Skip to main content

Vanderbilt History Seminar

The Vanderbilt History Seminar was established in 2008 to serve as center for historical inquiry at Vanderbilt University. Each year VHS sponsors six to eight seminars on a common and capacious theme on which new and important historical work is being done. Political violence, the historical life of things, boundaries, rich and poor, heterodoxies, sovereignties, performance, the politics of religion, senses and emotions, and water, are the themes that the VHS has sponsored since its founding.

Each seminar is organized around an unpublished paper submitted in advance by an invited scholar. After brief introductory remarks first by the invited scholar and then by a lead commentator, the seminar devotes itself to rigorous and wide-ranging examination of the submitted work. The seminar typically brings together 35–55 faculty and graduate students and joins specialists with generalists in a common and often spirited conversation. Seminar participants are encouraged to stretch their intellectual horizons beyond their specialties. A typical year of seminars will feature papers focusing on as many as seven different centuries and countries scattered around five of the world’s continents. Across a year of these discussions, regular seminar participants have an opportunity to learn a great deal about a historical theme and also to refine their thinking about key historical topics and processes. Seminar presenters, who are drawn from all over the United States and also from abroad, and from the ranks of senior and junior scholars, often remark on both the breadth and depth of the questions and critiques sent their way. That they are receiving this commentary on work that is still in development makes the feedback especially valuable to them.

For the reasons noted above, the Vanderbilt History Seminar is an exceptionally vital center of intellectual exchange. Housed in the Department of History, VHS welcomes the participation of historically minded scholars from every part of the university and beyond. Graduate students are particularly encouraged to participate in these seminars.

To receive regular notices about VHS events, please email to be added to the mailing list.

2023 – 2024 Schedule

Faculty Directors: Celia Applegate & Nicole Hemmer

Mondays at 3:10pm

Schedule of Speakers

Past Themes and Speakers

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2022-23 Participants

Ruth Rogaski, Knowing Manchuria: Environments, the Senses, and Natural Knowledge on an Asian Borderland

October 10


Moses Ochuno, Emirs in London: Subaltern Travel and Nigeria’s Modernity

November 7


Michael Bess, Planet in Peril: Humanity’s Four Greatest Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them 

December 5


Priya Satia (Stanford University)

March 27


Ned Blackhawk (Yale University)

April 10


Byrn Lecture, Samuel Moyn (Yale University), Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War

April 17

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2019-20 Participants

Carina Johnson, Pitzer College
"Europa Virgo, Christian India, and the Early Modern Family Romance"
September 16

Ari Kelman, UC-Davis
“From Manassas to Mankato: How the Civil War Bled into the Indian Wars"
October 28 

Daniel Beer, Royal Holloway College, University of London
“Civil Death, Radical Protest and the Theatre of Punishment in the Reign of Alexander II”
December 2 

Elizabeth Thornberry, Johns Hopkins University
“Imagining African Law: Black Intellectuals and the Politics of Custom in Segregationist South Africa” 
January 27 

Rohit De, Yale
"Mobile Indian Lawyers and Local Histories of Minority Rights"
February 17

Patrick Geary, IAS/Princeton
“The New Genetic History and the End of the Roman Empire”
March 30

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2018-19 Participants

Nicholas Guyatt, Cambridge University
"Dartmoor Prison and the Pre-history of Carceral Segregation, 1813-1815"
September 3

Ari Joskowicz, Vanderbilt University
"Surveillance, Witnessing, and the Craft of History: Romani Holocaust Testimony and the Perils of Digital Scholarship"
October 8

Russell Rickford, Cornell University
Beth Bailey, University of Kansas
Panel discussion on Freedom in the United States since the 1960s
November 5

Anne Eller, Yale University
"It's Going to Rain Blood: Spiritual Power, Gendered Violence, and Anti-Colonial Lives in the Ninetenth Century Dominican Borderlands"
December 3

Indrani Chatterjee, University of Texas Austin
"Abolition as Primitive Accumulation"
January 14

Alison Frank Johnson, Harvard University
"The Emperor, The Minister, and the Executioner: Capital Punishment in the (Late) Habsburg Monarchy”
February 18

Monica Kim, New York University
"A More Perfect Hunger: The Korean Peasant and US Military Intelligence, from Rice to Uranium"
March 25

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2017-18 Participants

Joshua Reid, University of Washington
Book Discussion: The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs
September 25

Peter Lake, Vanderbilt University
Crying Like A Protestant: Dublin Jail, 1640
October 16

Paolo Squatriti, University of Michigan
The Restless Resource: Medieval Europeans and Water
November 6

Benjamin Cohen, University of Utah
Ruth Mostern, University of Pittsburgh
Methods and Challenges: Asian Hydro-Histories in the Long Durée
December 4

Gregory Cushman, University of Kansas
Book Discussion: Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History

January 23
Michael Christopher Low, Iowa State
Drinking the Sea: Desalinated Dreams, Fossil-Fueled and Filtered from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf
February 19

Sarah Hamilton, Auburn
Spanish Wetlands in the Anthropocene
March 26

Andrew Needham, NYU
Jason Scott Smith, University of New Mexico
Methods and Challenges: Water and US Infrastructure
April 16

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2016–2017 participants:

William Reddy, Duke University
Barbara Rosenwein, Loyola University of Chicago
Daniel Smail, Harvard University
Senses and Emotions Roundtable
September 19

Alistair Sponsel, Vanderbilt University
Hearing, Fearing, and Exploiting the Unfamiliar Sounds of the 1940s
October 10
Kristina Kleutghen, Washington University
The Terms of Vision in Late Imperial China
October 31
Emily Thompson, Princeton University
The Boys Upstairs: Sound Projection in the American Film Industry, 1926-1933
November 14
Jacob Baum, Texas Tech University
The God of Paste: Ritual Conflict and the Sense of Touch in the Second German Reformation, ca. 1577-1617
December 5
Beth Conklin, Vanderbilt University
Rethinking Cannibalism: The Interplay of Sensation and Emotion in an Amazonian Ritual
January 23
Margrit Pernau, Max Planck Institute, Berlin
Emotions and Colonial Modernity: Indian Muslims 1857-1914
February 13
Carol Lansing, University of California Santa Barbara
Male Humiliation and the Exercise of Power in Medieval Italy
February 27
Thomas Dodman, Boston College
When Emile Went To War: Becoming A Citizen-Soldier
March 20
Mark Smith, University of South Carolina
In Praise of Discord: Injecting Noise into Sound History
April 10

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2015–2016 participants:

Michael Laffan, Princeton University
From Javanese Court to African Grave: How Noriman of Cirebon became Tuan Skaapie of Merantau, 1717-1810
September 14, 2015

Katherine Moran, St. Louis University
The Imperial Church: Visions of Catholicism in the New American Empire
September 28, 2015

Myles Osborne, University of Colorado, Boulder
"Mau Mau are Angels...Sent by Haile Selassie": Reading a Kenyan War in the 1950s Caribbean
October 26, 2015

John Ondrovcik, University of Mississippi
On the Trail of the "Invisible One": Max Hoelz & the Power of Invisibility in Revolutionary Germany
November 9, 2015

David Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley
Christianity and Its American Fate: Where HIstory Interrogates Secularization Theory
November 30, 2015

David J. Wasserstein, Vanderbilt Univeristy
Is the Islamic State an Islamic State?
January 25, 2016

Laura Stark, Vanderbilt University
Logics of Service: How Anabaptists Became "Human Subjects" of Medical Experiments During America's War in Korea
February 8, 2016

Margaret Chowning, University of California, Berkeley
Catholic Ladies and Culture Wars: Gender, Politics, and the Church in Nineteenth-Century Mexico
March 14, 2016

Vinayak Chaturvedi, University of California, Irvine
Geography, Blood, and the Making of Hindu Hegemony
March 28, 2016

Cecile Fromont, University of Chicago
Envisioning Cross-Cultural Knowledge: Capuchin Images of Early Modern Kongo and Angola
April 11, 2016

The theme this year is performance. We have chosen it because it enables us to speak to a number of themes and periods, through notions of ritual performance, in both politics and religion, the performance of various gender and social roles, politics as forms of spectacle and performance, not to mention performance more conventionally defined in terms of the theatre, preaching, and music. our intention is to address as wide a range of historical analytics- political, religious,social, cultural- and periods as possible while retaining a common core of concerns, questions, and interpretative approaches so as to ensure a vibrant conversation throughout the year.  

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2014–2015 participants:
Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
"We'll Show You Boys How to Dance": Intertribal Space, Dance, and Kiowa Art, 1920-1940
September 22, 2014

Bridget Orr, Vanderbilt University
"To Assist the Muses' Great Design": Freemasonry and Georgian Theatre, 1720-1750
October 6, 2014

Jordan Sand, Georgetown University
Tokyo as an Imperial Capital: Tourist Sights and Encounters in the Era of the Japanese Colonial Empire
October 20, 2014

E. Gabrielle Kuenzli, University of South Carolina
Lowland Mestizaje, Highland Indigeneity: Performance, Regionalism, and Constructions of Indian Identity in Bolivia
November 3, 2014

Darren Dochuk, Washington University in St. Louis
Wildcat Redemption: The Sacred Politics of Crude in Early Cold War America
December 1, 2014

A. Azfar Moin, University of Texas at Austin
Sovereign Violence: Temple Desecration in India and Shrine Destruction in Iran and Central Asia
January 26, 2015

Thavolia Glymph, Duke University
Freedom, Gender, and the Politics of Performance in the "Theatre" of War: 1863-1865 and Beyond
February 9, 2015

Ann Hughes, Keele University
"Blest Be They Preachers Who Do Chear Thee On" : Preaching and Hearing as Performance in the English Revolution
February 23, 2015

Rudolph Pell Gaudio, Purchase College SUNY
Urban Desire: Eros and Infrastructure in Modernizing Nigeria
March 16, 2015

Katherine Crawford, Vanderbilt University
Playing the Eunuch: Castrates on Stage
March 30, 2015

Joseph Roach, Yale University
The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Actors
April 13, 2015

The theme of “sovereignties” offers VHS an opportunity to examine forms of power over a vast temporal and geographic terrain, from the most ancient kingdoms and empires to the modern nation-state. From this perspective, this theme will allow us to engage with fresh and exciting work in political, intellectual, and social history, much of it stimulated by living through an era of global history in which the borders and powers of nation-states have become deeply unsettled.  This unsettling has prompted interest in other kinds of polities across history—empires, city states, confederacies, and tribes—and how they have exercised control over their territory and peoples. It has also generated interested in the deployment of power by groups living “in between” territorially demarcated polities, both on land and at sea. We intend to explore the meanings of sovereignty and power in these borderlands and international maritime zones. And we will be keen to connect our interest in sovereignty to recent work on the break up of colonial empires, the formation of post-colonial and post-independence states, and the religious, ethnic, and racial identities that flourished in these political spaces.

Issues of sovereignty raise intellectual and social questions as well as political ones. We are interested in how different societies and legal regimes have defined sovereignty over time. We will chart how medieval polities began to distinguish the rights of rulers and subjects, and of “superior” and “inferior” groups, in varying parts of a domain, and how such distinctions congealed over time into early modern discourses about “sovereignty.” We will explore the ideologies and practices of “popular sovereignty” launched by the Atlantic Revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And we will inquire into attempts made by rulers, from absolute monarchs to ordinary heads of families, across a broad array of state and non-state polities, to exercise sovereign power over the persons and, in many cases, the actual bodies of those who comprised their households.  Thinking about “household sovereignty” will make gender and reproduction key categories of our historical exploration.

Sovereignty raises questions, finally, not just about political power and patriarchal rule but also about mastery over the self. Self-rule, virtue, and a capacity for independence have been foundational elements of republicanism wherever it has appeared (ancient Greece and Rome, early modern Italian city states, eighteenth-century France, British America and Spanish America); on the other hand, a wide variety of discourses across history, from the theological to the medical and psychological, have challenged this vision of the autonomous, knowing, and disciplined self.  We will use the opportunity afforded by the sovereignty theme to explore varying conceptions of personhood across time and space.

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2013–2014 participants:

Bhavani Raman, Princeton University
Extraordinary Law at a Colonial Frontier: The East India Company and State Prisoners in Early Nineteenth Century South India
October 7, 2013

Christopher Loss, Vanderbilt University
Interdisciplinarity, Popular Sovereignty, and Urban Planning: Harvard, MIT, and Ciudad Guayana in the 1960s
October 21, 2013

James Sheehan, Stanford University
The Origins of the Legible State: Map Making, Census Taking, and Codification in Early Modern Europe
November 4, 2013

Susan Boynton, Department of Music, Columbia University
Liturgy of Empire: The Meaning of the Mozarabic Rite in Early Modern Spain
November 18, 2013

Shao Dan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Bloodline and Borderline: Nationality Law and Sovereignty Contestation over Taiwan, 1895-1993
December 2, 2013

Melanie Newton, University of Toronto
'The Race Leapt at Sateurs': Genocide, Narrative, and Indigenous Exile from the Caribbean Archipelago 
January 13, 2014

William Novak, University of Michigan School of Law
Sovereignty and the Creation of the Modern American State
January 27, 2014

Tom Dillehay, Vanderbilt University
Araucano Indomito: Anti-Imperialism, Independence, and Ethnogenesis in Colonial (and Present-Day) Chile
February 10, 2014

John Martin, Duke University
Torture, Early Modern Jurisprudence, and Limits on the Sovereignty of the State and the Self in the Venetian Empire
February 24, 2014

Pekka Hämäläinen, University of Oxford
The Ungovernable: Indigenous Struggle for Power and Sovereignty in North America before 1900
March 17, 2014


Catherine Molineux, Vanderbilt University
African Sovereignty in the British Atlantic World 
April 7, 2014

This theme will explore the history of heterodox, or dissenting, ideas, traditions, communities, and practices across a wide range of societies and centuries.  It will examine not merely formally defined and anathematized heterodoxies, but a wide range of challenges to conventional outlooks, practices, and normative beliefs.  A great deal of work on what we are calling heterodoxy is underway in the subfields of religion, politics, gender and sexuality, and the history of medicine and science, among others.  Religious sects and schisms, slave religions, and utopian communities; social movements that challenge mainstream, or orthodox, conceptions of politics, sexuality, gender roles and family life; “heretical” ideas about disease and health, the universe (Galileo), the economy (Keynes) and race: all these topics, and others, fall within the ambit of the heterodoxies theme.  We want to explore the diverse meanings of heterodoxies as well as the historical circumstances under which heterodoxies emerged, flourished, and supplanted orthodoxies, or were contained, co-opted, and crushed.  Heterodoxies often drew the attention of (or became the occasion for calling into being) powerful institutions charged with eliminating dissent, purging political nonconformity, or imposing doctrinal purity.  The auto-da-fé of the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions, the public executions of the French Revolutionary Terror, and the Stalinist gulags stand among the most famous examples of this tendency to root out heterodoxy through violence.  Heterodoxies have sometimes themselves become violent, as the cases of early twentieth century anarchism and late twentieth-century strains of radical Islam  demonstrate.  Authorities have also tried to label, contain, and sometimes impugn heterodoxies by generating scientific discourses about deviance; heterodoxies, from this perspective, are bound up with the production of knowledge.  Encounters between the heterodox and the orthodox, both violent and nonviolent, both formal (through state and scientific interventions) and informal (through the activities of everyday life), thus constitute an additional subject for this VHS theme.  Precisely because the question of heterodoxies appears both specific and flexible, it promises to become a key concept in historical research that can cut across fields and bring historians into productive conversations.  Given the scope of its interests, VHS is well placed to make an important contribution to this project.

Vanderbilt History Seminar 2012–2013 participants:

Michael Gordin, Princeton University
Universally Speechless:  Esperanto, Ido, and Linguistic Heterodoxy
September 10, 2012

Peter Lake, Vanderbilt University
Robert Sibthorpe Becomes Heterodox, or the Local Dynamics of Ideological Change
October 1, 2012

Suman Seth, Cornell University
Race, Slavery, and Polygenism: Edward Long and The History of Jamaica
October 22, 2012

Ruth Rogaski, Vanderbilt University
Alternative Qi: Science and Spirit in the Making of Modern Chinese Medicine
November 5, 2012

Leah DeVun, Rutgers University
Infidels, Hermaphrodites, and Other Animals: On the Boundaries of the Human in the Middle Ages
December 3, 2012

Bethany E. Moreton, The University of Georgia
Free Markets, Family Values, and the Theology of Work in Opus Dei
January 28, 2013

Anthony T. Grafton, Princeton University
How Jesus Celebrated Passover: The Discovery of the Jewish Origins of Christianity in Early Modern Europe
February 15, 2013

Lynn Hunt, UCLA , and Elizabeth Lunbeck, Vanderbilt University
Heterodox Sexuality and the Power of Psychiatry: On Foucault's Histories
March 11, 2013

João José Reis, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil
Social Mobility Among African Slaves in Brazil
April 1, 2013

Michael Kazin, Georgetown University
War Against War: Explaining the Rise, Defeat, and Legacy of the American Peace Movement, 1914-1918
April 15, 2013