Unsettling Things: Expanding Conversations in Studies of the Material World


Academic thinking has always been in active dialogue with changing social, cultural, and political contexts. Many current modes of scholarly thought, which are employed broadly across disciplines, emerged during the civil rights, social justice, and decolonization movements of the past half century. This course mobilizes recent and current efforts to expand academic perspectives as relevant to studies in decorative arts, design history, and material culture—three interdisciplinary fields that have long aimed to make the canon of traditional art history more inclusive. We will examine three important, and often interrelated, modes of fostering diversity in our fields: expanding topical contents and subjects for research; foregrounding previously marginalized voices and scholars; and engaging with existing or developing new approaches, theories, and methods that are widely applicable in the humanities. The first half of the course introduces students to broad foundational currents in social sciences and the humanities (such as post-Marxism, post-structuralism, and post-colonialism) and critical fields that both contributed to and emerged from them (including critical race theory; African American studies; Indigenous and settler colonial studies; feminism, gender studies, and intersectionality; queer theory; and disability theory). The second half features topical and thematic units that bring these academic perspectives to bear on both past and current cultural and material productions (topics may include monuments and the politics of memory; race, cultural property, and appropriation; global and alternative modernities/futurities; efforts to decenter whiteness and to decolonize academia, archives, and museums; oral history and empowering diverse voices; political ecology and environmental justice). Weekly seminars will feature BGC faculty and fellows as well as outside guests, and will be structured around short presentations, dialogues, and conversations rather than lectures. Students will bring topics to the table and contribute to conversations. Assignments will include in-class presentations, literature reviews, and a project that applies the critical tools and perspectives to students’ own research interests. Digital projects are welcome and can satisfy the digital literacy requirement. 3 Credits.