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Students Use New Hist and Lit Field to Explore Ethnic Studies

By Brittany N. Ellis, Crimson Staff Writer

Students within the College’s History and Literature academic program have flocked to a new Modern World field within the discipline, taking advantage of the ability to explore areas such as ethnic studies in a way that transcends the program’s prior insistence on a regional focus.

Previously, concentrators within Hist and Lit had to specialize within one of six regional tracks in the program. After reforming its field structure last spring and developing new tracks based on historical time periods, the honors academic program has seen a dramatic redistribution of concentrators into the new Modern World field.

The Modern World field allows students to more easily explore topics such as migration and diaspora at a time when many students have been calling for increased ethnic studies course offerings and an ethnic studies department.

Hist and Lit Director of Studies Lauren O. Kaminsky said the Modern World field, formerly known as postcolonial studies under the old structure, has become the second largest focus field within Hist and Lit—a large jump considering postcolonial studies had been the program’s smallest focus field.

Focus fields were regionally based in the old system, with offerings in Latin American, American, European, Postcolonial, Early Modern European, and Modern European studies. The new system replaced the latter three fields with historical categories—Medieval World, Early Modern World, and Modern World.

Kaminsky said many students have opted for the Modern World field because of their interest in topics that do not fit within traditional national or regional borders.

“It’s clear that some students have previously been using the American studies field to do more transnational work, and the introduction of the Modern World means that they don’t have to do that if they don’t want to. If they want to do it under a different rubric, that is available to them,” she said.

Hist and Lit concentrator Olivia D. Herrington ’18 said she has benefited from the new field system because her academic research, which focuses on “traumatic memory” in both America and sub-Saharan Africa, spans beyond the geographic bounds of the American field.

“I was thinking that I would declare American in Hist and Lit because Modern World didn’t exist then, and then do a subfield in sub-Saharan Africa, so it made it a lot easier with just Modern World,” she said.

In addition to the greater ease in studying diverse topics made possible by the new field structure, Hist and Lit Chair Amanda J. Claybaugh said the program is thinking about other ways to increase the diversity of its faculty, students, and course offerings through further field reform and new hires.

“We have a set of lecturers whom we hire based on student interest, and then we also have [three] tenure-track faculty… two of whom are women of color, and we have said to the deans that if we were to get a fourth, we’d be interested in a scholar of indigenous studies,” Claybaugh said.

Claybaugh added the concentration is currently considering reforms to its American studies field to make it more relevant and useful to students pursuing projects that may extend beyond the United States.

While the increased flexibility within the program has allowed students to more easily focus on transnational areas like migration and ethnic studies, Kaminsky said she thought Hist and Lit has long shown a commitment to ethnic studies by supporting concentrators studying “Latino studies, Asian American studies, African and African American studies” for at least a decade.

Claybaugh and Kaminsky also said many of the students calling for ethnic studies have come from the Hist and Lit department.

“A lot of those petitions were written by Hist and Lit students,” Claybaugh said. “It’s becoming a real place for activism for this stuff, and so we feel proud that we’ve created the conditions where students can then start advocating for change at Harvard.”

Dean of Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey said in a late November interview that increasing the diversity of courses and faculty across the arts and humanities has been a top priority for him in his first semester as divisional dean. He said diversity will be a focus in hiring new lecturers, and tenure-track faculty, and in curricular reviews, which he said are currently ongoing throughout the various concentrations within the Arts and Humanities.

“I think we need to make the arts and humanities much more inclusive than it has been,” he said in November. “I think it will be crucial to add new faculty with expertise in these unrepresented or underrepresented areas.”

—Staff writer Brittany N. Ellis can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @britt_ellis10.

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AcademicsHistory and Literature