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Teaching Erosion of Democracy

Thu, August 30, 12:00 to 1:30pm, Hynes, 200

Session Submission Type: Roundtable

Session Description

Recent years have witnessed a deluge of commentary warning of imminent threats to democracy in the US, the West, and the world. This, in turn, has provoked a countervailing deluge arguing that hysteria over democratic erosion, rather than any particular politician or political movement, is democracy’s most serious looming threat. For students trying to make sense of our unique political moment, this cacophony can be extremely disorienting. Is American democracy really under threat? What about democracy in the West, or the world more generally? If it is under threat, what can we do about it? And if it’s not under threat, why are so many of us so worried that it is?

To help students answer these questions, we are currently participating in a collaborative course on democratic erosion across over a dozen universities in the US. The course encourages students to critically and systematically evaluate the risks to democracy both here and abroad, not through the filter of partisan attachments, but rather through the lens of theory, history, and social science. More broadly, the collaboration aims to generate opportunities for teaching, research, and civic engagement simultaneously, exploiting economies of scale to identify and open new avenues of inquiry that might not be accessible through a standalone seminar or research project.

Faculty at 17 US universities are currently participating in the collaboration. Some are teaching the exact same 13-week course; others are incorporating several weeks of material from our shared syllabus into existing courses on related topics. We also recently added our first non-US based faculty collaborator, from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. (Please see for details.) Faculty collaborate on lesson planning and syllabus design. Students collaborate on assignments, which include a publicly-accessible, cross-university blog, and a meta-analysis for USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (DRG) section on the dynamics of democratic erosion worldwide. We have also recently begun coordinating with the Bright Line Watch (BLW) survey team, which we hope will result in multiple student projects leveraging BLW data to glean new insights into the current and future trajectory of American democracy.

This roundtable brings together eight of our participating faculty (alongside our graduate student teaching and research assistant) to discuss and debate four broad questions, some of them pedagogical, some substantive:

1) How are students thinking about the state of American democracy in an era of rising right-wing populism worldwide? What did we learn about the way students are thinking from the experience of teaching the course?
2) To what extent did students’ thinking change after 13 weeks of discussing and reading about American democracy from a theoretical, historical, and comparative perspective? Does greater understanding breed greater optimism or pessimism (or neither)?
3) Does collaboration serve a useful pedagogical purpose? To what extent did the collaborative aspect of the course add to its quality? How might the model be improved?
4) Does collaboration serve a useful scholarly purpose? What new avenues for research on democratic erosion might we pursue as a team, inspired by lessons learned from teaching the course? What recurring themes emerged during the course? Which have not been adequately addressed in the academic literature? Which are most ripe for compelling research designs?

The eight roundtable participants were selected to capture much of the diversity in the way the course was taught over the 2017-18 academic year: undergraduate and graduate level courses, seminars and lecture courses, semester- and quarter-long courses, complete (13 weeks) and partial courses, etc. We will, however, invite all participating faculty to attend the roundtable, and to add their perspectives to the discussion where appropriate. Beyond creating a space for reflection and debate, the roundtable will also offer us, the participating faculty, our first opportunity to convene in person as a group. This will be a valuable and enriching experience in and of itse

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