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February 18, 2002

Seminar explores meanings, legacies of genocide

By Eric Rangus


The subject matter, while horrifying on the surface, is so widely applicable that it is cross-listed under five—five—courses. That’s the most Emory College has seen for as long as anyone can remember. The title?

“Genocide and Its Meanings: Rwanda and Nazi Germany.”

The courses?

MES 375/ANT 385S/ANT 585/AFS 385S/JS 730: That’s Middle Eastern studies, anthropology (twice), African studies and Jewish studies.

Thirteen undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled. Mix in 12 faculty members—including the two professors who teach it, anthropology’s Donald Donham and Middle Eastern studies’ Shalom Goldman—as part of the Sawyer Seminar, and the course becomes an eclectic mix unlike any other on campus this semester.

“Genocide and Its Meanings” is the second in a three-seminar series of Sawyer Seminars, funded through a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and led by the Institute of African Studies, which helped secure the grant with assistance from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and then-Dean Bobby Paul. Some grant money also funds summer research by seminar participants.

The first seminar compared everyday violence and criminality in post-apartheid South Africa and post-communist Russia, and the third seminar will explore religiously based conflicts in present-day Nigeria and India.

“We wanted to do African cases of conflict, but then we also wanted to compare them to non-African cases,” said Donham, professor of anthropology and director of African studies. “We thought the comparison was important because Africa has kind of fallen off the map.”

“The idea was to pick a structurally similar conflict from outside of Africa to put in dialogue within Africa,” he continued.

“Genocide and Its Meanings” grew out of a course Goldman taught on literature and the Holocaust. “I was eager to have a comparative way of talking about this because, as Don and I have discussed, there is a kind of isolationist or uniqueness paradigm in speaking about the Nazi murders,” said Goldman, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies. “I wanted to try and disturb that a bit and look at [Rwanda and the Nazis] together.

One of the seminar’s highlights is its guest speakers. For the first session, Jan. 24, Catherine Newberry, a political science professor at Smith College, presented an overview of approaches to study the Rwandan genocide (Goldman followed with a similar discussion on studying the Nazi Holocaust).

Future speakers include Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Studies; Charles Ntampaka, a Rwandan lawyer; and David Newberry—Catherine’s husband—a history professor at Smith College.

Class time is pretty straightforward. At one recent meeting the class discussed the book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda, by Philip Gourevich, a staff writer at The New Yorker. Graduate student Alicia Decker gave her account of the book, then was followed by Heike Schmidt, a Sawyer postdoctoral fellow in African studies, then Bruce Knauft, Samuel Dobbs Professor of Anthropology. Decker, Schmidt and Knauft were given a week to prepare their 10–15 minute presentations.

Each review not only dissected the book in stylistic, historic and academic terms, but the reviewers also placed it in the big picture of African studies in general and Rwanda specifically. Most of the discussion was positive. Schmidt even went so far as to call Gourevich’s book, “the best book I’ve ever read on Africa.”

After the reviews, seminar members discussed the subject for nearly an hour. Graduate students and faculty members (who come from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, English and art history) made most of the early comments, but the undergraduates began chiming in the latter half of the class period.

This particular seminar meeting, both Donham and Goldman noted, was a little atypical in that there wasn’t a guest speaker and much of the conversation was geared toward Rwanda only. There was some comparison to Nazi Germany (how the genocide was state sponsored, how the rest of the world largely ignored the situation, whether there was a “Hitler” in Rwanda), but not as much as in other sessions. Tuesday classes, which do not involve faculty members, are often quite comparative.

The fact that the upper-level undergraduates were able to make points is something that pleased Goldman. The seminars are geared toward graduate students and faculty members, and the undergraduates’ inclusion is an innovative step. They can sometimes be a little intimidated, Goldman said, and he hopes and expects their participation will grow.

Including the Gourevich book, class members are required to read seven books—four of them focused on the Holocaust in Europe and three on Rwanda. Each case presented a different set of challenges: On the European side, it was selecting a handful of works from the scores that have been written on the subject. On the African side, it was finding worthy books on a subject that has not been widely chronicled.

Grading is based on written responses to the readings, class participation and a 20–25-page research paper that must be turned in stage by stage.

“To be able to do something like this—something experimental and out of the ordinary—depends on all of our guests coming in and so forth,” Donham said. “We could have only done this with a grant, as well as the cooperation of our departments.”