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Spring 2017: Tuesdays/Thursdays 11:30-1pm

Professor Maya Jasanoff E-mail: <> Office Hours: Tuesdays, 2-4pm Location: CES, Room 403, 27 Kirkland Street


Head TF: Andrew Bellisari E-mail: <>

Everyone comes from somewhere. We carry our ancestries in our DNA, genealogy, family stories, and more. What do these forms of evidence tell us about who we are, as a species, as a social group, or as individuals? In this course we will look at ancestry from a range of perspectives: biology, anthropology, genealogy, history, law, and memory—from the origins of human populations to the origins of you.

A central argument of this course is that studying ancestry is studying identity. Stories about where I come from usually rest on some implicit understanding of you; every us suggests a them. Whether or not you are coming into this course with a prior interest in genealogy or family history, we hope you will leave this course with a keener sense of how claims about identity invoke claims about ancestry and inheritance. You should gain a sharper sense of how ancestry inflects relationships between individuals and collectives—of how each of us does and doesn’t fit into lineages, patterns, and traditions.

The other central argument of the course is that studying ancestry is studying evidence. Throughout the semester we will be dealing with different kinds of data—biological, anthropological, genealogical, archival, oral—used to establish claims to various lineages. What questions do and don’t these data answer, and what stories do they tell? What happens when the information you get from one data set (like a genetic test) contradicts the information you have from another (like an archival record)? Under what circumstances would you privilege one source over another, and what are the implications of such a choice? You should leave this course better primed to uncover implicit assumptions in qualitative and quantitative data alike: to recognize omissions and limits, to identify subjectivities, and thus be better able to assess a claim’s value and scope.

There is absolutely no way we can cover all the world’s ancestry-related practices in a single semester! As a result, course materials concentrate disproportionately on aspects of ancestry in the modern United States, not least so as better to illuminate the place and stakes of ancestry in the society we’re all currently living in. Course lectures will draw on an array of examples from around the world with the aim of illuminating broader themes, structures, and problems related to ancestry and identity. We encourage you to use your weekly journal entries and other assignments to explore the implications of ancestry in whatever times and places you like!



This class is a collaboration. We will be working together throughout the semester to try to arrive at a richer, sharper sense of the meaning of ancestry in human societies, and its implications for identity. These are big issues, so the more minds applied to them, the better! Because this is also a brand-new class, we actively welcome your suggestions for how to develop it: suggestions on issues that deserve further exploration, ways to make the course more inclusive, feedback on activities and materials that don’t

Our Tuesday/Thursday meetings will feature lectures mixed with discussion and hands- on activities. You should plan to do the assigned reading by Thursday’s lecture at the latest, and come prepared to participate. Lecture sessions will not generally extend beyond 12:45 though on some occasions we will use the full allotted time. The week’s readings—and, where relevant, assignments—will be discussed in section in greater depth. Attendance and participation is part of your course grade, and TFs will be keeping track.

Finally, while this course will introduce you to a number of academic perspectives on ancestry, we expect that aspects of the course may resonate with you personally, and we will give you the chance to examine the source(s) of your own identity. While we will never intentionally put you “on the spot” and ask you to speak about your personal or familial history in a way that intrudes upon your privacy or requires you to disclose information that you would prefer not to share, it is important that we be able to talk in searching ways about how things like origin stories, family histories, and genomes influence the way we see ourselves and each other. You may discover that you and your peers carry with you certain unexamined assumptions about what it means to be from a certain heritage, or that attitudes or policies which always seemed “natural” to you seem very arbitrary or even distasteful to others. This is the stuff of education, and we should not be afraid of it—but we must also be sensitive to the fact that many of the topics we are discussing have the potential to cause discomfort or embarrassment. When we question each other or enter into debate, we must do so in a spirit of generous curiosity, motivated not by a desire to “win” or to be proven “right,” but rather to understand why others may hold a different view of the same issue.

Although we do not ban the use of laptops in class—and in some class sessions we will indeed encourage you to use your computers—we reserve the right to ask you to put your devices away at any time. Activities unrelated to the course (e-mail, texting, etc.) will not be tolerated during any class meetings


The grade break-down for this course is as follows:

Attendance and Participation (Section and Lecture)


Weekly Journal (10 entries)




Telling Stories


Writing Stories



Shaping Policy


Final Project


All assignments are due at the beginning of lecture on the day due. Late assignments will be docked 2/3s of a letter grade for the first day they are late, 1/3 of a grade for every subsequent day, and are not accepted at all after one week. You may request one 48-hour extension, which will be granted only at the discretion of the instructors; no extensions are permitted on the Final Project. Penalties for late papers will be waived only with appropriate documentation from your Resident Dean or UHS.


There are no exams in this course. Readings average 75-100 pages per week. The assignments in this course have been designed to give you room to explore the meaning, representaiton, and use of ancestry in a range of media, as well as in times and places of your choosing. A brief description is below, and detailed prompts and instructions (as well as grading criteria) will be posted to the course website in advance of each due-date.

Weekly Journal: Ancestry is everywhere. The goal of this assignment is to keep track of how. Your entries can be reactions to the course material, observations about news items where ancestry plays a role, conversations you have with family members or friends about the themes of inheritance, ancestry and identity. You can keep the journal in whatever format or medium you want (we suggest a notebook or a running word document)—but you should upload ten weekly journal entries to Canvas over the course of the semester (cut and paste or scan of hard copy page). Your TF will grade your weekly entries with a check/check plus/check minus, and will give you an interim graded assessment of your journal before spring break.

Trees (February 23): The family “tree” has become a standard mode of visualizing ancestry in the United States today. Yet, as we will discuss in class, a tree may not be the most effective way of representing certain kinds of relationships. The goal of this assignment is to think about this assignment you get to create your own visualization of a lineage. It can be of you or any other individual (historical or otherwise); it can even be of an object. Your visualization can be digital or analog, in any medium, but it should be visual. Please accompany your “tree” with a 1-2 page statement (300-500 words) about what your image represents and why you’ve designed it the way you have.

Telling Stories (March 2, 23): Story-telling is one major way that ancestry gets transmitted through generations. This two-part assignment asks you, first, to make a 2-minute audio recording of any family story (from your own family or, if you prefer, that of any other Harvard College student or TF who is willing to be interviewed), to be shared with your section. Then listen to a podcast of your section’s contributions. Write a 2-3 page (500-800 words) “review” of the podcast, identifying narrative themes, discontinuities, or any other features of the stories that strike you.

Writing Stories (April 6): How well does somebody’s memory of an event stack up against other records of it? How can you find out about somebody in the past who you can’t talk to, or


who didn’t leave any written records behind? Pick an individual on your family tree (or that of any other Harvard College student or TF) and write a 4-5 page paper (1000 words) paper that uses primary and/or secondary written sources to contextualize that person’s experience. How might that person’s trajectory or story compare with others in the same time and place? You are welcome to use this assignment to contextualize the family story you recorded for your podcast.

Shaping Policy (April 25): Imagine that a proposal was put before the Dean of Harvard College Admissions to replace existing categories of demographic self-identification on the Harvard application form with data from DNA ancestry tests, as a basis for assessing diversity in admissions. How would you advise the Dean to proceed? Write a 4-5 page paper (1000 words) presenting your case.

Final Project (May 10): For your capstone project for this course, we invite you to prepare a self-portrait, or a portfolio organized around any lineage you like. Further details will be presented in class March 9. You should submit a prospectus of your project (including the medium in which you plan to deliver it) to your TF in the final week of class.


Week 1: Human Origins

January 24: Introduction: Where do we come from and why do we care? January 26: What Are “We”? Please fill out the intake survey this weekend!

Week 2: Origin Stories

January 31: Creation Stories February 2: Ancestor Worship Please fill out the map! And start your weekly journal.


David Leeming, “The Creation Myth Types” in Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia


Creation Stories From Around the World: Encapsulations of some traditional stories explaining the origin of the earth, its life, and its peoples (2000).

Week 3: Kinship

February 7: How Are Families Organized? February 9: Why Are Families Organized?


Robert Parkin with Linda Stone, “General Introduction” in Robert Parkin and Linda Stone, eds., Kinship and Family: An Anthropological Reader (2004).


David Schneider, “The Fundamental Assumption in the Study of Kinship,” in David Schneider, A Critique of the Study of Kinship (1984). *Robert A. Wilson, “Kinship Past, Kinship Present: Bio-Essentialism in the Study of Kinship,” American Anthropologist, vol. 118, no. 3 (September 2016).

Week 4: Genealogy (1)

February 14: What’s In a Tree? February 16: Why Would You Want a Tree?


François Weil, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in Early America (2013), Chapters 1-2. *Maud Newton, “America’s Ancestry Craze: Making Sense of Our Family-Tree Obsession”:

*Taryn Simon, “The Stories Behind the Bloodlines” (2011): Look at the database of visualizations.

Week 5: Genealogy (2)

February 21: What Does It Take to Grow a Tree? February 23: What Use is a Tree? Trees Assignment Due


Valentin Groebner, “Describing the Person, Reading the Signs in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe,” in Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds., Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (2001). *Kathrin Levitan, A Cultural History of the British Census: Envisioning the Multitude in the Nineteenth Century (2011), Chapter 1. *Bernard Cohn, “The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia,” in An Anthropologist Among the Historians, and Other Essays (1987).

Week 6: Genealogy (3)

February 28: Genealogy 101: Using March 2: Genealogy 202: Assessing Telling Stories Assignment Part 1 (Record Your Story) Due


Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (2014), Introduction, Chapters 2-3.

Week 7: Ways of Telling Stories

March 7: Genealogy 000: When Doesn’t Have the Answers


March 9: Envisioning Ancestry


Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (excerpts).

Week 8: Nation and Race (1)


March 21: Ancestry and Citizenship: Who Counts? March 23: Ancestry Distorted Telling Stories Assignment Part 2 (Review the Podcast) Due


*Adam McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders (2008), Chapter 4. Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (1995), Chapters 4, 7-8. *Eric Ehrenreich, The Nazi Ancestral Proof: Genealogy, Racial Science, and the Final Solution (2007), Introduction, Chapters 4 and 5.

Week 9: Nation and Race (2)

March 28: Litigating Descent March 30: Second-Class Citizens


Ian Haney-López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (1996), Chapters 2-5. *Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004), Chapter 1. Ariela Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (2008), Introduction and Chapter 5.

Assignment: Pick a figure/moment on your (or somebody’s) family tree and write a paper using other primary sources to find out more about that individual.

Week 10: Remembering and Forgetting

April 4: The Invention of Inheritance April 6: Skeletons in the Tree Writing Stories Assignment Due


Edmund de Waal, The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2011).

Week 11: What does DNA do for us?


April 11: The Genomic Revolution April 13: What Does DNA Say?


*Joseph K. Pickrell and David Reich. “Toward a New History and Geography of Human Genes Informed by Ancient DNA.” Trends in Genetics 30, no. 9 (2014): 377–389. *Troy Duster, “Ancestry Testing and DNA: Uses, Limits, and Caveat Emptor,” in Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan, eds., Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, Culture *Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, “Introduction: Genetic Claims and the Unsettled Past”; and Ramya Rajagopalan and Joan Fujimura, “Making History via DNA, Making DNA from History: Deconstructing the Race-Disease Connection in Admixture Mapping,” in Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds., Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History (2012).

Week 12: Rethinking Ethnicity

April 18: Post-Genetic Ancestry April 20: Post-Genetic Controversies Please give your TF a brief prospectus of your final project.


*Kim TallBear, “Genomic Articulations of Indigeneity,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 43, Issue 4 (2013). *Ian V. McGonigle and Lauren W. Herman, “Genetic Citizenship: DNA testing and the Israeli Law of Return,” Journal of the Law and Biosciences Volume 2, Issue 2 (July 2015). Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), Preface and Chapter 19. *Harvard University, Brief for Amicus Curiae in Support of Respondents, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2015).

Week 13: Identity Today

April 25: Where Are We Going? Shaping Policy Assignment Due

Final Project Due Wednesday, May 10