HL90 EK: American Noir

More new HL90s this semester! Angela Allan told us about her new class on noir.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I spent a lot of time in March and April watching movies as an alternative to doomscrolling (although I’ve done plenty of that too), and realized that a lot of the films I turned to were also not particularly uplifting. 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! 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 all of the films and novels, 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.

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 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.

Would you be the detective or the criminal mastermind in a noir?

I’d just want to make it to the end in one piece! There are some pretty tough characters out there in the world of noir.

How can students learn more?

You can check out the syllabus on Canvas and if you’d like to talk more, shoot me an email (allan@fas.harvard.edu) to ask questions or to set up an appointment!

HL90 DZ: Too Soon? Comedy in Europe’s Tragic Twentieth Century

No joke! One of our popular HL90 seminars is back! Kate Brackney told us more about European history, film, and comedy:

What inspired you to teach this class?

I thought up the title for this course years before teaching it; I’d bring up “Too Soon?” with colleagues, and we’d scheme about what might go on the syllabus. Initially, I just imagined the course as a standard survey of European history through comedic sources, but as I prepared to teach it, I came to appreciate comedy’s distinct value to cultural historians. Comedians often balance at the edge taboo, and their role in demarcating instinctive, often unspoken social boundaries makes comedy such a useful portal into the past.

I also began to see deeper structural parallels in comedy and history as narrative genres. The old adage, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” (a formula that we’ll test on the syllabus) suggests that some kind of distance or perspective is necessary for a joke be funny. Similarly, in the discipline of history, our remove from past events both enables and limits our capacity to formulate a coherent story about what happened and why.

Even if perspective is necessary for comedy, being on the inside of a given group often determines whether a joke will land. Historians, too, try to make up for our remove from the past by immersing ourselves in the sources from a given moment. In other words, a delicate and ever-changing balance between distance and proximity is what makes for both good comedy and insightful history. We’ll try to figure out how to achieve that kind of balancing act in this class.

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

While not all of the sources we look at in this class are “timeless,” The Great Dictator definitely qualifies as a classic, and I love that students in 2021 can still laugh just as hard as audiences did back in 1940 at Chaplin’s wonderfully garbled parody of Hitler’s German speech style.

Yasemin Şamdereli’s Almanya: Welcome to Germany is another more contemporary highlight of the course. The film explores the experiences of a Turkish immigrant to Germany and his multi-generational family. Şamdereli may have a light comic touch, but her work speaks to deeper tensions over the reformation of Germany as a multi-ethnic society in the post-war era — tensions that students will have a chance to explore in the excellent historical reading that accompanies the film.

Do you have to be funny to get an A in this class?

No, no, of course not …but it can’t hurt.

How should students contact you to find out more?

Students can talk with me about the course during the HL90 open house on Friday, January 15. I’ll also be holding a shopping session on Thursday, January 21st at noon. Zoom info is available on the course’s Canvas site.

HL90 ES: Prison Abolition

We’re excited about Thomas Dichter’s new HL90 this semester! Thomas told us some more about the class’s format and activism component.

Tell us about your class!

This course will give students an opportunity to apply historical and literary methods to studying the prison abolitionist movement, while also getting hands-on experience working with activists. Alongside our readings and class discussions, students will work in small teams on volunteer projects with organizations that are working to transform the criminal legal system. The goal is not just to move between “theory” and “practice,” but to see how the distinction between those two things may not be so distinct after all. 

How will this class help students understand the present?

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

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

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

What are the assignments like?

Rather than ending the class with a long seminar paper, this course has a handful of shorter written and collaborative assignments. For one thing, your volunteer work will count towards your grade, and you’ll have opportunities to reflect on it in writing. There will be some short writing assignments to practice key close reading and historical contextualization skills, and there will be a number of assignments built around group discussions and collaboration—including a final exam you’ll complete with a team of classmates.

How can students find out more about the class?

I’ll be holding open Q&A sessions on Friday 1/15 and Tuesday 1/19 (details are on the Canvas site). You can also reach me at dichter@fas.harvard.edu. I’m looking forward to meeting any students who may be interested in learning more about the class!

HL90 EJ: Espionage: A Cultural History

We’ve got more HL90s to shop! No secrets here, but Duncan White told us more about his new class on espionage!

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 Cold War writers a few years ago that I started to really think about how pervasive spy stories are in our culture, and just how entangled those stories are with real life espionage.

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 recently passed away 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 Americans, The Night Manager and especially the brilliant French show The Bureau. At the same time the news was 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. As I was finalizing the course the story broke of a massive cyberattack on the US, the full scale of which has not yet been revealed. 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?

While working at MI6, Graham Greene, whose novel The Quiet American we will read for the course, has as his boss Kim Philby, who was later revealed to be a Soviet spy. The story of Philby’s betrayal then became the basis for Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, another novel we will read as part of the course.

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

Shopping starts this week! We’ve got lots of great HL90s to check out this spring. Sean Gilsdorf told us more about his class, “God Save the Queen! Ruling Women from Rome to the Renaissance”!

Tell us about your class!

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

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

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

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

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

What does your class help us understand about the present?

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

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

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

For more information on the class, you can see the syllabus on Canvas or stop by an informal meet and greet on Tuesday, January 19th (link on Canvas).

HL90 EM: Empire and Archive in the Colonial Americas

Shopping week is around the corner! Have you got your list of HL90s to shop? Alan Niles shared more about his class, “Empire and Archive in the Colonial Americas”:

Tell us about your class!

This class will engage with a simple question: what do we do with a written archive of colonialism that is weighted toward the perspectives of colonists? What are some of the ways we can counter this imbalance and open up a greater diversity of perspectives on the past? What are the limits of that effort? We will enter some of the fascinating discussions that are taking place around these issues right now in different fields of study—across and between the history of Atlantic slavery, Ethnohistory, American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, and other fields. One of the goals of this class is to open up the category of what we count as a text or source—as we’ll discover, there are all kinds of ways of “writing” or recording history that don’t rely on paper and ink. (A belt of wampum might record a historical treaty more accurately than a document that was written down with pen and paper!) Thinking about what we count as a source can also challenge us to think about what we hope to get out of the past, or the ways that our present desires are entangled with past histories. My hope is that activities and assignments based around navigating digital archives, analyzing visual materials, and close reading both “along” and “against the grain” of historical sources will lead us into thinking about these kinds of big questions.

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

In Week 6 we’re going to talk about the archive of graffiti from colonial churches in Mexico that Alessandra Russo has recovered. These doodles and inscriptions by Indigenous, mestizo, and Spanish people aren’t the kinds of sources that scholars usually focus on, but as Russo shows us, they tell us a great deal about the lived experience of colonialism—which is to say the kinds of attitudes and desires that find expression in everyday life. Some of these graffiti are (I think) even funny, though we’ll talk about how they can thwart what we want to see in them. At any rate, I think they’ll help us think differently about the history of power and graphic practice.

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

Colonial relationships were messy, and European, African, and Indigenous peoples interacted in ways that could lead to conflict but also to surprising interdependencies and exchanges. Some of these encounters can be unintuitive to us: the earliest performance of Hamlet we know about was for an audience of Portuguese-speaking West Africans, for example. Our class’s focus on sources and archives will let us talk about the ways we’re able to see different, sometimes unexpected configurations of power, authority, and inequality in the past, as well as the ways they can be obscured or recovered over time.

What kind of archives will you be using?

Teaching this class in an online format is going to be interesting, because our course is centrally concerned with questions of the visibility and accessibility of sources from the past. Our assignments are designed around exploring digital collections of materials that are available for use online, like the Early English Books Online database, The Vodou Archive, Harvard Libraries’ Colonial North America project, and the Peabody Museum’s digital collections. Through group discussion board posts and individual activities, we’ll talk about the decisions institutions are making about what kinds of materials are becoming digitally available (or not), the funding limitations that libraries and other institutions face, and all the other risks as well as advantages of online research. We’ll also learn a lot about how to find interesting sources!

What does your class help us understand about the present? 

Our whole class is about the legacies of colonialism, but the last unit, “Memory, Violence, and Repair” focuses most directly on the present. We’ll engage with the ways that scholars, artists, and activists are working creatively with questions of repair and recovery: for example, what kind of politics and what new literary form emerge from a text like Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, in its attempt to grapple with silences in the archive of slavery that cannot be overcome? I’m hoping these conversations can be a space for exploring the variety of different ways that academic research, political activism, and creative forms like autobiography and speculative fiction can channel our complex and varied desires facing the past.

For more information, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, drop by during shopping period (Wednesday, August 19, 12-2:45), or email Alan!

HL90 ED: Music and Resistance in the Modern United States

We’ve got more great HL90 seminars to check out! Lucy Caplan is teaching “Music and Resistance in the Modern United States” this fall, and talked to us about the Queen of Soul and explained critical karaoke to us!

What made you want to teach this class?

In one of my all-time favorite novels, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a character overhears a blues record while wandering through Harlem and wonders: “Was this the only true history of the times?” The idea at the heart of that question – that music can tell us something unique about the past and the present – is what inspired me to teach this class. More specifically, I’m inspired by the idea that music can help us understand something fundamental about histories of dissent and resistance in the United States, and especially about the history of Black freedom struggles throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In our current moment of peril and possibility, I’m especially excited to consider not only how music works as a form of protest against present challenges, but also how it helps us imagine a better, more just future.  

What is one thing you’re excited to share with students this semester?  

It’s hard to choose just one! But if I had to, I think it would be Aretha Franklin’s iconic 2015 performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors. First of all, it’s just awesome: the fur coat, the dress, the piano, the voice! It’s also an amazing encapsulation of how deeply history and culture can resonate through a five-minute video clip. We might think about the song’s relationship to second-wave feminism and Black Power; about what it means that Barack and Michelle Obama are swaying along in the audience; about how the details of the lyrics speak to the complicated progress of the civil rights movement. I can’t wait to analyze this performance with students and see what insights we can come up with collectively.  

What is an assignment that you’re excited about? 

I’m really excited about the Critical Karaoke assignment. Critical Karaoke is a form 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. I also think that this particular assignment might work even better in an online format than it does in-person, so I’m looking forward to seeing how students get creative with the technologies available to them.  

What music have you been listening to while working remotely?  

I don’t know if this even really qualifies as “music”…but I (and my cat Dona, who you will certainly meet this semester!) have watched this about a zillion times.  

Fore more information, see the syllabus on Canvas, or email Lucy to set up an appointment!

First-Year Seminar: Asian American Literature

Hist & Lit tutors are offering first-year seminars this fall! Catherine Nguyen is teaching one on “Asian American Literature,” and talked with us about the class, her advice for first-year students, and some of her other favorite books! To apply for a seminar, visit here!

What made you want to teach this seminar?

I’m so excited to teach this first-year seminar on Asian American literature! During my dissertation writing years, I was so focused on Vietnamese American and diasporic literature that I didn’t have time to read all the other Asian American literature coming out then. When I finally finished the PhD and got to Harvard, the first Asian American works I picked up to read were Min Jin Lee’s novels Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko. It was thrilling and refreshing to read about Lee’s beautiful prose so much so it got me really excited to teach a Asian American literature class where we can linger on the beautiful storytelling of different Asian American experiences. Unfortunately, Pachinko is way too long for a first-year seminar, but I hope that the readings I chose will speak to students in the way Lee’s writings and other Asian American writing has spoken to me. 

What’s something you’re looking forward to sharing with students in class?

I am so excited to provide students with the opportunity to engage with Asian American artists and activists Rachel Kuo, PhD, Trinh Mai, and Shing Yin Khor. I got the Elson Family Arts Initiative Fund to Support Integration of the Arts into the Curriculum to fund the workshops as well as provide students with a plethora of art supplies. Even though the art workshops will be virtual, I hope that having supplies on hand and being able to interact with the artists and activists that students will have a fun, creative time. I also hope that students will be inspired to take up the opportunity and choose to complete a creative final project.

What advice do you have for a first year student? 

Have fun and challenge yourself! The first-year seminars are graded satisfactory/unsatisfactory, and I would encourage first years to take a class they might not have taken otherwise or have no idea about the seminar topic. It’s a great opportunity to really engage with the instructors and other fellow first years to create a really memorable first-year experience. 

Besides Asian American literature, what else do you like to read?

For bedtime/turn-off-the-brain reading, I often turn to Nordic mysteries because they’re thrilling and reliable (sometimes too much!). I am a big fan of the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, and I also read a lot of graphic novels and was fortunate to offer an HL90 on Asian American comics and graphic novels last year. 

For more information, you can see the syllabus on Canvas or email Catherine!

HL90 EF: White Rage: Progress and Backlash in American History

We’ve still got more HL90s to share with you! Andrew Pope is teaching “White Rage: Progress and Backlash in American History” this fall, and talked with us about the importance of understanding history for our present moment. (He also talked to us about cats. And Cats.)

What inspired you to teach this class?

The night Americans elected Donald Trump as president, my colleague Safia Aidid and I exchanged messages on Twitter about how his election was both unexpected but also completely predictable given American history. I commented that his election helped vindicate historian Carol Anderson’s argument that white rage is the animating element of American history from slavery to the present. Safia encouraged me to teach a course about it. The next day, I sketched out what a syllabus might look like for such a course. I’m thrilled to have the chance to finally teach it this semester. Unfortunately, the argument remains as relevant as ever.

What is one text you’re excited to share with students this semester?

Just one? Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Father Comes Home might be it. If you have five minutes—not enough time to read one of her plays but still want to read something brilliant—her commencement address at Mount Holyoke is a gem. Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America is the best history book I’ve read in the past year. I’m eager to see how students compare the modern white power movement to what is often considered more mainstream instances of white rage that we study.

What can your class help us understand about the present?

The expressions of rage that politicians like Donald Trump embody and promote are not the only ways that we live with white rage today. Rage is expressed through the avenues of power people have available to them. Rage is not just an explosive moment of public anger. Throughout the course, we’ll examine the different ways white rage has shaped our institutions, our interactions, and what we consider to be “normal.” The goal is to have a more expansive understanding of what it means to dismantle white rage and its legacies than merely electing a different president.

On a totally different note, what is the best or worst thing you’ve watched since Harvard sent everybody home and we started social distancing?

Cats, the movie. My expectations were so low. I knew so many people hated it. But I love cats (the animals! I have three—folks in the class will likely meet all of them at various points each week). And I thought, just maybe, with low enough expectations and a pure enough love of cats that I might actually enjoy the movie. Nope. It was that bad. But also somehow not bad enough to be enjoyable.

For more information, you can see the syllabus on Canvas or email Andrew!

First-Year Seminar: The American West: History & Myth

Applying to a first-year seminar? Hist & Lit lecturers are offering some great ones! We talked to Chris Clements about his class, “The American West: History & Myth,” the Oregon Trail, and his cowboy fashion of choice.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I have a lot of experience teaching courses on Native American history and Indigenous Studies. I’m also a US historian in a much broader sense. The West, as both a real place and a set of ideas, is everywhere in these fields! When I was offered a chance to teach a First Year Seminar, I figured it would be a great opportunity to think in big ways about the relationship between US and Indigenous histories in this country. And, it’d give me an opportunity to think through a classic American Studies question: What is America? The American West, I think, makes up a significant portion of the answer. It’s a concept that’s never been fixed. As a geographic region, the West once meant anything west of the Appalachian Mountains. At another time, it meant anything west of the Mississippi River. That being said, to this day, the country’s longest running, weekly rodeo takes place in…New Jersey. What’s up with that? The West is simultaneously a material place and a cultural blank canvas, occupied territory and Indigenous homelands, a land of opportunity and a land that has seen brutal conflicts over basic resources like water. How can this be? We probably won’t find a neat answer to that question in the class, but I hope we’ll all walk away with a better understanding of how and why the West has come to feel so quintessentially American.

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

I am most excited to play the original Oregon Trail computer game collectively as a class. Will we survive the journey? Only time will tell. Should we ford the river? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Will we learn to think in exciting and inventive ways about how a computer game can be a critical text worthy of academic study? You betcha.

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

We’ll spend a considerable chunk of time thinking about the genre of “The Western,” which, I think, people usually associate with a certain kind of cinematic tradition. But, what do we make of the 1968 Star Trek (The Original Series) episode that imagines a wild west on another planet? Or, Lil Nas X, who teamed up with a country icon to produce a genre mash-up that clearly spoke to the masses? What I think students might find surprising about these texts is that they reveal the West to be everywhere in popular culture, even where we might least expect to find it.

What can your class help us better understand about the present?


Perhaps more than any other big idea in American history, the West has been a site for perpetual mythmaking. In an era of extraordinarily visible forms of political struggle and battles over how we interpret history, the present, and the future, I think studying the West will help us to understand the subtle ways that individuals can adopt myths or engage in mythmaking to accumulate social and political power. Do you want to know more about state violence, about race and racialization, about gender norms, about America’s fascination with individualism and suspicion toward communalism? All roads lead quite quickly to some aspect of the historical and mythical West.

What advice do you have for a first-year student?

Be confident! Be vulnerable! The best way to learn is to accept that there are many things you (and every single one of your classmates) simply don’t know. The sooner you can embrace and own that learning is an ongoing process, the sooner you can free yourself from the impossible burden of trying to know everything. In other words, don’t be afraid to ask questions, to boldly express your confusion, and to see your fellow students as collaborators and allies in class.

If you had to teach in a cowboy hat or cowboy boots all semester, which would you choose?

Bejeweled cowboy boots. Obviously.

For more information, you can email Chris, and apply here.