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New Civil War Course Finds its Footing Among Various Disciplines, Venues

By Caroline C. Hunsicker and Daphne C. Thompson, Crimson Staff Writers

Four theatrical productions, visits to Harvard archives, and an array of literary texts comprise the curriculum for a History and Literature offering, taught by lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93. The new course, “Staging the Civil War—From the Archive to the A.R.T.,” bridges disparate disciplines and methodologies, bringing a novel perspective to a 150-year-old war.

The class is offered in partnership with the American Repertory Theater, and hops from venue to venue—one week onstage with a visiting playwright, the next exploring the archives of the Schlesinger Library.

“If there is a play going on, that would be theater week; if there is an interesting archive going on, that would be an archive week,” said Cary A. Williams ’16, a student in the course. “Our syllabus is saturated with guest performances and guest lecturers, so it is a really unique opportunity to be able to connect with a lot of people from outside of Harvard.”

McCarthy designed the course to coincide with 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, capitalizing on the semester-long Harvard Civil War Project programming series.

“I want [students] to walk away with a deeper and richer understanding of the Civil War as more than just white boys on battlefields,” McCarthy said. “I want them to understand the Civil War was felt and understood and experienced and cried over, and that it was an emotional and sensory experience, that it is really the only time in the history of the United States where the nation was in peril in terms of whether or not it was going to endure.”

Accordingly, McCarthy’s students are encouraged to explore the Civil War from multiple disciplinary angles, drawing on methodologies from not only history and literature, but also political science and visual studies.

“We see this particular course as a wonderful example of bringing different players on campus together around a common theme,” said Diana Sorensen, dean of the Arts and Humanities Division.

Among the four plays the A.R.T. will stage is one of McCarthy’s own, an unfinished piece he hopes to workshop with the students. The play centers on four historical figures named Harriet in the Civil War era: Beecher Stowe, Wilson, Jacobs, and Tubman.

“This is an opportunity for me to say, ‘Look, I’m going to show you this work in progress. I want your feedback, your criticism, your close reading talent, your creativity,’” McCarthy said. “That feels very vulnerable in a way that I’ve never felt as a teacher, but it also feels thrilling and incredibly generative in terms of my own creative process.”

After receiving applications from around 40 students, McCarthy selected an enrollment of 22, which he jokingly called a “motley crew.” The students represent an array of concentrations, with “over half” in History and Literature, but others studying English, Comparative Religion, Government, and Philosophy, according to McCarthy.

“I hope that Harvard is moving more in the direction of courses that at least blur if not explode the kind of boundaries that we’re used to, academically, politically, morally, physically,” McCarthy said.

—Staff writer Caroline C. Hunsicker can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cchunsicker.

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

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