Mary Dillard

Director, Graduate Program in Women’s History

BA, Stanford University. MA, PhD, University of California-Los Angeles. Special interests include history of West Africa, particularly Ghana and Nigeria; history of intelligence testing and external examinations in Africa; history of science in Africa; and gender and education. Recipient of a Spencer fellowship and Major Cultures fellowship at Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. SLC, 2001–

Undergraduate Courses 2018-2019


Gender, History, and Memory: Diasporic Voices in Oral History

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

This course introduces students to the best practices of oral history by analyzing the works of women who have been historically marginalized. We will focus on the stories of African, African American, and Caribbean women, while studying ongoing debates in the field of oral history. By using ethnographies, life histories, oral histories, biographies, and autobiographies, we will answer the following questions: How can oral history be used to provide a more inclusive rendering of the past? How have women used various forms of voice to represent themselves and tell their own stories? What are the limitations of any historical research method (including oral history), and what are the ethical implications of both the digital revolution and the digital divide for oral historians? For the purposes of this class, “memory” will be defined broadly to include not only the mental recall that people utilize when responding to interview questions but also hidden, political, and public memories.

Related Disciplines

Graduate Courses

Women's History 2018-2019

History Matters: Advanced Work in the Practical Application of Historical Knowledge of Women and Gender

Graduate Seminar—Summer

Core class required of all women’s history graduate students finishing the accelerated track.

This course combines an intensive one-week seminar with independent study culminating in the capstone paper.


Usable Past

Graduate Seminar—Summer

Core class required of all first-year women’s history graduate students in the accelerated track.

This intensive seminar is designed for students and practitioners who seek to apply historical knowledge to issues of gender policy and advocacy. Readings, discussions, and a wide range of guest speakers will address policy initiatives and advocacy projects that make impacts on women’s lives on local, national, and international levels. Students will acquire skills and knowledge essential to careers in public service, NGOs, and elsewhere in the nonprofit sector.


Thesis Seminar in Women’s and Gender History

Graduate Seminar—Year

Core class required of Women’s History graduate students in the two-year program.

This yearlong course is designed for students who are writing MA theses in women’s and gender history. We will discuss the historiographical dimensions of thesis work; assess various research methods, interpretive models, and theories of history; and grapple with practical questions about writing and documentation. Readings include historical works with scholarship, theoretical works, and research guides. At critical junctures, students will also read and evaluate each other’s work.

Previous Courses

Ideas of Africa: Africa Writes Back

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

The continent of Africa has variously been described as the birthplace of humanity, the “Motherland,” a country, a continent, “Mother Africa,” and a “heart of darkness.” All of these descriptions reflect representations of Africa, but how accurately do they reflect reality? The goal of this class is to study the intellectual history of what we know—or think we know—about modern Africa. Why is it that some of the most prominent images of Africa today are either negative (e.g., Africa as a diseased, hungry, war-ravaged continent) or romanticized (e.g., Africa as a mother figure, birthplace of civilization, or lush nature preserve)? A central theme of our discussions will be that ideas have a history that is as powerful as radioactive isotopes. In other words, ideas maintain a shelf life even when their origins have long become obscured. Unfortunately, this has profound implications for Africa’s place in a modern, globalized world where image can be as important as reality. Through the use of historical documents, political manifestos, philosophical treatises, travel narratives, current news sources, and blogs, we will study how the image of Africa has changed over time. We will trace the “heart of darkness” narrative and analyze why it has become such an enduring trope of modern Africa. Ultimately, our purpose will be to interrogate various descriptions of Africa over time and analyze where they originated from, why they exist, and whether they are accurate.


Education and Social Change in Africa

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

The arrival and expansion of Western education, through the provision of formal schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was hailed as ushering in a social revolution in Africa. Whether through the expansion of Universal Primary Education (UPE) programs, investment in literacy training, or distance learning through the use of modern technology, education has consistently been viewed as one of the most important services that a government can offer in order to change the lives of ordinary people in Africa. Education rates are supposedly a marker of economic development, and the provision of formal schools are said to provide a necessary path toward poverty reduction; however, critics of the belief that education is a magic bullet to solve social, political, and economic ills call the focus on education an example of the “school to the rescue” model. They point to the inability of postcolonial education systems in Africa to provide high-quality education for the bulk of the population and suggest that educational inequality has only been made worse as a result of the dominance of neo-liberal economic models. This course studies the history of education in Africa through reviewing indigenous/traditional, Islamic, and Western models of schooling. Through our readings and course work, we will analyze the ways in which formal schooling can be a tool of intellectual and political liberation; however, we will also consider the ways that schooling can lead to alienation and reinforce inequality. In particular, students will develop an understanding of how race, class, religion, and gender have been important fault lines in the history of education in Africa. This yearlong class will enable students to develop a broad understanding of the changes in African educational policy debates over the past 50 years. Students with a background in teaching and tutoring or a future interest in educational policy studies will be particularly welcome in this class.

Related Disciplines

Public Stories, Private Lives: Methods of Oral History

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

Oral history methodology has moved from a contested approach to studying history to an integral method of learning about the past. This is because oral histories allow us to gain an understanding of past events from a diverse array of vantage points. Methods of recording oral history also allow the possibility of bringing private stories into the public. In contrast, public history in the form of monuments, museums, and World Heritage Sites are consciously preserved in order to emphasize particular aspects of a national, regional, or local past that their protectors deem to be important. Who owns this history? Is it Civil War reenactors, who dedicate their weekends to remembering that war? Is it the African Americans who return to West Africa in search of their African past or the West Africans who want to forget about their slave-trading past? What happens when the methods for interpreting public and oral histories combine? This course places particular attention on the importance of oral history in tracing memories of the past. We will discuss how Africanist and feminist scholars have used oral history to study the history of underrepresented groups. We will also investigate how methods of oral history and public history can be used in reconstructing the local history of our surrounding community (i.e., Yonkers, Bronxville, Westchester County).