HL90 EP: A Global History of Pests

More HL90s! While we normally run the other way from rats, mosquitoes, and cockroaches, Sam Dolbee has us reconsidering with his class, “A Global History of Pests” (at least when it comes to learning about them!).

So we’ve got to know. What made you want to teach a class about pests?

When I lived in New York and spent a lot of time waiting at subway stations, I could never stop myself from watching the rats crawling along the tracks…even though I’m terrified of rats! I’m generally spared from this dilemma now, though not always (i.e., have you ever looked closely at the planters in Porter Square?). So that strange mix of fear, intimacy, and infrastructural connection is one reason I find thinking about pests compelling. And another is the richness of what pests can tell us about the world. Part of what’s disconcerting about them is how they repurpose the human world in unexpected ways, with impacts both mundane and momentous. Pests can reflect economic organization, and they often amplify structural inequality and racism (as do the sometimes carcinogenic pesticides aimed at them). Pests also operate as a powerful symbol, used both to protest these dynamics and, sometimes, to denigrate others. In the process, they bring together histories of capitalism, environmental history, history of medicine, and history of science in compelling ways. And just like my experience on the subway platform, once you start seeing them, it’s hard not to keep looking for their traces. Whether DDT in Fanon or vampiric figures in Marx, you notice the resonance of pesticides and pests almost everywhere.

Tell us something weird about pests!

You can fight pests and also be fashionable, at least according to this community clean-up flier from Milwaukee (circa 1970) featuring a bell-bottomed figure pitching in to make the neighborhood less hospitable to rodents.

Do you have any assignments you’re excited about?

One assignment I’m excited about is for students to look for evidence of pests or pesticides in their daily lives, and write about them in relation to the broader structural perspectives brought up in class. Here, for example, is a photo I took while on a research trip in Paris of a pesticide-selling store whose distinctive design stood out quite conspicuously from surrounding staid apartment buildings. The shop sold various means of killing pigeons, rats, mice, cockroaches, slugs, and, yes, snails (escargots), as well as repellents for dogs, cats, moles, weasels, and wild boars. The range of creatures targeted opens up questions about how cities or other human infrastructures create spaces for other life forms to flourish outside of human control. Meanwhile the products being marketed to kill the pests or keep them away invite questions about what impact these substances might have on humans.   

What can the class help students understand about the present?

This is not a class about the pandemic, but it does address a number of historical themes connected to it, including questions like: How do small, sometimes unseen forces shape people’s lives? How do new scientific understandings shape the definition and management of threats? And how does all of this get refracted through social inequality and difference?

For more information, you can check out the course’s Canvas site, where there is a copy of the syllabus and readings, as well as a link for a Zoom information session on the course set to meet on August 19 at 6pm. You can also email Sam with any questions.

HL90 EN: Latin American Revolutions

We’ve got more HL90s to shop! James Mestaz is teaching “Latin American Revolutions” this fall, and talked to us about how his experiences growing up influenced his class, the importance of understanding Latin American history in today’s political environment, and the best Latin American cuisine (don’t read on an empty stomach!)!

What inspired you to teach this class?

Understanding my unique experiences growing up as a Mexican-American in a small town in California compelled me to find out more about Mexico, and Latin America in general. When I got to college, I realized that a history existed beyond the narratives of rich White men I had learned about in High School. I became obsessed with all things related to Latin American history and how our society continues to be shaped by developments there. I was particularly drawn to twentieth century revolutions, when a vast array of disgruntled people rose up to decide the future of their nations. It reminded me how, when I was a child, my Grandmother used to tell stories about Pancho Villa and his elite soldiers riding through her town in Mexico, an army of African-American soldiers soon following in hot pursuit. In college I heard several friends relate the heart-breaking details and inspirational lessons of growing up in Nicaragua during that country’s Revolution. After college I had the pleasure of visiting Cuba, speaking with community leaders, and even hearing Fidel Castro give a three-hour long speech. Each of these stories and personal experiences seemed to refute many of the official histories I had learned about. This is when I noticed that only critical analysis of both primary and secondary sources can help us truly understand the complexities of armed revolution and the vital role that Latin America has played in world history, but just as important, to comprehend our own notions of freedom, democracy, grassroots organizing, and gender/ethnic differences in US society.

What kind of sources will you be working with in class?

Latin American History is a treasure chest filled with compelling sources. The Mexican Revolution was the first major conflict in the Western hemisphere to be photographed extensively. Students will have the opportunity to critically interrogate the importance of iconic images from this revolution, such as photographs of the only meeting between the infamous revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Che Guevara is the most well-known revolutionary in the world. By conducting a deep dive into his speeches (to the United Nations) and written manifestos (such as “Socialism and Man”) students will grasp his vision for de-colonizing the mind and liberating developing countries. Knowing the power of propaganda, leaders of the Nicaraguan Revolution wrote some of the most compelling speeches in recent history. We will analyze the positive impact of these speeches in gaining societal support from such sectors as women, but also their limitations as opposition mounted from marginalized groups including indigenous people. In addition, novels, movies, short stories, poems, films, song lyrics, and paintings will help students grasp the immense power the ideas that came out of these revolutions still hold globally today.

What does your class help us understand about the present?


We find ourselves in a moment in history when great change is on the horizon. All three of the Latin American Revolutions we will learn about this semester have provided key lessons that political activists today have learned from. Black Lives Matter, Native American Water Protectors, and all grassroots activists around the world have gathered inspiration and knowledge, in some form or another, from these revolutions. All nations in turmoil must understand the difficulties of first toppling oppressive regimes, and then creating systems that truly represent the needs of all sectors of society. As we can learn from Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, violent upheaval was not necessarily the best answer to improving society, which is why this course also thoroughly interrogates the advantages of political and communal mobilization. Only by understanding historical patterns of massive change in other nations of the Americas can we fully grasp what the future may hold in this country.

What is truly the best Latin American cuisine?

I am personally biased towards Mexican food, not only due to the fact that I grew up with it and continue to prepare it myself, but because of its diversity. Tacos, tortas, tamales, carne asada, mariscos, carnitas, and enchiladas are particularly delicious. Of course, it’s difficult to ignore South American flavors, Peru (ceviche) and Chile (seabass) have the best seafood, and Brazilians and Argentinians prepare incredible steaks. And don’t let me forget about island cuisine, not a day goes by when I don’t crave Dominican sancocho or Puerto Rican mofongo. I got hungry just writing this, and happy to talk about food any time!

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, drop by during shopping period (Monday August 17 and Wednesday, August 19 4:30-5:45), or email James to set up an appointment!

HL90 EQ: Nuclear Imperialisms

Looking for more HL90s? Rebecca Hogue chatted with us about the history and culture of nuclearism and settled the Godzilla vs. Mothra question!

Tell us about your class! What do you think its relevance to the present is?

These days, when nuclear issues are in the news, we think of “nuclear codes,” threats of pressing the “nuclear button” while world leaders simultaneously try to avoid total annihilation. But what if, for many people around the world, the apocalypse has already happened, and its effects are ongoing? My class will think about nuclearism–from mushroom clouds to nuclear waste–as another form of imperialism, but will focus on how brave and creative people around the world have rallied together, and are continuing to rally, for awareness and justice. 

What texts are you looking forward to sharing with students?

I’m very excited to watch well known films and TV series like Godzilla and Star Trek: The Original Series alongside Indigenous activist writing from Micronesia or Aboriginal poetry from Australia. Nuclear issues, as we will explore, take many aesthetic forms, both familiar and unfamiliar, and sometimes genre-bending. One of my favorite pieces we will watch/read is Marshallese poet-activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s and Taiwanese videographer Dan Lin’s video-poem “Anointed” from 2018. They mix archival footage, spoken word poetry, and drone videography to tell the story of ecological harm and resilience in the Marshall Islands’ nuclear legacy.

What’s something we might not know about this subject?

This August, the US will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the detonation of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Often times, those are the only use of nuclear weapons people will have heard of, and not, for example, the over 300 hundred weapons detonated in the Pacific Islands alone. Over a period of fifty years! In response to this problem, Maori activist Titewai Harawira asked in an anti-nuclear campaign speech, “why haven’t you known?” Exploring why and how the public is under-informed about these histories will be one of the goals of our class. Maybe it’s classified? Maybe it’s propaganda.

You mentioned Godzilla, so we have to ask: Godzilla or Mothra?

Definitely Godzilla! But I also want to put in a plug for another kaiju film character: Jet Jaguar. He’s friends with Godzilla, helpful to humans, and is always smiling! And he flies!

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, attend a drop-in session on Tuesday, August 18 at 1pm, or email Rebecca! Nuclear Imperialisms meets Tuesday/Thursday 6-7:15 this fall.

First-Year Seminar: CIA Operations in the Global Cold War

First years! Some of our Hist & Lit tutors are also offering first-year seminars this year. Check out Beatrice Wayne’s seminar, “CIA Operations in the Global Cold War,” and apply here.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I was inspired to teach this class after reading Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. This gripping bookprovides a variety of perspectives from different narrators, all related to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976. This is perhaps an unusual angle to come at the history of the CIA, but what impressed me so much about James’ novel is the way it managed to capture different facets of the CIA’s involvement in Jamaican politics in the mid-1970s. James is able to authentically give voice to a wide variety of perspectives and personalities who effected and were affected by covert action in the region. So often, both fictional representations and scholarly accounts of the CIA are told from a single perspective. This class takes a page from Marlon James and explores the realities of CIA actions across the globe from the point of view of many different peoples. I’m also passionate about educating students about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and am excited to work with students to familiarize them with the process of declassifying U.S. documents.

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

I’m excited to share a blank page with my students (see below)! It’s the perfect way to encapsulate the intriguing but frustrating process of working to declassify government documents. Throughout the class, I share my own experience with this unique type of research. A few years ago, I worked to declassify documents on CIA intelligence gathering related to the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s. In the midst of this process, I was excited one day to receive an e-mail with my newly declassified document attached, which, when I opened, looked like this:

It had been technically “declassified,” yet all the information remained redacted. Analyzing different forms of redacted and newly “scrubbed” documents will hopefully spur interesting conversations about the challenges involved with the long-term process of declassification. There are also some really interesting documents related specifically to Harvard’s long-term relationship with the CIA that it will be fun to explore with students, including beautifully designed posters from the 1969 Harvard student strike, where student activists protested the CIA’s influence on campus.

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

The geographic breadth of the CIA’s covert actions across the globe. I think so often when we think of the CIA and the Cold War, we picture trench coat wearing spies skulking around dark streets in Moscow or East Berlin. Or we imagine tuxedo-clad secret agents driving luxury cars at break-neck speeds down the streets of Paris or Monaco. But this was a global Cold War, and the CIA engaged in a wide-array of intelligence gathering and covert actions outside of Europe. This class looks at the countries, political groups, activists, dissidents and mercenaries that the CIA used and worked with across the globe, from Kingston to East Sumatra to Kinshasa to Tehran.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

The question of the accountability and transparency of our government is, if anything, more relevant now than ever. How we access information about our own institutions’ intelligence gathering and covert actions both domestically and abroad is absolutely an on-going concern. The FOIA workshop and final assignment should be directly relevant to my students lives, and useful to my students’ engagement with present day politics. Students could decide to go on a FOIA-requesting binge after the class ends, looking to declassify documents around topics about which they are particularly passionate. Students will come out the class having the skills to engage with on-going debates about the declassification of documents, and the ability to irritate their friends by contextualizing every piece of pop culture about the CIA within historical perspective. The final week of the class specifically explores the ways in which foreign policy in the global Cold War has returned to shape present day domestic policy, which should help students situate and engage deeply with many present-day discussions of policing, surveillance and peoples’ right to protest, both at home and across the globe.

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

Experiment! Freshmen year is a great time to take a variety of different classes, try anything and everything that might be interesting to you. I think perhaps rather than focusing on the specific content of classes, look for classes that ask the kinds of questions you want to try to answer, and particularly the kinds of classes that provoke you to ask new kinds of questions.

If you had a CIA codename, what would it be?

I wouldn’t have a CIA codename. I’m Canadian, so it would be a CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) codename. But I definitely wouldn’t have that either, since I can’t imagine myself as an intelligence officer in any situation. Although I suppose that’s ALSO what a spy would say.

HL90 EG: Human Rights and Ethnic Studies

Looking for classes? We asked lecturers to tell us more about their fall HL90s. Mark Sanchez is teaching “Human Rights and Ethnic Studies” and talked to us about the importance of Ethnic Studies to understanding rights and justice, as well as the hardest class he took in college (hint: it’s not history or literature!).

What inspired you to come up with this class?

I am inspired to teach this course because of the disastrous human rights situation in the Philippines. As a student of Philippine studies and Ethnic studies, I have spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about the possibilities and limitations of human rights discourses. I want this class to be a space where we think together about rights and what can be done to create a more just world.

Are there any sources you’re especially excited about introducing students to?

I am particularly excited to teach A. Naomi Paik’s book Rightlessness. This has been a work that I’ve been thinking about and grappling with for the last few years. It has made me think a lot about rights and rightlessness and whether or not freedoms are necessarily accompanied by unfreedom. I cannot wait to discuss it with a group of students because I have often found that seminar discussions are really great spaces to try to make sense of things. 

I am also incredibly excited to potentially teach Alyx Ayn G. Arumpac’s recent documentary, Aswang (2019), which covers the effects of Duterte’s drug war on everyday people in the Philippines. 

Do you have any creative assignments planned?

In one of my assignments (inspired by my colleague, Beatrice Wayne) I would like to invite students to reflect on manifestos, political statements, platforms such as the Combahee River Collective Statement, I Wor Kuen’s 12 Point Program, and the Black Panther Party’s 10 Point Program and work towards creating a statement/platform of their own. This assignment may be done individually or collaboratively, but I will also invite students to compose a reflection on the process and what connections/disconnects they experienced.

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

I want this to be a space where students can develop an understanding of the history of human rights in the United States from the 1970s to today. My other hope (and it’s admittedly a bit of an idealistic one) is that we will work together to imagine ways to address the grave human rights injustices in our world today without replicating the power structures that undergird such violations. 

This sounds like a class we’d be excited to take! But when you were an undergraduate, what would you say the most challenging class you took was?

Definitely Intermediate Accounting 2. Debits/credits and financial statement analysis are a tricky tricky thing.

If you’re looking for a great alternative to intermediate accounting, you can check out the syllabus for “Human Rights and Ethnic Studies” on Canvas, drop by open office hours during shopping period (Monday, August 17 from 3-5) or email Mark.

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.

You brought in guest speakers last year; any visitors planned for this year?

I am pleased that in the course of the semester our guests from last year will return to share their insights again: Mitch Landrieu, former New Orleans mayor, whose speech on Confederate monuments gained widespread national attention; Professor David Gergen of the Harvard Kennedy School, who served as a speechwriter for three presidents, and Diane Paulus, Tony Award winner and Artistic Director of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, who will help students develop and deliver their own speeches, the course’s final assignment.

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.

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!