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(De)colonizing knowledge: Women folklore collectors and travelling ethnographers in the colonized Americas


Disclaimer: due to the coronavirus pandemic, this course description might be subject to changes.

Topics: ethnographic writing, travel, ethnobotany, plantation economy, indigenous knowledge, women in history colonization of the Americas and West Indies
Disciplines: anthropology, literature, gender studies, history of the sciences
Skills: research, academic writing, critical reflection, conference presentation

Admission requirements:

This course is an Honours Class and therefore in principle only available to students of the Honours College. There are a few places (generally 10-15%) available for second- and third-year regular students. Admission will be based on motivation.


The world as we know it today, with globalized exchanges and interconnected networks of trade, has been many centuries in the making. Dating back to the early days of the transatlantic trade, explorers, missionaries and merchants have collected, bred and exported countless goods and raw material from the Americas to Europe. Knowledge on plants, climates and cultural practices have also been recorded as exchanges between the old and the new world gradually expanded. Often a task undertook by men, the recording of vegetal, animal and human life indigenous to the Americas and the study of its interaction with western culture has also been the life of work of few women who travelled those colonised regions.

Putting into conversations the fields of anthropology, history, gender studies, and critical race theory, this course will look at the trajectory and legacy of such women. We will study how they find their way, as women, into cultural spaces and academic disciplines where they are not in numbers. We will also interrogate how their personal experience shapes both the topics they investigate and the way they write about it. This will lead us to reflect more broadly on how knowledge has been produced and exchanged overtime between Europe and the Americas and conversely to inquire whether alternative modes of collecting and researching culture can impact what we understand culture to be and how it is passed on.

Course objectives:

Upon successful completion of this course, students:

  • Acquire foundational knowledge regarding disciplines in the social sciences such as anthropology, gender studies and literature.

  • Understand how categories such as gender, race and class intersect and interact with the production of knowledge in the social sciences.

  • Acquire interdisciplinary methods of analysis to engage in social scientific debates across disciplines.

  • Practice fundamental written and oral skills pertaining to academic training (note taking, abstract writing, essay writing, conference presentation, Q&A).

  • Develop an in-depth point of view on the various issues debated during the course.

Programme and timetable:

Mondays 17.30-19.30

Session 1 - 1 February 2021: Producing Knowledge, Collecting Culture: an introduction
Session 2 - 8 February 2021: Travelling narratives of the New World
Session 3 - 15 February 2021: Ethnobotany and indigenous culture in Suriname
Session 4 - 22 February 2021: Collecting memories from the plantation
Session 5 - 1 March 2021: Guest lecturer (TBA)
Session 6 - 8 March 2021: Oral histories from the Civil Rights Movement
Session 7 - 15 March 2021: Voodoo practices in Haiti
Session 8 - 22 March 2021: Ethnographic experiments in perspective
Session 9 - 29 March 2021: Seminar conference


Online (except for the final seminar conference, location TBA)

Reading list:

To guarantee that all students have equal access to course material, texts will be available either through the library or on Brightspace. Most texts are short extracts from bigger pieces and the amount of reading for each session is capped at 60 pages a week. Should you experience difficulties accessing material, you should contact me. All readings will be uploaded on Brightspace in the weeks leading up to the course.

Tentative reading list (subject to change, final list will be announced via Brightspace):

Clifford Geertz “From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 28 (1), 1974
Cooper, Anna J. A Voice from the South. Dover Publications, 2016.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. McPherson, 1953.
Erna Brodber, Louisiana. University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Pantheon Books, 1972.
Hamlin, Francoise. Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II. 2014.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. Harper Perennial, 1935.
Merian, Maria Sibylla. Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. G. Waalk, 1705.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Decolonizing the Mind, Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, no. 1, 2015, pp. 159–65.

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 EC, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Lectures: 1 introductory lecture 3 hours, 1 guest lecture 3 hours;

  • Seminars: 6 seminars of 3 hours;

  • Conference: 1 student conference of 3 hours;

  • Literature reading & practical work: 8 hours p/week (7 weeks needing preparation) = 56 hours;

  • Assignments & final essay: weekly assignments + academic skills (17 hours) & final paper (40 hours).

Assessment methods:

(The assessment methods will be further explained during the first session of the class):

  • A note on digital teaching in time of COVID-19
    The class depends heavily on your regular attendance and fulfillment of assignments. As we are well aware of the exceptional conditions in which we are all working this semester, we ask you to check beforehand that you have appropriate access to internet and technology. If you are facing any issues please contact the teacher or the university helpdesk before the course starts.
    The course is participation heavy and peer-review oriented. Its success relies on everyone committing fully to complete all required readings and written exercises in time and to participate actively in class and group discussions.

  • A note on attendance
    Participation will be assessed continually according to your degree of active engagement in seminars and structured activities. Assignments for the course cannot be completed without such participation. It is your responsibility to catch up on missed assignments and lectures; your failure to do so will be reflected in assessment of assigned tasks.
    As teaching modalities might evolve throughout the course of the academic year due to sanitary restrictions, attendance policy will be reevaluated at the beginning of the course.

  • Weekly discussion posts (25%)
    Prior to the lecture/seminar, you will read the assigned reading material and post a comment of 150 words on Brightspace. Responses should be short analyses of the readings assigned in dialogue with the topic at hand for the session, as well as commentaries on other student’s posts. Writing one paragraph every week will help you understand the assigned readings better as well as help you with the writing workshop assignments.
    You will then choose 5 of the posts they submitted and compile them in the course portfolio to be handed in at the end of the course. Each post will be worth 5%.

  • Academic conference skills (45%)
    Through attending a guest talk and organizing a student conference for the seminar at the end of the course, you will practice skills needed in an academic context. Taking notes, summarizing the main ideas of a talk, write an abstract, review academic writing, prepare power points, know how to ask and answer questions in a conference are amongst the skills that will be assessed.

  • Attending an academic lecture (10%)
    One of our session will welcome a guest lecturer. You will be expected to take notes and prepare questions for the discussion. After the guest lecture, you will provide a summary of the lecture and its main discussion points including the questions they came up with. The summary will be included in the course portfolio at the end of the course.

  • Drafting a paper and reviewing peer work (10%)
    You will prepare a final paper that you will present in a conference setting. Prior to submitting the paper, you will draft an abstract for your paper as well as review one of your peer’s draft. You will include both your abstract and the peer-review in the portfolio at the end of the course.

  • Presenting and attending a conference (15%)
    You will present an oral version of your final paper in the last session of the course. The format will be that of an academic conference: you will not only present your work in a 15 minutes presentation, but will also be expected to engage actively in discussions with your peers as they present their own work. You will be evaluated on your ability to present a clear and relevant argument on a topic of your choice that relates to the theme of the course. You will also be evaluated on your ability to ask questions of academic relevance as well as provide thoughtful and informed answers to the questions of your peers.

  • Final paper (30%)
    You will turn your presentation into a 2000-word final paper. Using one or more sources from the course, you will build an argument and demonstrate the validity of it in a well-structured and intelligible essay. You can use primary and secondary sources of your own choosing, but course material must be featured. You will be expected to produce a short bibliography and reference sources according to the university style guide.

Students can only pass this course after successful completion of all the above.

Brightspace and uSis:

Brightspace will be used in this course. Students can register for the Brightspace module one week prior to the start of the course.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Bachelor Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Registration process:

UPDATE 29-10
Registration will be possible from Monday 9 November 2020 up to and including Thursday 19 November 2020. The registration link will be posted on the student website of the Honours Academy.

Elsa Charlety