Sophomore Seminars

Self-Made: Culture, Identity, and Histories of Reinvention in America


From Ben Franklin to Oprah, Americans have triumphantly reinvented their identities, and used these transformations to demonstrate their ingenuity and grit. But the history of personal reinvention in America is far more complicated. In this course we will study the lives of individuals who adopted new identities in response to restrictive political and social conditions. How did these people construct their new identities, and what cultural influences did they use to do so? What did they gain in the process of assuming new identities, and what did they lose?

Case studies from the 19th and 20th centuries include Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved couple who escaped bondage by pretending that Ellen was already free, and a young African-American musician named John Roland Redd, who found fame as the turban-wearing television host “Korla Pandit.” Crossing seemingly fixed cultural divisions (race, gender, sexuality, citizenship), these individuals raise compelling questions about the larger political stakes of self-reinvention. How did acts of self-reinvention challenge inequality and oppression? What kinds of systems could not be dismantled through self-reinvention?

To answer these questions, you will conduct a self-directed research project on a historical figure who reinvented their identity. You will also write weekly discussion posts to guide our discussions of course texts that include writings by historians and theorists of cultural identity, as well as primary sources. By drawing from different kinds of primary materials—from photographs to census documents—you will learn to navigate a range of archives in order to better view the choices of individuals in a richer historical context. These historical investigations should also provide you with a richer analytical framework for examining acts of cultural transformation, appropriation, and disruption today. 

Meet the Instructor(s)

Katherine J Lennard

"I am a cultural historian with a Ph.D. in American Studies, although my path into academia was unconventional. In college I studied theatrical costume design, and made costumes for a few years before realizing I wanted to study the relationship between appearance and character. How did people use clothing and body modifications to shape their public persona? How did their appearance shape the definition of categories of identity, such as race, gender, and sexuality? Asking these questions from the perspective of American Studies has allowed me to develop an approach to historical research that incorporates artifacts and fine art alongside textual sources. I approach primary sources with the help of theorists of cultural identity, and historians studying the way ideas about identity have justified social inequality. Since my path to Stanford has so profoundly shaped my scholarship, I’m excited to see how your own background shapes your contributions to this course."