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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, philosophy.
Skills: Research, academic writing, critical reflection, conference presentation, creative writing or expression.

Admission requirements:

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an elective course within the Honours College programme. Third year students who don’t participate in the Honours College, have the opportunity to apply for a Bachelor Honours Class. Students will be selected based on i.a. their motivation and average grade.

No prior knowledge of the fields of anthropology and critical theory are required but an open-mind and interest in critical thought is strongly recommended.


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. This ultimately can guide us to new modes and practices of decolonizing the knowledges we produce within and without Academic spheres.

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:

The sessions of this class will take place on the following Mondays from 17.30 - 19.30:

Session 1: February 7 (Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Producing Knowledge, Collecting Culture: an introduction.

Session 2: February 14 (Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Travelling narratives of the New World.

Session 3: February 21 (Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Ethnobotany and indigenous culture in Suriname.

Session 4: February 28 (Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Collecting memories from the plantation.

Session 5: March 7 (Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Decentering the gaze : cross continental reflections on knowledge production. (+ guest lecturer)

Session 6: March 14 (Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Oral histories from the Civil Rights Movement. ( + Guest lecturer)

Session 7: March 21 (Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Voodoo practices in Haiti.

Session 8: March 28 (Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Ethnographic experiments in perspective.

Session 9: April 4 Pieter de la Court building room 1A22)
Seminar conference.

Pieter de la Court building room 1A22

Reading list:

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.

Other possible literature will be announced in class or via Brightspace.

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 ECTS, which means the total course load equals 140 hours:

  • Lectures: 6 lecture 1 hour, 2 guest lectures

  • Seminars: 6 seminars of 1 hours (seminar and lecture are combined in an open format type)

  • Conference: 1 student conference of 2 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:

6 discussion posts:
Prior to the lecture/seminar, you will read the assigned reading material and post a comment of 100 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 include your 2 “best” discussion posts in a final portfolio.

1 guest lecture summary:
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.

1 oral presentation:
You will be divided in interdisciplinary groups at the beginning of the course. Each group will be in charge of presenting the readings for a week that they will sign up for. In turn, each member of the groups will provide insight and identify key ideas form the texts and will then organize a discussion with the members of the other groups.

1 final project:
You will turn your presentation into a 2000-word final paper or a creative project accompanied by a 500 words minimum explenation of how your project relates tot he main courses ideas. 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.

1 portfolio:
You will submit all your written assignments in one final portfolio at the end of the course. ( Weekly presentations will be evaluated independently)

Grading will not be done with numerical numbers but with a holistic rubric that assesses the degree to which students have fulfilled the assignment (insufficient, satisfying, good, excellent, outstanding). All assignments must be assessed as satisfying or more to obtain the 5 EC. Students who fail to do so will be able to resubmit the assignment in question in order to reach the threshold needed.

Brightspace and uSis:

Brightspace will be used in this course. Upon admission students will be enrolled in Brightspace by the teaching administration.

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

Registration process:

Submitting an application for this course is possible from Monday 1 November 2021 up to and including Thursday 11 November 2021 23:59 through the link on the Honours Academy student website.

Note: students don’t have to register for the Bachelor Honours Classes in uSis. The registration is done centrally before the start of the class.

Elsa Charlety: