Portal for

Honours Programme 2020-2021


“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

Brief description

“She gather me, man,” says a protagonist in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved. “The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” He is talking about a woman he loves. But he could also be talking about the kind of literature that “gathers the pieces” of lives lived in a context of brutal power, and lets us listen to the individual voice underneath. The kind of literature described by the novelist George Eliot in these terms:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” (George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871)

Eliot’s “keen vision” is what we could call empathy: the quest to take other people’s lives and feelings seriously. Literature – in the sense of narrative fiction: novels, theatre – plays a major role in fostering empathy. “Losers” (Emma Bovary, Willy Loman) get attention; “victims” (Nancy in Oliver Twist, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables) acquire faces; all are persons. The very emergence of human rights as a concept – in the eighteenth century - owed much to the novel, because the novel allowed readers to empathize with others across social, gender, and other boundaries. This point is made by the historian Lynn Hunt, who goes on to explain:

“Novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings, and many novels showcased in particular the desire for autonomy. In this way, reading novels created a sense of equality and empathy through passionate involvement in the narrative.” (Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History, 2008, p. 39)

The year 2020 – a year of police violence (George Floyd), political violence (Hong Kong), and a pandemic that revealed many an inequality – is as good a time as any to take a close look at lives lived in a context of brutal power, as they are revealed to us, with empathy, in works of literature.

And so, this academic year, we will form a discussion group around some major literary works that imagine lives lived in a context of power – we’ll call them classics of empathy. We will read six such works. Among them are Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved, a tale of slavery, strength and unspeakable suffering; Margaret Atwood dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale; an Italian novella about a young woman immured alive by custom; and three others. Honours students of all disciplines will come together eight times through the academic year for a brief lecture followed by a discussion. The course will offer students a forum to read; to learn; to bring their own perspectives to the readings and meetings and to express them in writing, in spoken presentations, and in the group debates. By way of conclusion, all honours course participants will present their thoughts in a written or video essay. An interdisciplinary committee will evaluate these concluding essays, and the Honours Programme will post the most remarkable ones on its website.


  1. Attend the 8 meetings from 28 October 2019 to 21 April 2021 (see calendar below).
  2. Prepare for these meetings by
  • reading the week’s book attentively (see calendar below) – there will be quizzes
  • posting a brief reflection essay (2 pages) on the course dropbox
  • formulating one or two questions for the debate
  1. Craft one final essay.

Course calendar with readings

We will meet on Wednesdays in the early evening (18h30 - 20h30) at Muntpunt.

(#1) 28 October 2020 - Introduction

Introducing ourselves; overview of the course’s aims and structure; presenting the reading list; presenting the course assignments.

(#2) 4 November 2020 - “A Poor Songbird Locked in a Cage”: Verga, Sparrow

Giovanni Verga, Storia di Una Capinera, 1870 (many reeditions); English translation: Sparrow, transl. Lucy Gordan and Frances Frenaye, New York, NY: Italica Press, 2016 (or another edition). 105 pp.

The first discussion centers on Sparrow (Storia di una capinera), a 1871 novella by the Italian realist writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), known for his sparse style and bleak themes. The novella, set in Sicily in 1854, tells the story of a teenager, Maria, raised in a convent, who is sent home because of an outbreak of cholera. Ironically, confinement for her means liberty. But it is overshadowed by her imminent return to the convent, this time for good – for her father does not have the means to provide her with a dowry, and so, following the cruel custom of the times, the “little songbird” has no place in the world of the free. Written in the epistolary style – in other words, in the form of letters – which, as Lynn Hunt has shown, is the ultimate empathetic narrative form, Sparrow has struck contemporaries, and readers ever since (the novella was made into a film several times), as a view into a young life doomed by convention to a slow death.

(#3) 25 November 2020 - “Yonder they do not love your flesh”: Morrison, Beloved

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987), any edition. 324 pp.

In this second discussion of our common readings, we take our analysis of lives crushed by power into the unthinkable. Toni Morrison’s (1931-2019) Beloved (1987) is a novel of African American slavery, people reduced to things, desperate motherhood. The novel is realistic yet poetic, or, to be more precise, it becomes poetic – in the Greek sense of the word poiesis, “bringing something into being that did not exist before” - in order to be more realistic: in order to more deeply imagine the impact on people’s minds, bodies, lives, and loves of the massive weight of cruelty that was slavery. It is a novel about people doing what they can to hold on to their selves. One protagonist, a woman preacher, gathers a group and tells them to love their own flesh, for “yonder [that is: where the slave-owners are] they do not love your flesh. They despise it.”

(#4) 9 December 2020 - “It’s always hard on women, when a city falls”: Barker, Silence

Pat Barker, The silence of the girls (2018), any edition. 290 pp.

Another novel that imagines slavery – this time in Antiquity. In 1995, Pat Barker won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road, a novel about World War I told from the point of view of doomed young men. In Silence, Barker tells the story of Homer’s Iliad from the point of view of one of the vanquished: the former queen Briseis, whose city in Asia Minor was sacked and her family murdered by the Greeks, after which she was handed as a slave to the “godlike” warrior Achilles. In the Iliad, Briseis is a status symbol in the fight for prestige among Greek leaders. In Silence, she is a person, with feelings and wit. This contemporary re-imagining of the Trojan War – the Greek besiegers’ filthy barracks, the omnipresent brutality, a ghastly epidemic - is “an invitation,” as the Homer translator Emily Wilson has written, “to listen for voices silenced by history and power" . Some reviewers, however, objected to Barker’s portrayal of Briseis as a modern woman. This opens up a question for us to discuss: does empathetic imagining (in fiction) require for personages to be “recognizable” to the reader? Can personages remain opaque – as people from different times and cultures may be – and yet command our sympathy?


Image from Instagram

(#5) 17 February 2021 - “What Frivolity Destroys”: Wharton, House of Mirth

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905), new ed., with an intro by Jennifer Egan, London: Scribner, 2020. Older editions ok, if complete. Free online version at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/284/284-h/284-h.htm  340 pp.

The American novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937), whose 1905 novel The House of Mirth made her famous, later wrote that her book was a tragedy set in a silly world – a tragedy because of that world’s silliness: 

“A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideas.”

(Wharton, A Backward Glance, 1934, p. 207)

Set in New York in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, a time of gigantic social inequality, The House of Mirth is the story of a woman, Lily Bart, who is both inside and outside of the world of the very rich. Bart both wants to belong and backs away from doing what it takes to belong, yet cannot break away because this is the only world she is fit to live in – she is, in Wharton’s words, “an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock.” Caught in a power-play, she is destroyed. Neither heroine (she belongs too much to her corrupt world for that) nor victim (her tragedy is partly of her own making, and she knows it), Bart is the partly recognizable, partly opaque protagonist of “a relevant and electrifying classic for our times.” The novel generates useful questions: can we empathize with a protagonist whose aims we do not (necessarily) share? Can one feel for people who are complicit in their own downfall? And, beyond the fate of Bart herself: what power dynamics were at play in the distorted world of the Gilded Age, and what relevance does this have for the 21st century?

(#6) 17 March 2021 - “Keep your mouth shut and look stupid”: Atwood, Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), new ed. With an intro by the author, London, Vintagem 2017; or an older edition. 324 pp.

Two of our books so far are works of fiction set in the author’s own society in the very recent past: Verga, Wharton. The two others – Morrison, Barker – are works of historical fiction. Margaret Atwood’s modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale – translated into 40 languages, made into a 2017 television series - is another kind of book: a dystopian novel. Like George Orwell’s 1984, it imagines a possible future society in dark terms. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in imaginary Gilead – the U.S. region of New England, after an ecological disaster and a conservative takeover. Gilead is a society where men wear military or paramilitary uniforms and women must breed, or do housework, or oversee households – or oversee each other. Reading is forbidden, talking restricted, dress codes oppressively complex. Those who disobey, are cruelly punished. “Unwomen” are sent to the lethally polluted “Colonies.” Atwood imagines the feelings of the “handmaids” forced to live in this regime, the attempts of some to hold on to their sanity. Her book, as she wrote in 2017, is not “an ideological tract in which all women are angels”; rather, it portrays women as capable of all kinds of behaviour, and it describes what happens to them as “interesting and important.” Mostly, Atwood states, The Handmaid’s Tale belongs to “the literature of witness,” in which people at the receiving end of power record their tale in hopes that someday it will be read. (Read the full review).


(#7) 31 March 2021 - “He has put a knife on the things that held us together”: Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958), any edition. 200 pp.

Things Fall Apart, the debut novel of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), is the most widely-read book in African literature. In Achebe’s company, wrote Nelson Mandela, who read him during his long decades of incarceration, “the prison walls fell down.” Published in 1958 during the era of decolonization, Things Fall Apart looks back at the start of colonization: it is a historical novel, set in late 19th-century Nigeria, a precolonial society facing the arrival of colonial forces. As a student, Achebe had been unimpressed with literary descriptions of Nigeria: “if this was famous,” he wrote about one British novel that was popular at the time, “then someone ought to try and look at this from the inside.”Things Fall Apart interweaves the Igbo oral tradition – proverbs, ancestor tales – with “realistic” description. It portrays the fictional village of Umuofia near the lower Niger as a close-knit community but one with stern rules and occasional cruelty, not a harmonious idyll. Its protagonist, Okonkwo, is a farmer, the head of a large family, and a man of achievement, famous in his youth for his wrestling skills. Achebe describes him as having “no patience for unsuccessful men,” and obsessed with not appearing weak, to the point of acting harshly towards his wives and children. In other words, Things Fall Apart does not strain to create a “sympathetic” protagonist. It does not have to. In the words of the U.S. author James Baldwin, the book is about “a society the rules of which were a mystery to me,” and yet “I recognized everybody in it.


(#8) 21 April 2021 - Concluding Event

In this group discussion, we will debate our readings as a whole - common themes; differences in perespective; narrative strategies. Participants can bring in other examples – novels, films, plays, television series, opera.

On this evening, all participants will present a draft version of their concluding essay, which is due on 5 May 2020, and comment on each other’s work.

This year's expert

We are proud to present this year's expert for the VUB Honours Programme:
Prof. dr. Sophie De Schaepdrijver.

Photo by Jean Cosyn

Sophie De Schaepdrijver, a Belgian-American historian of modern Europe, holds the Ferree Chair in History at Penn State University (USA) and is Expert-in-Residence at the VUB for 2018-2021. She has held positions at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris), and the University of Kent (Leverhulme professorship, 2016-2017). In 2021, she will be a Fellow at the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) in Amsterdam.

This is her second year offering the VUB Honours Programme. In 2019-2020, she led a seminar entitled “Perception and Power: Six Classics of Critical Thinking,” around work by Hannah Arendt, Victor Klemperer, Zora Neale Hurston, George Orwell, Annie Ernaux and Benedict Anderson.

De Schaepdrijver has published extensively on urban history, migration, and national identities. For the past two decades, her research has focused on the social and cultural history of European societies in the First World War, with particular attention to military occupation, gender, and private writings. Her latest books in English are Gabrielle Petit: the Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War (2015), praised in The Times Higher Education as “a model of how the cultural history of the war should be written,” and An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Diary of Mary Thorp (2017, with Tammy Proctor), reviewed in the New York Times. She is working on a monograph with the title The Great War’s Third Space: Military Occupation in First World War Europe. The most recent prizes awarded her work are the 2018 Innovation in Academia award by the University of Kent and the 2019 Biography Prize by the Society of Dutch Literature.

She is also active as a public historian: she has written opinion pieces; curated exhibitions; co-written and presented a prize-winning four-part television documentary; and served as commentator for BBC Television’s live coverage of the centenary celebrations of the Battle of Passchendaele (July 2017). In recognition of the public impact of her work, His Majesty King Philip of Belgium awarded her the title of Baroness in 2017.

See also


https://www.research.psu.edu/sites/default/files/ResearchPennStateFall2017.pdf pp. 24-29


 > Curriculum Vitae

Expectations and certificate

As a participant in this VUB Honours Programme, you are required to:


First, attend at least seven of our Wednesday discussions. Please plan your academic year accordingly. Even if you have to skip one of these discussions, you are required to fulfil the written assignments for all eight. (See below.)

Second, fulfil the assignments for all of the Wednesday discussions.
These assignments are the following:

  • you need to have done the readings, and demonstrate that you have done so during our discussion (there will be occasional quizzes);
  • before our Wednesday discussions, post a brief reflection essay (2 pages) about what we’re reading. You will receive suggestions to help your reading/thinking, but of course you are free to shape this reflection essay as you wish. Post it on the course dropbox by Monday, 18h, so everyone can read everyone else’s thoughts. Please note: these short essays are graded simply for completion and effort – there are no “correct” or “wrong” ones! 
  • before our Wednesday discussions, formulate 1 or 2 questions. You can add these to your brief reflection essay, above.
  • At the discussions: please ask questions! 

Third, write one final essay (or craft a video presentation or audio podcast). This work needs to demonstrate that you have familiarized yourself with the novels we have read and that you have throught through their implications and can apply this to other domains (of literature, film, the visual arts, music…); that you can think in a complex and nuanced manner; and that you can express yourself clearly. Your concluding work will be read (watched/listened to) by a university-wide interdisciplinary committee, and the Honours Programme will post the most remarkable works on its website.

Honours Certificate

An Honours Certificate, signed by the Rector, will endorse your successful participation in the Programme.

How to apply?

If you are interested in participating in the VUB honours programme you can apply by filling out the application form before 5 October 2020.

How can I apply?

You can submit your online application when you have acquired at least 60 credits and have achieved good study results (at least the equivalent of 'distinction'). As part of the selection procedure we will ask you in a second phase to motivate your application in relation to the overall theme of the VUB Honours Programme. 

For more information about the VUB Honours Programme, send us an email at honoursprogramme@vub.ac.be.

VUB Honours Programme

Application form


This is what your fellow students say about their participation in the VUB honours programme.

Constantin Blaschke
Edition 18-19 - Science beyond boundaries: Big data and our society

Stimulating, enriching and thought-provoking - the Honours Programme!

Over the course of the year, like-minded, bright and curious students from different academic backgrounds and cultures come together to debate topics and themes outside of their intellectual and professional comfort zones. Though challenged at first - desperately trying to comprehend the technical and theoretical - you are quickly enabled to fully participate. Captivating discussions, at once practical and philosophical, draw on the insight of inspiring expert speakers from the worlds of academia and business - ideas and debates which stay with you long after the session is over.

A great place to learn, grow and network, the Honours programme is a fantastic opportunity for any motivated student with a lively curiosity looking to embrace new challenges.

Constantin Blaschke, Master in Communication Studies, 2018/19

Ibrahim Sunkanmi Saliu
Edition 18-19 - Science beyond boundaries: Big data and our society

An opportunity to access multidisciplinary perceptions about certain global issues

The dynamic nature of the world makes it very important to keep up with trends and make contextual decisions to guide and shape the future. Path dependence and established epistemologies across all fields in our society no longer seem to be enough for making such decisions, endangering paradigm shifts across multiple disciplines. It is an important endeavour for data to be collected, organized, understood and used to make inferences that will enable evident-based decision-making. This was my motivation for application to the VUB Honours programme (Science beyond boundaries: Big data and our society).

My experience as an honour student was most pleasing and informative as it was an opportunity to access multidisciplinary perceptions about certain global issues. Some of the issues discussed include artificial intelligence and its various applications, the value of personal data, data-driven decision-making, ethical concerns to the use of advanced technology, distraction economy and social interaction, etc. The opportunities I had with some of my colleagues to anchor different sessions of the programme served as avenues for me to learn about specific concerns during preparations for the sessions by reading several informative materials. This also improved certain skills such as presentation skills, teamwork spirit, sense of responsibility and writing skills.

It was amazing to experience different experts specialized in similar areas of interest argue about the same topics. Further, they helped initiate critical thinking during round-table discussions and gave views that we as honour students might have overlooked or neglected during our preparation and presentation.

Conclusively, the honours programme presented an opportunity for networking with different scholars from different disciplines, enhancement of both personal and professional skills, facilitating learning in a conducive environment, reflecting on global issues and proffering sustainable solutions.

Ibrahim Sunkanmi Saliu, 2nd year Master of Science in Tropical Biodiversity and Ecosystems (TROPIMUNDO), 2018/19