Previous Research Guide
December 10, 2011 will mark the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is widely seen as a day when nations across the globe came together to recognize that all human beings have fundamental rights. Nowadays human rights are increasingly evoked by politicians, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) celebrities, and businesspeople. Despite the apparent triumph of the belief in human rights, however, each day we are exposed to stories detailing the plight of refugees, unlawful detentions and torture, and racist acts targeted towards (im)migrants. The aim of this course is to further an understanding of the discourse of human rights, and we will use the lens of rhetoric to examine how all of these diverse international actors frame human rights issues and human rights violations. The main questions that will form the backdrop of our discussions are: What are human rights? Are such rights universal, or are they relative to the cultural context? What roles do race and ethnicity play in human rights policies in countries such as the U.S., France, and Great Britain? Using the lens of rhetoric will help us to understand the disconnect between human rights policy at the international level and the continued prevalence of human rights violations.
We'll analyze philosophical treatises from the European Enlightenment (John Locke, G.W.F. Hegel) and juxtapose those with texts by anti-colonial activists (Toussaint Louverture, Frantz Fanon); we'll look at the U.S. Bill of Rights along with texts written by Malcolm X and W.E.B. Dubois; and we'll analyze the music of activists like Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, and Nas to reflect the trend towards cosmopolitanism and global justice. In addition to writing essays, engaging with music and videos, and collaborating on projects, students will participate in an exercise in which they are given a scenario of a fictitious country in the midst of a complex humanitarian emergency; as a class, we will determine whether intervention in the name of human rights is warranted and justified.
People make claims to citizenship when presenting a passport, requesting a visa, or demanding asylum. We also make claims to citizenship when voting, applying for financial aid, or participating in political discussions. Standing up to speak in public often involves making an explicit or implicit claim to citizenship; you are claiming a right to speak and be heard in public. Claims to citizenship often provoke controversy. These claims may involve contentious demands for membership, mobility, political recognition, equal rights, and economic support. Membership and mobility are the focus of public debates over Comprehensive Immigration Reform and Sanctuary City laws. Equal rights and recognition are the focus of public debates over Health Care Reform and Proposition 8.
What does it mean to be a citizen? What are the conditions in which one gains and maintains citizenship? How do we change these conditions if they keep individuals from enjoying full citizenship? What practices constitute good citizenship? These questions will guide and animate our course as we investigate claims to citizenship. We will examine arguments about citizenship by anthropologists, political theorists, sociologists, politicians, legal activists, and op-ed columnists. Specifically, we will study how engaging someone as a citizen is an essential and problematic practice of what it means to speak to those around us in order to create a common identity. In your research, you will analyze community membership and equal rights are shaped through contentious claims to citizenship.
When an IBM-designed computer program nicknamed Watson participated last February in a three-day Jeopardy playoff against the game show's two most successful contestants, the results were decisive and, for those partial to the human race, disheartening: Watson's resounding triumph inspired both facetious panic ("Robot Apocalypse Draws Nearer With Jeopardy! Victory," New York magazine declared) and efforts to redefine human intelligence in un-automatable terms ("Can It Write Poetry?" asked one Huffington Post blogger). Like any step forward in the development of machines capable of performing human tasks, then, Watson prompted many observers to adjust both their definitions of humanity and their predictions for the future of the species.
Using texts ranging from Edgar Allan Poe's 1836 analysis of a supposed chess-playing automaton to the recent film WALL-E, this course will explore the role of language in humanizing machines and mechanizing humans. Some of the broad questions that we will investigate together include: How do the rhetorical choices we make when writing about robots and A.I. echo or alter our notion of human intelligence? How do mechanical or computational metaphors for the human mind shape our reactions to new technological developments? How has our conception of the relationship between humans and machines changed across various historical periods, from the elaborate automata of the Enlightenment to the futuristic robot-run households imagined in post-World War II America? How do the tasks and roles we imagine for robots reflect ongoing human conversations about class, race and gender?
Ideally, students will use these fields of inquiry not only to develop a greater awareness of and control over their own rhetorical and argumentative strategies, but also to guide their more narrowly focused research into the continuous rhetorical redrawing of the line between human and machine.
Our daily lives are saturated in stories. Even when we are not reading literature we are bombarded with stories in the news, Facebook updates, blogs, television programs, popular music, films, and conversation with friends and family. Every one of us is both a consumer and a producer of stories. In this course we will view storytelling as a rhetorical and ethical act. How can stories be used as tools of persuasion? What makes a good or effective story? Can stories make us better (or worse) people? And in the digital environment we inhabit are there simply too many stories?
We will begin by analyzing some of the stories Barack Obama and John McCain told during the 2008 presidential election in their attempts to define themselves and each other. Our readings will illustrate how stories can be used in arguments as well as how arguments can be made about storytelling itself. We'll see how Erroll Morris' film The Thin Blue Line makes an argument by coordinating conflicting stories of a murder and we'll read Bill Wasik on what he sees as our unhealthy preoccupation with transitory microstories on the internet. We will investigate how writers of academic essays find ways to incorporate stories into their writing and consider the academic essay itself as a form of storytelling.