What follows are descriptions of a few of the courses I’ve designed and taught at Georgetown and Duke. I’m happy to provide syllabi upon request.
“Ethics & Public Policy: American Incarceration”
The novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once remarked that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” What then could we say of mass imprisonment in the United States, a nation with five percent of the world’s population yet twenty-five percent of its prisoners? How should we understand American democracy if one in twenty-three adults are under some form of state supervision, if one in ten children have had a parent incarcerated, or if one in three black men born today will enter prison at some point? In this seminar we will study the ethical and political dimensions of public policy by focusing on the ideas, institutions and history of American incarceration. Students can expect to read broadly from political science and theory, philosophy, history, sociology, and from the testimonies of those living within, working for, or acting against the carceral state. Our goal for the course will be to develop critical skills in analyzing the policies of incarceration according to the concepts of justice we find in history, law, and society. As such, we will be less concerned with whether mass imprisonment is “just” or “unjust” but how it determines justice and what its many institutions and ideas reveal about the democracy in which we live and act. We will begin by looking at theories of freedom and punishment fundamental to the United States, before working through a series of case issues in incarceration that will take us from the city to the jail to the prison and back again. By the end of the course, we will have built through reading, writing, and discussion a set of theoretical goals for incarceration in policy and practice and a working list of ethical challenges and solutions to issues such as solitary confinement, mental health, prison labor and privatization, life sentences without parole, race and immigration, felon disenfranchisement, and so on. In the last part of our seminar, each student will pursue original research to investigate a specific concern in the ethics and public policy of incarceration.
“American Political Thought”
“O, let America be America again,” Langston Hughes wrote: “The land that never has been yet – and yet must be – the land where every man is free.” Throughout the history of the United States, many, like Hughes, have described its founding ideas as inspirational yet unfulfilled. But what are these political ideas, this American “dream deferred”? Through what events, debates, and writings have these ideas developed throughout the past centuries? In this course we will survey the intellectual history of American political ideas from their English roots to the mid-twentieth century. Along the way we will critically examine abstract ideas such as freedom, equality, representation, labor, rights, and citizenship as they develop in the United States alongside histories of colonization, slavery, industrialization, immigration, war, and so on. Students will engage with these developments through a wide variety of primary sources: through pamphlets, declarations, speeches, memoirs, novels, debates, treatises, and court decisions. From these readings we will analyze American political thought as developed not simply by politicians and philosophers but by those on the margins as well. Our goals will be to master the ideas of multiple American political traditions, to understand the historical, economic and sociological contexts in which they emerged, and to develop critical thinking through writing. In keeping with Hughes’s declaration, we will also assess the relevance and realization of these political traditions in our contemporary political context.
“Politics and Literature: Justice in the Political Imagination”
To know justice, James Baldwin wrote, requires we listen not to the judge but the “testimony” of those “who need the law’s protection most.” What is justice, and how should we define it? This course examines key issues of political and moral justice as explored not through law or philosophy, but literature: in novels, short stories, memoirs, letters, science fiction, and so on. These works will offer students diverse arguments about justice to master and evaluate, arguments that may frame justice as a hierarchical system of governance, as utopian, as an ethical way of life, as meritocratic individualism, as a form of individual resistance or revenge, or as reconciliation. Students will engage in advanced discussion, critique, and writing on political theory that challenges participants to relate issues of justice not simply through readings but as these issues concern politics today. This semester, students will study selections that include Sophocles’ Antigone, Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s Herland, Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, and short stories by Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick.
“Autobiography and American Democracy”
Since at least The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, American thinkers have written their life stories for various political purposes: to outline an ethical way of political life, to resist authority or injustice, to insist on the author’s place among the people, and so on. This course surveys those political actors who have drawn on autobiography to champion or critique American democracy. We will investigate how actors use the genre to wrestle with topics such as the relevance of morality for citizenship, whether participants should draw on experience in political debate, how democracy should respond to histories of injustice, and how citizenship should best reflect a diverse public. This semester we will read authors such as Benjamin Franklin, Black Hawk, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Henry David Thoreau, Booker T. Washington, Henry Adams, Emma Goldman, Whittaker Chambers, and Malcolm X, as well as engage with recent examples of personal narrative in immigration, sexual identity, and presidential politics.
At Cornell University, I designed and taught the following two undergraduate seminars:
“’The Race of Life’: Citizenship in American Political Thought”
Who are “we the people”? This course offers an historical overview of American claims for and about citizenship, framed not simply through Supreme Court decisions and the Constitution but through popular literature, pamphleteering, speeches, autobiography, and so on. Students will examine political arguments that push for equality, ideas that promote exclusion, and claims that define equality by excluding others. Our class will analyze citizenship as it has been defined through rights, representation, work, and identity, whereas topics will include birthright citizenship, immigration, sexual identity, corporate personhood, etc.
“The Politics of Battlestar Galactica: Authority And Action”
Can we learn from political science fiction? In this course students will write on and analyze themes in political theory through the medium of popular science fiction, specifically the world and narrative of the television series, Battlestar Galactica. Set as a post-9/11 paradigm of political unrest and crisis, the show will provide multiple perspectives from which to consider the role of authority – in politics, pop culture, and our own lives. By drawing on contemporary politics and short selections of canonical theory, students will develop writerly and political self-awareness about why government exists, its power, and our duty or capability to resist it. In doing so, we will reflect on the importance of writing, pop culture, and personal experience for our political dispositions.