HL90 EJ: Espionage: A Cultural History

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

What inspired you to teach this class?

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

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

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

What does your class help us understand about the present?


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

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

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

Are you doing any cool projects or assignments?

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

How should students contact you to find out more?

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

HL90 FK: Europe After the Cold War

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

What inspired you to teach this class?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of assignments will you be doing?

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

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

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

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

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

How can students learn more?

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

HL90 FI: Race and Empire in the Americas

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

Tell us about your class! 

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

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

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

Are you doing any cool projects in class? 

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

What does your class help us understand about the present?

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

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

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

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

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

How can students learn more? 

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

HL90 EZ: The Global South Asian Diaspora

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

Tell us about your class!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can students learn more about the class?

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

HL90 FM: Tasting Place: Food and Culture in America

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you doing any cool activities?

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

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

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

How can students learn more?

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

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