Collaborative Research Cluster

Visit to ISG Museum
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Alex Kern, Laurie Delaney, Liz Moore, Erika Koss, Natalie Bormann, Huseyin Sari, Gordana Rabrenovic, Shaya Poku, Logan Wangsgard

Together with Professor Gordana Rabrenovic, I have been leading one of Northeastern University’s Collaborative Research Clusters, funded by the Humanities Center.  We are now in our second year. In 2015/16, Gordon and I, together with colleagues across disciplines, worked on a project called ‘Horrific Blindness’ – Genocide and Mass Atrocities from Armenia to Darfur, which focused on exploring the patterns that frame dominant perceptions of global violence – specifically, the group focused on visual representations that make atrocities visible to us – or not. For our past activities, see below.

Currently, in 2016/17, we continue our concern with mass atrocities and genocide but are thinking more deeply about ‘what happens when atrocity meets the classroom’ – what are some of the pedagogical concerns, opportunities, limits when we, as educators, teach about genocide?  This year’s group tackles the following questions:

What are the dilemmas when teaching conflict and atrocity, and across disciplines?   What are the implications of traumatizing students in our teaching of conflict and atrocity?  Is there a relation between crisis/conflict and the enterprise of education in general?  What are the strategies, across disciplines, to implement new directions and (more ethically astute) models for teaching about atrocity?

As previously, this is an interdisciplinary endeavor that draws its strength from approaches and perspectives on this issue from faculty, staff, and students from across campus and across disciplines.

Clusters are an opportunity for faculty, staff and graduate students to create an interdisciplinary platform for debate on a specific subject matter.  Meetings will be held once a month, date and times may vary.  For more information contact Natalie Bormann at

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-7-44-20-pmPreviously….From 2012 – 2014 I collaborated with my former colleague in Communication Studies, Dr. Carleton Gholz, in creating the Critical Social Theory cluster.  You can find some information about the group here, here, and here. It brought together a group of diverse NU scholars with an interest in exploring major social transformations by looking to the tools provided by critical social theory. During the course of two years, the cluster succeeded in facilitating an intellectual forum for discussion and setting the foundation for cross-disciplinary collaboration; while also producing some ‘hard’ outputs – it created a library subject guide on critical social theory for the NU community, donated monographs to the library, and organized a one-day conference with an acclaimed key-note speaker, Prof. Paul Bové.


In March of 2015, images of Syrian torture – graphic photographs of bloodied, bruised, starved, and dead bodies of men, women, and children – were on display in the hall of the UN in New York; carrying the message that “it is imperative that we do not look away”.  Yet, despite the arresting nature of these images – and while there is no doubt today that stopping mass atrocities and genocides has become a vital political project – their presence may only remain symbolic with a sincere political solution far from at the ready.

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-7-49-14-pmAgainst the backdrop of such observations, this cluster sought to explore the modalities of representations of violence and to interrogate the measures that are said to most effectively respond to, and halt, atrocities today.  What can we learn from the presentation of atrocities and genocides that inform our response to halt these instances? How have those responsible for genocidal violence been represented? And what is the role of media in defining our engagement with perpetrators of mass atrocities? Where does our intellectual responsibility lie in the imperative ‘not to look away’?

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Meeting #1 [Sept22 10am-12pm]_Visual representations of mass atrocities.

For our first meeting, we read and discussed works by David Campbell, whose article Horrific Blindness gave this cluster its name.  We discussed the concept of ‘blindness’ in regard to the visual representation of mass atrocities and genocides, and asked: Why do we need to see the ‘dead body’? When should we see death? What in fact do we ‘see’ when we look at images of death and suffering?  What is it we don’t see? Who decides when we get to see? And what does ‘seeing’ actually produce?

Campbell, David “Horrific Blindness – Images of Death in Contemporary Media”, Journal of Cultural Research 8:1 (2004), 55-74 [a copy can be found here]

Campbell, David “Representing Contemporary War”, Ethics & International Affairs, 17:2 (2003), 99-108. [a copy can be found here]

Campbell, David “How photographs make Darfur mean something,” [a copy can be found here]

Meeting #2 [Oct23 3.15pm]_Representation of violence and atrocity in Art.


For our second meeting, we organized a private guided tour at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston.  Our group was introduced to key works of art that deal specifically with representations of violence, conflict, and atrocity.

Meeting #3 [Nov23 3.00pm]_Representation of violence and the Everyday_Without Sanctuary.

Our very own Martin Blatt (Director of Northeastern’s Public History Program) is leading our discussion of the visual legacy of photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs from lynchings in America.  These photographs have been published as a book – Without Sanctuary – and will be distributed at our meeting.

//Grace Elizabeth Hale, review of the exhibition, Journal of American History, December 2002, pp.989-994. Without Sanctuary JAH exhibit

//The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh  hosted the exhibition and here is an essay that focuses on that experience.  Jessica Gogan,”The Andy Warhol Museum – Museum as  Artist: Creative, Dialogic & Civic Practice” in Museums and Civic Dialogue (Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts, 2005). Andy Warhol Museum Without Sanctuary

//Chapter on shame from Erika Doss’s extraordinary book, Memorial Mania – Public Feeling in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).  Chapter is entitled SHAME – Duluth’s Lynching Memorial and Issues of National Morality.  Shame in Doss, Memorial Mania
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Meeting #4 [Dec10 1.00pm]_Covering atrocity. The role of Journalists.

We are proud to present a panel of three Northeastern colleagues from the School of Journalism:  Dina Kraft, Laurel Leff, and James Ross.  The three of them will share with us their experience of, and work with/in, the role of Journalists and Journalism in covering atrocities world wide. The following reading will be central to our conversations.

//1993: Scouts without compasses.  War in the Balkans is forcing         correspondence to rewrite their guidelines

//The war against Boko Haram Documentary. Full Length

//AIDS Ravaging the Teachers, Education Systems of Africa

//In saving Jewish remnants in Galacia, an effort to enlist Ukrainians

//Journalism ethics after Auschwitz

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Meeting #5 [Feb2 11.30am]_Letters to Sala – Testimony, Witness, and the Archive.

Following Northeastern University’s week-long Holocaust commemoration, this meeting looks to discuss the feature events of that week – a keynote lecture with the author of the book Sala’s Gift (the author is also Sala’s daughter), the exhibit on campus showing those very letters to Sala, and the staged reading Letters to Sala.

Three, quite different, texts are suggested for a reading in support of a number of questions/thoughts we can raise, and as they relate more generally to our research cluster’s theme of representation of mass atrocities.

//“Theorizing shiny things” by Kathy Ferguson [Ferguson2008] raises some interesting points on the concept of the ‘archive’ and how we assemble and re-assemble material of the past – and to what effect.  One is reminded of the curating elements of the letters to Sala; how to arrange their display in an exhibit; how to decide which of these letters will be donated to the public (library) and which ones stay private; and also how to assemble the story in the staged reading between moments of the past and present.

//“Between history and psychoanalysis – A case study in the reception of Holocaust survivor testimony” by Thomas Trezise [Trezise2008struck me as an interesting read to think about, as the article states, “the hybridity of testimony as a genre”: how do we perform history; how do we encourage interaction with history.  The psychoanalytical lens adds an interesting ‘twist’ to the concept of narration, language, and above all: listening.

//“My Holocaust is not your Holocaust. ‘Facing’ Black and Jewish experience ….” [Zierler2004] Granted, this article speaks to specific films that we may or may not have seen but it does touch on something that came up at various events this week:  To what extent Sala’s letters, her experience and her unique story can transcend and affect our lives and our, quite different, experiences – and should they?

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Meeting #6 [March1 1.30pm]_Teaching about mass atrocities – observations and challenges

Throughout the academic year, this cluster covered a variety of aspects related to our ‘blindness’ toward mass atrocities. Central to these aspects has been a curiosity about the modes of representations that make us ‘see’ mass atrocities – or not.  Here, the interdisciplinary nature of the collaborative research cluster produced fascinating insights; from the arts, political science, sociology, religion, journalism, literature, public history….to name but a few.  Our final session wants to contemplate our role as educators; how do we teach about atrocities?  How do we make atrocities visible to our students?  What reservations may there be about this process of ‘making visible’?  In preparing for this session, we will read the following articles.

//”Atrocity and Aporia: Teaching the Abu Ghraib images, teaching against transparency” by Rebecca Adelman (2014).

//”A pedagogy of empathy for a world of atrocity” by Esther Lezra (2014).

Please join us – there will be some light lunch provided.