Inventing the Global South

100-level undergraduate  course. Bucknell 2021, 2023.

When once we spoke of First and Third Worlds, today we speak of Global North and South. How did we come to divide the world this way? And who are "we"? This course traces the political, economic, and intellectual history of the Global South so that we can better understand our globalized present. Over the course of our 500-year journey, you will be introduced to methods and theories central to the humanities today. We start in the 16th century to explore the roots of capitalism in Europe’s colonization of the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade. The emergent globe-spanning empires ruled vast swaths of humanity for the benefit of the few, until 19th- and 20th-century national liberation struggles managed to decolonize Africa, Asia and Latin America. These postcolonial societies birthed rich new art forms, militant world views, and, in the 20th-century, a phalanx of solidarity against the neocolonial ambitions of Cold War powers. Decolonization certainly revolutionized geopolitics, but today we must continue the work of decolonizing our minds. In doing so, we will look to knowledges and practices authored in the Global South that by looking beyond Western development models may in fact guide all of us toward ecological justice and a sustainable future. 

(Image: Participating states in the Badung Conference (1954).)

Critique of Creativity

300-level undergraduate  course. Bucknell 2024..

The spread of generative artificial intelligence promises to radically change the future of work by encroaching on the creative capacity that has come to define the human. This seminar peeks into that near future by tracing the history of creativity from the figures of divine creator and artistic genius to the creative destruction and creative classes of capitalist innovation and, finally, the creative economies—ranging from coops to communes—that seek to realize visions of radically alternative futures. Through this history of the concept, we will evaluate the relationship between cultural and economic values in order to understand culture’s role in capitalism and gain critical insight into the uses and abuses of creativity today. 

(Image: Brainstorming at RAND Corporation, 1960.  Leonard McCombe / LIFE Picture Archive)

Making Modern Worlds

100-level undergraduate  course. Bucknell 2022, 2024

Is there a God? Who is human? What is science? Where does value come from? These are but a few of the questions that frame the cultural formation we call modernity. From the ashes of the Black Plague, social upheavals and chance discoveries in Europe set in motion the combined processes of fragmentation, secularization, and rationalization that produced the nation-state, the scientific method, and an explosion of the arts. At the same time, European modernity was built on the subjugation of women through witch-hunting, forced reproductivity, and the invention of domestic space; the oppression of racialized others through colonialism, evangelism, and capitalism; and the domination of nature by science and technology. Students in this course will discover modernity through the history of its key concepts, social formations, and cultural expressions including primary sources such as Bartolomé de las Casas’s Destruction of the Indies (1542), René Descartes's Discourse on Method (1647), and Aime Césaire’s decolonial rewriting (1969) of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610).

(Image: Albrecht Dürer. Man Drawing a Lute (1525).)

Modernisms and Crisis

200-level undergraduate  course. Bucknell 2021, 2022.

This seminar explores the pervasive sense in modern culture that fundamental shifts in cultural patterns and paradigms have occurred, changing our relationship with tradition, the physical world, and the ways we think and feel about ourselves and others. This sense of cultural instability has threatened some and liberated others. We will trace the development and contestation of modernity and modernisms through an interdisciplinary corpus of texts—from philosophy, literature, psychology, film, art, and other fields—that reflect or address cultural change in the long twentieth century

This team-taught, interdisciplinary "Integrated Perspectives" course will stage the crises of Western modernity by drawing out the dialogues and contradictions among this tradition and its racialized, gendered, and colonized others. Each unit will feature guest lectures by visiting speakers. Primary assignments include frequent writing assignments and a final project.

(Image: Constructing the Ministry Buildings in Brasília.  Soucre: Styliane Philipou, Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). 

Latin American Landscapes 

in Literature, Visual Art, and Film

100-level undergraduate course taught at Bucknell University, Spring 2019,  and Haverford College, Fall 2019.

The purported discovery of the Americas and ensuing encounter between Indigenous and Western cultures is a watershed moment in world history. It midwifed the birth of colonialism, capitalism, and the modern era. It also marks a revolution in the Western concept and representation of the world. Since then, the manipulation, construction, and conception of natural and built environments has been key to the self-understanding of the hybrid societies that have taken root here.

This course introduces students to Latin American arts through a typology of spatial forms central to the continent’s culture and identity. From flights of the imagination when faced with the unknown (colonial maps, de la Vaca, Zurita) to the imposition of order through graphic representations (Eltit, Lalo, Rama); from the enduring link between land and identity (Arguedas, Mendieta, Rulfo) and the moralizing distinction between city and the country (Hernández, Mansilla) to the burgeoning metropolises of the twentieth century (Aira, Arlt, Mendoça, Mereilles); from borders unable to stem the flows of migration (Caetano, Nava, Alÿs, Kuitca) to the non-places of virtual reality and utopian futurity, this course challenges students to look behind the physical surface of the given. We will come to realize, along with Eduardo Lalo, that “Where is a 'space' . . .  constructed by the cultural and unconscious actions of mankind. . . . It can be anywhere, in any other where."

(Image: Raúl Zurita. “Ni pena ni miedo.”

Arts of Extraction

Hemispheric Representations of Ecological Injustice

200-level undergraduate course. Haverford College 2020. Bucknell 2021.

Even the most technologically advanced information societies depend, in the last instance, on humankind’s social metabolism of nature. That metabolism begins with the extraction of raw materials from our environment through collective labor. Five centuries since European colonialism and three centuries since the Industrial Revolution, both labor and nature are stretched to the breaking point. This course explores the social and environmental history of extraction in the Americas since colonization. If, as we are often told, history is written by the victors, this course suggests that works of art may be windows onto the underside of American modernity, its social and environmental injustices.

We will read this history through texts—literary, filmic, and photographic—organized around different commodities and their sites of extraction across the Americas: gold, silver, nitrate, and coal dug from Chilean, Bolivian, and Pennsylvania mines that have leveled mountaintops and poisoned water sources; the sugarcane and cotton harvested by enslaved and impoverished people working plantations in Cuba, Brazil, and the U.S South; rubber and bananas that have degraded tropical forests in Central America and the Amazon basin; the oil and gas wells that dot the Ecuador, Texas, and Pennsylvania landscapes; and the vast plains of Argentina, Brazil, and the U.S. Midwest first terraformed by cattle and now choked by the pesticides used in GMO corn and soybean monocultures.

Along this sometimes treacherous, sometimes toxic journey, we will be guided by one overarching question: What are the affordances and limitations of the arts for representing and reflecting on the interrelation of capitalist exploitation and environmental collapse?

(Image:  Sebastião Salgado. Serra pelada (1986).)

Horizons of Utopia

Universities, Students, and Politics in Latin America

Proposed course.

Since independence, public education has been a central concern of Latin American republics, and since the mid-nineteenth-century founding of secular, state universities, students and universities have played a crucial role in shaping polities across the continent. This course examines this deep and abiding relationship between universities and Latin American societies by focusing on historical moments of political inflection. 

We begin by weighing the admixture of idealism and utilitarianism that motivated the founding of modern universities in Chile and Argentina. We will examine the emergence of a pan-Latin American identity at the dawn of the twentieth century in tandem with the youth movements that swept through the University of Córdoba refounding Argentinean society on the promise of free, massive, public higher education. The same fervor in Peru combined with an incipient Latin American socialism to radicalize university students against imperialism and the very education system that reproduced class society. The same utopian impulse emerged in Mexico 68, now in the name of full-throated democracy, only to be brutally suppressed by the state. In the intervening years, US-backed coups followed by structural adjustment programs ushered in today’s largely neoliberal societies. In 2011, Chilean students dared to dream of a world in which people are valued more than profits, beginning with the demand for free, quality, public higher education. Tracing this history we will see that Latin American universities are not just institutions for reproducing societies; they are laboratories for inventing new ones. 

(Image: “Free, Quality, Public Education.”

The Matter of Knowledge

Proposed course.

In his 1983 essay, “The Philosophical Institution,” French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu tells us, “Philosophers like to ask ‘What is thinking?’ But they never ask what are the necessary social conditions for that particular wayof performing the activity of thinking . . . . Resembling the artist in this respect he sets himself up as an uncreated creator . . .  who owes nothing to the institution.” In accord with Bourdieu, this course departs from the axiom that there is no object of knowledge or culture independent from its material, social, and institutional conditions of possibility. We will trace this process of demystification in two of its iterations: the sociology of knowledge and the newly emergent field of Critical University Studies. After exploring foundational texts in sociology (Weber, Durkheim) and Marxism (Marx and Engels, Lukács), we will witness the raucous sociology of knowledge dispute (Streit um die Wissenssoziologie) among German sociologists and their interlocutors in the first half of the twentieth century (Mannheim, Adorno, Merton). From this broad history of ideas we will see that epistemology is as mutable as it is social and political (Kuhn). 

From materialist and sociological methods, we then turn to the institutional conditions of our own knowledge production, namely the university, seen through the lens of Critical University Studies. Again we will cast a historical gaze on our institutional object and our knowledge of it. We will see how German Idealism and Romanticism influence the idea of the modern university as an institution “where reason may speak out publicly” (Kant) by virtue of its “isolation and freedom” (von Humboldt). But in the US, this ideology quickly wears thin (Newman) as US universities midwife the birth of the corporate model (Newfield) even as they are tasked with democratizing higher education (Dewey, Kerr) before succumbing to the market fundamentalism of late capitalism (Lyotard, Readings). Materialist thinkers are among the first to insist on the role of education in the reproduction of class relations (Althusser, Bourdieu and Passeron), and again, materialist analyses find in education new symptoms that attend the rise of the so-called knowledge economy—for example, the figure of human capital (Morganson, Lazzarato) and its incumbent pedagogy of debt (Moten and Harney, Williams)—as well as struggles against this state of affairs  (Research and Destroy, Colectivo Situaciones). 

(Image: What remains of the library of Universidad ARCIS in 2022. Bret Leraul)

Latin American Paranoiacs

Crime, Conspiracy, and Terror in Recent Fiction  

Comparative Literature, First-Year Writing Seminar, Cornell University, 2015, 2016 

What if terror could engender worlds, or reality was a waking nightmare? Questions like these animate the literary genre Argentine author Ricardo Piglia calls “paranoid fiction”. Whether through one man’s obsessive attention to detail, a dictator’s megalomania, the traumas of state terrorism, or a quest that unveils a reality-generating machine, the Latin American authors we will read explore paranoia through texts that fracture our knowledge of the real into so many conspiracy theories. Students will develop academic writing and close reading skills through critical engagement with a variety of texts. These include short fiction masterworks (Borges, Cortázar), metaphysical crime novels (Piglia, Taibo II, Bolaño), and takes on the dictator novel (Roa Bastos) and testimonio (testimonial literature) (Eltit, Castellanos Moya). Readings from literature will be complimented by critical and philosophical texts (Beverley, Foucault) and films (Antonioni, Herzog).

(Image: Film still from La invasión (1969). WikimediaCommons.) 

Yo es un Otro / I is an Other

Twentieth-Century, Spanish-American Life Writing

Proposed course.

Literature, we are often told, is a form of self-expression. But this is only half of the story. Literature is also a form of self-construction and self-reflection.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in those genres we call life writing. This seminar introduces students to the rich tradition of Latin American life writing through four of its representative genres: diary, autobiography, chronicle, and essay. It pairs classic texts with lesser-known contemporary ones to form a contrapuntal historical survey focused on the pivotal role played by the writing subject in the evolving relationship between representation and experience, archives and events.

We’ll see how the essayistic tradition in Spanish America is instrumental in consolidating national and regional identities (Reyes, Rodó, Ureña).  At the same time, we’ll ask how criticism is a kind of literary autobiography (Borges, Giordano). We’ll explore how twentieth century writers adapt the chronicle – perhaps the region’s longest-lived life writing genre – to increasingly urban societies and a globalizing world (Arlt, Lemebel, Martí, Monsiváis). We’ll examine how women use autobiography to write their lives into Latin American letters and carve out a place for feminine voices (Moreno, Ocampo). And we’ll chart how the diary plots everyday life into the fictional unity of the self and its odyssey (Guevara, Piglia). 

At the Limits of Language

 Ecstasy, the Sublime, Irreducible Difference

Comparative Literature, First-Year Writing Seminar, Cornell University, 2012-13

Why do words sometimes fail us? How do we write what must not be thought or what cannot be known? This seminar traces a series of conversations on the limits and inadequacies of language in and across religion, philosophy, literature, and the arts. Topics range from Judeo-Christian theology, early modern mysticism, and 18th century aesthetics to the legitimation crisis of language and reason in 20th century thought. Students will develop academic writing and close reading skills through critical engagement with a wide variety of challenging texts. These include poetry (Rumi, Hölderlin, Mistral), prose fiction (Kafka, Borges), and excerpts from works of criticism and philosophy (Horace, Kant, Benjamin, and Derrida among others) as well as examples from the visual arts.

(Image: Hannah Darboven. Ein Jahr 1975. Photograph Bret Leraul.) 

Writing on the University

Introducing Critical University Studies

Comparative Literature, First-Year Writing Seminar, Cornell University, 2014 

From the student revolts of the 1960s to current debates about MOOCs, for nearly four decades, thinkers and commentators have repeatedly heralded the crisis of the university. This writing seminar delves into the idea of the modern university beginning with its early nineteenth century inception to its twentieth century crises and twenty-first century transformations . In the spirit of cultural analysis, students will not only read works of literature (Nabokov, McCarthy), philosophy (Kant, W. von Humboldt,  Althusser, Lyotard, Rancière), pedagogy and the philosophy of education (Dewey, Freire, Newman), and criticism (B. Reading, C. Newfield) . They will also develop techniques for ‘reading’ film (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)), journalism, institutional documents, and everyday ‘texts’ in and around Cornell. This transdisciplinary approach asks that students write lucid, persuasive prose in a variety of genres and registers in order to debate the state of the American university.

Teaching Philosophy 

Why study literature? What is the value of the humanities? These are questions we are increasingly called on to answer. In an era of machine learning and big data when we blindly place our trust in black-box algorithms and technological solutions, my pedagogy insists on the craft of thinking critically. When I teach, I begin by asking students attend to language as a means of communication and an end in itself.  My goal is that students recognize that language and literature are inseparable from the social, that communication binds communities and only in communities are objects studied and known. My teaching is guided by my belief that critical thinking is not only a set of cognitive and communicative skills for reflecting on one’s thinking in order to improve it. It is also a social and affective disposition that calls for us to exercise responsibility and autonomy, courage and tenacity.

I engender students’ individual and collective autonomy through learning-centered class environment and course design. Students in my writing courses rarely ‘write to’ an essay prompt. Instead, they choose their own topics and pose their own problems, which they shape through the drafting process with my guidance and support. This freedom asks students to take responsibility for the writing process and invest their essays with personally meaningful content. For similar reasons, in the language classroom, I draw authentic content from students’ experiences and the culture of the target language. Students receive feedback in the interrogative rather than declarative mood. My comments on student writing posit reader doubt –“Where do you see this in the text?” “How does this follow from your previous claim?”– and error correction in speech takes the form of metalinguistic elicitation – “¿Buscas una casa que es grande? ¿O que sea grande?” Assessment in my writing courses combines students’ personal goals with my evaluation of their progress and abilities. Students write reflections on their essays in light of their process and my feedback, and I have incorporated peer and self-grading into the revision process.

Encouraging students to take responsibility for class discussion has proved more challenging, particularly when course texts push students beyond their comfort zones. Students in a writing seminar exploring the emergent field of critical university studies read selections from Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, a difficult philosophical parable that questions pedagogical authority. On the day when students had prepared the text, instead of guiding the discussion, I performed the role of the ignorant schoolmaster by entering the classroom and sitting silently facing the wall. Initial confusion turned to laughter as students grasped the lesson. The conversation they self-directed over the course of the hour was the most engaged of the semester and the experience empowered them to trust their voices in future discussions.

It took courage and a positive affective environment for those students to exercise collective autonomy and take responsibility for analyzing a difficult text. In my teaching, making a ‘safe’ environment means inviting students to take up space and to shape it so that they feel free to fail. “Error becomes failure when we lack the tenacity to try again,” I repeated every week during office hours to Abby, a struggling student in my elementary Spanish section. Initially, I had asked her to see me for extra help. By the middle of the semester, she came of her own accord. And by the end, she demonstrated more communicative capacity than many of her peers. I use a structured revision process to encourage students to embrace error as part of the process of thinking through writing. Dominique was a gifted writer in my seminar “Latin American Paranoiacs,” but her perfectionism meant that she would submit essay drafts late, if at all. One essay in particular expressed insightful analysis in dexterous prose. But she had failed to turn in the required draft. In my comments, I detailed counterarguments and asked that she revise “the draft” for the following week. When she resubmitted, I asked her to consider revising it again for the end-of-semester portfolio. By then, Dominique had crafted one of the finest student essays I’ve read. In her evaluation, she thanked me for challenging her to embrace error. She also informed me of her intention to major in Comparative Literature.

Returning to the initial question, “What is the value of the humanities?” we might ask instead “What values do the humanities promote?” For me, studying literature is an ethical stance, a political commitment, a worldview that promotes other measures of value than the utilitarian one implied by the initial question.  To respond, I would say that literature values language as a question without answer about our being in common. That is why I teach.