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Absence and Erasure in the British and American Empires

Key information

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Module description

This module looks at contemporary British and American society to ask whose history is missing and why do these absences matter. The module focuses on empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which is a key reference point for missing histories. Topics include the colonisation of America, the effect of the Atlantic slave trade, the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism, and the development of the modern state.
However, rather than looking at the levers of power directly, this module studies these topics from the perspective of communities who are commonly absent or erased from the main narrative. These absences and erasures commonly obscure contributions from enslaved Africans, Native Americans, women, and poor communities. In the course of the module, we will explore ways in which we can incorporate these missing stories into our understanding of the modern world. Recovering overlooked contributions is valuable for two reasons.
First, overcoming absence and erasure puts world-changing events into context by helping us understand about the people who lived through the transformations. In so doing, we get a nuanced picture about the origins of contemporary society. In fact, this module looks carefully at how people today are processing this legacy of absence and erasure.
Second, overcoming absences and erasures will improve your study skills, regardless of your home department. The module does not require familiarity with history because each session starts with close reading skills. Close reading skills are central to all arts, humanities, and social sciences degrees, so no matter your degree programme, you have the skills to succeed on this module.
Over the course of the module, you will broaden your perspective as a researcher, giving you a clearer picture of the legacy of empire as well as learning new skills that you can deploy in the rest of your studies.

Indicative weekly topics include:

· Introduction to Empire: Why study absences and erasure?
· Reading Against the Grain: Runaway Slave Adverts and Inadvertent Biographies
· Gift, Theft, and Burial: Studying Material Culture
· Buried Lives: Using Archaeology to Study Everyday Lives
· Missing meals: Diet and Foodways
· Demographics and Making People Count
· Constituting the People: Reading Absences and Erasures in Constitutions
· The Contributions of Erased Millions: Economics as an indicator of Presence and Impact
· Folklore, songs, and memory: Who tells the Story?
· Telling the Right Stories: How do we Choose what to Study?
· Telling Old Stories in New Ways: Using Comics, Plays, Novels, Films, and Songs to Overcome Absences and Erasure. 

Assessment details

1 x 3000 word essay

Educational aims & objectives

In this module, students will:

  • Engage with different types of sources, which may include written documents, images, sound recordings, or material objects
  • Analyse sources to recover absent or erased narratives about people who lived through and contributed to the British and American empires
  • Collaborate with students from different departments

Learning outcomes

At the end of the module, a successful student will:

  • Understand the legacy of empire for contemporary society
  • Discuss contributions to the modern world from members of 'missing' communities
  • Improve close reading skills
  • Develop new ways to apply close reading skills

Teaching pattern

10 x 2-hour seminars

Subject areas


Module description disclaimer

King’s College London reviews the modules offered on a regular basis to provide up-to-date, innovative and relevant programmes of study. Therefore, modules offered may change. We suggest you keep an eye on the course finder on our website for updates.

Please note that modules with a practical component will be capped due to educational requirements, which may mean that we cannot guarantee a place to all students who elect to study this module.

Please note that the module descriptions above are related to the current academic year and are subject to change.