Rethinking Revolutions

Welcome to Rethinking Revolutions, a website featuring essays written by students from the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. These 15 students were enrolled in a course titled “Revolution” that I proposed for the Kaplan Institute’s Global Humanities Lab. The Global Humanities Lab provides funding for a travel component attached to humanities classes, and our course began with a week in Mexico City in September, where we visited sites associated with the Mexican Revolution and Mexican history.

Our course set out to explore the following questions: How have revolutions shaped the modern world? How have artists, writers, historians, and musicians participated in, memorialized, and critiqued revolutionary movements? We took a comparative approach, beginning with the Mexican, Russian, and Cuban revolutions of the early twentieth century, then moving back in time to the American, Haitian, and French revolutions. Drawing from a variety of humanities disciplines, we sought to understand better how revolutionary movements begin, the contingencies of revolutionary action, and what happens when revolutions become institutionalized into state apparatuses.

I asked the students for their final assignment to write an essay about how a particular cultural text either changed their perception of a revolution or else should change other people’s perceptions of that revolution. The topics they chose reflect their developing interests as the quarter progressed. One surprise for me was how many students chose to write on topics related to the Cuban Revolution. This was probably a result of timing as much as anything else–I asked for an essay proposal during the week we read Nicolás Guillén and screened Che–but it also reflects the students’ sense that their previous education had not presented them anything like a thorough or complex understanding of Cuba. I think the students felt similarly about the Haitian Revolution, and if we hadn’t ended the quarter with that part of our syllabus, more students might have chosen it for a topic.

The students come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, and the essays demonstrate diverse interests and approaches. We hope you enjoy perusing our collective work, and invite you to comment on anything that catches your attention.