Today marks the first day of the winter semester, but if you're imagining Timothy Bottoms and John Houseman matching wits, you've got the wrong idea. The first few weeks of classes are dedicated to course shopping, in which students cram into the most popular courses hoping to land one of the precious spots, and faculty try to sell their courses to increase enrollments. It's a mating ritual of sorts, and great fun. Here's Harvard grad Ross Douthat describing it in The Atlantic Monthly a few years ago: "There is a boisterous quality to this stretch, a sense of intellectual possibility, as people pop in and out of lecture halls, grabbing syllabi and listening for twenty minutes or so before darting away to other classes."
Boisterous may not put quite a fine enough point on it, so far as we fellows are concerned. Our tenure at Harvard is so short—I often joke that they let us into the candy store, but only gave us a nickel—that I think I speak for us all when I say there's an immense pressure to pick the right courses right from the start. You can help, or at least, I'll be curious for your thoughts. I'll be blogging my courses all week. Here's what I'll be shopping today:
Historical Study B-43: Slavery/Capitalism/Imperialism: The US in the Nineteenth Century
This course treats the history of the 19th-century US and the Civil War in light of the history of US imperialism, especially the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the illegal invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1850s. Likewise, it relates the history of slavery in the US to the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, Indian removal, Atlantic cotton, land and money markets, and the hemispheric history of antislavery.
I've been a history nerd since I was in grade school, and last semester I concentrated on post Civil War 19th Century American history. I've tended to underestimate the role race and slavery's effects have played in, well, just about everything. This course could act as a corrective to that, but what I'm really interested in is developing some historical research chops. Next:
English 141: The 18th-Century Novel
The rise of the novel, seen through eighteenth-century fiction by Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Radcliffe, and Jane Austen, plus films, paintings, and engravings, magazine articles, and excerpts from literary and social theory. Issues include genre (what differentiates novels from epics, romances, newspapers, correspondences, biography, pornography?), modernity (what was novel about the novel?), gender, reading, and pleasure. Lecture-discussion format.
For years I've maintained a half-formed (okay, ill formed) idée fixe concerning the birth of the novel. Cultural commentators, pundits, the rest of us ... we all tend to treat the novel as something ahistorical, immutable, and yet it's a fairly recent cultural innovation. Plus, I've always wanted to read Fielding and Defoe.
History of Art and Architecture 175k: American and European Art, 1945-1975
This course will examine artistic production in the US and Europe between 1945 and 1975 to clarify some of the most crucial questions of this thirty year period: How did post-war visual culture repress or acknowledge the recent 'caesura of civilization' brought about by World War II?; how did the neo-avant garde position itself with regard to the legacies of the avant gardes of the 1920s?; how did artistic production situate itself in relation to the newly emerging apparatus of Mass Media culture?
I've left professor names out of the descriptions thus far, but it's often a big (or even biggest) factor that goes into one's decision. The above course is being taught by Benjamin Buchloh, a well-known critic and art historian. Buchloch wrote frequently for ArtForum when I interned there back in the mid-90s, and I found his prose to be occasionally brilliant but generally impenetrable. He'd always personified the gratuitous abstruseness of art criticism to me, but part of my Harvard experience has been re-evaluating my prejudices against Frankfurt School-inflected cultural criticism, and maybe this course will be part of that. If nothing else, I'm hoping Buchloh will give good slide.