HL90 FJ: Modern Europe and Migration

Don’t forget to apply to an HL90 seminar by August 24! Matthew Sohm told us more about his new course, “Modern Europe and Migration,” Thursday, 3-5.

Tell us about your class!

One of my abiding interests is how people relate to places (and how they relate to people from other places). And much of my own research is focused on the relationship between more prosperous and less prosperous places in Europe and the Middle East, particularly in and around the Mediterranean. So it’s not lost on me that, by some measures, the Mediterranean has become the world’s deadliest border as people from Africa, Asia, and beyond seek to cross the sea and enter the EU, often in inflatable rubber dinghies. For this reason alone (and there are plenty of others too!), the migration of people from poorer parts of the world to Europe is, I think, one of the central ethical issues confronting Europe (and places throughout the Global North) today. My belief is that, if we want to understand how wealthy parts of Europe have erected a (or, at least, attempted to erect) deadly fortress along their borders, and how they’ve attempted to exclude others from their prosperity, we have to turn to the continent’s (recent) past.

In another sense, the course is a response to my frustration in how the history of migration is sometimes depicted as marginal to the “big” topics of contemporary European history – as a subtopic or even niche area. I view this seminar as a workshop for students not only to explore questions related to migration, but to put it where I think it truly belongs – at the center of contemporary European history. It is my hope that students will not only learn a lot about people on the move in Europe, but that they will leave the course with a solid understanding of how Europe developed from the end of the Second World War up to the present day – that migration, in other words, will serve as a useful lens through which to understand a variety of other topics in the history and culture of contemporary Europe.

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

I’m excited about all of the sources that we’ll explore together, which showcase a wide-ranging array of perspectives. My hope is that they’ll introduce students to questions that they might not have thought about it before. For example, what was life like in West Germany for a Black German woman in the 1950s? What about a multicultural neighborhood in early 2000s Rome, as depicted by an Algerian novelist?

Since the seminar will take students on a journey across contemporary Europe, I’m especially excited about the two texts that bookend the course showcase two very different voyages. At the beginning of the semester, we’ll read The Truce – the account by the Italian-Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, of his long and winding return home from Auschwitz, across a continent in rubble that was being crisscrossed by people on the move (for very different reasons). We’ll conclude with the recently released memoir by the Canadian journalist and Afghanistan correspondent, Matthieu Aikins, who accompanied an Afghan friend on his own attempt to reach Europe (via Iran, Turkey, and across the Aegean to Greece) in order to claim asylum.

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

That European countries like Germany, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland are all home to a greater share of people born outside the country’s borders than the United States. If you ever hear the United States described as a country of immigrants in contrast to Western Europe, be skeptical! In fact, if you’ve ever heard Europe depicted as the “old continent” (with the implication that you’re only European if your distant ancestors are), then you’ve heard a political description rather than an accurate account of Europe’s present or past.

What kind of activities or assignments will you be doing?

The nerdy historian part of me finds writing research papers cool, but we’re also doing activities that encourage students to think in less traditional, and perhaps more creative, ways that I believe are equally important. Since we’ll be reading texts that ask us to think through the different perspectives of individuals and groups, in one assignment, for instance, students will invent an avatar to think through the experience of a specific migrant at a place and time of their own choosing. Again, though, I think the nuts and bolts of historical analysis and research are themselves really exciting, especially when applied to the diverse and wide-ranging sources that we’ll explore together!

What does your class help us understand about the present?

In a nutshell, the class helps us understand the ways that some of Europe’s key present-day challenges are rooted in the continent’s recent history of migration. It’s an attempt to answer the question of how we got “here” – to the refugee camps on Greek Islands housing refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and countless other places, to the scores of deaths in the Mediterranean, and also to the rise of anti-migrant far-right politics across the continent. It’s a way of answering a question that was on my mind this past winter as European countries welcomed white Christian refugees from Ukraine with an enthusiasm that was notably absent half a decade earlier when the refugees were Muslims from Syria. In the 2010s, Hungary built fences and Poland claimed it couldn’t take in even a few dozen refugees. In 2022, they threw open their borders with open arms. Superficially, the reasons are obvious (racism, xenophobia, etc.). But the history leading up to the present one is a complicated one, full of unexpected twists and turns.

It’s also worth asking, as I sometimes do, why a student at an American university might care about this subject (or care about Europe at all), beyond mere curiosity (and mere curiosity is of course a great reason too!). There are no easy answers, but I think that Europe offers a useful canvas for students in the United States. The two regions offer enough similarities for students to draw meaningful comparisons, but are distinct enough that you can’t simply assume that things had to turn out the way they did. It sometimes gets overlooked (at times for political reasons), but Europe and European identities are every bit as much shaped by people from all over the world and from every conceivable background as is the case in the United States. For those of us who live in the US, Europe offers a fascinating case study, full of lessons that might be applied to how we navigate the present moment on this side of the Atlantic.

Do you have any personal connections to the course topic, perhaps from your own experience doing research in Europe?

I’ve spent roughly a decade of my adult life living in Europe (mostly in Germany). Two years of that was for PhD research, part of which was focused on West German attempts to “encourage” mostly non-Christian foreigners to return to the places where (according to West German politicians and bureaucrats) they truly “belonged”: their countries of origin (but really anywhere outside West Germany).

But for a number of years prior to graduate school I lived and worked in Germany (primarily in German for a German employer), which has shaped how I study German and European history. Of course, I was and am acutely aware that, as a privileged white male foreigner from a country in the Global North, my experience was totally different from that of the vast majority of immigrants – indeed, the fact that I didn’t consider myself an “immigrant” (despite having an immigrant visa) was a reflection of the unusual privilege that I could and did return to my country of citizenship. So I certainly don’t want to suggest that I have any sort of insight into the immigrant experience in Europe from my years working in Germany. But what I did get was time to think about how history affected the places that I study, and also how people relate to place – what it means to be out of place, how our relationship to places change, who controls and defines our belonging, and how “home” can be such a capacious and fluid concept at times, but can also be defined in rigid and exclusionary terms at others. These are themes that, I think, are universal – that we can all relate to, regardless of our own personal experiences – and that we’ll explore together in the course.

How can students learn more?

Students can check out the course Canvas site and are welcome to apply here.

HL 90FX: Imagining Latin America

Classes start in just two weeks and HL90 applications are due next Wednesday! If you’re looking for classes, consider taking an HL90 seminar! Take a look at Jen Alpert’s new course, “Imagining Latin America.” (Psst, Hist & Lit concentrators, you have the option of using it to fulfill the language requirement!)

What inspired you to teach this class?

When I immigrated to the United States from Argentina, I was approached by someone who heard me speak Spanish that congratulated me for how fluent I was but warned me that I still needed to work on my accent. This curious interaction has become a funny story I tell at parties, but also a starting point to think about how (and what) ideas about Latin America circulate, so this class looks to complicate these and aims to highlight the many ways that different groups have imagined the region. Additionally, Latin America’s history of colonialism has engendered strong cultures of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. We will think through those legacies to understand how Latin America as a concept is imbued with grave power differentials and urgent inequalities that have erased many rich cultures and forms of knowledge that have fought for existence since Spaniards forced the Americas to be “discovered.” In short, we will probe what we mean when we say “Latin America,” and who gets to belong to it (or not).

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

The films! There is much to love (and much that we will love to hate, I’m looking at you, colonial imaginaries of Latin America). I am also excited to share with students the very recent HBO show Gordita Chronicles, which I binged in record time because it beautifully captures the immigrant experience. Additionally, there is a text by indigenous Brazilian thinker Ailton Krenak, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, which was transformational for me. I look forward to sharing his urgent manifesto with students and I hope they will enjoy his sense of humor as much as I do every time I revisit his writing.

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

The name “Latin America” is a result of colonialism and is not synonymous with Spanish America. While the region is closely associated with the Spanish language, this moniker came about in an effort to stake a claim that differentiated French, Italian, and Spanish colonies from those dominated by Anglo (and German and Dutch) populations. The “Latin” part of Latin America is actually most closely tied to France (not Spain, as most people think!). 

Are you doing any cool projects?

Absolutely! When professors design a course, inevitably there is much that we must leave out, so one of our assignments asks students to imagine a week on a topic we did not discuss. Given that this class questions many of the colonial ideas related to Latin America, I find this assignment apropos to imagine ways of learning that go beyond Euro and Anglo-centric forms of knowledge construction that often erase structurally oppressed students. Similarly, the final project will offer the opportunity to engage in creative work as an alternative to a traditional research paper (though students are welcome to do the latter!), including making a short film, curating a museum exhibit, or creating a series of educational TikToks that reflect on the themes of the class.

Your class offers the opportunity to fulfill the Hist & Lit language requirement, can you tell us a little about how that works?

Let me start by saying that Spanish knowledge is not required to enroll. Students who want to satisfy the language requirement through Spanish reading proficiency should get in contact with me during the first week of classes so we can arrange for them to work with Spanish versions of some of the course materials. I should note that the focus on Spanish in a class about Latin America in no way tries to diminish or erase the richness of languages present in the region (and we will encounter languages other than Spanish!)—it is informed by the number of heritage speakers in the concentration and the availability of materials translated to English. I am excited about facilitating a multilingual conversation, particularly since it is the first time an HL90 can be used to fulfill the language requirement so enrolled students will be making Hist & Lit history! 

How can students learn more?

Students can visit the course’s Canvas site, attend the Hist & Lit preview on Aug 24th, or reach out to me at jalpert@fas.harvard.edu.

HL90 FS: HIV in Global Perspective

We’ve got lots of great new HL90s you’ll want to learn more about! Yan Slobodkin teaches “HIV in Global Perspective” this fall.

What inspired you to teach this class?

Like so many of us in these unprecedented times, I’ve been thinking a lot about public health. One obvious historical analogy to Covid is, of course, the AIDS crisis. Though I’m skeptical of any easy “lessons” that can be transferred between historical contexts, I think both crises push us to ask similar questions. How do we make  individual decisions during a collective emergency? How do we deal with a global problem that does not respect borders? What communities are disproportionately affected and why? What are the respective roles of medicine and public health?

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

I’ll choose two! Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America is just an incredible piece of art that gives a sense of just how shocking, how overwhelming and terrifying the early days of AIDS were for the gay community in the United States. Abbas Kiarostami’s film ABC Africa, on the other hand, is a look into AIDS in a very different context. Through sources like these, the class will connect and compare how AIDS was experienced throughout the world. 

Are you doing any cool projects or assignments this semester?

One assignment that I think will be super fun is one in which each student will choose a piece of art related to HIV/AIDS and present it to the class. It should be really productive to see the diversity of artistic expression on the topic and give us a chance to give a personal slant to the course materials. 

How can students learn more?

You can see the syllabus on the Canvas site or email me.

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.