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2021-2022 Kaplan Scholars Courses


How to Survive the End of the World: Oil and Water in the Gulf of Mexico

This course is co-taught by a professor of history, and a professor of literature, both fascinated by the shared ground between human histories and environmental change. Focused on a single region in the United States—Lower Louisiana, East Texas, and the giant body of water that connects them—our course asks what this distinctive landscape of land and water can tell us about our place on this planet, at this moment in history. The Gulf of Mexico is emblematic of stories we tell ourselves about racial and cultural difference, climate crisis and climate vulnerability, survival and the end of the world. Through the cause of climate justice, students in the course will examine how today’s political thinking pits economic and ecological priorities against each other, and against human survival. Three events of the early 21st century—the flooding of New Orleans in and after Hurricane Katrina (2005); BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010); and the flooding of the Houston, Texas area after Hurricane Harvey (2017)—show vividly how the vulnerability of contemporary life around the Gulf of Mexico is shaped by longer histories, and imagined futures, in which "natural disaster" and human agency can be hard to tell apart. The inextricability of racial, economic, and environmental impacts that follow such events, with their potent mix of accident and decision, neglect and care, violence and resistance, is not unique to this region: it is part of the unfolding story of the modern world. Students will work in between history, ecology, and literature in order to ground themselves in the "environmental humanities," an emerging area of study that helps us see how material histories and natural ecologies intersect with literature and art.

Sample course texts:
Jack Davis, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea
Andy Horowitz, Katrina: A History, 1915-2015
Eugenie L. Birch and Susan M. Wachter, eds., Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
Leanne Howe, Shell Shaker
Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century
Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth


Leslie Harris is Professor of History and African American Studies. Her research and teaching has focused on complicating the ideas we all hold about the history of African Americans in the United States, and finding ways to communicate these new ideas to the general public. In her first book, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (2003), she examined the impact of northern and southern slavery on the definitions of class, gender, citizenship, and political activism promulgated by New York’s blacks and whites. Harris is currently at work on a book on New Orleans that uses Hurricane Katrina and her family’s history as a way to interrogate the history of African Americans in the city from the nineteenth century to the present. She also has ongoing research interests in the history of slavery, gender and sexuality in the antebellum U.S. south, and the historiography of U.S. slavery.

Tristram Wolff is Assistant Professor of English. He writes and teaches on 18th-/19th-Century British literature, as well as comparative and transatlantic romanticisms, critical theory, poetry and poetics, and the environmental humanities, including representations of oil and water as extractable resources in fiction and film. His current book project, with the tentative title Giving Language Time: The Uprooted Word in the Romantic Century, outlines a poetics emerging from transatlantic romanticism that transported the speculative origins of language from the depths of the past to an ongoing present, in answer to the ethnocentric primitivism of the Enlightenment. A newer book project in its early stages comprises a series of essays revolving around the Romantic essayist William Hazlitt, and aims to show how Romantic-era writing on the passions has shaped contemporary debates about affect and emotion in our habits of critical reading.



From the Boston Tea Party in 1773 to Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, and from Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus in 1955 to the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to the Black Lives Matter marches across the U.S. in the summer of 2020, protests have shaped and punctuated the history of our world. This course considers the catalysts, consequences, and aesthetics of protest from interdisciplinary and global perspectives. How do protests take shape? When do they succeed? When do they fail? When do they turn into revolutions? What roles do literature, art, and performance play in the politics of protest?

Sample course texts:
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself
James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (in Notes of a Native Son)
Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (selections)
Selected poems by Namdeo Dhasal (Dalit Panther poet)
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Rang De Basanti (Hindi film, 2006)
Robert Darnton, “The Great Cat Massacre”
James Green, Death in the Haymarket (excerpts)
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rebel Girl (excerpts)
Robin D.G. Kelly, Race Rebels (excerpts)
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


Kevin Boyle is William Smith Mason Professor of American History. He is an historian of the twentieth century United States, with a particular interest in modern American social movements. His book, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age, received the National Book Award for nonfiction, The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and the Simon Weisenthal Center’s Tolerance Book Award. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was selected for community-wide reading programs in the Detroit metropolitan area and the state of Michigan. Boyle is currently at work on two book projects: The Splendid Dead, a micro-history of political extremism and repression in the early twentieth century; and The Splintering, a narrative history of the 1960s. He teaches undergraduate courses on modern United States history, the civil rights movement, and racial violence and graduate courses in twentieth century American history, working-class history, and narrative history.

Laura Brueck is Associate Professor of South Asian Literature and Culture in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and the Comparative Literary Studies Program. She specializes in modern and contemporary Hindi literature, with a particular focus on literatures of resistance, popular literatures, and translation studies. Her book, Writing Resistance: The Rhetorical Imagination of Hindi Dalit Literature, focuses on modern and contemporary Hindi Dalit literature, or resistance writing by those formerly known as “untouchables.” Her new book project considers Indian “pulp” fiction, particularly the genre of detective fiction and crime narratives. She is especially interested in the ways that the socio-political discourse of crime and criminality are reflected in twentieth century Hindi, Urdu, and English detective novels. Brueck teaches courses on South Asian literature in Hindi/Urdu, English, and in translation, Bollywood cinema, Indian epic literature, the theory and practice of translation, and South Asian civilization, with a particular focus on the modern politics of caste, class, and gender.


great-migration-836x268.pngA Place Called Home: Great Migrations, Folk Life, and the Chicago Renaissance

“By the time the Great Migration was over,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in the epilogue to her sprawling “epic story” The Warmth of Other Suns, “few Americans had not been touched by it.” From World War I through the end of the Vietnam War, African Americans kept coming out of the American South, to the North and West, mostly to cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Tulsa, Cleveland, Detroit, Wichita, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Like many other migrants and immigrants, they were often obstructed, misrepresented, and rebuked on the beginnings and ends (not to mention in the middles) of their trips. Yet they kept coming, and their movement, as well as its aftermath, culturally redefined the United States, along with the migrants themselves.

This seminar will be an intensive, interdisciplinary study of literature, music, film, and visual art produced during and about the first and second waves of the Great Migration, from roughly 1917 until 1970.  We will explore the Chicago Renaissance as a cultural flowering of the Migration’s first wave, and consider the philosophical and cultural critiques offered by the African American intelligentsia of the period. In addition, we will examine the migration of Black Folklife—faith practices, music, foodways, and vernacular iterations—and chart its impacts across and beyond the US. Finally, the class will explore what some sociologists and urban studies scholars have called a “reverse migration,” citing a statistical exodus of African Americans out of the Great Migration’s destination cities in numbers that now rival or exceed the movement itself.

We will also focus on themes of home, community, and physical place and space, ideas that we imagine will be especially resonant for first-year students. They may be meaningful in different ways depending on how the school year unfolds in 2021-22, but we expect that students will be able to find important points of engagement about these concepts, whether in person or remote.

Sample course texts:
Clarke Hine, Darlene. Black Chicago Renaissance
Griffin, Farrah Jasmine. Who Set You Flowin'
Angelou, Maya. Down in The Delta (film, 1998)
Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
Perry, Tyler. Madea’s Family Reunion (film, 2006)
Larsen, Nella. Passing
Reed, Christopher. Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance
Stewart, Jacqueline. Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity
Toomer, Jean. Cane
King, George. Goin’ to Chicago: Personal Stories of the Great African American Migration (film, 1994).
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns
Burnett, Charles. To Sleep With Anger (film, 1990)
Williams, Spencer. The Blood of Jesus (film, 1941)
Petty, Audrey. High-Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing
Lee, Spike. Crooklyn (film, 1994)
Stahl, John. Imitation of Life (film, 1934)
Scarborough, William et al, Between the Great Migration and Growing Exodus: The Future of Black Chicago?


Tracy Vaughn-Manley is Assistant Professor of African American Studies. Her current research examines the specific ways in which the distinctive aspects that define the Black Aesthetic quilting tradition—the assertion of individual and collective agency; the narrative aspects; and the social and historical significance of quilts—make them and the process of quilting a convenient trope for many Black women writers, specifically novelists Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terri McMillian; poets Nikki Giovanni and Lucille Clifton: and playwright Lynn Nottage. These authors consider the connections between quilts, gender, race, culture and identity as well as the intersections between literature, history, and material culture to explore the interiority of Black life—specifically the lives of Black American women. By employing the quilt and the tradition of quilt-making as metaphors for history, community, and legacy, these authors are situating the production and preservation of American folk culture squarely in the hands of Black women.

Miriam J. Petty is Associate Professor of Radio/TV/Film and Performance Studies. She writes and teaches about race, stardom, performance, reception, adaptation, and genre and is especially interested in the history of African American representation in Hollywood film. Her first book, Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood explores the complex relationships between black audiences and black performers in the classical Hollywood era. Petty is also an avid producer of public programs: her recent projects include the 2012 symposium “Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable: Perspectives on the Media of Tyler Perry” at Northwestern; the 2014 retrospective “Mama and Papa Lala: 30 Years of Billops-Hatch Films” at Emory University; and the 2015-2016 film series “Seeds of Disunion: Classics of African American Stereotypy” at the Black Cinema House of Chicago. She is currently at work on a book manuscript examining media mogul Tyler Perry’s productions and his African American audiences’ nostalgic investments in such cultural forms as folktales, music, literature, and religious practice.

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