Graduates of History & Literature pursue careers in a wide range of fields such as journalism, medicine, politics, the arts, finance, public policy, education, law, media, consulting, and academia.
Browse our alumni profiles to get a sense of what History & Literature concentrators do after graduation.
Angus Burgin, '02
When the time came to select a concentration in the fall of 1999, I was uncertain about what career I wanted to pursue and reluctant to commit to a single discipline. I saw History and Literature primarily as a means to an end: it would allow me to preserve options and continue taking the courses in the catalog that I found most interesting.
I remember my chagrin on the first day of sophomore tutorial, when one of the tutors said that the department should be renamed "Primary Texts in their Contexts": to a student who chose the concentration for its breadth, this sounded a worrisome note of specificity. But over the next three years, that methodology — a commitment to the close reading of texts within the unique social worlds their authors inhabited — transformed both my approach to scholarship and my worldview. I came to believe that a critical engagement with societies in the present day requires some understanding of the ways in which their ideas and assumptions have changed over time. My evolving interests were thoughtfully channeled by the department’s tutors, who devoted an extraordinary amount of individual attention to students in a research university where it was otherwise easy to feel lost.
My experiences in the program inspired me to return to academic research after graduation, as I completed a doctorate in History at Harvard and joined the History Department at Johns Hopkins. In my current writing, which explores how and why popular ideas about politics and markets have evolved over the course of the twentieth century, I continue to build on methods and insights that I first learned as an undergraduate in History and Literature a decade ago.
Assistant Professor, The Johns Hopkins University Department of History (Updated 2010)
"Among All these Forces": Fictions of a Changing Academy
Alex Chase-Levenson, '08
After graduating in 2008, I spent a year in Britain getting a quick but fun M.Phil. in Modern European History and have just now wound up the first year of a much more leisurely history PhD. A lot of what inspired me to study cultural history is a set of interests, ideas, and skills I got from Hist and Lit—all of which would have helped in whatever I ended up doing, but have been especially invaluable in grad school. The most important thing I learned in the program was the realization that history didn’t have to be chronicling details or producing lists of facts and factors to explain events—Hist and Lit lets you ask what the past was like, instead of just ‘what it was’ or ‘why it was.’ Asking questions about context, atmosphere and milieu, about cultural ideas and mentalities is a lot harder but (I think) a lot more interesting than some of the more traditional historical questions. Writing a thesis in Hist and Lit was an amazing experience that gave me real intellectual self-confidence that I could assemble and find connections among, say, a poem, a data table, a painting, a shipping register, a cookbook, and a Parliamentary debate. It gave me the first thrill of what it was like to dig up forgotten letters in an archive. And, yes, all of those skills are specifically, as well as generally, helpful right now, because I’m busy trying to expand my Hist and Lit thesis into my PhD dissertation.
Ph.D student in history, Princeton University (Updated 2010)
‘A Gate for the Whole Continent’: Quarantine, Illness, and the Imaginative Geography of British Travel to the ‘East,’ 1780-1860
Robert Darnton, '60
I arrived in Harvard in September 1957 as a participant in the experiment of catapulting students with advanced standing through the college in three years. In retrospect, I wish there hadn’t been such a rush. But I was happy to find myself deep in a tutorial in American history and lit as soon as I arrived. I found it exhilarating: terrific tutors, fascinating fellow students, and the opportunity as a senior to write a thesis on “Woodrow Wilson’s Vision of the American Past” under Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who spent plenty of time sharpening my ideas and my prose, even though he was then involved in the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy.
Curiously, I never made much use of this training. I went to Oxford and got a doctorate in European history, while spending vacations as a substitute correspondent in the London bureau of The New York Times. I spent a brief period as a reporter in the city room of The Times, then decided my vocation was in history, returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow, and took up a professorship at Princeton. Thirty-nine years and many books later, I returned to Harvard, not so much to teach (I am a university professor but can only manage one course a year) as to direct the University Library.
Has my History and Lit experience been a decisive factor in my career? Not directly. My research has taken me into French, not American archives, and I have worried questions that never arose during my undergraduate years. Yet I find myself studying ways that history and literature intersect; and in trying to set a course for the Harvard Library in the new information age, I often think back to my first experiences in Widener and Houghton. History and Lit did not prepare me for a career. It encouraged me to range widely in the world of knowledge, to chase after interesting problems, and to enjoy the chase.
Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library (Updated 2010)
“Woodrow Wilson’s Vision of the American Past”
Maya Jasanoff, '96
I came into History and Literature as a teenager who loved reading old British novels; I left as a budding historian who loved piecing together the past in prose myself. In my academic career, I have continually found myself returning to the founding premise of History and Literature to reach into the cultural realm, and draw on imaginative works as historical sources. In my classes I assign Boswell, Dickens, and Orwell as readily as I do specialist scholarship, to instill an approach to history (and to reading) that encompasses both kinds of materials. The stamp of History and Literature is just as pronounced on my research. My first book, Edge of Empire, grew in part out of my junior essay on the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles, while my new project on the worlds of Joseph Conrad is an explicit exercise in combining history and literature. But perhaps the most enduring lesson I took from my time in History and Literature was how to appreciate history-writing itself as kind of literature. I developed a love for great historical narrative, from T. B. Macaulay and Francis Parkman to E. P. Thompson and Simon Schama, that has profoundly influenced my own writing style, infused with personalities and a sense of place. So if History and Literature is partly responsible for luring me into the academy as a historian, it also showed me how I might become a non-fiction writer able to reach beyond it.
John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences (Updated 2010)
Going Under: A Comparative History of the London Underground and the Paris Métropolitain
Paul Katz, '09
Hemispheric with North America
After a few post-Hist and Lit years spent studying social history in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I'm now working toward a PhD in Latin American history at Columbia. (Updated 2013)
The Politics of ‘Percepticide’: The Struggle for Institutional Accountability and Human Rights in the Argentine Jewish Community, 1976-2009.
Anna Kendrick, '09
Britain and Spain
After graduation, I took up a one-year fellowship teaching English and British History and coaching rowing at the Shrewsbury School, UK. I soon decided that a year abroad wouldn't be long enough -- and that it was time to carry the Hist & Lit banner in the UK. So, I applied for an MPhil in European Literature at the University of Cambridge. Since then, I have been working on a PhD in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, focusing on the role of intellectuals in shaping education and child development prior to the Spanish Civil War. We'll see where that takes me in the next few years, but for now it's clear that my time in the Barker Center was not only enjoyable, but a great first step into the field. (Updated 2013)
"On Guard with the Junipers": Ewart Milne and Irish Literary Dissent in the Spanish Civil War
Spencer Lenfield, '12
I dove into History and Literature with an enthusiasm for a lot of things—the evolution of recording technology! Edwardian children's books! the cultural history of the baguette!—but an ardent love for one thing in particular: modernist literature. When it came time to decide on a field, I wrote down a big list of my favorite authors, and with only a couple exceptions (Faulkner, notably), they were all Europeans born after 1750—Woolf, Yeats, Auden, Joyce, Isaiah Berlin, Proust, Eliot (who was a wannabe European, I suppose). But there were also a bunch of other things I'd started loving by then, too: Austen, Adam Smith, Keats, Tennyson (well, some of Tennyson), John Stuart Mill, Flaubert, and that other Eliot—George. So I decided that I was going to throw myself into explaining how the literature and thought of early Victorian England—like Dickens and Carlyle—turned into the literature of the mid-twentieth century, at the end of modernism—like Auden and Graham Greene.
Now I know that's a big enough question to drive an entire career, but I had a blast working a way at little chunks of the big question. I got to research how Flaubert impacted English prose style, write an intellectual history of Virginia Woolf's individualism—and along the way, got delightfully lost in the huge forest of Western art and thought: I never lacked an excuse to go out adventuring, and along the way, met characters as disparate and fun as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Joy Division, Jane Welsh and Walter Benjamin, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Zadie Smith. And, crucially, I learned how to do history with this material—that the answer to "What happened?" is what people thought and felt, and vice versa. To quote Woolf (still one my favorite writers, even after doing three years of research, writing 71 pages of thesis, reading nine novels, hundreds of essays, and a dozen-ish volumes of diaries, letters, and memoirs): "I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing… I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together—how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s and Euripides’. It is only a continuation & development of the same things."
Rhodes Scholar at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, reading for a second bachelor's degree in Classics. (Updated 2013)
Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf's Conception of the Self
Timothy McCarthy, '93
I entered the concentration in the fall of 1990, at the height of the polarized "culture wars"—in the academy and way outside of it—when apartheid and communism and Reagan’s America seemed, at last, to be on the decline. In many ways, Harvard was a different place then—more palpably Brahmin, full of elite kids from expensive schools. As a recruited athlete with a public school, working-class pedigree (as it were), I often felt that I lacked the polish and sophistication of my peers. (Some would say I still lack these things!) I’d never read Hawthorne or Herman Melville, Hemingway or Henry James, to say nothing of Puritan sermons or modernist poetry. In many ways, I felt like an “outsider,” and I came to doubt myself intellectually for the first time in my life. If there is one word to characterize my initial experience in sophomore tutorial—a course I have now taught for nearly a decade—it is “destabilizing.”
In retrospect, these early feelings of displacement and alienation were crucial. They lit a fire in me. I read everything I could, studied late into the night, and wrote more—and better—than I ever had before. I happened to be at Harvard during the “rebirth” of African-American Studies, and so I was drawn, especially, to this history and literature. In the stories of slaves and abolitionists, workers and civil rights activists, migrants and even minstrels, I came to see a very different story of America than I had known before—one that occupies the contested terrain between bold aspiration and agonizing betrayal. Nearly everything I’ve done since then has been shaped by the revelations these texts inspired. They set me flowin’.
Through History and Literature—as a student, and now teacher and scholar—I came to appreciate the interstices, which is really just a fancy word for the places between self and other, subjectivity and objectivity, black and white, power and protest, truth and fiction, the world as it is and was, and the world as it could and should be. In this sense, my studies, both then and now, did not just flip the script—from “canons” and “master narratives” to “a people’s history” and “protest literature”—it also helped me to see that there was a relationship between these things. Where others saw binaries and divisions, I saw the possibility, at last, for interaction and, perhaps, integration. James Baldwin, the man who haunted my junior essay, became something of a patron saint for me, the first author (there would be many more) who shook my dungeon and made me understand that “if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
I suppose I’m still feeling that sense of instability that History and Literature has produced. (It’s probably because I can’t seem to flee from it!) But there is something strangely liberating in knowing that things can and do change—that we, human beings all, are meant to change. After all, if we are open to seeing things anew, we might just start to believe that we can change the world, too. This may take us far away from our books from time to time, but it cannot happen without them.
Lecturer in History and Literature and Public Policy; Core Faculty and Director, Human Rights and Social Movements Program, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Tutorial Board member, Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. (Updated 2013)
Antebellum America’s Missing Link: Mulattohood and Social “In-Betweenness’ in the Early Black Novel, 1853-1862
Benjamin Railton, '00
I learned so much from Hist & Lit. In my Sophomore Tutorial with Jay Grossman and John McGreevy, I learned that I couldn’t rely on easy answers or flashy arguments, that close readings and nuanced analyses were always required. In my Junior Tutorial with Neal Dolan, I learned to devote the same extended attention to contemporary bestsellers and James Fenimore Cooper, and everything in between. In my senior thesis work with Mark Rennella, I learned to believe in my own foundational ideas but also to challenge and push beyond them, into something I had never planned. But most of all, I learned throughout those years the value of what I’d call an old-school American Studies approach: one that tries to analyze, with nuance but also ambition, the breadth and depth of American literature, history, and culture, to think big while working closely. As I’ve moved more and more into public scholarship, particularly with my daily AmericanStudies blog and my recent third book, The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America, I’ve put those Hist & Lit lessons into practice every day, and feel far better prepared for what’s next as a result.
Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies, Fitchburg State University. (Updated 2013)
Joan Shelley Rubin, '69
I graduated with a concentration in American History and Literature as a member of the celebrated (or notorious) class of 1969, and have been pursuing the interdisciplinary study of American culture ever since. Hist and Lit (that’s what we called it) taught me a vocabulary and an approach that I shared with some of the faculty members whom I encountered when I went on to do a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale; that sense of a common language was enormously important to the development of my own voice. In the 1970s, the high tide of literary theory swept me over to the history side of things, but my primary subject remains the production and consumption of American literature. People tell me that I conduct research like a historian but that I read texts the way my colleagues in English do (or used to do!), and I say that’s because of my not-so-secret past at Harvard.
Recently I’ve adapted the analytical skills that I began acquiring in college not just to intellectuals and “middlebrow” authors but also to ordinary readers. It’s no accident that several of the most prominent scholars in “the history of the book”—an enterprise with which I now identify myself—got their start in History and Literature. As a teacher, my insistence on analyzing the form and assumptions of primary documents reflects my effort to impart to my students the invaluable lessons—transferable to any profession requiring critical thinking—that I learned in my undergraduate concentration.
Professor of History, University of Rochester (Updated 2010)
An Effort in Human Actuality: James Agee and the Documentary Writers of the Depression
Paris Spies-Gans, '09
Early Modern Europe
My courses and tutorials in History and Literature have mostly focused on representations of the self in many media and genres from the late Middle Ages through the early modern period in Western Europe. I studied evolving uses of different means to put forth individualized opinions, self-created narratives, life stories, and other representations of self. The development of the printing press and print culture was a watershed moment to which my studies kept returning, and in several courses I studied the important implications of this invention on culture, spread of ideas, as well as literary and artistic developments of the time. In my sophomore tutorial, I pursued paper and research options that let me analyze what I saw as subtle yet forceful representations of self. I became fascinated by how people portrayed themselves, especially as opposed to other prominent literature of the time in which early modern writers explored the “other” in early travel or fantastical accounts. My junior year, I focused in on the topic of the much analyzed “Renaissance individual.” I studied the historiography revolving around this concept as well as the history of women and men’s roles in early modern Europe. I also studied many of the most famous cases of Renaissance “self” in depth, such as Michel de Montaigne and Albrecht Durer; this led to my Junior Paper in which I compared the self-portraiture endeavors of these two men. I was fascinated by how they both combined text and image in their self-portrait attempts, projects that continued throughout their lives and which they never seem to have viewed as completed. I wondered, what lessons can we learn from these men about aspects inherent to self-reflection and self-presentation? These in depth studies enabled me, my senior year, to analyze a case of early modern self-fashioning and self-portraiture that was very much off the beaten track – that of my thesis subject, Esther Inglis. Hers is a very unusual case of self-promotion, and my previous three years of scholarship enabled me to analyze, contextualize, and assert the significance of her work. Through a further study of early modern print and manuscript culture, I was able to cement an understanding of many historical trajectories of the period. My path in History and Literature enabled me to analyze and understand many of the trends leading to contemporary conceptions of self, gender roles, and value of artistic merit.
After graduation, I received an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and then worked as a curatorial Research Assistant at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. I am now a PhD candidate in Princeton University's History Department studying gender, print and visual culture in 18th-c. Britain and France. (Updated 2013)
John Tessitore, '96
Transatlantic focus on Britain
I liked books. Historical or literary, British or American—all I knew was that I liked books written in English. I suppose I liked French books too, but those had to be translated into English—otherwise, I was paumé. Thus, the History and Literature of England and America.
I couldn’t have chosen better if I’d known what I was doing.
As it turns out, at least for me, History and Literature is about writers in contact, and in conflict, with the world. It is an exploration of the limits on creativity. When I taught in the program in later years, the source of these limits was called “culture” or “context,” but those words don’t capture the antagonism that interested me. Writers, Hist and Lit taught me, do the best they can with the place, time, and words they inherit.
This insight has driven my professional life; I continue to study creative limits—only now I do it for money. Since graduating in 1996, I have worked as a journalist, written several YA biographies of major American novelists, edited a book of photographic portraits, edited and wrote jokes for a popular men’s magazine, earned a Ph.D. in American Studies, taught in the History and Literature Program for four wonderful years, and now work for a think-tank—where doing the best you can with place, time and words you inherit sometimes translates into national policy.
Also, I met my wife in History and Literature. And our young children really seem to like books.
Special Advisor to the Executive Director at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Updated 2010)
“Infectious Proximity”: American Culture and Literature Magazines in the 1830s and 40s
Olga Zhulina, '09
France and Russia
My studies in History and Literature focused on the cross-cultural connections between France and Russia from 1750 through the present day. I traced the enduring ties between the two countries by reading a variety of primary texts: memoirs, travelogues, letters, historical accounts of immigration, canonical novels, poetry, short stories, and theatre, as well as aesthetic, intellectual, and social theory. My coursework for the concentration reflects my fascination with storytelling across languages and cultures: storytelling through written works, visual arts, performances, and historical testimonies. The transformation of ideas, texts, and languages through contact with the foreign became an important focus for me, as I took several courses dealing with adaptation, interpretation, and translation. The more I delved into these questions, the more I became aware of the ethical problems inherent in the contact between different cultures. These questions, in turn, led me to write a thesis examining the role of translation.
I'm a graduate student in Comp Lit at Harvard. In 2011, I participated in the IKKM-Princeton Summer School for Media Studies (the topic of which was surveillance) and the Tilburg University Summer Philosophy School (the topic of which was "The tragic and its limits"). (Updated 2012)
Love between Languages: Translation in Andreï Makine’s Le testament français
Arts & Entertainment
John Aboud, '95
Did you know that Harvard has mermaids? A small school of them, actually. (Is “school” of mermaids correct? “Pod”? A “Bee Club” of mermaids?) Their desiccated remains lie preserved and hidden from skeptical eyes in the -- I like to imagine, gothically untended -- warehouses of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. When I was working on my senior thesis, I’d furtively give friends peeks at the blurry photos I obtained from the MCZ, photos of leering aquatic hybrids, probably taxidermic frauds fusing monkeys and fish… but you never know. (Actually, I do know. They’re totally fake.)
Those blurry photos made their way into my senior thesis on P.T. Barnum, a man whose promotion of such attractions as the “Feejee Mermaid” set a template for marketing and publicity that’s as relevant today as it was at the dawn of urban mass communication. Though the media landscape has changed immensely since the 1830s, the ways in which savvy marketers manipulate it have not. In every job I’ve had since graduation -- in advertising, screenwriting and online media -- I’ve been able to apply concepts learned in distant corners of Widener and in the Houghton reading room.
I hope your Hist & Lit thesis inspires you to tackle something ambitious, something intimidating, a project that cautious types and English concentrators never would. It’s not a Hist & Lit requirement that you hunt down strange and miraculous creatures, but that is certainly a valid option.
Writer and comedian (Updated 2010)
“My Wealth in Ivy Island”: The Use of Fantasy and Fable in the Works of P.T. Barnum
Peter Blake, '91
France with a Transatlantic focus on America
After graduation, I worked (incompetently and briefly) as a lawyer and (really incompetently and sadly less briefly) as a management consultant, until I finally made my way to Hollywood. I was a feature film development assistant and executive for a few years, then moved into TV writing (The Practice for four years, and House, MD for the last seven.)
How did Hist and Lit influence my professional career? For one thing, the readings -- Gatsby, Pym, The Red and the Black, Twain's essays -- fostered in me a love of great literature. And that's always given me something to aim for.
It also helped me write better, in purely practical terms. I had wonderful tutors for my sophomore and junior tutorials; they paid close attention to my writing and improved my technical skills.
But most of all, it helped me think. There are few fields of study that give you such a solid grounding in politics, history, culture, thought. It comes in handy in my job; it comes in handy in my life.
Television writer (Updated 2010)
"Double Standards: American Intellectuals and the Kirkpatrick Doctrine"
Kathleen Breeden, '09
I am currently working as a fine artist in Cambridge, MA, and I’ve kept ties with Harvard as a non-resident tutor in Kirkland House. My undergraduate studies in landscape history, landscape theory, and medieval cosmology have certainly fueled my own exploration of the landscape in painting. In History & Literature tutorials, I gained a stronger awareness of my own role as the viewer of a landscape—how it is that I see a series of disparate things in my environment and create an elaborate visual composition from them. The genre of landscape painting arose within the context of the same written works and images that I studied at Harvard, and so it is a joy for me to recall the thoughts of those writers and artists as I frame my own vision of the landscapes I see. I have no doubt that the seeds of visual curiosity and thoughtful analysis that were planted during tutorials and thesis-writing at Harvard will always shape my approach to painting. I should add, too, that my confidence grew when each of my tutors genuinely affirmed my passion for landscape painting and encouraged me to pursue it!
Fine artist (painter) (Updated 2012)
"The Ethereal Summit: Mountains in the Medieval Mind"
Abigail Crutchfield, '10
My studies in History and Literature focused on the cross-cultural conversation between Russia and America during the twentieth century. My interest in the intermingling of Russian and American culture developed out of my time training as a ballet dancer in New York City under primarily Russian teachers. I was fascinated by the small Russian world that had developed in New York around the world of ballet and struck by the way my instructors were passing down their own national traditions in America rather than Russia. By choosing courses on both Russian and American history and literature I was able to grasp the roots and implications of the wave of émigrés from Russia that altered America’s cultural landscape in the twentieth century. My tutorials focused on the work and experience of Russian émigrés in America as well as the American government’s wielding of art and artists for political gains during the Cold War. I went on to write a thesis examining the sociopolitical and cultural connections of Agon, a ballet by émigré George Balanchine, to New York City in 1957.
I completed my project assistant directing, and I am now working for Maria B. Campbell Associates which is an international literary consulting company that advises clients about American and international books for publication and translation in their markets. (Updated 2012)
“Mirror to a City: A Reinterpretation of George Balanchine's ‘Abstract’ Ballet Agon as a Reflection of 1950s New York City”
Jeff Melvoin, '75
After college, I spent seven years as a journalist before enjoying the last twenty-five as a writer-producer in one-hour television, and I can say without exaggeration that my thesis opened the doors to both fields.
As a freshman, I had little idea what I wanted to do after graduation. I chose American History and Literature because it sounded exciting, and that was enough for me at the time. I picked a thesis topic that I thought would be fun to work on: “The Long Goodbye: The Development of the American Detective in Fiction.”
The thesis went over well, and I didn’t think about it again until I decided to try my hand at journalism and needed a writing sample. Not having worked on The Crimson, I submitted my thesis. I got a job. Cub newspaper reporter. Which led to my becoming a correspondent for TIME magazine two years later.
When I was ready to jump ship from TIME, a friend suggested I try writing for a new television show he was working on, Remington Steele, a light-hearted detective series. I told him I knew something about the subject. I wrote a script and never looked back.
Upon reflection, my tutors in Hist and Lit taught me how to read and write all over again. I owe them my gratitude for teaching me what real scholarship is and for making me aware that I didn’t have the temperament for it. It worked out.
Television writer-producer (Updated 2010)
The Long Goodbye: The Development of the American Detective in Fiction
Elizabeth Nichols, '10
As a History and Literature concentrator, I experienced an interesting shift in my understanding of the two disciplines and their relationship during my years of study at Harvard. When I entered the department, my understanding of that relationship was based on the term context. At that time, my experience of history and literature focused on the act of reading and the interpretation of the historical moment, the contemporaneous political and intellectual climate through literature written in that context. However, while exploring the relationship between history and literature as it pertained to postcolonial studies, I became increasingly aware of and interested in the act of creativity, the act that produces what we as students were analyzing and interpreting – literature, art, film, hip-hop, etc. Literature, therefore, became, in my mind, evidence of an act of agency, be it cultural, historical or otherwise, and a process of creating a space for oneself in the world.
I was drawn toward the postcolonial field because it presented opportunities to both expand beyond geographical or temporal boundaries and to narrow in on the cultural intricacies and influences of political relationships. My regions of interest shifted over my three years in the program, but generally stayed focused on francophone West and North Africa, the Arab world and France. Furthermore, I complemented my studies in History and Literature with a joint degree in History of Art and Architecture, largely due to my expanded understanding of what “literature” could include (drawing, painting, film, photography, sculpture). The joint concentration also allowed me to explore my interest in space and spatial theory, focusing on the built environment and the relationship between human experience and place.
Traveling and conducting research abroad greatly influenced the direction of my academic studies, especially my investigations of urban conditions in Dakar, Fes and Paris. I paid particular attention to inhabitants’ use of built space and the cultural production that seemed attached to a sense of place. This type of urban analysis culminated in my thesis on the multicultural neighborhood of La Goutte d’Or in Paris. During this project, and over the past few years, I discovered that, while colonialism resulted in a repression of agency on the part of the colonized, postcolonial studies represent an exploration of a return of repressed agency manifested through literature, arts and urban life.
I am pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Film Production from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. When I'm not in New York City, I work at Orkeeswa School, a secondary school located in a rural Maasai village in northern Tanzania. (Updated 2013)
“Creating an Espace Propre in La Goutte d’Or: Creativity, Agency and Dignity in a Multicultural Parisian Neighborhood”
Tim Reckart, '09
History and Literature's liberal definition of its subject matter freed me to study many of my interests that I never would have dreamed of dealing with in college. An eclectic selection of course subjects that could have been too diffuse (the conquest of Mexico, American westward expansion, science fiction, magical realism) coalesced into a cohesive, interconnected body of knowledge within the concentration tutorial. Junior tutorial allowed me to push the boundaries of my study further, when I studied westerns, circuses, and sideshow freaks. Within this wide range of interests, I found connections that made my longer papers fascinating work. At the intersection between circuses and westerns stood Buffalo Bill, the subject of my junior paper, and for my thesis I looked at the combination of entertainment, science, and social conflict implicit in stage magic at the turn of the century. The freedom to pursue my diverse (and weird) interests helped make this intimidating work a lot of fun.
After graduating Harvard, I went to the UK for a two-year master's program in animation, and now I work as a freelance animation director. (Updated 2013)
"Martinka's on Saturday Night": The Society of American Magicians and the Professionalization of Magic
Julia Renaud, '09
As a Hist and Lit concentrator, I was drawn to geographical and cultural sites of fluidity, hybridity, radicalism, and transformation: the genre of American protest literature, the history of the American West, the concept of borderlands, the history of nineteenth-century religion and the history of twentieth-century feminism. I also focused on the rhetoric and construction of history as well as historiography, or more generally, meta-historical concerns. Within the department, I was encouraged to apply the sensitivity to language and structure I developed in my English classes to a thorough examination of how history is made, an advantage of interdisciplinary study. A fascination with objects as cultural texts was yet another theme of my Hist and Lit career. I obtained a secondary field in History of Art and Architecture with a specialization in modern and contemporary American art, a pursuit that informed my perception of visual culture as an integral component of cultural analysis. These interests culminated in my senior thesis, which explored a former mining boomtown’s attempts to integrate its particular but characteristically Western history into a simplistic national historical narrative to ensure its economic survival. In my thesis, I used visual culture, museum sites, and theatrical performances as sources as well as novels and histories, an unorthodox but uniquely “Hist and Lit” approach to studying the world.
I work as an Archivist at the Calder Foundation in New York. (Updated 2013)
Mining the Past: The Culture of History in Virginia City, Nevada
Lauren Brants, '09
Early Modern Europe
I decided to switch my field from Britain and America to Early Modern Europe in the middle of my sophomore year. While the period’s history had always fascinated me, I discovered in English 10a that the literature was actually accessible and could be alternatively witty, bawdy, profound and beautiful. Taking the department’s recommendation for early modern concentrators to shape their plan of study around their foreign language, I decided to focus on early modern Spain. I studied a range of topics pertaining to early modern European history and literature through the lens of Spain, ensuring depth as well as breadth of study. My studies have tended toward issues explicitly and implicitly dealing with the early modern conception of the self—the gendered self, the self encountering the “other” or encountering oneself in the “other,” the disillusioned self, the fashioned self. I am interested in the history and beliefs of the everyday, taking a “bottom-up” approach, contextualized, however, within profound historical transformations such as those shaping transatlantic history. This interest propelled the study of European, particularly Spanish, encounters in the New World and the impact of these encounters on both native American and European selves. Another interest was the gendered self. Informed by a variety of written and non-written sources, I explored the status and various roles of the early modern female. These studies illuminated the notion of self, sex, and gender—for both male and female—in the early modern period. Religious topics intersected these other broad areas of study. I studied institutional religion and reformations, popular religiosity, religious ritual, religious authors and popular figures both male and female, conversion efforts and hybridized religion in the New World, and popular conceptions of death. These studies gave rise to studies of the fashioned and disillusioned self in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
As an Institutional Sales Analyst at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, I work with corporations, endowments, foundations and healthcare systems in meeting their investment management goals and objectives. (Updated 2013)
The Desengaño of Desengaño: Disenchanting through the Female Body and Corpse in María de Zayas y Sotomayor’s Desengaños Amorosos
Jamison Hill, '10
To say I had trouble choosing my field of study at Harvard would be an understatement. Even declaring History and Literature didn’t end my search; I like to think that I hold the record for the most number of field changes within the concentration—America, then Modern Europe (France with a Transatlantic focus on America), then Postcolonial, and finally right back to where I started—America. But though my path was circuitous, my time in History and Literature helped me both discover and connect my two academic passions—race and art.
My study of race began freshman year with Introduction to African-American Studies. For the first time, I was exposed to thinkers—Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Bill Cosby among them—who worked through the same issues I myself tackled. How do we remember slavery? How does Jim Crow continue to shape the black experience? What makes Richard Pryor funny? From this inauspicious beginning, I launched myself into African American studies in earnest, studying everything from debates about black humanity to debates about black hair.
Spring of my junior year, I decided to take an art history class on a whim, having heard from some friends it was worth checking out. I didn’t realize until the first meeting that it was on the art and artifact of the colonies and the early republic. I was filled with dread. The phrase “colonial America” conjured to mind austere Puritans, proxy wars, and unreadable texts, where all the “s”s look like “f”s. But I found myself surprised. Early America proved to have a visual and material culture richer and deeper than I ever imagined and one that engaged substantively with issues of race. A landscape painting was not simply a painting of a landscape, it was an attempt to hold together a nation falling apart at the Mason-Dixon line. A storage jar was not only a jar, but a slave’s protest against dehumanization. I learned to treat art objects like texts, reading through their formal characteristics to find symbols, metaphors, motifs. This course gave me a question: How does visual culture, through the development of individual and collective aesthetics, represent, reflect, and distort the cultural anxieties of a historical moment?
I applied this question to one of the most troubling pieces of visual culture ever to come out of America—the lynching photograph—for my thesis. Trying to understand what these photographs were, how they were made, and what they meant, and for whom, brought together both the content—race and art—and methods—close reading and visual analysis—I had been studying for the past three years. At the project’s close, I had a strange feeling of content, completeness. Out of what seemed like a fragmented, arbitrary experience, I had managed to construct a project that touched on nearly every course I had taken. And in the process, I discovered how central questions of race, art, and the intersection of the two were and continue to be in America.
I currently work as an associate consultant at Bain & Company in Boston. (Updated 2012)
"Point and Shoot": The Production and Consumption of Lynching Photography
Renny McPherson, '03
In 2006, freshly arrived to the desert sun of Fallujah, Iraq, I wondered whether much that I had learned at Harvard would be of use to me as a Marine intelligence officer. Through the many months spent in Iraq, I realized that the ways of learning in the history and literature discipline had benefitted my ability to perform my job. From delving deeply into specific topics such as al Qaeda’s approach to financing itself to the sheer breadth of information for which I was responsible, I found myself relying on the same set of skills I honed in history and literature. Specifically, the detailed research I did during one-on-one tutorials junior and senior year and for breadth, the fact that history and literature required me to take so many different types of courses which led to a fuller body of knowledge than I had imagined. These ways of thinking benefiyted me when I left the Marine Corps to work in policy at RAND. While there I applied analytical frameworks developed in my undergraduate years, to some of the country’s most pressing defense policy issues. Now at Harvard Business School, I continue to lean on my history and literature degree not for building finance models, but for understanding the higher-order concepts that one must understand to be successful in an MBA program.
MBA student, Harvard Business School (Updated 2012)
Ritual as Intimacy in the Short Stories of Andre Dubus
Gary Pelissier, '11
At first blush, it might seem as though History and Literature’s course offerings are mere exercises in liberal arts academics. After all, it is not exactly intuitive how studying the banana or the cultural origins of American foreign relations help secure a job post-graduation. Nevertheless, I chose History and Literature. My decision has invaluably shaped how I approach my personal and professional life.
I centered my time in the Department around my personal mission to unsettle as many of my core beliefs as possible. I began by focusing on masculinity. In the wake of the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, much academic hay has been made of feminism; however, little attention had been lavished on what it means to be a man in modern America. After surveying both nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts (from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” and William James’s concept of “life in extremis” to Richard Yeats’s Revolutionary Road), I wrote my junior paper on the crisis of modern masculinity the writings and compositions of Charles Ives. Giving me my first taste of real academic work, my junior paper granted me the opportunity to deconstruct a central identifier (the “American Man”) as well as a vocabulary to unpack meanings in musical compositions and sounds.
Coming off a summer internship of white-collar work, I wanted to explore broader dimensions. What was the American corporate workplace and how was its environment constructed? To answer that question, I looked again to my text of choice: music. Blending my interests in the social theories of American mass consumption of Lynd, Mills, Adorno, and Benjamin, my thesis took Muzak (or elevator music) as a lens to explore the cultural reflections of American modernity. Muzak served as an academic prism: it pushed my own capacity to analyze by probing all spectra of sonic and intellectual environments – from Rockefeller Center to immigrant composers; Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward to anti-noise activists. History and Literature allowed me to conduct an aural study that was not limited to music alone. In truth, it was a study of American modernity.
Now, I live in the environments I once studied. A man in a gray flannel suit, I work at Morgan Stanley as a Public Finance analyst. But unlike the human subjects I have studied – passively awash in the sonic lulls of the workplace or intellectually constipated in a house filled with dying sedum – I am now armed with a critical ability to approach and appreciate the multidimensionality of my world. While my specific interests and experiences in History and Literature may be particular to me, what my time in History and Literature reflects is what this concentration does better than any other at Harvard: the development of an set of unrelenting analytical skills. By using subjects that are seemingly un-analyzable (or, dare I say, unmarketable) and challenging their meanings, History and Literature offers both a broad and critical exposure to culture and intellectual thought. With these skills, I have left the Department and Harvard confident in my ability to critically analyze my world. No matter the academic, personal, or professional environment, I have found History and Literature’s taught critical ability has – and will continue to – add value.
I work at Morgan Stanley as a Public Finance analyst (Updated 2011)
Functional Musics: The Unheard History of Muzak, 1887-1937
Dan Rasmussen, '09
I spent my final two years in History and Literature working in one-on-one tutorials and independent studies focusing on a slave uprising in New Orleans in 1811–the largest but least well documented slave revolt in American history. I perused archives in New Orleans, Washington, DC, and at Harvard, finding forgotten letters, obscure newspaper articles, and old slave ledgers. Using methods of literary analysis developed in sophomore tutorial, I tore into the untruths and silences of the historical record and attempted to piece together the true story of what happened on the plantations turned killing fields of Louisiana’s German Coast. After graduating, I spent my nights, weekends, and vacations working on turning my senior thesis into a book, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, which was published by HarperCollins in 2011.
But I am not a full-time writer, and the lessons I learned in history and literature extend well beyond the practice of actually writing history. After graduating, I took a job at a large private equity firm in Boston, where I work on teams to help analyze, value, and then buy companies. Though I work in Excel not Word, spend time in corporate data rooms not historical archives, and pick apart financial statements not early nineteenth-century slave narratives, I find that the end goal is much the same: to analyze and synthesize information into convincing narratives, whether those narratives address the role of violence in enforcing slavery or the pricing trajectory of a specific product.
After four years as an analyst at Bain Capital, I am now an MBA candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business (Updated 2013)
Violent Visions: Slaves, Sugar, and the 1811 German Coast Uprising.
Jake Segal, '09
My interests in History and Literature spanned across two centuries and a few fields, but I spent most of my time in twentieth-century cultural history. I started with nineteenth-century slavery and revolts, and then moved to interwar politics, before focusing on resistance and protest following the second World War, on the complex and shifting relationship between the powerful and the powerless ... and, on truckers, exploring the scattered points of convergence between national mythology, a nationalizing economy, federal extension of authority, and old strains of populism and anti-statism reemerging in the postwar world.
After three years at the Boston Consulting Group, where I focused on global health, healthcare, and technology, I moved to The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consulting firm in Boston. (Updated 2013)
Death to the Double Nickel: Trucker Culture, CB Radio, and Resistance to the National Speed Limit.
Peter Tilton, '10
Hemispheric comparisons: North America and Latin America
The path that I followed to the History and Literature department was a long one that wound through several other departments before terminating in the classrooms of the Barker Center. It began in the fall semester of my freshman year, when I enrolled in a sociology class that explored the issue of urban crime in America, with special focus on the catalysts of this phenomenon and societal perceptions of it. That spring, I enrolled in two more classes—Steven Levitsky’s Comparative Politics of Latin America and Alex Kreiger’s Designing the American City—that further explored the effect of modernization on North American and Latin American populations. Through these experiences, I developed a strong interest in the social issues faced by modern societies, including themes such as racial stereotypes, unstable political structures, and urban issues such as poverty and crime. I also realized that I didn’t want to limit my studies of these issues to any one department, but needed an interdisciplinary course of study that would allow me to approach these themes from multiple directions. Enter the History and Literature department.
While these topics would remain the focus of my studies throughout my time in History and Literature, I became increasingly intrigued by the relationship between the histories of North and Latin America and the modern realities of those regions. As I began to study the dynamic histories of the two regions—enrolling in classes such as Gabe Paquette’s Latin America in the 19th Century and Timothy McCarthy’s Stories of Slavery and Freedom—I began to realize that many of the issues confronting today’s populations were manifestations of the cultural and political heritages of the Western Hemisphere.
In particular, my study of modern social issues focused on three major themes: migrations (both legal and illegal), poverty and crime, and representations of societal trauma in literature. My interest in the issue of migration between the two regions was cultivated during my junior tutorial, culminating in a Junior Essay that explored the construction of the Hispanic immigrant in print media. During the course of my studies, I also studied how constructions of race are often challenged, both directly and indirectly, through the use of poetry and literature.
My interest in the dynamics of cities and the social issues contained within them remained active throughout my four years at Harvard, culminating in my Senior Thesis that encompassed the themes of crime, poverty, and unpopular political regimes within the context of the modern city. Using the examples of Alphonse Capone in Prohibition-Era Chicago and Pablo Escobar in Medellín, I argued that twentieth-century cities have fostered the development of a unique sociopolitical space that have given rise to a new form of criminal, the urban social bandit, who commits crimes on behalf of a disempowered lower class against a dominant ruling class. As with my Junior Paper, I also focused on media representations of the two figures, in addition to personal narratives and their respective legacies.
While I entered History and Literature out of an interest in the modern day realities of North and Latin America, my time in the department was spent understanding how these realities are related to the two regions’ histories. Moreover, History and Literature taught me to appreciate the two regions using a wide variety of sources and techniques. While my four years at Harvard have passed, the skills I honed during my time in History and Literature continue to shape the way I view the world outside of Cambridge each and every day.
Associate in Google's Leadership Research & Advisory Group (Updated 2015)
Benevolent Bandits: Alphonse Capone, Pablo Escobar, and the Rise of Social Banditry in the Twentieth-Century City
Journalism & Media
Leslie Chang, '91
Some of my college classmates worked with purpose to build a seamless body of knowledge. I was not one of them. I loved the Sophomore Tutorial session in which we discussed Dickens’ Hard Times alongside The Making of the English Working Class. A series of personal essays I wrote for a literature class inspired me to do more first-person writing. And I deeply enjoyed researching my senior thesis on Larry McMurtry’s novels of the American West. But those were points of light punctuating stretches of muddled indecision.
Many of the themes that interested me in my coursework then—the malleability of history, the power of storytelling, and the lost world of the American frontier—have preoccupied me since. I explore them in my new book, which sees the migrants in China’s factory towns as pioneers on a different frontier. I have developed the writing voice that I first discovered in that literature class. And the opening of one of my book’s chapters—“It takes two hundred pairs of hands to make a running shoe”—is a reference to Dickens’ Hard Times from Sophomore Tutorial. I see now that the things I learned and loved in class are connected, and they have shaped my writing in ways I never could have predicted. There was a pattern after all. It just took time to see it.
Writer (Updated 2012)
“A Hell of a Vision”: Larry McMurtry and the Construction of the American West
James Fallows, '70
Most of what I “learned” in college was not academic in any normal sense, as my professors from that era would attest. I made friends I’ve kept for life; I met the woman to whom I’ve been very happily married since age 21; I lived most of each day at the Crimson, where I began to understand what line of work would most engage me over the years.
But without my fully appreciating it at the time (of course), what I was exposed to through History and Lit ended up being the best possible academic preparation for my work as a writer. Most of what I’ve written about over the years, at The Atlantic and other publications and in books, involves the big, continuing tensions of American life, like the balance between opportunity and equality, or between mobility and stable community, or between involvement in the world and shrinking from the world. Almost every day, I realize that the framework with which I approach these issues was largely set by my courses and tutorials in American History and Lit: on the Great Awakening and the “American Renaissance,” on intellectuals’ reaction to World War I, on the political and social origins of the Revolution -- and of the Progressive era, and on through a long list. My own thesis, on the Federal government’s role in the great early-20th century exodus of black farmers from the South to the industrial Midwest, was highly forgettable. But the History & Lit experience is one I gratefully remember, often.
National Correspondent for The Atlantic (Updated 2012)
How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm: Civil Rights Policies in the U.S. Department of Agriculture; An Essay in Interpretation
Susan Faludi, '81
Being a History and Literature concentrator was a formative experience for me, at Harvard and for my adult professional and thinking life. And it had everything to do with the concentration’s founding principle: that the best way to understand one discipline is through the lens of another. You can’t fathom a piece of literature without perceiving the historical forces shaping it, and you can’t fathom a historical event without interrogating the literary frames that the culture uses to order it and imbue it with meaning. In fact, history and literature are so deeply implicated in each other’s formation and expression, it’s not even clear that “interdisciplinary” is the right word. As much as anything, History and Lit is invaluable because it teaches a hybrid way of confronting problems.
This hybrid vision was crucial to my work as a journalist and social critic. And it was foundational to the “interdisciplinary” investigation that became my life’s passion: writing about feminism--a professional “concentration” you could call “Gender and-- [Fill in the Blank].” The dynamics between the sexes is so often the buried force shaping so much in our history, politics, culture. And the skills I honed in History and Lit—being able to see and think on two levels, to divine in the surface story the forces that lie beneath it—were essential to me in navigating those hidden depths.
Writer (Updated 2010)
Mothers to a Race: Northern Teachers in the Sea Islands
Michael Grynbaum, '07
Three years of History and Literature trained me to explain the nuances of postmodern theory and American culture. Naturally, my first job out of college required me to write about the stock market.
I attended exactly one economics class at Harvard (a shopping period mishap), not quite adequate preparation for covering the financial world in the fall of 2007. Wall Street had felt the first tremors of what would become a financial earthquake; the phrase “mortgage-backed security” had just entered the lexicon. As a new cubicle-mate patiently explained the difference between a stock and a bond, I wondered how those hours of analyzing Eliot and Benjamin might apply.
As it turned out: quite well! When an editor asked me to summarize the impenetrable remarks of the Federal Reserve chairman, I flashed back to the close reading exams of sophomore year: could I synthesize, interpret, and explicate an unfamiliar text in less than an hour? Yes! The dense jargon of Wall Street seemed manageable after wrestling with theory in junior seminar.
I covered the financial crisis for more than a year, chronicling the Dow’s spectacular collapse and observing the demise of Lehman Brothers from the bank’s own trading floor, where I had been smuggled in by a friend. (Some wily undergraduate skills cannot be learned in the classroom.)
What I learned in History and Literature transcended specific assignments or texts: at heart, I was taught to clarify ideas, unpack complex arguments, and develop fresh, sharp angles in my thinking about the world. These skills apply equally well to great works of literature and great tragedies of finance – and, I suspect, any other surprises my professional travels may spring.
Journalist (Staff Writer, The New York Times) (Updated 2010)
A Joke by Any Other Name: Hoax as a Social Protest (Three Case Studies)
Adam Hochschild, '63
My field of concentration was American History and Literature, and I wrote my senior thesis on Thorstein Veblen’s theory of social change. 95% of the facts I learned about the American past have long since leaked out of my head to wherever such items go, but one important thing stuck: a sense of how you can read a novel, a speech, a work of history for its substance (Does it speak to me? Tell me something vital I didn’t know?), for its style (What can I learn about writing from it?), and for what it reflects about the attitudes and prejudices of its time.
After some years as a newspaper and magazine journalist, I have spent most of the last few decades writing history. Working in libraries on three continents has drawn on skills I first learned foraging in the stacks of Widener and Lamont for my thesis. And working in archives has introduced me to new thrills I could not have imagined then. For my last book I looked at the worn, leather-bound pocket diary that an antislavery movement organizer carried on a stagecoach trip around Scotland in 1792. He lists appointments, talking points, and reveals himself, surprisingly, as prissy and cautious, alarmed that people he meets think that the slaves should be freed now, not only after they’ve been properly Christianized. For other books I’ve written, I have time-traveled to the colonial Congo, Russia in the Stalin years, apartheid-era South Africa, and the Western Front of the First World War. I believe strongly that there’s no reason why history can’t be written in a way that makes it as gripping to read as a good novel. See here for an article by me on the subject—and replies by several other historians.
Journalist and historian (Updated 2010)
Thorstein Veblen’s theory of social change
Matthew Miller, '11
My experience in History and Literature has been nothing if not unconventional. I began as a sophomore in the Postcolonial Studies track, switched to the America field for my junior year, and finally, came home to Postcolonial Studies as a senior. Within the PoCo field I decided to focus on Southeast Asia… then Latin America… and finally, when I switched back from the America field, Sub-Saharan Africa. As I began to prepare for my oral exams I looked back at my tangled course of study and realized that unexpectedly, it cohered into something unique – and fascinating.
Discourses of power, race, gender, inequality, resistance, identity, and many others, for which the circumstances of colonialism have provided extensive space for study and debate, are relevant far beyond that limited context. In America, the “colonized” may be members of American Indian communities, African-Americans descended from slaves, recent immigrants, or any others whose labor and exploitation has sustained both the nation itself and an image of citizenship from which they have often been both literally and symbolically excluded. As I drew connections between the United States and formerly colonized nations, I found the commonalities to be surprising. When I came into the concentration, I could have never predicted the way my oral exam topics list would look, such as a category on “Manhood and Anti-Colonial Resistance” that juxtaposed Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth with August Wilson’s Fences.
I drew on these transnational resonances as I wrote my thesis, which documented the experience of five South African men who performed a stage show of “native songs and dances” in Boston and New York from 1860 to 1861. Beginning with great fanfare and ending with tragedy, the exhibition followed in the footsteps of the popular and exploitative “people shows” of the nineteenth century. Yet, within its history was also a powerful story of individual agency. Presented as “savages” who had never seen the “civilized” world, the five performers were in fact urban laborers who negotiated categories of identity and ethnicity both on the American stage and in colonial South Africa. As they grew comfortable in their roles, the performers began to toy with the expectations of their audience by breaking character – sometimes to humorous effect. This project began with a lucky archival find at the Massachusetts Historical Society; despite involving major historical figures like P.T. Barnum and Louis Agassiz, this exhibition has never been extensively researched before.
I will be traveling to South Africa to take on an internship in photography with a small newspaper in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. I am also looking at History MA programs in South Africa, hoping to expand my thesis with new research. (Updated 2011)
Surely His Mother Mourns For Him: Africans on Exhibition in America, 1860-1861
Nathaniel Naddaff Hafrey, '08
Over the course of the nearly four years since I graduated from Harvard, and from History & Literature, I’ve been asked about my undergraduate concentration by a wide variety of people. When I explain that my degree is in something called History & Literature, the most common response is surprise. After all, my professional work thus far has been at two heavily quant-focused technology start-ups, and my first job was on an “Analytics” team, making sense of Internet video metrics for clients in the entertainment industry. I’m willing to bet that I had no idea such a job even existed when I applied to H&L as a freshman.
Such conversations have been tremendously valuable to me, as they have caused me to reflect on how my undergraduate studies shaped my skillset and my career thus far. Without a question, my coursework built my abilities in three crucial areas: research (specifically, ingesting and organizing large quantities of information), analysis (drawing intelligent conclusions from this information, and using it as the basis for creative ideas), and communication (formatting and expressing this information in a way that is clear, meaningful, and engaging). I have relied on this training every day since graduating, and will continue to do so.
But, perhaps most importantly, I have realized that H&L creates entrepreneurial students. The process of crafting provocations in sophomore tutorial with Tim McCarthy and Zoe Trodd, of designing a junior tutorial syllabus and essay topic with John McMillian, and, finally, of embarking on a senior thesis project with Jeanne Follansbee gave me the curricular experience I value most: the opportunity to create, refine, and execute my own course of study. While I had terrific classroom experiences throughout my time in H&L, it was the chance to define and pursue these projects that, in my opinion, shaped me most significantly as a thinker and now as a professional.
In September of 2013, I will enter my second year of business school at MIT Sloan, where I am on the Entrepreneurship & Innovation track. At the moment, I'm splitting my time between an internship at Google, a term-time position at an early-stage venture capital firm (Founder Collective), and a co-founder's role at a start-up that applies predictive analytics to film financing. (Updated 2013)
In Search of ‘The City of All Faiths’: Post-9/11 Culture Wars, Historical Reclamation, and Hybrid Heroism in The 99 and The Zein Series”
Nathaniel Popper, '02
When I graduated in 2002 I still was not sure what I wanted to do but with the education I had just received I was not worried. I knew how to drill down into problems and then express what I had learned – there weren’t too many jobs worth having that didn’t involve those skills. More immediately, my liberal arts education had convinced the German government to pay for me to spend a year studying in Berlin, where I would have plenty of time to consider my options. As I wandered the city and read through its history, I looked for the best way to continue the restless intellectual wandering that I loved so much about Hist & Lit and I hit upon the idea of being a journalist. In the internship I took at Reuters I felt immediately at home, looking for some interesting, unnoticed tension in the world and then exploring it. I was no longer writing about William Faulkner, the subject of my thesis, but the basic work I was doing was the same. Now, seven years later I’m the New York business correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and I still find myself thinking back on the various little pointers I received from my senior tutor, Jeanne Follansbee, as I set off on my latest research project, trying again to express as clearly and exactly as possible just what it is that happened, back then in “Light in August,” now in the latest stock market tumble or Wall Street scandal.
Business reporter for the New York Times, author of Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money (Updated 2015)
Fragile Freedoms: Identity and Ideology in William Faulkner's Light in August
Josh Shenk, '93
The blend of history and literature I first experienced at Harvard College has actually proven to be a cornerstone of my career, in several ways.
I’m a writer of essays — for magazines like Harper’s and The Atlantic, in a book called Lincoln’s Melancholy, and in a project on collaboration and creativity — that draw heavily from historical fact to develop and sustain an idea. By “historical,” I mean both books-and-archives stuff and the sort of recent history drawn from interviews and experience. So my work is very much a melding of disciplines, trying to make literature from a study of history and other texts (including psychology, science, culture). I’m trying to read these texts in an original way.
More broadly, I think this practice of blending two or more worlds of thought and practice has seeped into my bones. Lincoln’s Melancholy sprang from two basic questions: What does Lincoln’s life teach us about this thing we call “depression”? And what can our understanding of depression teach us about Lincoln’s life? The movement between psychology, cultural history and biography defined the work and made it unique.
As I think of it, I wonder if we might say innovation itself springs from a felicitous combination of material from two separate corners of experience or practice. In any case, it’s exciting to me. If you’re curious, take a look at my work at www.shenk.net, and get in touch.
Writer (Updated 2010)
Best Minds: The Beat Writers, Their Critics, and 1950s America
Emily Simon, '07
Mid-way through the interview for my current position at America Abroad Media (AAM), my future boss posed a question that caught me off-guard: “Tell me about your primary argument in your senior thesis.” I wasn’t shocked that he was asking about my thesis itself—many would-be employers had asked why I chose to write one, and what the experience taught me about project management. But very few had wanted to hear about my arguments. My current boss, who happens to hold a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard, was a notable exception. So I told him, and we spent the remainder of the interview discussing British imperialism. A few days later he called to offer me the job.
I share this story not to convince potential concentrators that a thesis is a golden ticket to a successful career, or that the things you study as undergraduates will play a huge role in your working life after college. (At AAM I focus on a broad range of issues that have little to do with British history). On the contrary, my boss asked me to discuss my thesis because he was interested in how I think—and to put it simply, Hist and Lit grads think pretty well. We also write like champions, which, as many employers will tell you, is increasingly rare these days.
The skills you will learn from Hist and Lit run the gamut from critical thinking to problem solving to in-depth research to time management to editing to public speaking. Every single one is extremely valuable and sought after in the workplace, no matter what career you choose. Your thesis is an added bonus—one that might provide some surprisingly good fodder for interviews.
America Abroad Media (Updated 2012)
"The Whole City Whispers Mutiny": Cook Tours and British Imperial Memory, 1873-1913
Joanna Weiss, '94
There have been moments, in my journalism career, when I’ve relied quite directly on things I learned in Hist & Lit. Once, in a move I hoped would make a certain professor proud, I mentioned Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan, on the front page of the Globe. (It was a story about the show “Survivor,” and Hutchinson was part of our long national tradition of voting people off.) My senior thesis, about 1920s advertising and PR, helped inform my work as a cultural critic – and deepened my appreciation for “Mad Men.” And in my current job as an op-ed columnist, it helps to have had an in-depth overview of American history and intellectual thought.
But the real reason Hist & Lit was a great foundation for a journalism career has less to do with facts and more to do with thinking critically. If you want to hone your arguments and think on your feet, there’s no better preparation than a Hist and Lit tutorial – whether with a great instructor or sharp peers. You’ll get skills that are useful whether you’re interviewing a governor, a guy at a Tea Party meeting, or the executive producers of “Lost.” And you’ll get practice for the days when you routinely have to sum up your worldview in 700 words.
Columnist for The Boston Globe (Updated 2010)
Liberating Lady Nicotine: Cigarettes and Social Equality for 1920s Women.
Lizzie Widdicombe, '06
In Hist and Lit, I studied 19th-century American literature and wrote my thesis on Henry James. Since graduation, I’ve been working in the Talk of the Town department at The New Yorker. It turns out that Hist and Lit was a good preparation for journalism, or at least for this specific strain of journalism: both involve drawing connections between apparently unrelated subject matter (A-Rod! Judaism!), and reading and writing in ways that are engaged with the world. There are procedural similarities, too—the deadlines, the counseling sessions, the last-minute phone calls to obscure experts… Actually, if you substituted, say, Carla Bruni for Henry James, you could argue that things are more or less the same.
Talk of the Town editor, The New Yorker (Updated 2015)
Emma Winsor Wood, '12
Freshman year, I woke everyday at eight a.m. to arrive, breakfasted and lucid, to my nine a.m. intensive Russian class. In this seminar room, I shed my daily self and became another girl, with a multiplicity of beautiful names: Tatyana, Tanya, Tanechka, Tanyusha. We learned the alphabet, the script, the small talk, and the names of classroom objects. Halfway through the semester, we finally learned the verbs of motion. And, somehow, through all of this grammar, we learned about Russia—its culture, history, and heroes. The more I learned, the more I wished to learn and the more I wished to experience Russia myself. I applied for the Harvard Summer School in St. Petersburg.
That June, I found myself sleeping on the ubiquitous fold-out sofa with mosquitoes buzzing in my ear as I enjoyed my nighttime reading of Crime and Punishment in the nearly daytime sunlight of the White Nights. During the day, I continued to struggle with Russian syllables. I also began, with a class on the history of the city, to study the country’s past and its literature in a formal setting. In the late afternoon and evenings, I would roam the city-streets, identifying writers and artists in the monuments scattered about the city, pinpointing specific buildings, and reading about their evolution through to the present post-Soviet era. Thus steeped in literature about St. Petersburg while also breathing its air, I began to conflate Russia with St. Petersburg, although I knew how mistaken this was. Peter’s city was young, sophisticated, intentional, and European—where many other Russian cities and towns had grown organically over decades in response to the demands of commerce and agriculture.
This summer, back in St. Petersburg for thesis research, I realized that I had never wanted to study Russia so much as I had wanted to study this one incredible city, with its multiplicity of names and epithets, its glittering canals, its somehow feminine energy, its White Nights, its bleak history, and its unparalleled literature. In my thesis, I was ultimately able to combine my interests in gender, poetry, and Petersburg—to create what I have come to see as a kind of self-portrait of an other.
I am currently working at Aram Fox, Inc., a literary scouting agency, in New York City. We act as the eyes and ears for international publishing houses on the American publishing market, gathering information and advising them on what to buy for translation. (Updated 2012)
"Fleeing the Poetic Convent: Elena Shvarts's Works and Days and Problems of Female Authorship in the Late-Soviet Literary Underground"
Melissa Ader, '09
I spent my time as a History and Literature concentrator studying women’s literature through the lenses of race and gender. As a freshman, I analyzed the formation and history of race and race relations in America. I soon became captivated by the poetry, folktales, slave narratives and novels of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African American literature. After two years spent focusing on African American studies, I spent my junior year examining women and labor. This shift to gender studies stemmed from a summer internship during which I investigated pregnancy discrimination cases and became committed to fighting the inequities and constraints which working women face. In my junior tutorial, I wrote about the depiction of white working women in Dawn Powell’s The Locusts Have No King, simultaneously studying the stereotyping of white working women in postwar American magazines. While researching the history of American working-class feminism during a semester abroad, I became interested in examining the harsh penalties which working mothers encounter for attempting to fulfill the dual responsibilities of worker and caregiver. In my senior thesis, I explored the novelist Ann Petry’s response to the objectification and condemnation of black working mothers in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, thereby combining my interests in women, labor, mothers and race.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Updated 2015)
“Walled In”: Race, Motherhood, and Labor in Ann Petry’s The Street
Vanessa Dube, '10
One of the reasons I wanted to study America in History and Literature was to get at the question of American identity from two differing yet complementary lenses. Perhaps ironically, I think one of the most fascinating times to look at American identity is when that identity is challenged: during the Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars, and the Cold War, history, historiography, and literature all bear down on the question of what it means to be American, who is included in that definition, and how those distinctions are made.
One answer to the question “what is history?” for me was: history is getting as close as possible to the lived experience of those who have come before. As an Americanist who was lucky enough to be at Harvard, this meant getting up close and personal with Haida objects at the Peabody Museum, writing a paper on a buffalo hide winter count, and reading letters from Civil War widows. For me, there is really nothing quite as nerdy—or as thrilling—as holding something in your hands that you know someone else was holding or using or creating hundreds of years before. Studied in this way, history becomes detective work. How you—and they—saw or used that object or read that letter reveals not only something about their time period, but it can also (if you’re lucky) reveal deeper truths about America; connective threads that run from their hands to yours.
The question of literature has always been a bit trickier for me. Sure, there are novels and plays: those are definitely literature. But what about Elvis lyrics? I expanded my study of history and literature to include a self-imposed requirement of visual culture. Visual artists see and critique culture in ways that help to expose the dominant scene and its forgotten underbelly (sometimes simultaneously). Analyzing paintings and photographs in my American art classes not only helped me to hone close-reading skills that were directly useful in writing my thesis, but reading about how that art was received—or “read”—in its own period gave me a fuller picture of American life at any given point.
Certified law student at GW Law Family Justice Litigation Clinic (Updated 2015)
“Nothing between You and the Set but Space: A Cultural History of the Zenith Space Commander Remote Control”
Ana Enriquez, '10
After taking a core course on medieval literature and arts my freshman fall, I decided to concentrate in History and Literature and focus on medieval Europe. I was particularly interested in legal history, but I took a mix of courses, including art history and a wide-ranging sophomore tutorial (Nithard to Rousseau). I also started two languages (Anglo-Saxon and Latin). In my junior fall, I took my first history course, one which spent a lot of time with legal sources and took a trip to the Law School Library’s rare books collection. Along with another Hist and Lit student, I began serving as an undergraduate representative to the faculty committee on the library. At the same time that I was exploring medieval legal history, I was listening to debates on the future of books and libraries.
The following spring, I took paleography. It taught me the practical skills necessary to transcribe and interpret primary documents from the medieval period, and it made me even more interested in books and libraries. I also took legal history, for which I wrote a term paper about Æthelberht's code and payment of damages. In paleography, I transcribed part of a fourteenth-century English legal document. In tutorial, I wrote my junior paper about sexual violence in England around the year 1000. These three projects led me to a thesis topic. I wrote about defamation cases from the court document I had worked on in paleography. This challenging but very rewarding project combined my interests in law, Latin, manuscripts, and marginalized individuals, and working on it was a wonderful way to close my time in History and Literature.
After college, I went to law school at the University of California, Berkeley to study the law of libraries and cultural institutions. I worked on copyright-related projects for the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic, was on the Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, and cataloged medieval manuscripts in the library's rare books room. I also got to spend a year at Harvard Law School, where I took more legal history and was a teaching fellow for an edX course on copyright.
I am a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, where I work on projects related to the teaching of technology law. (Updated 2013)
Seeking Justice, Repairing Reputations: Defamation Cases in the Consistory Court of Ely, 1374-1382
Alice Farmer, '00
I am now a human rights lawyer, focusing on forced migration and children's rights. Hist and Lit contributed to my future professional life in two ways. First, I focused on French history and literature (including Francophone studies). I've worked in field placements with the UN refugee agency and others in Guinea and elsewhere in West Africa, where French was the language I used professionally and where the basic understanding of the region's history gained during my time with Hist and Lit was helpful. Second, as a human rights lawyer I conduct research into children's rights issues and draft articles and reports on those topics. The training I got as a writer in Hist and Lit - augmented by further training in law school - comes in handy.
Human rights attorney (Updated 2010)
The Explosion of the New Created by the Rite of Spring
Jessica Frisina, '10
I entered Hist and Lit with a vague interest in studying how language inspires and propels social change, and so began my studies by exploring the theme of identity construction in America. I examined the way in which people carve out spaces for themselves within existing social orders, conceive of themselves in relation to others, and explore the limiting and empowering aspects of group membership. However, as I soon discovered, constructing an identity often involves not only defining oneself within communities, but also defining oneself against them. This theme of resistance became a second, but equally important, part of my time in Hist and Lit. By grounding my studies in the history of the Haitian and American revolutions, American reactions to the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren, and the tradition of protest literature in America, I examined moments in American history when people resisted “outsider” representations of themselves and reclaimed ownership of their own bodies, spaces, and public images. In my junior tutorial, I delved more deeply into people and literature that have challenged dominant discourses in American history, focusing on representations of September 11, AIDS in the 1980s, Black Arts poetry, and art in the Chicano movement. In my senior thesis I wove these themes of identity and protest together in an analysis of the two central identity narratives of the farm worker movement in California.
Negotiating Identities and Identifying Narratives: The California Farm Worker Movement in the 1960s
Kimberly Hagan, '09
When I began as a student in History and Literature, my favorite cuento was Jorge Luis Borges' "La Muerte y la Brujula" [The Death and the Compass], where Detective Erik Lonnrot follows a mysterious series of murders that form the shape of a rombus. In my study in History and Literature, I found myself with a similar task, following clues and making connections. My broader interests in the program have included questions of race and nation, indigenous movements and their literature, borders, immigration, Catholicism and testimonio. Concerns of gender and masculinity shaped not only my understanding of the Cuban Revolution and its heroes but also my readings of Junot Diaz's contemporary works of immigrant literature. Between fictional texts like Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines and Mary Pat Brady’s critical work on space in Chicana literature, I developed a deeper interest in environmental history, and in the use of space and scale in literature. This interest guided my senior thesis project, “From the Tiny Beetle to the Transnational: Considerations of Space in Zapatista Literature.”
After graduation, I am working as a paralegal at a small plaintiff-side firm in Boston. (Updated 2012)
From the Tiny Beetle to the Transnational: Considerations of Space in Zapatista Literature
Patrick Knoth, '11
One afternoon during Shopping Week of my sophomore fall, I walked into a Barker Center classroom to sample a History and Literature seminar about Washington, D.C. I’d always enjoyed studying cities, so I planned to stay a polite fifteen minutes before sneaking out to shop another course. Before I could start packing up, however, we had already entered into a lively discussion about D.C., prompted by readings and Post articles that had been passed around. The conversation didn’t strictly revolve around the history and literature of the nation’s capital, however. We also considered its natural geography, urban design, economy, and contemporary politics. The discussion’s interdisciplinarity was stimulating. On the seminar’s lottery form, I circled “definitely planning on taking this course.”
I’d spent freshman year wandering the humanities and social sciences, but still had no idea which concentration to declare. Art history, English, economics, American history, government—these all interested me, but I couldn’t decide which one interested me most. History and Literature offered the opportunity to delve into multiple disciplines, allowing me to combine, rather than surrender, various academic passions. This scholarly freedom encouraged me to explore different approaches to American history and literature. During sophomore year, paper topics took me on extensive, if mostly figurative, trips: Washington, D.C., to investigate the politics of the Willard Hotel; Harvard’s own Robinson Hall, to examine Progressive Era education through the lens of the school’s short-lived undergraduate architecture department; the ominous highway of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, to interpret the built environment’s materiality in his literature; and one actual trip, to my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, to analyze the impact of public transit design on 1960s suburban racial segregation.
Through History and Literature, I developed a program to study American space. My coursework delved into literary representations of space, how space has shaped American history, how history has shaped American space. I studied how literature varies across regions, and the types of literature produced when Americans cross national borders. I studied the politics of moving across the American space, and how the nation not only tried to expand outwards, but upwards. Visual sources proved invaluable to my studies, from film and photography to blueprints and paintings. My study of American space through History and Literature centered on the people that occupied that space, their stories and culture. These studies culminated in my senior thesis on the trailer home, a topic that combined a range of my interests—mobility, residential space, law, and twentieth-century social history. I explored how the type of home in which Americans live, down to its very architectural details, makes a statement about our status—economically, socially, racially. Because of History and Literature’s interdisciplinary nature and the three years spent acquiring the tools necessary to work across these disciplines, writing the thesis proved to be an exciting, inventive, and incredibly gratifying experience.
I've been working in New York at the Hearst Corporation as a Litigation Fellow in their Office of General Counsel, and I'll be headed to Harvard Law in the fall of 2013. (Updated 2013)
Trailer Trash: The Emergence of the Mobile Home as a Cultural Icon, 1937¬–1943
Jacob Levine, '07
I served as a policy analyst in the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change from January 2009 – August 2010. President Obama created this office within the White House, and under former EPA Administrator Carol Browner’s direction we worked on a host of new policies ranging from the most stringent fuel economy standards -- and the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions standards -- for cars and trucks, to the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies through the G20. Most recently, I had the opportunity to help organize a White House conference in July on Energy Security, which hosted national security and defense stakeholders both in and out of government. It was an honor and a privilege to serve the President and, especially, to have the chance to work with such a committed and talented group of professionals throughout the Administration.
I started working with Obama for America as a volunteer driver during the New Hampshire primary in December 2007, and was later hired as a press advance person until the election, working with the traveling press corps and the Secret Service across dozens of states in the U.S., and abroad.
While an undergraduate, I concentrated in American and French History and Literature. I was particularly interested in postcolonial francophone literature, the built and natural American environment, and representations of war in 20th century film, novel and photography -- my thesis thread a path from the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War to their exhibition along the Grands Boulevards of Paris.
History and Literature provided a unique opportunity to weave seemingly disparate fields together into a cohesive, interdisciplinary program of study. For me, this program fostered a sense of exploration and discovery that proved essential to navigating both the policy and politics of the young Washington professional scene.
Monuments and Memory: The Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of 1937 and Its Afterlives
Daniel J. Sharfstein, '94
I am a law professor at Vanderbilt University, and this February the Penguin Press is publishing my book, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, a multigenerational history of race in American life. The book and my career were launched in History and Literature seminars and one-on-one tutorials. Every week I worked with some of the best teachers I have ever had. I graduated from Harvard with a body of knowledge and set of skills—a sense of audience, an understanding of how the meaning of words can change over time, an ability to think through the motivation and inherent biases of sources—that have guided me time and again, as a journalist, as a law student and public interest lawyer, and as a legal historian. My senior thesis examined a 1910 North Carolina court case in which a white man alleged that he had unwittingly married a black woman. I discovered that at a time when Southern society was organizing itself around racial segregation from cradle to grave, lawyers and judges struggled with the very definition of black and white. All the while, individuals and communities were crafting their own, often unexpected rules. The arguments that I formed then became the kernel of my life’s work. History and Literature changed the way I read and write, and it shaped the way I see the world.
Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University (Updated 2015)
In Search of the Color Line: Ferrall v. Ferrall and the Struggle to Define Race in the Turn-of-the-Century American South
Matthew Growdon, '07
I vividly recall agonizing over my choice of academic concentration, feeling that I would be torn apart by my seemingly disparate interests in the humanities and medicine. Fortunately, History and Literature proved to be a fertile environment in which to combine these interdisciplinary interests. In tutorials and seminars, I studied diverse topics from the incipient public health movement of 18th-century America to the early 20th-century debate surrounding shell shock and wartime mental illness, the topic of my senior thesis. These experiences situated my premedical coursework in a rich historical context, encouraging me to approach the practice of modern medicine with an open mind and an abiding humanity.
Looking back, I am incredibly thankful for my education in History and Literature. I am confident that the interests and skills that I developed there will shape my years at Harvard Medical School and my career as a practicing physician and researcher. Strong writing and editing skills have already served me well in the grant-writing process that fuels medical research. My interest in the medical humanities led me to co-author a journal article investigating similarities between scenes from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and patients with semantic dementia, a devastating neurodegenerative disease. I firmly believe that the lifelong study of literature will provide a blueprint for me to communicate and empathize with patients, thereby improving my standard of care and allowing me to tap into the human side of medicine.
MD/MPH Candidate at Harvard Medical School (Updated 2015)
Ford Madox Ford and the Wartime Mind
Eric Kandel, '52
I attended Harvard from 1948 to 1952 and decided in my first year to major in History and Literature. This proved to be a wonderful decision. I not only enjoyed immensely the tutorial we all received in this field from the second year on and the writing of my dissertation in my senior year, but perhaps most important, a perspective on Western thought that has served me well in all of my later work.
I am an émigré from Vienna, having fled Austria in 1939, one year after Hitler came to power. I therefore wanted to understand how the Germans could read Goethe and Schiller one day and kill Jews the next. So I wrote my honors dissertation on The Attitude toward National Socialism of Three German Writers: Carl Zuckmayer, Hans Cerossa, and Ernst Jünger. Each of these people had a different position on the political spectrum and therefore provided a different perspective on the response (or failure to respond) of the intellectuals in this critical period in history.
But it was not simply the writing of the dissertation; it was the writing of the many essays that I was encouraged to do during my taking courses in the field that gave me a joy in writing that I have continued to exercise. I thought originally I would major in Comparative Literature but decided at the spur of the moment that what really interested me was psychoanalysis. After all, being born in Vienna, that came somewhat naturally to me. So I decided at the end of my senior year, without any preparation to go to Summer School at Harvard and take my first science course, Chemistry, and on the basis of that one course I was accepted at the Medical School in the fall, on the proviso that I complete the remaining three courses. I did this in my senior year and the summer between my graduation and entering Medical School.
In Medical School at NYU, I continued along the track of becoming a psychoanalyst but decided in my senior year of Medical School that even a psychoanalyst should know something about the brain. I therefore took an elective in the brain at Columbia and that completely flipped me over and made me want to do brain science. Based upon my performance in the lab, I was recommended to the NIH. I spent the years 1957-1960 working as a research associate at the National Institute of Mental Health. I went on to complete my residency in psychiatry, but I continued to do research. Soon I decided, despite wonderful opportunities in academic psychiatry, that I most enjoyed doing basic sciences, and I have done basic science ever since.
I moved from Harvard to NYU in 1965 and from NYU to Columbia in 1974, and was Founding Director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior. I have had a wonderful scientific career, part of which has been characterized by my writing reviews and books. The books include Principles of Neural Science, the standard textbook in the field, now coming out in its fifth edition, and an autobiography, which won the L.A. Times Science Book Award. I have participated in a documentary about my life and my science entitled In Search of Memory, and I am doing a Charlie Rose series on The Brain. It is hard to know how much of this can be traced directly to History and Literature, but it certainly served as a basis for everything I have done.
So I think a broad, humanistically-based education is a wonderful background not only for a career but for life, and I strongly and enthusiastically recommend a major in History and Literature to anyone who enjoys reading and thinking. (Updated 2010)
Neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, 2000
The Attitude toward National Socialism of Three German Writers: Carl Zuckmayer, Hans Cerossa, and Ernst Jünger
Amrapali Maitra, '10
When I began my studies in the Postcolonial field of History and Literature, I hoped for a deeper understanding of global dynamics of power, disparity, agency, and culture. My courses offered incredible geographical and temporal breadth, with works as diverse as Valmiki’s Ramayana, Shakespeare’s plays, diaries by the first female colonial explorers, oral histories from South Asia’s Partition, gender theory, health studies on the AIDS epidemic, and videos by Third World hip-hop artists. I grew to love the various ways in which postcolonial texts are adaptations, revisions, and conglomerations; I quickly learned to challenge the very meaning and significance of “postcolonial” as a category. In tutorial I explored language and rhetoric in the context of conflict—my junior paper studied representations of the Sri Lankan civil war by authors writing in English, Sinhalese, and Tamil, allowing literary texts to illuminate political concerns. My senior thesis also tackled representation, examining the ways madness was depicted and described in three understudied periods of Indian literature. I delved into the language and silencing of pain and the concept of illness as narrative, building on my own service experiences in places like Harlem and rural Tanzania. My coursework in Hist and Lit allowed me to unite personal passions with academic debates, combine traditional or canonical texts with surprising or subversive ones, and make the study of literature as activist as I wanted it to be.
I'm a medical student at Stanford, where I manage a student-run free clinic and study medical humanities, with a focus on the anthropology of violence against women. In 2013, I was awarded a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship to support work towards an MD and a PhD in anthropology. (Updated 2013)
“Madness as a Language and a Language for Madness: Readings of Indian Literature”
Ofole Mgbako, '08
As I continue my medical training at the University of Pennsylvania, I look back on my time as a concentrator in History and Literature with gratitude. In every class I took during my time with History and Literature, professors encouraged me to place myself in a different historical period and ask myself why writers made specific choices in their work. This fidelity to context and commitment to the idea of every text being a reflection of a historical moment applies directly to the study of medicine. Becoming a good doctor requires the ability to look beyond a patient’s illness and understand the full context of his or her condition. It also requires one to understand how a patient’s ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, and personal history shape the progression of their illness. Furthermore, the faculty fostered an environment where innovation and inquiry drove excellence. In medicine, my professors have stressed the need for innovation to push the boundaries of medical care and the importance of inquiry to continually reshape and refine the field. History and Literature allowed me to create my own combined field of Africa and America, and encouraged me to travel the world in order to discover untold narratives at the intersection of African and American culture. This experience has defined my approach to my medical career. I wish to work in urban health and international medicine, and use the lessons I acquired as a concentrator to help my patients and impact communities throughout the world.
Internal Medicine Resident at NYU Langone Medical Center (Updated 2015)
“My Blackness is the Beauty of This Land”: African-American Culture and the Creation of the Black World in South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement (1969-1978)
Non-profit & Public Service
Jake Cohen, '09
As a History and Literature concentrator, I sought to compare and distinguish France and America while searching out novel narratives and marginalized histories. While I explored in depth the courses that revolution and industrialization sent the two nations down, I focused on the 20th century and the staggering amount of transatlantic cultural exchange and conflict that transpired post-World War II. As the United States took an interest in existentialism, France adopted jazz and other American cultural castaways as its own. My senior thesis zoomed in on the films of Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s and 70s, a period in which French intellectuals and artists were vocal about what they perceived as America’s “Coca-colonization” of their country. Godard’s appraisal of American culture highlighted the similarities and tensions between the countries’ cultural and political identities. My studies sought sites of cultural harmony and resistance, as well as voices both celebrated and silenced; and all in all, they were pretty fascinating.
I'm now working as a conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy's Asia programs. (Updated 2012)
Tout va mal: Americanization and the Cinema of Jean-Luc Godard
Public Policy & Government
Andres Arguello, '10
History and Literature 97 was the first course I took at Harvard which formally introduced me to a range of themes and ideas throughout North and Latin American history and literature. As such, it played an important role in determining the courses that I would take throughout the subsequent years. I became fascinated with the social and cultural repercussions of contact and encounters between civilizations, which have played a profound role throughout hemispheric history. How do peoples define other cultures? How does “contact” affect how civilizations define themselves? How does contact between civilizations affect and change culture and society? I became particularly fascinated with how this influenced the colonial experience in both North and Latin America, as well as the “Western experience” in 19th century North American society. This issue was also a crucial component of my senior thesis, as I sought to understand how anthropologist spy Samuel K Lothrop legitimized the American imperialist mission in Latin America through an understanding of “the other.” The theme in Latin American history and literature that most profoundly influenced my academic program is the prevalence of dictators throughout the region and the profound ways in which their often-brutal mandates have culturally impacted society. I first came across this issue in a freshman seminar titled “Chronicles of Tyrants,” where I read the dictator novels The Feat of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, and The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My junior tutorial largely revolved around Latin American dictators and the dictator novel. The course “Historical Representation of North American in the 19th Century” played a formative role in the design of my academic program for several reasons. Firstly, it was the course where I first studied the social implications of artistic representations in depth. How do creative productions both reflect and impact society? This led me to enroll in various art history courses. Secondly, through my final paper in “Historical Representations” I investigated a language of kinetics and energy in 19th century history and literature. This theme was a close contender for my thesis topic, and although it lost the fight to Samuel Lothrop, was present in several of my oral exam topics.
After Harvard, I studied at the University of Oxford, where I completed a masters in Latin American Studies. I am currently working as head speechwriter for a presidential candidate in Panama. (Updated 2013)
“Agent 173, Dr. Samuel K. Lothrop”: Academia, Espionage, and American Imperialism in Latin America During the Early Twentieth Century
Laura Brent, '08
As a Medieval Europe concentrator, I chose to focus my studies on the interaction of politics and religion. My senior thesis examined the origins of the First Crusade. I analyzed extensive primary source material—papal and political letters, literary works, and crusade diaries—first to establish the historical context of the crusade, and then to examine the language that Pope Urban II employed to launch the First Crusade. I posited that Urban’s language was crafted to inspire spiritual action—as well as accomplish an unprecedented centralization of both religious and political power in the hands of the papacy.
After graduation, I moved to Washington, DC, to work for The Albright Group, a global strategy firm, and then-Senator Barack Obama’s Senate policy director. In 2009, I went to work in the Secretary’s Office at the Department of Homeland Security. This fall, while continuing to work at the Department, I will begin at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where I will concentrate in strategic studies and international economics.
The themes—and skills—that defined my work in history and literature have continued to shape my career. The principles of close reading and rhetorical analysis apply to centuries-old documents as well as they do to crafting modern political communication. The thought processes necessary to understand geopolitical context and important actors are the same for both past and present. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to communicate, both verbally and in writing, remains indispensable in every classroom and any profession.
Secretary's Office at the Department of Homeland Security; Graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (Updated 2012)
Lower than God but Higher than Man: Urban II and the Rise of the Papacy
Jeff Phaneuf, '10
I came to History & Literature as soon as I transferred to Harvard from NYU. I strode, confident and proud, into the Director of Studies' office and announced that I would design my own course of study: I would study revolutions. The Director (whom I soon knew as Jeanne) had to temper my brazen plans. However, although designing my own thematic approach completely anew was not an option, History & Literature did allow me to follow my interest in revolutionary periods while focusing more directly on a specific historical and literary tradition in the America field.
I began as a student in the Latin America field with a hemispheric focus on Latin America and North America, but I soon realized that I could still study Latin America in my Spanish classes while I also read Milton, Keats, and Byron. Starting my junior year, I switched to the America field with a transatlantic focus on Britain, designing a Junior Tutorial that focused on the literary and historical trajectory between the English Civil War and the American Revolution.
Throughout this course of study, I was fascinated by outstanding singular figures, both historical and literary. As I grew up intellectually, however, I recognized that it is just as essential to study the human experience of the regular citizen. In the American Revolution research seminar, I studied the diaries of several Massachusetts militiamen who wrote of their experiences after the Battle of Lexington and Concord: real, ordinary people who crafted the same charged (and often biblical) rhetoric of liberty as their pamphleteering countrymen. This brought me to the subject of my thesis, a common man who rose to great singularity, Ebenezer Mackintosh. Throughout my three years at Harvard, History & Literature brought together the world of the humanities in a complex and rigorous way that made me a stronger thinker and a wiser student.
After teaching in high schools for two years, I am now a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. (Updated 2013)
“Shoemaker, Stick to Thy Last”: Ebenezer Mackintosh and the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765
Renée Michelle Ragin, '10
Fairly early on, I knew that I was drawn to the narratives of dictatorship in Latin America. While so many of the hallmarks of dictatorship have earned volumes of study – “disappearances” and the acts of psychic and physical violence committed against individuals and a collective state, for example– I was most drawn to the way that dictatorship simultaneously complicated and re-defined individual and national senses of identity.
My senior thesis analyzed this concept in the context of contemporary Dominican-American and Haitian-American literature on the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I was attracted to the complexity of the task these authors faced in narrating a battle for personal and national identity in the aftermath of dictatorship (and from a Diaspora perspective at that!). The end result is anything but clear-cut: it is often a polyphony of versions of events, understandings of history, and representations of selfhood. Yet, given the turbulent nature of recent history in Latin America, this is not only inevitable, it is also a most honest rendering of the consequences of being “postcolonial” in a globalizing climate.
I am a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, currently stationed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where I work on media and public affairs. My first assignment was in Washington D.C., where I worked on West Africa. (Updated 2013)
“Picking up the Pieces: the Literary Re-Negotiation of History in the Post-Trujillo Dominican Republic”
Emma Lind, '09
Because I think that all modern history has the potential to yield postcolonial histories and literatures if viewed through a lens that is attentive to postcolonial themes, I pursued a program in postcolonial history and literature that transcended temporal and spatial boundaries. I studied France’s colonial history from the era of the slave trade to the partitioning of Africa to the height of the French “civilizing mission” in West Africa, the Middle East, and Indochina, continuing through decolonization and its impact on notions of citizenship and nationality in the Metropole. Reading metropolitan literature as well as works from the French colonies formed my belief that literature does not simply communicate the sentiments of historical moments, but can also be interpreted as the creation of authors as historical actors. Lending this sort of agency to authors and literary works is crucial in the colonial context because resistance to subjugation based on race, gender, or location can often take the form of the creation of oral or written literature. Although it might seem antithetical to culminate a postcolonial hist and lit experience with a thesis that examines a French play published before the peak of its age of colonialism, the themes present in the work—transatlantic slavery and dislocation, subverted narratives, and the disturbance of white patriarchy—are salient to contemporary postcolonial discourse.
I am the chair of the mathematics department at Achievement First Brooklyn High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where I also teach Algebra II and serve as an student adviser. Previously, I taught in the Mississippi Delta as a 2009 Teach For America Corps Member. (Updated 2013)
“No Longer the Masters of Our Slaves”: The Subversive Works of Olympe de Gouges