HL90 ER: Industrialization and Inequality

We’ve got more new HL90s to shop! Morgan Day Frank talks with us about “Industrialization and Inequality: From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era,” some very weird delicacies from the Gilded Age, and a dentist we wouldn’t want to visit!

What inspired you to teach this class?

I love turn-of-the-twentieth-century American literature, that’s basically why I wanted to teach this class. I didn’t always love it, though. I used to be very dismissive of this period of literary history. To me, the great American authors were, like, Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass, who wrote earlier, during the antebellum period, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, who wrote later in the twentieth century. I was convinced that, between the antebellum classics and the modernist classics, there was a cultural desert. Mark Twain was somebody they made you read in high school. Henry James and Edith Wharton were only interested in writing about the wealthy. In graduate school, I discovered that I had it all wrong. The turn of the twentieth century, far from being a cultural wasteland, was actually the most interesting and complicated period in American literary history. Here was a group of writers who witnessed the terrors of industrialization and were molded by this experience. In the words of one critic, Alfred Kazin, there is “a terrible estrangement in this writing, a nameless yearning for a world no one ever really possessed.”

The literature of the Gilded Age and the Progressive era is bizarre and despairing and gripping and often quite funny. I’m looking forward to reading this body of work with students and trying to understand its relationship to the historical conditions it emerged out of.

What can your class help us understand about our contemporary moment?

The Gilded Age was a truly appalling moment in American history. The decades after the Civil War were marked by dramatic wealth inequality, racial terrorism, nativism, environmental destruction, and the development of oppressive gender norms. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged immigrant populations living in the city’s tenements. At meatpacking plants in Chicago, the country’s sausage meat was mixed with dirt, sawdust, and spit, rats, rat feces, and rat poison. At Delmonico’s, a fancy New York restaurant, a common pre-dessert course consisted of Ortolan, a small songbird similar to the finch. Chefs fattened the bird, drowned it in Armagnac, roasted and flambéed it. Once the bird was cooked, diners ate it, innards and all.

Op-ed columnists and public intellectuals have described our terrifying contemporary moment as a second Gilded Age. In the seminar we will consider the connection between these two Gilded Ages and the role of culture in both. Can art fix the social problems we currently face? or is art part of the problem? How does literature challenge or naturalize racial inequality? gender inequality? class inequality? What makes one cultural object better than another? How is aesthetic value different from other forms of social value? These are the kinds of questions we’ll work through in class.

What are some of the texts you’re most excited about sharing with students?

There is a lot of stuff I’m excited to teach this semester. In the novel McTeague — one of my favorite novels of all time — the main character is a dentist who removes his patients’ teeth with his bare hands. With his bare hands! We’ll read Ida B. Wells’s coverage of lynchings in the South, probably the most important piece of investigative journalism ever produced. We’ll also read Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, one his late masterpieces. For all of its sophistication, this novel is really trashy and sordid — it’s about two people who try to con a dying heiress out of her money. And we’ll read an obscure novel written by an African American writer, Sutton Griggs, about a black secret society that plots to secede from the United States. A lot of good stuff!

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, drop in during shopping period (Wednesday, August 19 from 3-5), or email Morgan.

HL90 EH: Asian American Genre Fictions

We asked lecturers to tell us more about their fall HL90s. Ellen Song shares more about the genesis and goals of her class, “Asian American Genre Fictions.”

What inspired you to teach this class?

I decided to teach Asian American Genre Fictions because there is clearly a demand for ethnic studies courses at Harvard, and I want to help fill this need. Given my training in American literature, and given my own understanding of certain social, raced, lived experiences, it made sense that I would teach a course on Asian American literature. At the same time, I want us to study Asian American literature not simply because for its ability to “represent” certain [Asian American] experiences, but because it encompasses a wide array of genres and styles. This course emphasizes the “genre fictions” part of the title as much as (or perhaps even more than) the “Asian American” part.

What can your class help us better understand about our contemporary moment?

It is extremely important that fictions written by raced authors be read as artistic objects – which are motivated by certain aesthetic goals – and not as sociological treatises about the supposed experiences of entire groups of people. I believe this is salient for us to remember today, more than ever before. With recent political events, especially BLM protests, there seems to be an energetic interest in the public in ways to be an antiracist ally – a quick scroll through your Instagram or Twitter feed will confirm this. I’ve seen many folks circulate “anti-racism reading lists” as a part of this effort. The issue, however, is that these reading lists often lump fiction by black authors (for example, Toni Morrison or Colson Whitehead) in with didactic anti-racism guidebooks. This is a problem, because novels and poetry and literary works are aesthetic objects, created by authors with an eye to language, style, rhythm, character development, and the like; if these works are being mined as pedagogical / anthropological / straightforward representational objects, we are not doing right by their authors.

Is there a book you’re especially excited to teach?

One of the last books we’ll read in our class is the 2019 National Book Award winner, Trust Exercise, by the author Susan Choi. This is an absolutely gripping novel, one which hasn’t been discussed in popular commentary in terms of its handling of race. I’ve recommended it to eight of my friends! I’m excited to tackle this book together with students.

Do you have options for creative assignments?

In my past HL90, I gave students the option to submit a creative project for the final assignment in lieu of a written paper. Students channeled their creative energy to produce all sorts of wonderful and thoughtful assignments. Many students chose to write short stories, but some students submitted other works: a painting (with a special video projected on top of this painting), map, manifesto, stills from a graphic novel-in-progress. In Asian American Genre Fictions, you’ll have the freedom to choose a creative project of your liking, as long as you accompany your project with an “artist’s statement” that includes secondary sources and an analytical explanation of your thought process. You might consider writing a short story in the style of one of the genres we will be reading together, whether noir, spy story, or fantasy!

What texts inspired you most as a student?

I wrote my senior thesis on the notion of “writer-protagonists who write obsessively about their own desire” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman).

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, attend an info session during shopping week on Tuesday, August 18 or Thursday, August 20 from 12-1:15, or email Ellen with any questions.

HL90 DB: Museums in America

Get your shopping list ready! We asked our lecturers to tell us about their fall HL90s. Reed Gochberg takes us on a tour of her class, “Museums in America.”

Tell us about your class!

“Museums in America” will explore the history and development of museums in the United States. One of my main goals for this course is to think together about how the history of museums continues to inform ongoing debates today. How do museums decide what to collect, preserve, and display? What do we mean when we talk about “decolonizing museums”? What are some of the strategies museums use to engage and expand their audience? Our class will explore how these questions have resonated in American culture. We’ll examine museum installations and digital exhibits, as well as discussions in guidebooks, fiction, and film, and we will also have the chance to discuss these issues with curators from Harvard’s museums.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

There has been so much debate about the role of museums in American culture over the past six months, and it feels like an extremely pivotal moment to be considering these questions. In March, many museums had to close their doors to the public due to COVID-19; while some have started to reopen in the past few weeks, it has been—and likely will continue to be—a slow process. This has had huge financial impacts on many institutions, and it’s also meant that many museums have shifted their programming to develop virtual tours, online gallery talks, and other kinds of programs that people can access from their homes. At the same time, this summer has seen increased debate about museums and social justice. Following national protests about police violence and racial injustice, many museums issued statements that promised more inclusive programming. However, they’ve also sparked further debate about the state of the field and what future changes will be necessary.

My goal for our class is to better understand the longer histories of contemporary debates about the role and purpose of museums. I’m especially excited to have the opportunity for us to engage with these questions about inclusion, accessibility, and belonging. It’s a moment of challenge and self-reflection for many museums, and my hope is that we can think together about the future of these institutions as well as their past.

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

William J. Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859) was serialized in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, and it describes a fictional museum dedicated to black history. Wilson had previously written on the need for more representations of black history, art, and literature, and this story imagines an alternative museum that will fill that gap. The author starts by describing individual paintings and objects, but as the story goes on, it gets stranger and stranger: in one later chapter, the narrator hops into one of the paintings; and visitors also start to show up to the gallery who have supposedly read the previous chapters that were published in earlier issues of the magazine.

I love how this story invites us to consider how black writers were reimagining museums in the mid-nineteenth century and challenging readers to reflect on what was being collected and valued at that time. We’ll also be reading it alongside Lonnie Bunch III’s descriptions of the process of building the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and I’m looking forward to discussing its contemporary implications for thinking about museums and collections today.

Are you planning any creative assignments?

I’m especially excited about a collaborative research and digital exhibit project that we’ll be working on as a class. We’re going to explore the history of collecting at Harvard by researching objects from across Harvard’s museum collections and bringing them together in a digital exhibit. We’ll consider how objects came to the university, who collected them, and how they were originally classified and displayed. Museum collections are often divided by fields such as art, anthropology, and natural history, but the people who collected them frequently had very wide-ranging interests, and the ways that objects were interpreted have shifted over time. We’ll be working on this project throughout the second half of the semester and collaborate as a class to decide how to organize the exhibit, draft labels and other text, and draw connections between the objects.

Museums always seem so serious—don’t touch anything and don’t talk too loudly! Do you have any favorite examples of the museum in the popular imagination?

As a kid, I read and reread E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I have always loved Claudia and Jamie’s adventures living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and their quest to find out the history of a mysterious sculpture. Maybe our own exhibit research will turn up similar discoveries? At the very least, we will have lots of opportunities to talk about other great moments of museums in pop culture this semester.

To learn more, you can check out the syllabus on Canvas, drop by an info session during shopping week on Monday, August 17 from 12-2:45, or email Reed with any questions.

HL90 EL: France and Its “Others”

Thinking about classes? We asked lecturers to tell us more about their fall HL90s. John Boonstra talks about his class, “France and Its ‘Others’: Race, Nation, and Identity in (Post)Imperial Society” French film, and his feelings about the best way to eat French fries.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I was trained as an historian of France and French colonialism, and my interests have increasingly gravitated around the Mediterranean region, specifically the encounters and exchanges between Europe (France especially), the Middle East, and North Africa. After teaching a seminar on “Gender and Empire in the Modern Mediterranean” last semester, this course was a way for me to approach twentieth-century French history—and the centrality of race and nation to this history—in a way that foregrounded imperial and colonial dynamics that have continued beyond the era of decolonization and into the very present.

What about the present does your class help us understand?

I was listening to a French radio broadcast this summer, featuring some supposed expert on American culture; discussing the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing—which were occurring not only in the United States, but also in France and around the world—he confidently professed that racism and racialized police brutality were specifically American problems. When the mayor of Paris attempted to take the bare minimum step of banning police chokeholds last month, she was rebuffed by similar reasoning. Given the depth of France’s colonial history—not to mention its role in the slave trade—and the continuities of racial, ethnic, and religious inequalities in contemporary French society, in employment and educational structures, in migration patterns and politics, in popular culture and historical memory, this kind of statement is as striking for its myopia as for its hypocrisy. Perhaps even more interestingly, the insistence that race is an American phenomenon obscures how crucially racial knowledge and identity formation have shaped France’s own history and, more intriguingly still, its mythologized self-conception as the color-blind birthplace of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

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

In addition to classic theoretical texts—Sartre, de Beauvoir, Aimé Césaire and Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon—on racial, gender, and colonial difference, we’ll be reading some really excellent and provocative recent novels and films. Michel de Houellebecq’s Submission—envisioning a France taken over from within by Muslim extremists—is what actually inspired the course, enacting as it does a deep-seated yet paradoxical right-wing fear of internal colonization. But we’ll also be using the perspective of the “outsider” to critique white-dominant French society and culture, such as through Fatou Diome’s The Belly of the Atlantic and Alain Mabanckou’s Blue White Red—the former about a Senegalese immigrant writer and feminist and her soccer-obsessed brother, and the latter the tale of a French-Congolese dandy, or sapeur (a member of the Society of Ambienceurs and Peoples of Elegance)—as well as classics of the 1980s like Azouz Begag’s Shantytown Kid and Mehdi Charef’s Tea in the Harem (we’ll be watching the film version). I’m also excited to watch popular contemporary films like The Class [Entre les murs], which won the 2008 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Samba, which I actually first saw on a plane coming back to the U.S. from France, but which had me at various points laughing, crying, and cursing at the injustice of systems meant to maintain hierarchies of inequality and exclusion.

French fries or French toast?

I make a mean banana bread French toast. The French douse their frites with ketchup and mayonnaise. I would cringe, but I tend to dip my fries in whatever is closest at hand: hot sauce, hummus, beer, wine (kidding—sort of).

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, drop by during shopping period (Monday and Wednesday, 12-1:15), or email John to set up an appointment!

HL99 EE: Fighting the Climate Crisis

Get your shopping lists ready! We asked our lecturers about their fall HL90s. Patrick Whitmarsh is ready to take on the climate crisis with students this fall!

Tell us about your class!

I was inspired to teach this course after participating in a team-taught seminar at Boston University called Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Global Challenges: Climate Change. That course spent a lot of time covering the actual science and political dynamics of climate change, but I wanted to focus more on the ways that narrative, rhetoric, and storytelling intersect with the science and politics. So I decided to teach a class about that! This course pays more attention to cultural artifacts including environmental writings, fictional texts, advertisements, music, and other materials that engage with climate change, both directly and indirectly. We’ll also read secondary materials on environmentalism and the oil industry.

Do you have a text you’re looking forward to sharing with students?

I’m excited for students to read an article that John Steinbeck wrote for Life in 1961 about something called Project Mohole.  The project wasn’t directly related to climate change, but is a vivid instance of what scholars today call the Anthropocene—a proposed period of geological time in which humanity’s presence on earth can be detected in the fossil layer.  If you’re interested, you can read about Project Mohole here.

What might students be surprised to know about the climate crisis?

Students might be interested to know that evidence suggests there are links between climate change and emergent diseases. Although there is no definitive link in the case of the novel coronavirus, it’s believed that previous epidemics have been at least partially caused by practices of deforestation and resource extraction, both of which drive animals from their indigenous habitats and lead to new interactions between species. So when we talk about fighting the climate crisis, we should remember that it’s not only about global warming and rising sea levels—it’s also about public health!

Are you planning any creative assignments?

One cool assignment that students will complete early in the semester is a carbon footprint calculation. This isn’t an involved assignment, but it is a revealing one! Students can also take into consideration whether recent changes in lifestyle or behavior, due to the pandemic, have contributed to their footprint; and we’ll talk about our results as a class and discuss what the options are for individual agency.

Your class is so timely; what can the history of climate activism tell us about today?

More than anything, this topic helps us understand that our current situation was NOT inevitable, but could have been otherwise. When we study the histories of the fossil fuel economy and environmentalism, we can see a tug-of-war between financial incentives and social/ethical responsibility. Our present situation was never certain or guaranteed, but is the result of long processes of capitalism, industrialization, and colonialism. And if our present moment could have been otherwise, then that means our future can be otherwise!

Anything else you want to share?

Any science fiction fans out there? Believe it or not, sf writers really do lead the way when it comes to writing about climate and the environment. We’ll check out a few short stories in this course…

To learn more, you can check out the syllabus on Canvas, watch a short introduction to the class, attend drop in office hours on Monday, August 17 and Wednesday, August 19 from 1:00-2:45, or email Patrick!

HL90 EC: A Cultural History of the Internet

Get your shopping lists ready! We asked our lecturers about their fall HL90s. Briana Smith tells us all about the internet, the Smashing Pumpkins, and more.

What inspired you to teach this class?

The idea for this class came out of my new research project on German cybercultures and the history of the German hacker organization the Chaos Computer Club. After reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture about digital utopianism in the US, I was stoked to explore the cultural history of Germany’s computer worlds. I also wanted to better understand how Germans responded to the cybercultures emerging from the US in the 1970s. I decided to craft a course around the history of the internet in the United States, with the Fred Turner book as our guide, while also extending the course into the twenty-first century. I do also want to note that planning for this class was well underway before the pandemic hit, but I am quite excited about the pedagogical possibilities introduced by teaching a class about the internet on the internet!

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

24 Hours in Cyberspace is a book (with CD-ROM!) published in 1997 documenting a website and online event from February 8, 1996, described as the “largest collaborative internet event ever.” The concept for the project involved “the world’s leading photojournalists” (including Second Lady Tipper Gore) taking photographs of people around the world using the internet or people whose lives were changed by their encounters with the internet. The photos were to be taken on February 8, 1996 and uploaded to the website (cyberspace24.com) in real time. The event captures the excitement of the moment so well: when cyberspace promised to transcend geographical distance and allow people to collaborate and connect across the world. The fact that this website was immediately turned into a book is also fascinating to me. It indicates how this was also a liminal moment, when enthusiasm for cyberspace coexisted with the impulse to create a physical copy of a website to sell as a coffee table book. 

Will you be doing any cool projects in class?

Modeled on the “History of the Present” approach, students will design a research project around a contemporary question or problem related to the internet that intrigues them. The goal is then to develop an argument on that contemporary topic drawing on historical research, including the use of primary sources. The final project will not look like your usual college research paper, instead it will take the form of an op-ed style essay and/or blog post that is sharp and persuasive, but built on thorough historical research and contextualization. This assignment also invites students to refine their ability to write in clear and concise, yet also compelling, prose, which is an incredibly valuable skill in a variety of writing contexts. 

Students will also have the option to make a video in lieu of the final written work. This version of the assignment will invite students to present their research via images and video, and consider how the visual element can enhance their argument. I have received a grant from the Elson Family Arts Initiative Fund to purchase a class subscription to the online video editing software WeVideo, and will be offering additional tech support for those interested in making videos.

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

I did not use the internet until I was twelve years old. Thus, I have plenty of memories of life without the internet. I am anticipating students who take this class will have a variety of stories about their lives with or without the internet. I am really excited to hear these stories. During the first few weeks of class, we will devote time to sharing our personal histories with the internet and its changing role in our lives in order to consider how these individual experiences have shaped the ways we inhabit cyberspace and the place of technology in our everyday lives. 

This class will also offer more practical tools for students interested in the intersection of technology and the humanities. Through this course, students will be exposed to methodologies for studying and historically contextualizing digital cultures and online phenomena, while tackling more theoretical questions about the virtual vs. the actual world, the posthuman, and the politics of virtual space. Students will also leave this class with a better sense for the actual people who made the internet, the communities who made it their own, and how tech companies learned how to commodify our online lives. 

We’ve got to ask! What were your first experiences online?

My introduction to the World Wide Web involved a search engine called WebCrawler, whose logo featured a friendly spider riding a surfboard and holding a magnifying glass. My first goal online was to find lyrics to Smashing Pumpkins songs and later to create my own Geocities website devoted to sharing my love for the Smashing Pumpkins. Later, I frequented a chat room (screen name: Tristessa! Yes, that is the title of a Smashing Pumpkins song) where I found other “alternative” music fans to chat with. As a teenager in a town of 2,000 in northern Minnesota, this was a very exciting development. 

To learn more, you can check out the syllabus on Canvas, stop by shopping week (Thursday, 3-5:45), or email Bri at to set up an appointment!

Jeannie Regidor ’20

“Narrative Activism: Interrogating, Subverting, and Reclaiming Stories of U.S. Migrant Detention”

Tell us about your thesis! 

My thesis, “Narrative Activism: Interrogating, Subverting, and Reclaiming Stories of U.S. Migrant Detention,” is about the different narratives of U.S. migrants and migrant detention that are propagated by our everyday media and literary forms. The thesis explores how “narrative activism” can be employed to change the way in which migrants are portrayed in order to create empathy and humanize migrants. By changing the narratives that we already have in place, the thesis argues that policymakers and key stakeholders will be motivated to change the current status quo of migrant detention in the U.S. 

How did you choose your topic? 

I chose my thesis topic due to my interest in the U.S. prison system as well as migration. I concluded that studying the U.S. migrant detention system and the narratives that shape it would blend these two interests into a project I could dedicate myself to for a long period of time. 

What were the biggest challenges? 

I think one of the biggest challenges was finding a diverse array of sources for the specific detention centers that I was studying. Much like the argument in my thesis about narrative activism– I did not want to become a part of the problem myself by not showing a diverse array of experiences within my thesis work. Not only did I try to choose sources that show different narratives of migration and detention, but I also tried to choose sources that were told through different mediums as well, such as film or memoir. 

Did you encounter any surprises along the way? 

I think I was surprised by the willingness of people to provide you with sources if you just ask for them and let them know that you are using it for Harvard thesis research. One of my sources, a documentary entitled The Infiltrators, has not been released through public private viewing outlets, and has only been shown at film festivals around the U.S. The directors were kind enough to give me access to it so long as I shared my thesis with them when I was done. 

What did you find most rewarding about the process? 

I found it rewarding to finish a chapter or section and be able to edit it afterwards. Before writing my thesis, I honestly did not think that I had it in me to write a project this long or even work on something for such a long period of time. I am very proud of all the work that I put in to finishing up my thesis and it was rewarding to see it printed and binded on the day that I finally turned it in. Having the chance to submit my research alongside my peers from History & Literature was also something that allowed me to connect with other concentrators because writing our theses was something that we all did together. We all understood how much effort and work we each put into our projects and respected each other’s academic work. 

What was your favorite thing about your thesis? 

My favorite thing about my thesis was getting to intertwine my family’s own personal narratives into a thesis about narrative activism. I come from a family of immigrants who migrated to the U.S. from Latin America, and I was able to use this own personal narrative in the introduction to my thesis to introduce the argument that I was going to make. 

What advice would you give to juniors? 

I would tell juniors to really take the time to think about the topic that they want to research for their thesis, because although it is not a lifetime commitment, the thesis topic you choose is one that you will be spending time on for your last year at Harvard. You want to choose a topic that you enjoy and that you are intellectually interested in. This will make the thesis process that much more enjoyable and personal to you. 

Una Corbett ’20

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“‘Organize, Agitate, Educate’: Making Political Meaning of the American Women’s Suffrage Centennial”

The year 2020 marks 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, which extended women’s suffrage across the country. My thesis, “‘Organize, Agitate, Educate’: Making Political Meaning of the American Women’s Suffrage Centennial,” explores the politicization of this anniversary.

Curators, historians, government officials, and activists have dedicated a ton of time and resources to planning a wave of celebrations, exhibits, research efforts, and public programs to commemorate and educate the public about the 19th Amendment’s significance. At the same time, 21st-century politics (both liberal and conservative) are riddled with references to the suffrage movement: to name only a few examples, women put “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave after voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, women politians from Shirley Chisolm in 1968 to Democratic congresswomen inducted in 2018 have all worn white, the color of the suffrage movement, at key political moments, Women for Trump hosted a suffrage centennial event with Kellyanne Conway last year, and arguably the most prominent anti-abortion group in the country, the Susan B. Anthony List, claims the name of one of the founders of the suffrage movement.Yet even as suffrage history has become a political touchstone, there is also a growing recognition of the ways in which American suffragists actively worked to perpetuate racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination.

Given all these intricacies and contradictions, I was eager to explore the political power of the suffrage centennial in our current moment. I analyzed a wide array of centennial-related primary sources — government rhetoric, legislation, original interviews, museum exhibits, and photographs and ephemera from activist demonstrations– and put that analysis in conversation with feminist theory, social movement history, historical memory, and museum-studies scholarship. My thesis research took me from interviewing government officials at the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission in Washington, D.C. to visiting suffrage centennial museum exhibits at the New York and Massachusetts Historical Societies to delving into suffragists’ papers at the Schlesinger Library.

My thesis argues that references to suffrage history are inherently political, and that we so often evoke the suffrage movement because we’re heartened by the fact that a movement as messy, divided, and often inadequate as our own social movements today was able to create real change back in 1920. I believe the suffrage centennial moment has the power to shape how the American public views the relationship between gender, power, and citizenship in 2020 and beyond. We can glean inspiration from the ways the suffrage movement transformed the relationship between gender and citizenship, but it’s dangerous to romanticize and mythologize a social movement that was deeply flawed and exclusionary. I really valued getting to write a historical thesis that felt forward-looking — I would encourage Hist+Lit juniors brainstorming thesis topics right now to remember that history is happening as we speak, and some of the most exciting and original “historical” topics are very current!

Sam Heavner ’20

“‘One of the Laborers’: Girlhood, Work, and Media in the United States, 1840-1860”

Tell us about your thesis!

My thesis, “‘One of the Laborers’: Girlhood, Work, and Media in the United States 1840-1860,” considers the intersection of idealized girlhood and popular print media in the mid-nineteenth. It draws upon existing scholarship on the history of American childhood by Steven Mintz and Renee Sentilles to consider the common conceptions of idealized childhood that existed within the American imagination during this time. In my first chapter, I explore how idealized notions of girlhood were communicated to children through popular youth periodicals. Then, in my second chapter, I examine idealized working-class girlhood as it operates in The Lamplighter (1854), a best-selling sentimental novel by Maria Cummins. Taken together, the chapters demonstrate a collective investment in normative girlhood as it related to labor and industry in the rapidly changing nineteenth-century American economy. 

How did you choose your topic?

Over the course of my junior year, I became increasingly interested in childhood studies while I was exploring various sources in HL98: Junior Tutorial. I researched the history of American family structures in my junior fall as part of a project about twentieth-century recreation trends and the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971. Then, in my junior spring, I wrote my junior paper on the intersection of law and order rhetoric and media disseminated by the Boy Scouts of America in the 1970s. I knew I wanted to continue to research the role of childhood and children in American culture in my thesis, and decided to pivot my research to focus on the nineteenth century. From there, I started to narrow my project, restricting my topic to focus on girlhood and print media in particular.

What were the biggest challenges?

I found it difficult to establish a consistent work schedule for my thesis, especially when I was first starting out. It was surprising to realize how fast time can slip by when I was focusing on other classwork during the semester. Once I took the time to establish a solid routine for thesis work, the process felt much more manageable. 

What was your favorite thing about your thesis?

My favorite thing about my thesis process is probably the amount of time it allowed me to spend with my primary sources. Never before in my academic career have I sat with a single novel for several months, parsing through the themes and characters in detail before finalizing my thoughts on them. By the end of the process, I felt mastery over The Lamplighter and my other primary materials that was never possible in other courses at Harvard. It was really rewarding to see my arguments, and my articulation of them, develop and pivot over time.

What advice would you give to juniors?

Remember: this is your first thesis! You’ve never done this before! There’s absolutely no reason to expect that you’ll already be good at writing a thesis while you’re charting entirely new territory. Try to be kind yourself and keep in mind how exciting and impressive it is that you’re doing a senior thesis at all. Also, ask for help when you need it and be as honest as possible with your advisor about how the process is going, even if it isn’t going as well as you had hoped.