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Cultural History

Dana Howell

Human experience is created and expressed through cultural performances, such as commemorations and public rituals, visual and performing arts, manifestos and memoirs, travelers’ tales and tourist displays. To understand these, we need to examine the sources in the context of their creation and use. Claims of “tradition” are no different than claims of invention and innovation: they express views of human action and tell us something about its significance. Cultural history involves discovering how people view their history and how history is part of identity. Understanding contemporary society requires a reach into history. Imagination is essential, as is care with sources, which are other people’s voices. It is those voices that are compelling to a cultural historian.

Studying culture is an interdisciplinary activity. Cultural history draws on methods and materials from various fields, such as history, anthropology, folklore studies, media and visual and performing arts. Students can create Plans in cultural history with foundation work in other areas of the curriculum, supplemented by some introductory work in cultural history courses.

Work in cultural history helps to develop skills in critical reading, interpretation of diverse sources and forms of cultural expression and interdisciplinary thinking. It involves both theory and concrete historical research, always seeking to understand specific cases as part of larger patterns and bringing broad ideas to ground in specific material. Pursuing a line of inquiry, identifying intersecting points on a topic, and presenting results in clear and coherent form are a part of the work. Advanced work on Plans also aims to develop individual ways of working independently and managing a large project.

As a historian, I have a particular interest in Eurasia and Eurasian studies, which encompass the societies of the former Soviet Union. These terms refer to an enormous area with great diversity, from Slavic cultures of Eastern Europe to indigenous cultures of Siberia to the “Silk Road” cultures of Central Asia. With the collapse of the USSR, these societies gained political independence and international interest (not least for natural resources and strategic locations). Their cultures are not new, nor are they alike in this post-Soviet era. They do share a legacy of socialism and strong responses to their Soviet experience, including nationalism, Islamic revival, nostalgia for social order, even interest in a reconstituted USSR. It is now possible for students to study the languages of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and other post-Soviet areas, and it is also possible to do internships, field studies and study-abroad programs. Many of these areas were restricted for foreigners during Soviet rule, and new access is creating new opportunities, new scholarship and new cultural creations.

Areas of Interest for Plan-level Work:

  • Eurasian studies
  • Public culture, including media
  • Performing and visual arts as cultural expressions
  • Tourism and rituals

Starting Points (Basic and Introductory Courses)

To know the wider world, we depend upon the “news.” Headlines, on-the-ground reports and visual images in the media shape our view of many societies. Reports from war zones are especially powerful, conveying urgency, danger and excitement, as war reporters take risks in foreign lands to “bring back the story.” We grant them authority as eyewitnesses and explorers, and we see their accounts as “the first draft of history.” How should we “read” the news? We’ll discuss news narratives, cultural images conveyed by news stories, and the conditions and issues facing war reporters. We’ll focus particularly on reporting from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with background material from World War II, the Vietnam War and the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We will also consider contemporary changes in reporting, particularly the new role of “citizen journalism” via the internet and cellphones. Readings, films, discussion and student research projects. Prerequisite: A course in social sciences or humanities     Multi-Level | Credits: 4

Social life is structured by ritual, and never more so than in public politics. With an introduction to the core ideas of ritual studies, we will consider a cross-cultural selection of political rituals, mostly from the 20th century, and explore the rituals and spectacles of American political life, including a review of the Obama presidential campaign and contemporary observation and analysis of the fall electoral season in the U.S. Class discussion of readings and films, plus student research projects on a contemporary or historical topic in political ritual. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

An introduction to Soviet society and post-Soviet reaction, using memoir, film and historical fiction to discuss the passage from early revolutionary radicalism to Stalinism to the freedoms of glasnost, and cultural conservatism. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

“In Europe we are but parasites and slaves, but to Asia we shall come as masters,” Dostoevski wrote. The Russian empire (and the USSR) found its southern limits in the region of the Caucasus mountains, and the recent Russian-Georgian conflict is the latest in a 200-year history of Russian incursions. In the 19th century Russians were inspired by the fierce resistance of the mountain people, the beauty of the land and Orientalist fantasies of exotic cultures, creating a literary tradition from Pushkin to Tolstoi to Pasternak. By the 20th century, the Caucasus became the site of the first genocide of the 20h century against the Armenians, a focal point of Islamic revival and armed conflict, a region of separatist wars in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Chechnia, and a center of oil politics (with the capital of Azerbaijan called the new Dodge City of the wild east). Considered the most culturally diverse area in the world, an ancient as well as modern crossroads, the Caucasus includes some of the oldest Christian nations, the traditional landing point of Noah’s Ark and the land of the Golden Fleece, the mountains which form the wall between Europe and Asia, the birthplace of Stalin, and potentially the furthest reach of NATO and the EU. This course is an introduction to the Caucasus region, with Russian involvement as the connecting thread through the past two centuries to the present day. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

Pursuing Interests (Intermediate and Thematic Courses)

“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move,” D.H. Lawrence wrote. “And what is more, to move in some particular direction.” Traveling has always been part of human life; how did it become a form of entertainment or leisure? Tourism today is one of the largest industries in the world; what is its impact on the way we organize societies, create and present our cultural identities, and envision the world of others? In this course, we’ll explore the history of travel for pleasure, the nature of tourist experiences, the tales we tell of travel, and the ways people are changing their lives in response to tourism in cultural displays, social interactions and commercial ventures like theme parks, packaged tours, television contests and public stories of life as an accessible adventure. Prerequisite:  Coursework in the social sciences or humanities     Intermediate | Credits: 4

Though war seems extraordinary, it is an ordinary presence in our world. Whether distant or close at hand, war is part of how we understand the world. It creates social change and cultural reflection. How are the ruptures of war absorbed into society and culture? We will examine direct experiences of war, the struggles to recover cultural identity after a war, the celebration and memorializing of war as generations pass and the pervasiveness of war imagery in popular culture. Prerequisite: A course in the social sciences or humanities     Intermediate | Credits: 4

AFTER 9/11(SSC541)
This September marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001. Some scholars argue that a decade is needed to absorb a “national trauma.” What cultural responses to the 9/11 attacks are evident in the past decade? Through different media, cultural criticism and theory, we will explore changes in American culture since 9/11, including the tolerance of surveillance, anticipation of future attacks, commemoration and disaster tourism, and renewed nationalism and xenophobia in popular culture. Coursework will include film showings outside class, in-class reports and collaborative analysis, and substantial research projects. Prerequisite: Course work in the social sciences or humanities     Intermediate | Credits: 4

An exploration of how history is created and how it is used in public life. We will read classic and current statements on the nature of creating historical works, and the focus on public practices that make claims on history, including popular films and their historical sources, continuing debate on the legacies of World War II and socialism, and discussions of the definition of “Europe” and its future East and West. Prerequisite: Some course work in humanities or social science     Intermediate | Credits: 4

An exploration of cultural ideas of geography and history identifying the “East” and “West”
 with a focus on the Balkans and connections between European cultures and the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. We will use history, literature and film to discuss orientalism, “nesting orientalisms” and self-orientalizing, as part of multiculturalism, recent wars and contemporary struggles over national identity. Prerequisite: Reading-centered coursework in the humanities or social sciences     Intermediate | Credits: 4

An introduction to Russian history through key moments of change and touchstones of national identity and cultural memory.  From the early center of Kievan Rus to the rise of Moscow as “the third Rome,” to the invention of St. Petersburg as a “window on the West,” to expansion across Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, Russia grew from small villages to the largest continental empire in history.  We will consider cultural ideas of Russian identity that developed through this history, with special focus on 19tth-century debates about the future of Russia (Slavophiles and Westernizers; populists and Marxists) and on contemporary views of Russia as a unique “Eurasian” entity, reflected in nationalism today. We will draw on the arts as well as historical writings, and individual papers may explore either.     Intermediate | Credits: 4

An exploration of the dynamics of culture in socialist and post-socialist societies, with a focus on public culture and constructions of cultural identity. Topics will include: utopian ideas and revolutionary time; uses and abuses of public space in mass rituals, visual propaganda, monuments and other cultural re-landscaping; cultural nationalism and internationalism; the roles of intellectuals and artists (visual, performing, and literary) in creating and disputing socialist identity; and post-socialist views of the legacy of the socialist era. Core readings on Soviet/post-Soviet (USSR and Eastern European) societies will be integrated with readings on individual student projects, which may focus on these or other socialist/post-socialists societies. Individual projects may include an art component along with an analysis. Prerequisite: Some coursework in history, politics, culture or arts     Intermediate | Credits: 4

Reading of key texts in theory and cultural history on the characteristics and dynamics of modernity and postmodernity. Individual student projects applying the ideas of these texts to specific historical materials. Advanced | Credits: 4

A seminar for students doing research projects in cultural history; the semester’s work will include discussion of research design and the creation of substantial papers, with individual conferences and presentations to the seminar group. Prerequisite: Intended for Plan-level students; others only with permission of instructor     Advanced  | Credits: 4

Good Foundation for Plan

Cultural history is a varied field, and Plans could be rooted in different areas. The key to doing history is “considering the source,” i.e., understanding the nature of the source and its context. The skills that are needed are strong reading, clear writing and critical thinking. (Other analytic skills may be needed for Plans involving the visual or performing arts, and these Plans are usually co-sponsored.) With these foundational skills, a Plan can be “started” in the junior year. Plan students are recommended to take Modernity & Postmodernity in Cultural History and Research Seminar in Cultural History. In Eurasian studies, some area-studies foundation is needed, though co-sponsored Plans (in literature, visual arts) can build on foundation in that field.

Sample Tutorial Topics

  • Cultural Views and Uses of History
  • Public Culture, Including Media, Tourism and Ritual
  • Performing and Visual Arts as Cultural Expressions
  • Experiences of War and Revolution
  • Eurasia and Eastern Europe