Teaching

I teach a variety of courses on American political thought, constitutional law, prisons and punishment, and literature, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Below are a few of my favorites.

I’m particularly committed to teaching and learning in correctional facilities through prison education or inside-outside programs. You can read a bit about one of my experiences here.

“The Ethics of 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 challenges of crime and punishment in the United States, looking at the ideas, institutions and history of American incarceration. We will begin by looking at the philosophy and sociology of freedom and punishment before working through a series of case issues in incarceration that will take us from society to the jail to the prison and back again. 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.

Find the syllabus here.

“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”?

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.

Find the syllabus here.

“Politics and Literature”

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?

In this course we will examine key issues of political and moral justice as explored not through law or philosophy, but literature: in novels, short stories, memoirs, letters, drama, science fiction, and so on. These works will offer us 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, as reconciliation, and more. Along the way, we will compare these literary approaches to justice with those found in political theory, philosophy, and public policy.

Find the syllabus here.

“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. 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.

Find the syllabus here.