HL90 EY: Human Rights and Humanitarianism

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

What inspired you to teach this class?

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

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

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

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

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

How can students learn more?

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

HL90 FB: Asian America in Popular Culture

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

What inspired you to teach this class? 

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

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

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

Do you have any cool assignments planned? 

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

Who’s your favorite Asian character in American media? 

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

How can students learn more? 

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

HL90 EJ: Espionage: A Cultural History

What’s that we spy in the course catalog? One of our popular HL90s! Duncan White told us more about his class, Espionage: A Cultural History, which meets Mondays, 9:45-11:45.

What inspired you to teach this class?

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

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

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

What does your class help us understand about the present?


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

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

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

Are you doing any cool projects or assignments?

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

How should students contact you to find out more?

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

HL90 DR: American Speeches

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

Tell us about your class!

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

What made you want to teach this class?

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

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

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

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

HL90 AT: The Postwar American Road Narrative

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

Tell us about your class!

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

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

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

Do you have any activities planned?

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

How can students learn more?

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

HL90 FG: Dictatorship and Resistance in Latin America

We’ve got lots of exciting HL90s coming this fall! Jennifer Alpert told us all about her new course, Dictatorship and Resistance in Latin America, which meets Mondays, 12:45-2:45.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I have dreamt about teaching a class like this for years because there were very few courses on Latin America available to me as an undergraduate and graduate student and they mostly focused on “high-brow” literature, avant garde cinema, and other kinds of art that seemed inaccessible for mass audiences. I always wanted to learn about widely watched films/TV or best-selling books, street art, and other forms of expression that reached large portions of the population. In this class we will investigate the role popular culture and fiction have in mediating the traumatic experience of state terrorism, repression, and genocide, and how these forms resisted state violence and conferred agency to nations that were being attacked by those intended to protect them. Despite returning to democratic forms of government decades ago, Chile, Argentina, and many other countries in Latin America are still grappling with the consequences of dictatorship. The fictional and artistic works being produced right now continue to reveal the persistence of these national traumas (spoiler: we’ll discover how).

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

The films! As a film scholar and a total cinephile, watching and talking about movies gives me life!

Do you have any cool projects or activities planned?

YES! Throughout the semester, we’ll be engaging our “creative muscle” as we caption film screenshots, create memes, and make short video responses to make our bodies and voices keep the people who were forcibly disappeared alive. For the final assignment, students can choose between writing a paper or crafting a creative project such as a short film, a museum exhibit or film series, a set of educational TikToks, a podcast, or any other idea that might come to their mind. The sky is the limit!

What does your class help us understand about the present?

The attack on the Capitol on January 6 seemed to come as a surprise, but many Latin Americanists who study dictatorship predicted what could happen. Studying historical and cultural processes in specific times/places helps us to develop the tools and methodologies to “read” other regions and historical moments and there are always connections and comparisons to be drawn.

What would students be surprised to learn about you?

I worked in the film industry before becoming a professor (at Pixar and the Academy of Motion Pictures, where I was even invited to celebrity-watch at the Oscars red carpet). I am also a popular culture fan and have not missed a season of 90-day Fiancé!

How can students learn more?

Students are invited to check out the syllabus on Canvas, and to contact me with any questions at jalpert@fas.harvard.edu—I am happy to chat via email or set up a virtual office hours appointment.

HL90 EX: Queer Latinx Borderlands

More new HL90s to check out! Tommy Conners shared more about Queer Latinx Borderlands and also some tv recommendations!

Tell us about your class!

“Queer Latinx Borderlands” is an intro to Latinx Studies where queer describes both the what and the how: not only are a lot of the cultural texts, films, poems, and documentaries we’ll study queer, but our look into the histories of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship will try to pick apart their normativity and highlight their impacts on the many facets of Latinidad.

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

Carmen María Machado’s 2019 memoir In the Dream House. Not only does it center on an abusive queer relationship between women (a topic that hardly gets any attention, generally speaking), it does so by playing with different genres and styles of writing like horror, sci-fi thriller, erotica, utopia, and even choose-your-own-adventure. The idea of a dream house always makes me rethink the idea of queer safe space, too—who is it safe for and from, how do we know it’s safe?

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

The US Customs and Border Patrol have jurisdiction within 100 miles of any border—a space where nearly 2 out of 3 people in the US live, Boston included. But with the expansion of that zone of policing can come an expansion of the generative analysis a framework of borderlands offers. Following in the footsteps of Chicana lesbian Gloria Anzaldúa, this means tracing, critiquing, and moving beyond the intersecting forces of, for example, North American and Latin American ideas of race, straightness, and masculinity. For “Queer Latinx Borderlands,” these intersections will bring us to Junot Díaz’s Dominican New Jersey, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Latinas of indigenous descent in the American West, and Raquel Salas Rivera’s Puerto Rican Philadelphia (to name a few!).

Why should students take this class?

You should take this class if you’re interested in what Queer Studies gains by studying the histories and cultural production of Latinx communities, and what Latinx Studies gains by focusing on gender and sexually nonconforming artists, thinkers, and activists.

The Netflix series Pose is on the syllabus. Why focus on the Black and Latinx queer ball culture of the eighties and nineties in a seminar about borderlands?

Pose is SO good and pulls together some seriously fascinating topics: queer kinship, gender performance, trans activism, the HIV/AIDS crisis. I also love it because it’s so full of joy, too: the joy of house making, competing, strutting, winning a perfect 10…You’d also best believe part of our conversation will be discussing what house we’d belong to—Abundance or Evangelista?!

How can students learn more?

Be sure to check out the course Canvas site to see all we’ll be getting into and send an email to thomasconners@fas.harvard.edu with any and all thoughts and questions!

HL90 EZ: The Global South Asian Diaspora

Classes start in just a few weeks! We’re ready with lots of new HL90s we’re excited to share! Up first, read more about Vikrant Dadawala’s class, The Global South Asian Diaspora:

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 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.

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 east Africa was described by a colonial official in 1901 as the “America of the Hindu.” Or 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 Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis on temporary visas comprise close to sixty percent of the population of the contemporary United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Do you have any cool assignments planned?

For the final project, students are free to write about any book of their choice, placing it in conversation with the historical context from which it emerged. Meanwhile, as we move from region to region, we’re going to keep track of the new musical forms and dishes that emerged from interactions between South Asian migrants and local traditions. My favorite of these dishes is definitely roti canai, from Malaysian Indian cuisine. I’m also very impressed by the cheerful bawdiness of chutney soca music from Trinidad.

How can students learn more about the class?

You can see the syllabus by visiting the Canvas site for the class. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at vikrant_dadawala@fas.harvard.edu or set up an appointment to meet in person or virtually.

Diana Myers ’21

Diana with completed thesis on the steps of Widener

Tell us about your thesis!

My thesis, Mater matris domini: Holy Motherhood and the Early Cult of St. Anne, is about the creation and evolution of medieval veneration of St. Anne, who was the Virgin Mary’s mother. In the later Middle Ages, Anne was honored in liturgy and art as an exemplary mother, but how exactly that came about was unclear. My thesis attempts to fill in the gaps by considering the evolution of female sanctity more broadly. By studying early Latin liturgical sources, such as prayers and sermons, I found that, in the early medieval period, Anne was venerated on the basis of her role in salvation history, not as a mother. It wasn’t until other female saints began to be honored for their maternal prowess, around the year 1000, that Anne was seen as a mother par excellence.

Stained glass at Chartres Cathedral (France) showing St. Anne holding the Virgin Mary

How did you choose your topic?

I worked on some medieval French liturgy for St. Anne for my junior essay and I really loved it. Working on the liturgy is such a revealing way to get to the heart of what medieval people were thinking and caring about. I also have always worked academically at the intersection of gender and religion. When I began researching possible thesis topics, I knew that liturgical materials about women would form a major part of my source base, and I was so fascinated by Anne’s story that I stuck with her!

Did you encounter any surprises along the way?

I mean, the pandemic was a pretty big surprise! And it certainly made the research I had been planning since my junior spring impossible to carry out. As a result, I had to shift my focus from the French archival sources I had wanted to work with to sources that had already been digitized. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Harvard had access to so many medieval Latin texts online, and it was through running a lot of keyword searches in Hollis that I found many of my primary sources, most of which I hadn’t known about before.

What advice would you give to juniors?

This won’t work for everyone, but try holding yourself to writing a set number of words each day. When I was seriously writing my chapters, I wouldn’t allow myself to work on anything else until I had checked five hundred words off my to-do list for the day. Also, don’t be scared of revising: I think my first chapter went through five or six drafts before I decided it was done.

HL90 ET: Asian America’s Vietnam War

We’ve got one final HL90 to share before applications to enroll in one are due tonight. Catherine Nguyen shared more about her new class, “Asian America’s Vietnam War,” the texts that made the cut, the texts that might have, and food!

What inspired you to teach this class?

I’m excited to be teaching a seminar on the history and literature of the Vietnam War! When I was trying to figure out what class to offer as a HL90, I was looking around the course offerings at Harvard, and I saw that there is a history course on the Vietnam War. The syllabus provides a thorough account of American history and Vietnam War, and if I were a student, I would definitely take it. At the same time though, I was struck by the few Vietnamese names included. As a second generation Vietnamese American and as one who never had an opportunity to take a Vietnam War class, I was looking for more, for narratives that might speak to my family’s history and to my own experience. Given the opportunity to teach a Vietnam War seminar through History & Literature, I worked to design a course that put front and center the Vietnamese experience—the opposing sides, soldiers and civilians, and the diaspora in the United States, France, and Australia. Moreover, the Vietnam War affected the larger Southeast Asian region and is a major moment for Asian American history, so we’ll be reading narratives from the Southeast Asian diaspora and Asian America. So, my hope is that the seminar and its syllabus will offer you something that speaks to the complexity of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

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

The boat narrative is the story of the Vietnam War and of the Vietnamese refugee. I’m excited to share with you the different ways that authors and artists have represented the boat narrative because it reflects an important history at the same time working through how the boat narrative is carried through in the diaspora and through the second generation. For example, we will be looking at a short story by a Vietnamese writer who lives in France but writes in Vietnamese alongside a picture book by a Vietnamese American author and an online interactive drawn by a Vietnamese Australian artist. We’ll think through what does each medium offer and how might it be constructing a particular vision or memory of the boat narrative.

Do you have any cool projects planned?

Given that we’re going to explore a lot of different things in the seminar—Maya Lin’s the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial to Hmong American stories—the final project is open in its subject and possibilities, as you can pursue a research paper or a creative project with an artist statement. So you can develop a podcast on generational memory, write a family memoir, draw a comic on Southeast Asian American student experiences, and more.

The seminar also has a mini-speaker series, and we will be inviting emerging scholars of critical refugee studies as well as creative artists who work in mix media, poetry and photography. This is required of students and provides you with the opportunity to have a conversation with them about how they approach the legacies of the Vietnam War in their work.

It always feels like there’s too much to read and not enough time. What are some other works that you considered assigning?


Thanhha Lai’s Butterfly Yellow that’s about a Vietnamese girl in Texas; Ocean Vuong’s poetic On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous; Quan Barry’s epic She Weeps Each Time You’re Born; Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet that tracks stories between Vietnam and Little Saigon in California; Viet Thanh Nguyen’s story collection The Refugees; and Thi Bui’s beautifully drawn The Best We Could Do.

What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish?

That’s such a difficult question, but it would be bánh cuốn, rolled not folded and with all the trimmings. Ngon quá!

How should students contact you to find out more?


I’d love to see you at the Shopping Week Info Session TODAY at 1:00-2:00pm ET on Zoom. And if you’ve any further questions, feel free to email me at chnguyen@fas.harvard.edu.