current & upcoming courses:
- HNRS 3110: Beyond Good and Evil (University Honors Core)
- POLS 5800: Honors Seminar (POLS/IRLT Honors Thesis Program, by permission only)
- POLS 2000: Foundations of Political Thought
- POLS 3030: Contemporary Political Theory
- POLS 5810: Honors Thesis (POLS/IRLT Honors Thesis Program, Part 2, by permission only)
Critical Race Theory (POLS 392/ POLS 3050, 4 Units, cross-listed with Chicana/o Studies; fulfills Interdisciplinary Connections Core Requirement, Writing Flag, and Information Literacy Flag)
This course takes up the question of race and politics through the lens of critical theory, legal theory, and political philosophies of race and difference. To that end, it is an extended study of what the philosopher Charles Mills describes as “white supremacy as a political system” as it is exercised through the law, social norms, and ways of thinking and knowing. It will primarily focus on the specific academic and political movement of Critical Race Theory (CRT), an offshoot of the Critical Legal Studies tradition that developed in the last quarter of the 20th century and which has taken on renewed importance in the 21st century and its repeated yet unsubstantiated claims of being a “post-racial” social and political order. The course will pay special attention to intersections of race with, sexuality, gender, and disability
Detention and Incarceration (POLS 592, 4 Units)
This seminar course asks what punishment in the form of incarceration and detention means in a modern democratic state and what this particular form of punishment reveals about conceptions of personal responsibility and subjectivity in the Western tradition. To that end, the course offers an in-depth study of punishment theory, the history of the incarceration and detention as punitive forms, the social, economic, and political analysis of prisons, the lived experiences of prisoners, their families, and the workers employed by the United States prison system. The first part of the course will explore the dominant modern approaches to understanding punishment, covering Durkhiem, Marxist interpretations, modern Anglo-American legal traditions, expressive retributivism, and culminating with a close reading of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The second part of the course focuses on incarceration and detention as they are practiced in the United States in light of these theoretical approaches. The third part of the course asks how such practices play out in terms of collateral consequences and the importance of racial, gender, and sexual identities in relation to punishment. In this course, we will confront our assumptions about incarceration and detention in the US, and critically examine the ways in which we are already connected to, invested in, and increasingly dependent upon a criminal justice system that relies on the mass warehousing of people of color and socio-economically disadvantaged people.
Beyond Good and Evil (HNRS 3110, University Honors Core, 4 Units)
What does it mean for “morality” to have a history? What about freedom? Equality? The Self? The Psyche? The Soul? How are we to orient ourselves toward the task of living if we take seriously Nietzsche’s assertion that it is precisely “we knowers” who are “unknown to ourselves?” Beyond Good and Evil is a course in critical ethical and moral theory, taking up the cultural and ideological formations that have shaped our understandings of ethical, social, political, and economic questions in our contemporary moment. In this small and reading-intensive seminar, we will focus on the fraught relationships between three definitive modern terms: self, society, and freedom, asking these hard questions which are meant to disorient ourselves from the certainty we have, so that we may be able to think more ethically, freer, and more honestly about our actions and reactions to the world in which we find ourselves. How can we be free as individuals and collectively as a society in these first decades of the twenty-first century?
Society and its Discontents (HRNS 130, 3 Units)
“Society and its Discontents” serves as an introduction to the cultural and ideological formations that have shaped our understanding of social, political, economic, and cultural questions in the contemporary period. In particular, we will focus our attention on the typically fraught relationship between the “self” and “society.” We will organize this discussion through the work of two quintessentially ‘modern’ theorists of society, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, and their reinterpretation in twentieth century social theory. By tracing Marx and Freud’s theories of the self and society through the work of W.E.B. DuBois, Herbert Marcuse, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, and Michel Foucault, we will ask how we should best think about society at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Foundations of Political Theory (POLS 220, 3 Units)
“Foundations” is a reading, writing, and discussion intensive course that will introduce students to the history of political thought. Through an engagement with “classic” texts spanning the ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary periods in the “west,” we will ask hard questions about justice, truth, value, happiness and the good life, individual and common good, the foundations of political societies, the origins and work of inequality, the value of freedom, subjection, subjectivity and citizenship, violence and morality, and many others. Perhaps above all, we will ask what it means to make something “foundational” at all, and what we have “built” upon that foundation.
Punishment and Mercy (POLS 392, 4 Units, w/ Prof. John Parrish)
This course will explore the many theoretical and practical difficulties that arise in attempting to reconcile an effective and just system of social punishment with the virtue of mercy. The relationship between mercy and punishment is frequently viewed as mutually exclusive or contradictory. Can a system forego punishment (through mercy) for some and still have equality? Can a system punish offenders and still uphold the dignity of the individual? How does one mediate between impunity and vengeance? Utilizing the lenses of modern philosophical ethics (Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Kant), contemporary political theory (Nietzsche, Durkheim, Foucault, Derrida), and theology (Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, United States Catholic Bishops) as well as engaging contemporary case-studies, this course analyzes this relationship in terms of competing strategies of punishment, moral rules and boundaries, moral and premoral goods, and philosophical and theological visions of forgiveness and mercy. The purpose of the course is not to develop an overly simplistic solution but rather to challenge and transform students’ presuppositions regarding mercy and punishment.
Contemporary Political Theory (POLS 327, 4 Units)
This is a survey course of late 20th and early 21st century political theory. We will cover a range of theoretical approaches in contemporary political theory, including: (1) social welfare liberalism, (2) libertarianism, (3) civic and humanist republicanism, (4) discourse ethics and deliberative democracy, (5) identitarian critiques, and (6) post-structuralism. Throughout the semester, we will pay special attention to two constellations of questions centered on the ideas of “freedom” and “critique.” What do we mean by freedom? Who is the “free agent” or “free subject” of political life? What is the relation between political freedom and freedom in social, economic, and moral spheres? Secondly, what is critique? What is the object of critique? What grounds critique? What role does critical analysis play in political theory? What does it mean to be a critical political thinker in our daily lives and in our multiplicity? What, in the end, is the relationship between freedom and critique?
Politics of the Wire (POLS 392, 1 Unit)
In the original pitch made to HBO, David Simon explains that “The Wire” was intended to be “a vehicle for making statements about the American city and even the American experiment.” Simon goes on to note that, at its core, “The Wire” is a tragedy. “At the end of thirteen episodes,” he writes, “the reward for the viewer–who has been lured all this way by a well-constructed police show–is not the simple gratification of hearing handcuffs click. Instead, the conclusion is something that Euripides or [Eugene] O’Neill might recognize: an America, at every level at war with itself.”
The central “war” that shapes the narrative of the “The Wire” is the now 40 year old “war on drugs,” and one of the key “statements” it makes about the “American experiment” is that this war has been a policy failure. We will critically evaluate this argument through a close reading of the first season of the show, which will serve as our central “text” for the semester. Moreover, we will ask what role the idea of “war” itself plays in shaping (and possibly distorting) other figures, ideals, and motifs in political thought and practice. To this end, the course will pair the first thirteen episodes of the program with short readings in political and social theory, U.S. history, criminology, and political science. This is not a course on the “The Wire,” but rather a course which will use “The Wire” to explore broader themes including: racial, economic, and sexual dimensions of (in)equality, personal freedom and capitalism, the state’s monopoly on the use of violence, the effects of systemic poverty and residential segregation on political agency, and the relationship between punishment and surveillance.
courses at University of Chicago
Classics of Social and Political Thought I (SOSC 15100)
While Classics of Social and Political Thought might look very much like an introduction to political theory, or a “great books” course, it is more properly understood as an integral part of a broad liberal arts education animated by the manner of questions we will ask. These texts, not all of which you will probably find “great,” will be our objects of interpretive analysis, and will serve as tools to help us ask a wide range of questions about ourselves and the world we share with others. We will ask questions about justice, truth, value, happiness and the good life, individual and common good, the foundations of political societies, the origins and work of inequality, the value of freedom, subjection, subjectivity and citizenship, violence and morality, and many others. Perhaps above all, we will ask what it means to even think about a “canon” of political thought, and what makes anything “classic” at all?
In this quarter, we focus on ancient and medieval political thought including Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Alfarabi, Aquinas, and Machiavelli (Autumn Quarter).
Classics of Social and Political Thought II (SOSC 15200)
The Winter Quarter of CSPT focuses on the early modern period of European thought, and in particular on the emergence of the “social contract” tradition. We will read texts by Elizabeth I, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. Central to our analysis of these canonical accounts of liberal and civic republican theories of political community will be questions of the implicit and explicit boundaries of such communities, and the terms of difference that both construct and challenge those boundaries. Questions of race, gender, sexuality, disability, and nation will therefore be at the heart of our reading. (Winter Quarter).
2011 Syllabus, 2010 Syllabus, 2009 Syllabus, 2007 Syllabus
Classics of Social and Political Thought III (SOSC 15300)
This course is the third part of the year long Classics sequence. In this quarter, we turn Tocqueville, Marx, Mill, Weber, Nietzsche, Du Bois, and Beauvoir (Spring Quarter).
Politics of Punishment (PLSC/CRPC 20702)
This is a seminar course asking what punishment means in a modern democratic state and what particular forms of punishment reveal about conceptions of personal responsibility and subjectivity. The first half of the course will explore the dominant modern approaches to understanding punishment, covering Durkhiem, Marxist interpretations, modern Anglo-American legal traditions, expressive retributivism, and culminating with a close reading of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The second part of the course focuses on incarceration as it is practiced in the United States in light of these theoretical approaches. The third part of the course asks how such practices play out in terms of collateral consequences and the importance of racial, gender, and sexual identities in relation to punishment (Autumn Quarter, 2006).
proposed and sample courses
African-American Politics in Theory and Practice
This course asks what it means to talk about African-American politics in both theory and practice over the course of the American experience. The first half of the course begins by focusing on the theoretical and philosophical foundations of race, asking how race figured into abstract notions of politics as well as in the founding of the United States during the late 18th century. We continue historically, asking how the end of the Civil War, reconstruction, redemption, and the rise of Jim Crow shaped black politics during those periods and how it has shaped black politics for future generations. In particular, we will explore the dramatic emergence of a black voting block and the “realignment” of black voters from the Republican to Democratic parties in the early 20th century. In the second half of the course, we will focus on the civil rights movement and its legacy of shifting from “protest to politics,” questioning the very idea of “black politics” itself. Challenged on the one hand by internal cleavages amongst African-Americans and on the other hand by external pressures of systemic racism in institutions such as the criminal justice system, we will ask if the idea of black politics even makes sense any longer. At the end of the course, we will ask what the future of black politics looks like, and how our own theoretical and philosophical commitments continue to form and shape our political praxis in the “Age of Obama.” A constant voice throughout the course we be that of W.E.B. Du Bois. If, as DuBois puts it, the problem of the 20th century is the “problem of the color-line,” we will force our selves to ask in what way it continues to be the problem of the 21st century as well.
Foucault’s Turn to Ethics
In 1976, when Michel Foucault published the introduction to the History of Sexuality, it was planned to be the first in a multi-volume series of texts on the development of sexuality in the modern era. In what turned out to be only a few months before his death in 1984, two additional volumes were published. These texts were, on Foucault’s own appraisal, a significant departure from what he had intended to write. The 8-year gap between these works saw a transformation in Foucault’s thought, which Foucault scholars have frequently identified as a turn away from analysis of discursive power to an ethical project. This seminar in Foucault’s late thought takes up this ethical turn through a close reading of several lectures given during his period along with the entire 3 volumes of the History of Sexuality. We will focus particular attention on the 1982 lecture course at the College de France entitled The Hermeneutics of the Subject. This course will give students a fuller picture of Foucault’s thought in the several years before his untimely death. We will take up the question of whether his late work is continuous with, or signals a break from, his early thought. Additionally, we will take this opportunity to explore the differences between writing and speaking, between the book and the lecture as genres of political theory.
Introduction to U.S. Politics: Institutions and Issues
This is an introductory course in the politics of the United States. We will cover a large range of topics, institutions, and issues driven by historical documents and supplemented by classic Political Science analysis. Unlike a traditional introductory course in US Politics, which typically offer a synthetic overview of political institutions and practices, this course is historically driven and relies on original documents and original political science research. More importantly, we will understand the terms “institutions” and “practices” in a broader context, and explicitly question how we have come to understand what it means to some things as “political” instead of others.