Example Syllabus

Avigail Oren created this syllabus by selecting readings from three of our modules–The Venice Ghetto: 1516-1797, The Ghetto as Text in 19th Century Anglo-American Jewish Writings, and The Ghetto in the Americas.  It is designed to fulfill the requirements for a survey or elective course for students completing a History major or minor. The course should provide students with an in-depth understanding of the societies, economies, political systems and conflicts of early modern Europe and twentieth-century America.

Please do not copy this syllabus verbatim. The Venice Ghetto Col-lab-oration has provided it as a model for how instructors can use the modular syllabi to create new (or expand existing) interdisciplinary courses on the ghetto in a global context. 

From Venice to Watts: How the “Ghetto” Came to America and Became Black

Undergraduate Course

Intermediate/Open Level

Lecture/Discussion Hybrid

Two 75 minute sessions per week

14 week course

Course Overview

This course will explore the genealogy of the term ghetto. For most Americans, “ghetto” probably makes them think of poor urban neighborhoods, or of Jews living under Nazi oppression. Most do not know that the first ghetto was established 500 years ago, to keep Jews separate from Catholics. This course will examine and trace the evolution of these different forms of ghettos in order to explain how both European Jews and black Americans came to share an association with the ghetto. Students will prepare readings before each class and, after a short lecture surveying the day’s topic, join in a discussion centered around that day’s questions (listed in the “Course Schedule” section of the syllabus). We will begin by asking why and how the Venetian State formed the first ghetto for the Jews in 1516; what it was like for the Jews of Venice to live in the ghetto; how the relationship of Venetian Jews to the state and to the economy operated and changed; and why and how the Ghetto was dissolved by Napoleon.

After reviewing how ghettos spread throughout early modern Europe, the course will shift its focus to the Americas. We will examine when and how the term “ghetto” arrived in the United States, and how the use and application of the term changed before the 1930s. For the majority of the course will study how “ghetto” became associated with black urban neighborhoods, and what role local, state, and federal governments played in forming postwar American ghettos. The course will conclude with a study of what form poor and/or racially segregated neighborhoods take in Latin America, and whether the term “ghetto” can be accurately applied in those contexts.

Throughout the semester, students will constantly reevaluate the definition of “ghetto.” Should there be a one-size-fits-all definition, or is each ghetto contingent on the specific details of that historical moment? By participating in this critical exercise, through discussions and written assignments, students will gain practice in comparative historical analysis, identifying historical trends, and making arguments about the similarities and differences between past and present.

In particular, by the end of the course students should better understand the origins of current urban policy and will be prepared to critique and make arguments about how urban policy is currently being used as a political tool. The campaign and election of Donald Trump revived a conversation in American political life about the “law and order” of cities. Referencing “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” and “the crime and the gangs and the drugs,” he vowed in his inauguration speech to stop this “American carnage.” This course will help students answer the questions: How did poverty and crime become synonymous with the city? And why, without Trump saying it, do we recognize that he is referring to black urban communities—to ghettos?

By asking how the first ghetto, established in Venice in 1516, compares to current “ghetto” neighborhoods in American cities, students will learn why and how residential segregation remains a part of modern society. At a time when our national debate focuses on racial discrimination, policing, and the “carnage” of poverty, students will see that the association of minority groups with crime and poverty has justified legal exclusion and restriction for over 500 years. Through learning and discussing this history, students who complete this course will be able to identify and critique how states justify and enforce such oppression, and how their strategies have (and haven’t) evolved over the past five centuries.

Learning Objectives

Based on the lectures, readings, and discussions that students will engage in this course, students will learn to make critical, evidence-based arguments—in clear, coherent prose—about:

  • how to best define a “ghetto,” the strengths and weaknesses of that definition, and the benefits and drawbacks of defining terms in historical analysis;
  • how the use of “ghetto” in the U.S. has changed throughout the twentieth century;
  • how power, policy, and privilege create and maintain segregation, and what kinds of arguments and excuses have historically been used to justify segregation.

Additionally, students will gain skills transferable to other history, humanities, and social science courses, such as:

  • how to recognize scholarly debates and identify when a scholar is challenging or supporting another scholars’ arguments;
  • how to examine, appraise, and critique sources, be they primary source documents or scholarly arguments (secondary sources);
  • how to compose successful papers, that defend arguments with the support of text-based evidence.


Class Schedule

Week One

Session 1: What is our contemporary understanding of a “ghetto”?

Lecture: Syllabus and overview of course

Discussion: What do you think of when you hear the term “ghetto” used today? Do ghettos exist in America today? How would you explain a contemporary American ghetto?

Session 2: How do we define a “ghetto”? Does origin matter?

Lecture: Context of Early Modern European Jewry; The establishment of the Venice Ghetto in 1516

Readings: Benjamin C.I. Ravid, “From Geographical Realia to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto” in David B. Ruderman, ed., Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (New York, 1992)

Discussion: How does Ravid define “ghetto?” How does he develop his definition from the physical space and the politics of the Venice ghetto?

Week Two

Session 1: What was it like to live in the Venice Ghetto?

Lecture: Virtually exploring the Venice Ghetto; Comparing Venice with other Italian ghettos

Readings: Donatella Calabi, “The ‘City of the Jews,’” in Robert C. Davis and Benjamin Ravid, Ed., The Jews of Early Modern Venice (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 31-49.

Discussion: What was the social structure of the Jews of the Venice ghetto, and how did it reflect (or fit into) the social structure of the city-state of Venice?

Session 2: How was the segregation of Jews in the Venice Ghetto justified?

Lecture: Historical beliefs about Jewish bodies; How people understood sickness before germ theory

Readings: Richard Sennett, “Fear of Touching: The Jewish Ghetto in Renaissance Venice,” in Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996).

Discussion: What was the relationship that Venetians drew between Christianity, syphilis, and Jewish bodies? How were Venetians able to maintain power over the ghetto for centuries?

Week Three

Session 1: Assessing the Lived Experience of the Jewish Ghettos

Lecture: The Jewish ghetto in Central and Eastern Europe; The ghetto v.s. the shtetl

Discussion: Did ghettos ever benefit Jews, or was it an overwhelmingly punitive institution? What are the benefits, as you currently see them, of studying the original ghetto in order to understand the ghetto in the Americas?

Session 2: The Ghetto in 19th Century Jewish Literature

Lecture: Jewish literature in 19th century Europe; Background on authors

Readings: Levy, Amy. “The Ghetto at Florence.” Jewish Chronicle. 26 March 1886, p. 9. Print. OR Magnus, Katie. “The Story of a Street” (1886). Jewish Portraits. London: T. Fischer Unwin, 1888. Print.

Discussion: Compare the two pieces. What do we gain from reading literary, rather than historical, accounts of ghetto life? What are the limitations of literary sources?

Week Four

Session 1: The Jewish Ghetto in America

Lecture: Jewish immigration to the United States; The urban Jewish experience

Readings: Moses Rischin, “Toward the Onomastics of the Great New York Ghetto: How the Lower East Side Got Its Name,” in Remembering the Lower East Side: American Jewish Reflections, ed. Hasia R. Diner, Jeffrey Shandler, and Beth S. Wenger (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000), 13-27; Abraham Cahan, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896).

Discussion: How does “ghetto” as a “proper name” arrive in the United States? How similar (or different) was the New York Ghetto from the ghettos of Europe?

Session 2: The Black Urban Experience at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Lecture: From Reconstruction to Jim Crow; The Great Migration; Making the “First Ghetto”

Readings: Ira Berlin, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations (New York: Viking, 2010). Chapter 4, p. 152-185.

Discussion: How did the Great Migration resemble Jewish immigration to America? What experiences did these two groups share, and how did their experiences differ? How did racism affect the lives of Jews and African Americans?

Week Five

Session 1: Louis Wirth, The Ghetto, and the Chicago School of Sociology

Lecture: The history of History; The first Great Migration; Chicago in the early twentieth century; Assimilation and the race relations cycle

Readings: Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016). Preface and Chapter 1; Louis Wirth, “The Sociological Significance of the Ghetto,” in The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928).

Discussion: What is Duneier’s argument?

Session 2: The Nazi Ghetto

Lecture: The rise of Nazism; How Nazi’s adopted the term “ghetto”; Characteristics of Nazi ghettos

Discussion: How alike were Nazi ghettos to the ghettos of early modern Europe? Why do you think the ghetto metaphor became more powerful in the United States after the Holocaust?

Week Six

Session 1: Drake and Cayton, Black Metropolis, and Chicago’s Black Belt, Part 1

Lecture: Blacks and Jews in World War II; Double-V campaign; Color and class

Readings: Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016). Chapter 2, p. 26-51.

Discussion: What theories did Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, E. Franklin Frazier, and Louis Wirth develop about the city, and how did each theory build upon the previous one? Do any of these theories attribute agency to ghetto dwellers? How and why does Duneier critique of Wirth?

Session 2: Drake and Cayton, Black Metropolis, and Chicago’s Black Belt, Part 2

Lecture: Blacks and Jews in World War II; Double-V campaign; Color and class

Readings: Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016). Chapter 2, p. 51-84.

Discussion: What did Gunnar Myrdal argue about residential segregation? Who did he blame for it, and what did he predict would happen? How did Drake and Cayton challenge Myrdal’s thesis? How did Drake and Cayton define the ghetto concept, and how does their definition and treatment of the concept compare to those we studied previously?

Week Seven

Session 1: The Second Great Migration

Lecture: The Second Great Migration; Segregation between North and South; Cold War arguments for desegregation

Readings: Berlin p 185-200; James N. Gregory. “The Second Great Migration: A Historical Overview.” In African American Urban History Since World War II, edited by Kenneth L. Kusmer and Joe W. Trotter, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 19–38.

Discussion: How did the second great migration affect the existing urban black communities of the north and west? How do Gregory’s findings challenge earlier historical arguments about the impact of migration on Southerners who moved north and west?

Session 2: Making the “Second Ghetto”

Lecture: The role of the state in post-war segregation; “Structural” racism vs. individual racism; White race riots

Readings: Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 2014. Access article using this link: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/; Explore three cities on the Digital Redlining Maps (https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=4/36.71/-96.93&opacity=0.8)

Discussion: What does Coates mean by “reparations”? Does he effectively make his case?

Week Eight

Session 1: The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement

Lecture: Interwar activism for Civil Rights; Civil Rights in the South; The myths of Northern Civil Rights

Readings: Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008). Chapter 8.

Discussion: How does Sugrue explain African American’s mixed gains in overcoming inequality in American cities in the 1950s? What role did social science play in the Civil Rights movement? Sugrue describes a feedback loop between black activists and the Kennedy administration—how did that work?

Session 2: Kenneth Clark and The Dark Ghetto

Lecture: Brown vs. Board of Ed in the courts and on the ground; The “Classical phase” of the Civil Rights Movement and Civil Rights Liberalism

Readings: Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016). Chapter 3, p. 85-113.

Discussion: What theories did scholars like Herbert Gans, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynahan, John Kain, and Oscar Lewis develop in the 1960s to explain the relationship between urban spaces, black families, and the culture of poverty? How did Clark’s early research support or challenge these theories?

Week Nine

Session 1: Was there One Civil Rights Movement?

Lecture: Non-violent vs. Militant Approaches; Class conflict in a racial struggle; The Long Civil Rights Movement?

Readings: Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016). Chapter 3, p. 113-38.

Discussion: What did Kenneth Clark add to Drake and Cayton’s definition of ghetto? How central was the idea of the ghetto to Civil Rights activism?

Session 2: The Urban Crisis

Lecture: Urban renewal, slum clearance, and unfulfilled promises; Limitations of the non-violent approach; Fiscal crises in American cities; How to write an analytical book review

Readings: Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008). Chapter 9.

Discussion: What argument does Sugrue make about how northern activists viewed the strategies of integration and separation? What parallels do you identify between the urban crisis and our current moment of political protest?

Week Ten

Session 1: William Julius Wilson and the Underclass Debate

Lecture: The economic crises of the 1970s; The Reagan revolution; Defining “class”

Readings: Duneier, Ghetto. Chapter 4, p. 139-158, 181-84 (skip 158-181) AND Chapter 5, p. 185-198.

Discussion: What is the underclass thesis? How was it misinterpreted at the time, and why did it become so controversial? How did Wilson position himself in relation to Gunnar Myrdal, Oscar Lewis, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Charles Murray? How does the underclass theory resemble the Chicago School’s theories of ghettoization and black assimilation?

Session 2: The Contemporary American Ghetto

Lecture: Urban policy in the 1990s and 2000s; Social welfare reform under Pres. Clinton

Readings: Duneier, Ghetto. Chapter 5, p. 198-216 AND Chapter 6, p. 217-37.

Discussion: Does Duneier sufficiently support and defend his argument? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book? Would you recommend this book to your peers? Why?

Week Eleven

Session 1: The Black Power Movement and the Underclass Critique

Lecture: African Americans in the Organized Labor Movement; The Black Church and autonomous organizations

Readings: Matthew Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Introduction and Chapter 3.

Discussion: What is civil rights liberalism? How does the case of the “don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign challenge the underclass theory?

Session 2: Black Power Mixtape

Lecture: Selections from Goran Olsson’s documentary “Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” (2011)

Discussion: Did your perception of the Black Power movement change after hearing these first-person perspectives? Is the narrative affected by the filmmaker’s being Swedish and not American?

Week Thirteen

Session 2: Are there ghettos in Latin America?

Lecture: Neoliberalism in theory and function; Economic history of Latin America since colonialism

Readings: Alan Gilbert, “On the Absence of Ghettos in Latin American Cities,” in in Bruce D. Haynes and Ray Hutchison, Ed., The Ghetto: Contemporary Global Issues and Controversies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012), 191-224.

Discussion: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Loïc Wacquant’s definition of ghetto? Would you define any of Gilbert’s Latin American cases as ghettos using other definitions we have studied?

Session 2: Ghetto vs. Favela vs. Barrio

Lecture: History of slavery in Brazil and immigration to Brazil; Race and class in Brazilian society

Readings: Brasilmar Ferreira Nunes and Leticia Veloso, “Divided Cities: Rethinking the Ghetto in Light of the Brazilian Favela,” in in Bruce D. Haynes and Ray Hutchison, Ed., The Ghetto: Contemporary Global Issues and Controversies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012), 225-244.

Discussion: What are the historical and structural differences between the American black urban ghetto and Brazilian favelas? What do Ferreira Nunes and Veloso argue about the association of the ghetto with assimilation? With cultures of poverty?

Week Fourteen

Session 1: Are American cities “post-ghetto”? The Venice Ghetto of 1516 v.s. Chicago’s South Side of 2016

Readings: Selection of press articles on gun violence, policing, and “law and order” in Chicago

Discussion: How similar are segregated urban areas today, 500 years later, to the original ghetto? Does the term still have explanatory or symbolic power? Does this explanatory or symbolic power depend on how we define ghetto? How has your definition or understanding of a ghetto changed throughout the course? Are ghettos universally spaces that are economically, socially, and politically “impoverished”?

Session 2: Final Conclusions

Discussion: How is the study of ghettos relevant to contemporary American politics? To contemporary global politics? Did studying historical examples of discrimination and segregation help you understand the intersection between race, class, religion (and other identities) and how those intersections affect poverty, power, and protest?