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Honours Programme, VUB, 2019-2020

“Even in the darkest of times,” as the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in 1968, “we have a right to expect some illumination.”

But illumination takes hard work. One way to start is to form a discussion group around some incisive pieces of critical thinking.

Brief description

This course builds on the work of six authors who have investigated clichés. Among them are Arendt herself, who wrote about the distortion of truth and about violence; Victor Klemperer, who, while living in Nazi Germany, studied how the Nazis used language to normalize the unthinkable; and George Orwell, who deconstructed political hypocrisy.

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.


Attend the 8 meetings from 13 November 2019 to 29 April 2020 (see tab Programme).

Prepare for these meetings by

  • having done the readings (see tab Programme)
  • posting a brief reflection essay (1-2 pages) on the course dropbox
  • formulating one or two questions for the debate
  • preparing a brief spoken presentation. Students will take turns doing this.

Craft one final essay.

Course calendar with readings

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

(#1) 13 November 2019 - Introduction

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

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(#2) 27 November 2019 - “So, then, Perfection”: Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux, La femme gelée, Paris: Gallimard, 1981; English translation: A frozen woman, New York: Penguin Random House, 1996.

The first discussion centers on A Frozen Woman (La femme gelée), a 1981 work by Annie Ernaux, recently defined as “France’s great truth-teller.” (1) The book, set in France during the post-World War Two era of prosperity, is the story of a young woman who leaves her working-class milieu through higher education and a prestigious marriage. In Ernaux’ trademark laconic tone, it dissects social class, gender dynamics, ambition and ambivalence – and the (self-) imposed quest for perfection. Sociological treatise and autobiography in one, it touches on how language can present inequality as a matter of course.

(1) Angelique Chrisafis, “Abortion, sex and family secrets: Annie Ernaux, France’s great truth-teller.” The Guardian, 10 August 2019.  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/10/abortion-sex-and-family-se...

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(#3) 11 December 2019 - “The Curse of the Superlative”: Victor Klemperer

Victor Klemperer, LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen [1947], reprint in German: Stuttgart, Reclam, 2007, or any other edition. Translations available in English (The Language of the Third Reich, London: Bloomsbury, 2013) and in Dutch.

In this second discussion of our common readings, we take our analysis of language and power into the unthinkable. Victor Klemperer’s Lingua Tertii Imperii (1947) studies the Nazi use of language: how words like “fanatical” became compliments, and superlatives ubiquitous. Klemperer, a Jewish German philologist, kept a secret notebook during the Nazi years, when he and his wife suffered intense persecution. His “philologist’s notes” were his own way to hold on to sanity, by using his lucid mind to observe: as he himself wrote, he used the abbreviation LTI (“Lingua Tertii Imperii,” or, the language of the Third Reich) as “an SOS sent to myself for the duration of those terrible years.”

(#4) 19 February 2020 - “Ready-made Phrases”: George Orwell

George Orwell, “A Hanging” (1931), “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), and “Politics and the English Language” (1947), all three in Shooting an Elephant and other Essays, London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2003 (or a later edition).

The third readings discussion centers on three essays by George Orwell (1903-1950). The harrowing “A Hanging” (1931) sheds light on power in a colonial context, as does “Shooting an Elephant” (1936). “Politics and the English Language” (1947), an investigation into the use of clichés – meaningless words, inflated style – not just in politics but also in “expert” writing, continues our analysis of language and power.

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(#5) 4 March 2020 - “Unwelcome Facts”: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” (The Menorah Journal, 1943); “Truth and Politics” (The New Yorker, 1967); “Reflections on Violence” (The New York Review of Books, 1969). Available in different collections of Arendt writings, as well as online:


Like Orwell, Arendt (1906-1975) did not shy away from unpleasant facts, which, she wrote, “possess an infuriating stubbornness” – infuriating, that is, to those in power. Like Klemperer, Arendt considered critical thinking a kind of lifeline. The three essays we will discuss – “We Refugees” (1943), “Truth and Politics” (1967) and “Reflections on Violence” (1969) are sharp political and philosophical (and, in the first case, also autobiographical) reflections on power and powerlessness in the 20th century.

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(#6) 18 March 2020 - “Joinable choruses”: Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd revised and expanded edition, London-New York: Verso, 1991 (or a later edition).

This modern classic from 1991 – the fifth-most-cited book ever in the social sciences (2) - is an extraordinarily nuanced and complex reflection on the idea of the nation, its genesis and spread; with particular attention to its impact outside of Europe (Latin America, Southeast Asia), as well as to the role of print media, cartography, and the novel as a genre.

(2) http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/67407/1/Imagined%20communities_2016.pdf

(#7) 1 April 2020 - “Words from the seller, not from the sold”: Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: the Story of the last “Black Cargo” [1931], Deborah G. Plant ed., preface Alice Walker, New York: Amistad Press/HarperCollins, 2018.

For the fiercely independent African American writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), “language was not a small victory”(3): her oeuvre was dedicated to recovering lost voices, complete with their inflections and idiosyncracies. But Hurston’s work was not appreciated in her time, and Barracoon, which she researched in 1927-1928 and finished in 1931, was not published until 2018, when it created a sensation. Based on interviews with the Benin native Cudjo Lewis (Oluale Kossola) (1841-1935), it offers an extremely rare view of the slave trade from the vantage-point of one of the stolen.

(3) Claudia Roth Pierpont, “A society of one: Zora Neale Hurston,” in id., Passionate minds: women rewriting the world (New York: Vintage, 2001), pp. 133-154, quote p. 152.

(#8) 29 April 2020 - Concluding Event

In this group discussion, we will debate our readings’ common themes and differences in perspective; we will discuss implications for social issues not covered in those readings. On this evening, all participants will present a draft version of their concluding essay, 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).

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


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.
  • All participants will take turns leading one or several discussions; to do so, they will prepare a brief spoken presentation. Everyone else: 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 readings and are able to apply their concepts to other areas; 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.

When can you submit your application?

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.  

How to apply?

If you are interested in participating in the VUB honours programme you can apply by filling out the application form before 20 October 2019.

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