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.

Kaylee Kim ’20

“‘WE WILL NOT BE BARRED!’: The Feminist Campaign Against Men-Only Bars and Restaurants”

Tell us about your thesis!

I wrote about the feminist campaign against men-only bars and restaurants in the late 60s and early 70s across America. Sex segregation at these establishments was surprisingly common — in 1970, 25% of liquor licenses in Boston belonged to bars that did not serve women. This fight, however, has often been lost in the larger narrative of late 60s feminism, which was all the more motivation for me to pursue it as my thesis topic!

How did you choose your topic?

Because I knew I wanted to write about women in the 60s/70s, I started my search at Schlesinger Library, particularly its extensive archives of the National Organization of Women. I discovered that NOW had pioneered a campaign against men-only bars and restaurants in 1968 that other feminist groups and women joined later on. From reading the ways feminists justified this fight, I then became interested in the ways public space facilitated gender dynamics and relations, and I knew there was so much more to investigate about this topic beyond literal access to restaurants or the ability to order a martini.

Lucy Komisar, VP of NOW, at McSorley’s the day it opened to women on August 10, 1970. Credit: The New York Times

What were the biggest challenges?

I had never embarked on such an extensive academic project, so continuing to write without knowing my exact argument was really challenging. I don’t think I had an overarching thesis statement until the end of January. My thesis advisor was really encouraging throughout and reminded me that this was all part of the process, and my argument eventually came together, even if it was later than I had initially expected.

What was your favorite thing about your thesis?

I was lucky enough to be able to interview Lucy Komisar, one of the vice presidents of NOW who was famously photographed at McSorley’s Old Ale House the day it was forced to open its doors to women in 1970. (In the photographs, you can see men jeering and shouting at her as she tries to order a beer.) Getting to hear her perspective firsthand on how this fight fit into the feminist movement at large was such an incredible experience and a definite highlight of my thesis journey.

What advice would you give to juniors?

When it comes to your topic, think about what has interested you most during your time at college: themes, eras, figures, etc. Start this process as early as your junior spring. You want a topic you are passionate about — otherwise, you’ll get sick of it pretty easily! Also, be prepared to edit your drafts like crazy. This is actually really freeing because you don’t have to feel the pressure of getting it “right” the first time around.

Jamie Halper ’20

“‘Imagination Joggers’: Women’s Fight to Eliminate Sex-Segregated Classified Advertisements from American Newspapers, 1964-1973”

I came to my thesis topic in a slightly unorthodox manner — I was absolutely certain of my subject in May of junior year, and spent the summer reading primary sources to prepare. The day after I submitted my proposal to Hist & Lit, however, I realized I was no longer inspired by any of it and had no sense of direction for pursuing it further. In a desperate attempt to not disappoint my advisors, I spent a Friday evening searching back through all my old papers from sophomore and junior year to find a topic I didn’t hate that I could suggest as an alternative. I came upon a short primary source-based paper from junior fall about a radical feminist protest against The Boston Globe in 1970, and after reading through it was inspired to do a little Googling to see how the whole issue had ended. It turned out that one aspect of the protest — an attack on sex-segregated classified advertisements — had a rich social and legal history culminating in a 1973 Supreme Court case. I was sold.

But, I was also very busy. I spent the rest of the fall squeezing in the occasional primary source reading between classes and extracurriculars. I wrote a chapter for the mandatory November submission that was essentially a stream of close readings with little coherent argument. I consulted exactly one primary source. As a result of an overpacked first semester, when I returned to campus in early January I had virtually nothing written or read, and less than two months to put together a thesis. I spent the next three weeks of wintersession rotating between Cambridge’s Darwins Ltd. locations and dining on coffee and potato chips to fuel my fervent drafting and constant revising. I wouldn’t recommend writing your thesis in two months (and Hist & Lit probably wouldn’t let me), but I also know that many time-consuming extracurriculars can make it hard for many people to do much work during fall semester. You can still make a comeback and write a thesis you’re proud of, but definitely return to campus early for wintersession to give yourself a firm foundation heading into February. Even though my thesis journey started with doubts and do-overs, by the end of the writing process, I had come to love it.

I ended up with a three-chapter thesis studying the social and legal strategies employed to eliminate sex-segregated classified advertisements from American newspapers between 1964 and 1973. My first chapter told a new, extended narrative of this struggle that looked beyond the existing historical accounts and traced the fight to its conclusion in the Supreme Court. My second chapter examined the public-focused strategies employed by Boston-area radical feminists to fight sex-segregated advertisements in The Boston Globe, and made an argument about consciousness raising as a form of activism. My third chapter considered the legal fight against sex-segregated advertisements waged by Pittsburgh members of the National Organization for Women, and tracked the evolution and implementation of Pauli Murray’s strategy to use race-sex parallels when trying to win victories for women before the courts. In the end, I found that it was a combination of these powerful but imperfect strategies that won the elimination of sex-segregated advertisements from newspapers across the country and set the stage for feminist fights to come throughout the 1970s.

Lucy Devine ’20

“Wise Women in the World of ‘Mad Men’: The Forgotten Story of Jean Wade Rindlaub and Early Female Advertising Executives”

Tell us about your thesis!

My thesis is primarily about a woman named Jean Wade Rindlaub who was an important figure in the advertising industry from the thirties through the sixties, but is rarely ever discussed in the literature on the industry or histories of women’s labor. She became a vice president at Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO–one of the biggest ad agencies in New York at the time) in 1945, was the Advertising Woman of the Year in 1951, and joined the board of directors at BBDO in 1954. The reason those dates are important is because they seem way earlier than one would think a woman would have been successful in advertising. After all, Peggy from Mad Men was a secretary until the mid-1960s. Interestingly, cultural portrayals of women in the ad industry differ from what was the reality. My thesis compares the real life successes of Jean Wade Rindlaub and the mostly negative cultural representations of female advertising executives, primarily in two romantic comedies from the time: Take a Letter Darling (1942) and Lover Come Back (1961). 

How did you choose your topic?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do original archival research at Schlesinger Library. I had been doing research there since freshman year and I always had the most fun on projects involving materials from Schlesinger. So, when looking for a topic, I immediately went to their website and searched through their Subject Guides. A lot of my previous projects had been about women and work, including a paper on 9 to 5 the movie and the organization that inspired it and another paper dealing with the magazine Working Woman, so I kind of had an idea where I wanted to look. When I stumbled upon the description of Rindlaub’s archives, I knew I had found something cool. I got into the archives soon after and just ran with it!

What were the biggest challenges?

I think one of the biggest challenges was keeping motivation high after finishing the first chapter and deciding what to write next. I was so interested in Rindlaub and her life, but I didn’t want to write a biography (that’s not the assignment), so I had to broaden my scope a bit, but I didn’t know how. Also, there’s a bit of a break after submitting the first draft chapter and it was really tempting to just stop thinking about it for a while. My adviser was amazing about helping me with both of those issues and by the time I was back on campus during winter break, I knew what I was going to write and I was ready to roll. 

Did you encounter any surprises along the way?

Luckily, I didn’t encounter any bad surprises, but there were some happy surprises! I was able to track down the woman who originally archived all of Rindlaub’s papers and meet with her. It was a really insightful meeting because she had seen every paper and advertisement in the archive so could speak to trends she saw and important things I just couldn’t miss. Also, she had been lucky enough to talk to some of Rindlaub’s family members and get a sense for who she was apart from her documents, so it was really cool to hear that. I also was surprised to find out that Lizabeth Cohen, the author of one of my main secondary sources, A Consumers’ Republic teaches on campus so I met with her to run some ideas by her and that was a very special experience. 

What did you find most rewarding about the process?

Hm… That’s a hard question. I think just the overall experience was so rewarding. I was so hesitant to declare Hist & Lit because I was so scared of writing a thesis. At the point of declaration, I think the longest paper I had ever written was 12 pages long, and I never really thought of myself as a “writer.” So, even completing the thesis is an accomplishment. I think it was super rewarding to even see that I could do something I never thought I would be able to do. Also, getting to work with and to know my adviser Lauren Brandt was just honestly a blessing (and I’m not even religious). 

What was your favorite thing about your thesis?

My favorite thing about my thesis is how many different types of primary sources I used to write it. I used Rindlaub’s archival papers, newspaper articles, books (obviously), a TV show, two romantic comedies (I can’t believe I was able to base half of my thesis on romcoms), press kits, motion picture codes, and print advertisements.

What advice would you give to juniors?

I think the biggest piece of advice I would give to juniors is to come back to campus early over winter break to write. I know that’s not super philosophical or inspirational, but coming back early gave me a chance to fully immerse myself into the project with no distractions (other classes, family, social obligations, etc.). That time is when I really fell in love with my thesis and enjoyed writing it most. Also, it meant that by the time classes started up again, I didn’t have that much more to write. Would recommend!

Alexandra Summa ’20

“Corn Nationalism: Exhibiting Mythologies of ‘America’s Crop’ 1887-1918’

As corn became a dominant resource in U.S. industry, the crop was placed on display in festivals and museums across the country. In my thesis, titled “Corn Nationalism: Exhibiting Mythologies of America’s Crop, 1887-1918,” I study how corn exhibits reflect myths and metaphors of land and nation by interrogating Sioux City’s Corn Palace (1887), corn demonstrations at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition (1893), and exhibit “Food Values and Economies” at the American Museum of Natural History (1917). In these case studies, I show how businessmen, authors, architects, cooks, and curators use corn as a metaphor for national prosperity. I argue that white cultural creators of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contextualized corn by applying visual and rhetorical strategies to replace and erase Indigenous peoples from histories of the resource. This was to advance myths about the origin of American civilization and fashion expedient meanings of the crop in the present day. By rejecting the novelty of King Corn and reading against the grain of his rule, we reveal a strange and understudied history that demonstrates the deep connections between the American West, museums, and colonial history, which further conveys the importance of continued decolonization and increased need for Indigenous cultural rights. 

In this process I was supported by my wonderful advisor, Reed Gochberg. I also met with other members of the Hist & Lit department who guided me as I curated this archive and defined “corn nationalism.” Additionally, I received a grant from the Harvard College Research Program that allowed me to travel to Iowa and research in the archives at the Sioux City Public Museum.