November 13, 2003

Two New Courses Examine Current Events

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In response to current events in the world and on Cornell’s campus, two new courses are being offered in the spring 2004 semester for undergraduates — Government 210: Race in America and Cornell: An Introductory Course and Rural Sociology 494: Critical Perspectives on U.S. Empire.

GOVT 210, which will be cross-listed in six other departments, is geared toward freshmen and sophomores, according to student-elected trustee Funa Maduka ’04, the course’s creator.

Maduka said that the idea for the class came from a variety of events and conditions on Cornell’s campus.

“Ever since I was a freshman, the race relations on this campus were very important to me,” she said.

Inability to Talk

Maduka said that she also realized there was an inability to talk about race in a class where students were unable to answer when the professor asked what race was.

“That’s when it hit me: People don’t event know what this is,” she said. “It’s a touchy subject, but it needs to be discussed.”


According to Maduka, after proposing the course to Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin, she began looking to get faculty involved.

Isaac Kramnick, the R.J. Schwartz Professor of Government and vice provost for undergraduate education, became the coordinator for the course and, according to Maduka, was “a very big help” in getting the word out to faculty.

According to Kramnick, the topics for the course were developed from a group of interested faculty members.

The topics include the concept of race, social dynamics of race, politics of race, race and culture, and race at Cornell.

Faculty members include Michele Moody-Adams, the Hutchinson Professor in Ethics and Public Life; Ray Dalton, director of the Office of Minority Affairs and even President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, among others.

Prof. David Grusky, sociology, will, along with two other faculty members, be teaching a portion of the course entitled “Social Dynamics of Race.” According to Grusky, “I will be delivering a lecture on the various ways in which racial inequality may evolve and the social forces that might lead to any one of these futures as opposed to another. This lecture should hopefully generate much discussion of which of these possible futures should be pursued, which should be avoided and how actions undertaken now might lead us toward these futures [or away from them].”

Prof. Robert Harris, Africana studies, vice provost for diversity and faculty development, will be concentrating on the topic of race issues at Cornell. According to Harris, “Cornell is a traditionally white university. We don’t necessarily think of it in this manner.”

Harris said that because of this fact there was, over the years, “the development of a culture at the University with certain norms and expectations.”

According to Harris, Cornell, to its credit, was founded as a “nonsectarian, coeducational university and one that was open to all races.” Harris said that this history of the University is important in understanding how attitudes and events were shaped.

Harris said that the concept of race, how the idea of race emerged especially in Western thought and how that construct of race influenced the United States “must be looked at in a broader context.”

According to Maduka, the “whole point of the class is to get people talking.” Maduka said that she believes a course such as this one is extremely necessary at an institution with a history such as Cornell’s. “Cornell owes it to its legacy,” she said.

Kramnick said that he hopes that the result of the course is “that a greater understanding of the importance of issues of race in American life be addressed in a scholarly mode of inquiry.”

The class will include lectures and discussion sections. Additionally, when University trustees visit Cornell in March 2004, they will participate in the course through a question-and-answer session and by taking part in the discussion sections.

According to Kramnick, after senior, junior and sophomore CoursEnroll, the number of students already enrolled was approximately 150, with the expected capacity for the course being between 200 and 250.

RSOC 494

A second new course being offered this spring is RSOC 494: Critical Perspectives on U.S. Empire. The three-credit course will be taught by 12 professors from a variety of disciplines and most likely will include more professors as time goes on, according to Prof. Tom Hirschl, development sociology and one of the faculty involved in the course design.

The course will focus on the developments in U.S. foreign and domestic policy since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Specifically, it aims to address the idea of the U.S. as an “empire,” as it has been called by some, and the historical events leading up to this thought.

Professors involved in the course will discuss the topic in relation to their areas of expertise.

According to Hirschl, the topic of this course is important because of its timely nature and important future implications. “It’s really debating the future of this country,” he said. Hirschl said that the discussion of the course will be a “scholarly scientific discussion,” attempting to address the “provoking” concept of the U.S. as an empire and ask, “What should we think of this as morally committed citizens?”

Prof. Paul Sawyer, English, is also involved with the course. Sawyer will discuss media presentations of America both within the United States and to other nations.

Sawyer said that the U.S. lives in a “media bubble,” and it is important to acknowledge the differences in perception resulting from this state.

According to Sawyer, the subject of the empire is “elusive.”

“I would say that the [idea of an] empire is either so obvious that everyone sees it or it’s a paranoid conspiracy,” he said.

Hirschl said that the course will allow students and faculty to examine their views of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. “There’s a real need for scholarly and democratic dialogue,” Hirschl said.

“I hope that students and faculty get a lot out of this course,” he added.

Sawyer said that he hopes for a “great deal of student feedback” during the course. “I hope that students will better understand the American role in the world,” he added.

According to Hirschl, it is important also for the course to address and understand opposing views.

“When you’re opposed to something, you don’t necessarily understand what the other person is saying,” he said.

Hirschl said he hopes both students and professors will be willing to challenge their own views.

“You have to be self-critical if you’re going to be a professor and seek the truth,” Hirschl said.

Archived article by Kate Cooper