On Friday November 9th, I was named one of the six winners of the 2018 Provost’s Award for Diversity in the Curriculum (you can read more about that here and here). Below is an excerpt from the application that explains how I overhauled the course. You can find the syllabus on my Teaching page (sorry, I’m not sophisticated enough to have mastered page jumps yet, so no link).
I have taught American Political Thought for many years, always emphasizing that the “dominant” conception of freedom in the United States works to exclude many groups from full inclusion in society. After the 2016 Presidential election and in light of the ongoing work of the Movement for Black Lives, however, I decided that the course needed a significant overhaul. Previous iterations had emphasized that people in different social positions had divergent perspectives on the dominant discourse of freedom and were differently impacted by it. Yet I came to believe that the course did not do enough to emphasize the ways in which that exclusion and marginalization are actually constitutive of the particular and peculiar notion of freedom that dominates our politics. I revised the course to make this relationship central.
I cut a significant amount of material from the old version and reworked the section on the “classical conception of freedom” (I give the dominant idea a name that the students can easily remember) to show how that conception is predicated on slavery and exclusion; and, I dramatically expanded and reworked the unit on African-American political thought.
We read Orlando Patterson’s conceptual work defining slavery in the Atlantic context, the seminal essay by Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” and difficult works by the founders on slavery and by pro-slavery theorists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Through these works we explored how central race slavery has been to American political thought and institutions. We also read more work by Abolitionists and early critics of slavery, to help dispel the notion that it was “acceptable at the time.” Crucially, both the pro-slavery and Abolitionist theorists understood quite clearly that racialized slavery was necessary for the preservation of class and gender hierarchies (allowing me to introduce students to the notion of intersectionality in a course where they would not typically encounter it). This is a point underscored by DuBois’s incisive analysis in Black Reconstruction.
Then, in the expanded unit on African-American critics of the classical conception of freedom (a full three weeks), we read both classical works (Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, M.L. King Jr) as well as texts by authors less frequently anthologized in courses like this one (Maria Stewart, David Walker, Ida Wells, James Baldwin) and contemporary commenters (Michelle Alexander, James Forman, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, Kima Jones, Carol Anderson, Claudia Rankine).
Finally, I asked students, for their final assignment, to read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and to think, in a very preliminary way, about similarities and differences in the experiences of colonialism and marginalization that African Americans and Native Americans have experienced. The students’ work on this assignment, and throughout the course, was outstanding and inspiring.