Freshman Seminars


Discovering Cultures and the Sea: Navigation, Exploration, Conquest, and Trade

Professor: Theodore C. Bestor
Course Information: Freshman Seminar 71E • 4 credits (fall term) • Enrollment:  Limited to 12
Time: Wednesdays,1-3PM
Location: Peabody Museum 560

Please go here to register.

Oceans divide distant places but throughout history societies have looked across the sea for ways to make faraway connections. This seminar will examine many ways that cultures around the world have been shaped by maritime matters. Navigation, Vikings and Basques in North America, the spice trade, Spanish galleons, slavery, New England’s trade with Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, Maine lobstermen, naval warfare, and overfishing are all part of the story. Two short essays and a term project (approximately 12 pages).

Note: There will be required trips to the USS Constitution, the Peabody Museum, and Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.


Clash of Titans, Seats of Empire: The Aztecs, Toltecs, and Race of Giants in Ancient Mexico

Professor: William L. Fash
Course Information: Freshman Seminar 44J • 4 credits (fall term) • Enrollment:  Limited to 15
Time: Wednesdays, 1-3PM
Location: Peabody Museum 56
Please go here to register.
The film "Clash of Titans" was a British extravaganza dedicated to exploring the ancient Greeks' concepts of the interactions between humans and their gods. In Ancient Mexico, the tale of Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, Toltec Prince of Tula, is the best-known example of the intervention of rival gods, in the affairs of kingdoms and empires, and serves as the point of departure for our seminar. Just as the Greeks countenanced sacrifices and political assassinations, in Ancient Mexico the three great empires practiced human sacrifice, regicide, and engaged heavily in warfare which was vital in their statecraft and economy. We will explore how these central components were explained and justified in their mythology, why reciprocity with the gods was so vital, and how and why each empire came to a violent end. We begin with the first-person description of the Aztec Empire and its violent conquest, penned by a foot solider in Hernán Cortés's army, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. In the following weeks we will explore the environmental basis, religious dimensions, and social and political development of civilization, cities, at the three seats of empire in ancient Mexico. We will make extensive use of Peabody Museum collections, archaeological studies, historical accounts, and recent films and other media to critically examine ancient practices and current perceptions of the Aztec empire (1428-1519 CE); its predecessor the legendary Toltec empire of Tula (850-1100 CE); and the foundational Teotihuacan empire (100-550 CE), known as “The City of the Gods” to people throughout the region. The Aztecs and Toltecs went to Teotihuacan on pilgrimage every 20 days, because the scale of that ancient city was so massive, the architecture so impressive, and the religious art and historical lore so compelling, that the Aztecs had a legend that it was built in an earlier creation, by a race of giants. Seminar participants will explore how the biases of the observer play a role in describing and explaining “the Other.” Students will analyze the ways in which religion and the quest for power fueled the genesis, expansion and demise of all three empires. First-years in this seminar will also explore the ways in which the living descendants of the Aztecs are reviving their traditional culture and how the Pre-Columbian civilizations are integral to the national identity of Mexico and Chicanos in this country, vs. the way they are portrayed in Hollywood and U.S. popular culture, through films and other media in the U.S. and Mexico.
Note: No background or previous experience, on or in Mexico is required, only an open mind.

Finding Your Inner Neanderthal

Professor: Christian A. Tryon
Course Information: Freshman Seminar 70N • 4 credits (fall term) • Enrollment:  Limited to 12
Time: Thursdays, 2-4PM
Location: Peabody Museum 561
Please go here to register.
Much of our history is written in our genes, and analyses of ancient and modern DNA have revealed that many living humans retain a genetic signature from our extinct evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals.  In this course, we will work together to help you find your inner Neanderthal. Our understanding of the past begins as you learn to make your own stone tools, a unique window to interpret the Paleolithic record. This experience guides your examination and analysis of real artifacts made and used by Neanderthals >50,000 years ago, drawn from the extensive collections of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. The ability to create and interpret the archaeological record provides unparalleled insight to explore what the Neanderthals did and thought, and how they lived, loved, and died in Ice Age Eurasia.  In addition to artifact manufacture, analysis, and weekly readings, there will be a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to examine how Neanderthals and other early humans are represented in public displays of the past, and the course will culminate in the student design of a museum exhibit to be displayed on the Harvard campus. This freshman seminar will draw on perspectives from archaeology, paleontology, the history of science, and museum studies to study the Paleolithic, will provide the ability to think critically about how we interpret the past, and will explore how a study of our extinct relatives reveals the biases inherent in our perceptions of the world around us.

Sex, Money, and Power in the Postcolonial World

Professor: George P. Meiu
Course Information: ­­Freshman Seminar 70S • 4 credits (spring term) • Enrollment:  Limited to 12
Time: TBD
Location: TBD
Please go here to register.
With globalization, sex—everywhere—has become more central to who we are as citizens and consumers, how we gain rights and resources, and how we relate to others, as members of a specific race, ethnicity, region, or culture. Worldwide, states invest or disinvest in people according to how they have sex, adopt gender identities, or sustain sexual morality. Terrorist organizations claim to use violence to reestablish bastions of piety and sexual propriety; various populist movements imagine immigrants and refugees to threaten their societies, in part, by failing to uphold the sexual norms of adopting countries; and transnational NGOs and activists seek to rescue and rehabilitate sex workers, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and other people who are vulnerable because of their sexualities. The growing importance of sex to a global consumer culture only heightens the rush to secure societies from the so-called “perversions of globalization.” Tourists now travel for sex to various destinations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean; poor, unemployed men and women, in former colonies, sometimes use sex as a means of enrichment and empowerment; and amidst the rise of religious fundamentalisms, commodity ads incite youths to consume sex along other goods to build authentic selves. In this seminar, we ask: Why does sexuality become so central to how we imagine our world and futures? Why is sex so important in defining us, as subjects and populations? And how do older colonial stereotypes of race, ethnicity, and culture shape sexuality politics in the new global order? To address these questions, we read about how sex relates to politics and the economy in countries such as Brazil, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, and New Guinea; watch documentaries about prostitution and sex tourism in Africa and the Caribbean; and jointly curate a small museum exhibit about sexuality in the postcolonial world.