culture matters, often to the surprise of those who wonder why people seem to think, believe, and act against their economic interests. President Nixon recognized this early on when he seized on the concept of the “silent majority”—“the large and politically powerful white middle class,” as described by an administration-allied group, that was “deeply troubled, primarily over the erosion of what they consider to be their values.”

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

Our current culture wars aren’t identical to those of the 1960s-1990s, but our present moment isn’t unprecedented either. We hope that the class will give us an opportunity to broaden and deepen our perspectives on how and why the terrain of culture has been so contested—on what’s at stake in battles over schools and curricula, art and popular culture, families and relationships, identities and affiliations. 

How can students learn more?

Visit our Canvas site, look at the syllabus, and apply!

HL90 FV: Piracy, Empire, and Race

Looking for a class this spring? We’ve got some new HL90s to explore! Patrick Sylvain teaches “Piracy, Empire, and Race” this spring, Monday, 9:45-11:45.

What inspired you to teach this class?

As a person who was born in the Caribbean, my very existence (indirectly speaking) is the result of piracy. The island of Hispaniola (Ayiti) wouldn’t have been separated into two colonial territories (Spanish and French) if it hadn’t been for the subversive activities of pirates. Assuming that pirates were not merely a band of irrational fools and that their violent acts were not committed purely out of pathological impulses, I became enthralled by them early on.  As a scholar, I aimed to demystify the lore around pirates (I feel the same way about zombies) and offer a course that would be both fun and serious at the same time. So, I am excited to discover many doubloons worth of information through this course.

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

Pirates were actually quite democratic in their organizational structures. Pirates were also fundamental pillars of the transoceanic capitalist economy until they were deemed illegal by the royal governments. Before being designated as illegal, governments (kingdoms) utilized piracy as instruments of destabilization and plunder. Many insurance companies in existence now derived from piratical activities.

Are you doing any cool projects or activities?

Yes, there will be plenty. But, students will have to sail with me under the Black Flag to find out what those are.

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

You cannot fully understand empire, or for that matter the Western world, without having a solid understanding of piracy. When considering piracy we often think about the acts of violence committed during the illegal period when terror was no longer legitimated. Rarely do we remember that piracy was first and foremost an economic endeavor. From privateers employed as government agents to the most infamous men to sail under a black flag, pirates sought treasure as well as conquest. Some pirates also cared about justice. The earliest pirates were government agents, what today would be called mercenaries. The first ever recorded legitimated pirate in modern Western history was Sir Francis Drake who was employed as a privateer by the English crown. His maritime acts were very much illegal, but the crown deemed his actions legitimate.

How can students learn more?   

By becoming a mate on the HL90FV Pirate Ship! (You can also look at the syllabus on Canvas here!)

HL90 EQ: Nuclear Imperialisms

We still have more spring HL90s to explore! Rebecca Hogue chatted with us about the history and culture of nuclearism and settled the Godzilla vs. Mothra question!

Tell us about your class! What do you think its relevance to the present is?

These days, when nuclear issues are in the news, we think of “nuclear codes,” threats of pressing the “nuclear button” while world leaders simultaneously try to avoid total annihilation. But what if, for many people around the world, the apocalypse has already happened, and its effects are ongoing? My class will think about nuclearism–from mushroom clouds to nuclear waste–as another form of imperialism, but will focus on how brave and creative people around the world have rallied together, and are continuing to rally, for awareness and justice. 

What texts are you looking forward to sharing with students?

I’m very excited to watch well known films and TV series like Godzilla and Star Trek: The Original Series alongside Indigenous activist writing from Micronesia or Aboriginal poetry from Australia. Nuclear issues, as we will explore, take many aesthetic forms, both familiar and unfamiliar, and sometimes genre-bending. One of my favorite pieces we will watch/read is Marshallese poet-activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s and Taiwanese videographer Dan Lin’s video-poem “Anointed” from 2018. They mix archival footage, spoken word poetry, and drone videography to tell the story of ecological harm and resilience in the Marshall Islands’ nuclear legacy.

What’s something we might not know about this subject?

In August 2020, the US commemorated the 75th anniversary of the detonation of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Often times, those are the only use of nuclear weapons people will have heard of, and not, for example, the over 300 hundred weapons detonated in the Pacific Islands alone. Over a period of fifty years! In response to this problem, Maori activist Titewai Harawira asked in an anti-nuclear campaign speech, “why haven’t you known?” Exploring why and how the public is under-informed about these histories will be one of the goals of our class. Maybe it’s classified? Maybe it’s propaganda.

You mentioned Godzilla, so we have to ask: Godzilla or Mothra?

Definitely Godzilla! But I also want to put in a plug for another kaiju film character: Jet Jaguar. He’s friends with Godzilla, helpful to humans, and is always smiling! And he flies!

How can students learn more?

You can see the syllabus on Canvas or email me!

HL90 FR: Latinx, 1492 to 2022

We have new HL90s this semester! Tommy Conners is teaching “Latinx, 1492 to 2022” this spring, Tuesday 9:45-11:45.

What ideas do you want the class to dig into?

Is latinidad cancelled? In 2018, Afroindigenous poet and artist Alán Peláez López declared it was, calling out the concept’s attachments to whiteness at the expense of Blackness and indigeneity. This class will explore the long history of how latinidad got to the edge of cancellation, whether or not its investments in cis-heterosexuality are also cause for cancelling, and the many stakes and implications cancellation puts into play.

We heard the class is going to have a visitor?

Yes! Alán Peláez López will join to lead us in a workshop about the racial, sexual, and gendered formations that sustain latinidad!! We will also visit their never-before-seen art exhibit, “N[eg]ation,” at the Smith Center Arts Wing. 

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

Driving this class will be an evaluation of cancel culture across time and space: from the 15th century to present day, from the Hispanic Caribbean to the US-Mexico borderlands. We’ll read the hi/stories of Garifuna writers based in the Bronx, Guatemalan refugees in LA, and trans Chilean women in New York. We’ll think alongside theorists of queerness, decoloniality, and comparative race studies. We’ll practice analyzing people and things, subjects and objects, and develop our own methodologies along the way. Our work will engage the polemic, the historical, and the cultural to make better sense of the hemispheric social landscape we inhabit today. 

How can students learn more?

You can see the syllabus on the Canvas page or send me an email!

HL90 DR: American Speeches

One of our most popular HL90 seminars returns! 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.

HL90 AN: God Save the Queen! Ruling Women from Rome to the Renaissance

We’ve got lots of great HL90s to check out this spring, including Sean Gilsdorf’s “God Save the Queen! Ruling Women from Rome to the Renaissance”!

Tell us about your class!

Like the title suggests, this is a class about women who wielded power many centuries ago, and the complicated ways that their gender complicated but sometimes also enabled their exercise of authority. Over the course of the semester, we travel through more than a millennium of European and Mediterranean history meeting fascinating women—historical ones like the Byzantine empress Theodora and the German queen Mathilda as well as fictional ones like Guinevere and Nestan-Darejan.

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

The degree of freedom and authority that medieval women could exercise, provided that they were rich and well-connected enough. It’s very true that queens almost always were less powerful than kings, particularly if they were married to the latter. Then again, since everyone was less powerful than the king, it’s helpful to compare our queens to everyone else—and when we do, we discover how much sway they could have.

Do you have any activities or assignments you’re excited to share with students?

In addition to reading lots of fascinating texts, the students will be working throughout the semester with medieval material culture—manuscripts as well as other objects owned by queens, used by them, or dedicated to them. I’m excited to see how the students connect this “thread” of the class to the reading and discussions in our regular meetings.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

The feminist movements of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries all have critiqued, and sought to remedy, the persistent tendency to identify “power” and “the political” as essentially masculine domains. “God Save the Queen” helps us to understand the roots of these sexist assumptions, but just as importantly it also reveals how flawed and historically inaccurate they are!

Can you give us a sneak preview of anything you’ll be doing?

On the first day of class, we’ll be talking about this…

For more information on the class, you can see the syllabus on Canvas!

HL90 FT: A Luta Continua: Legacies of Portuguese Empire

The HL90 preview event is today at 2pm! We hope to see you there, but you can also read more about Lilly Havstad’s new class “A Luta Continua: Legacies of Portuguese Empire” now!

What inspired you to teach this class?

I’ll begin answering this question by sharing that my father, who passed away last winter, was a Vietnam War resistor in the San Francisco Bay area, guided by his principled nonviolence stance. In 1968 he was indicted by the federal government for refusing induction, but he won his case on a technicality and avoided going to jail. This bit of family history, which I’ve been studying recently, helped inspire this new course that situates violence and resistance in the Portuguese empire within a nonviolence framework. Ok, so now let me tell you a little more about my background and what this course is about.

I am a transnational historian and my work has focused on legacies of Portuguese colonialism in southeast Africa and the Atlantic World. For this class, I’m building on my previous research by bringing in a nonviolence framework, which helps us study and theorize violence as a product of inequality, especially racism, and resistance as a means to effect political and social change. What’s really exciting is that this is the kind of work that the growing (and very interdisciplinary!) field of nonviolence scholars is calling for right now. So, I like to think that we’re responding to this call as a class. Students will explore the role of violence and coercion in shaping the Portuguese empire across Asia, Brazil, and Africa, from the era of the transatlantic slave trade to the Carnation Revolution of 1974. But we’ll also study the ways people resisted—both in their everyday lives and through organized action—colonial and postcolonial violence that continues to shape injustice and inequality in our present world. That’s part of the legacy of empire we’ll be exploring in this class. “A Luta Continua!” means, “the struggle continues!” It was a rallying cry of the Mozambican liberation front, Frelimo, and it reverberates across the global south into the present as an expression of solidarity in struggle. Ultimately, students will come away from this class with a better understanding of the unfinished work of decolonization of Portugal and its former colonies. And it is my hope that students will be able to also apply a nonviolence framework to a wider reading of the many forms of violence that produce and sustain inequality, as well as the ways in which people are fighting for a more just and equal world.

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

It is hard to choose but I’d have to say that I am particularly excited about reading Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane’s novel, The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy with my students. The First Wife is set in 1990s Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, following the sixteen-year civil war that claimed more than a million lives and displaced millions more. The novel explores the generational impacts of colonial and postcolonial violence and women’s oppression and how structural violence intersects with private life. It is a sharp, funny, and at times tragic exploration of the way women navigate and resist the layered histories of patriarchy, colonial exploitation, and postcolonial violence. Students are going to learn a lot through Chizane’s novel which in of itself is a treasure. It is hard to find Portuguese-speaking African women authors whose work has been translated for English-speaking audiences. The book is a rich example of how women’s fiction writing in Mozambique (and Portuguese-speaking Africa more broadly) has done a lot to highlight gender-based violence while exposing how inequality is (re)produced in marriage and across the young nation, through stories of female friendship, sexuality, pleasure, and power.

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

It might be useful to dispel one myth about nonviolence right here: one need not be a pacifist in order to participate in nonviolent actions or tactics to effect change. Nonviolence studies teaches us that there is a distinction between pacifism (which we may consider a moral or ideological position) and nonviolent action to achieve one’s political or social aims. We’ll read about and discuss this distinction as an important part of our work to situate our study of colonial violence and resistance (both armed and civil resistance) in the making and unmaking of the Portuguese empire within a nonviolence framework. There is also a distinction between principled and pragmatic nonviolence that I think students will find useful and interesting as we learn about ways colonized and enslaved peoples resisted Portugal’s tactics of coercion and violence, both in quotidian and organized acts of resistance.

Are you doing any cool assignments?

I’m looking forward to supporting student research on specific topics, people, and places from across the Portuguese-speaking world (even if we don’t touch directly on it in our syllabus!). Instead of writing a traditional academic paper, students will get to present their findings in a multimodal, digital format intended for a wider reading audience: you’ll build a website and get a taste of the Digital Humanities! For this final project, which we’ll begin working on with proposals mid-semester, students will get both peer and instructor feedback and support as they develop their projects. In addition, I’ll be encouraging students to find ways to think about the historical and present significance of their chosen research topics. I am a big proponent of thinking historically about the present and I think these research projects will be a great opportunity for students to make historical connections to the present based on their individual research interests.

Just curious for recommendations! What have you been listening to this summer?

I declared 2022 the summer of Donna Summer. And if you’re listening to Beyonce’s new album, then you should appreciate my declaration. Donna Summer was a brilliant artist and entertainer, and she’s originally from Boston! I was sad that I missed the Donna Summer dance party at Copley Square in May, but I won’t let that happen again next year. “On the Radio” is probably my favorite Donna Summer song (my 5-year old son also likes to dance to it with me!) but she has so many great hits, it’s hard to choose. Obviously, this means that “Summer Renaissance” is my favorite song on Beyonce’s new album because she samples Donna Summers’ 1977 hit, “I Feel Love”. I love that the Queen is paying homage to Donna Summer, who was the Queen of Disco!

How can students learn more?

Students can learn more by checking out the course website here! I also welcome email inquiries (send to lhavstad@fas.harvard.edu ) and I’ll be offering an info session about the course on Wednesday, 8/24 at 2pm over Zoom.

HL90 FL: Indigenous in the City

Remember, tomorrow is the priority deadline for submitting an HL90 application! Still looking? Check out Morgan Ridgway’s class, “Indigenous in the City,” which meets Monday, 3-5. Read more about it below!

What inspired you to teach this class?

The majority of Indigenous peoples in what is the United States live in and around urban spaces yet there is often this idea that that is not that case. People often think that Indigenous people are always some place far away or rural. While rurality and reservation communities certainly are important aspects of Indigenous experiences I’m really interested in this other side of the story. I grew up in Philadelphia and saw many different Indigenous people making home and community in the city so urbanity and indigeneity have also always been linked for me. All of this to say, the class explores the varied experiences of Indigenous people in urban spaces and how they relate to the narratives these cities tell about themselves and the people who live there. Indigenous people have always and continue to be part of urban space. Learning about the dynamics of that reality has major implications in how we understand Indigenous community, the diasporic experiences of Indigenous people following the history of removal, and what it means to say ‘we’re still here.’

Why should students take this class?

I think this class would be especially interesting for anyone who wants to reconfigure things we take for granted or assume to be “natural” outcomes of history. Over the semester we’ll think about how Indigenous people have experiences of both removal and unremoval, how all land in the United States is someone’s territory including cities, and the tension surrounding ideas of modernity, urbanity, and indigeneity. We’ll also look at various of types of material ranging from government documents and laws to performances, poetry, and street art. The narrative of where Indigenous people are can be quite rigid in the United States and this class turns that on its head a bit to think about Indigenous survivance and persistent presence. In the process we can begin to think about belonging, relationality, politics, and identity. I think this class is a good opportunity to consider how we have come to reside in the places we live, why they look the way they do, and where we might go in the future.  

Are you doing any cool projects?

As a class we’ll be creating a collaborative map on Google over the course of the semester that we will populate with location pins identifying some aspect of indigeneity. That could be the address of an urban Indian center in Chicago, a monument in Seattle, or a parade route that featured Indigenous dancers in Philadelphia. I think being able to visually see that all these cities are actually filled with references to Indigenous people despite the prevailing narrative of absence can be really powerful in understanding where Indigenous people are and how they have continued to persist.

How can students learn more?

Feel free to look at the Canvas site or email me at mridgway@fas.harvard.edu