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Senior Seminars

Every James Madison College student must complete a one-semester, research intensive, senior seminar in their major or majors. Our Senior Seminars are intended to be capstone experiences ‑‑ opportunities for students to pull together and reflect upon what they have learned in their Madison classes and employ the skills they have mastered.  These seminars are also research seminars, in which students will participate in creating and sharing knowledge.  The seminars are small (about 15‑20 students) and are focused on advanced topics of interest to faculty and students in the major.


Examples of Senior Seminars

  • Visuality and the Cultural Politics of Displacement (CCP)

    One of the most pressing issues in the global world today remains that of the involuntary movement of people, of ‘displaced persons’.  Whether wrought by natural disasters, such as tsunamis or earthquakes, by war or ethnic conflicts, or by policies towards urbanization, displacement is often linked to human suffering, and always connected to national and transnational politics.  Not surprisingly, scholars in a wide range of fields (anthropology, geography, cultural studies, and economics) have noted the importance of ‘seeing’ to cultural perceptions of and public responses to displacement.  Not only do visual images and narratives elicit emotional responses, visuality itself structures political action within the global arena.

    This seminar engages students in the interdisciplinary study of visuality and ‘displacement’.  We will begin by situating displacement and visuality in theoretical and historical perspectives, paying particular attention to the ways in which images and narratives have figured postcolonial subjects and projects.  We will then query how dominant modes of visuality intersect concrete responses to displacement:  how visuality is connected to power relations as made manifest in international, national or local policies.  To this end we will consider together three contemporary case studies: the ongoing crisis in Darfur, Sudan; the movement of indigenous people in Brazil; and, processes of urbanization in China.

    Some of the key questions that will be considered are:  How is displacement constituted?  How do technologies of visuality render subjects ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ in the global field?  Who has access to such technologies? Are institutions, such as the schools or the media, implicated in the production and circulation of ‘displaced persons’?  Can displaced groups engage in similar production?  What are the relationships between visuality and global capitalism?  What are the relationships between governmental, nongovernmental or humanitarian organizations policies towards displaced persons in our three cases and visual culture?

    As in all capstone experiences, student research will provide insights into additional cases that illuminate the importance of visuality to understanding cultural politics in a global world.

  • Cultures and Conflict (CCP)
    This seminar builds from students’ previous coursework in comparative cultures and politics to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between cultures and cultural identities and conflicts. It looks specifically at how cultural institutions (e.g., religion), cultural practices, cultural representations, and intercultural interactions contribute to conflict.  In addition to examining some important theoretical approaches to culture and conflict, the course will take up contemporary cases, including the seemingly most intractable (e.g., Sri Lanka or Kashmir) and those seemingly on a path of transformation (e.g., Northern Ireland). Student research will round out the course, providing insights into additional cases and illuminating the uses and limitations of current theories in the field.
  • Sustainable Development and Policy: International and Domestic Case Studies (IR)
    Sustainable development, for some, is a new paradigm for economic development, a refuge from the hegemony of markets and neoliberalism, and recognition of the strong ties between socioeconomic and natural systems.  For others, sustainable development is nothing more than pie-in-the-sky eco-utopianism, a misguided and ill-defined venture which only serves to derail economic and therefore environmental progress.  In this seminar, we will explore the competing claims, politics and policies of sustainable development.   We will begin with theoretical framings of sustainable development and then transition to more real-world applications motivated by a series of case studies from developing and developed nations.
  • U.S. National Security (IR)
    This seminar will focus on the development and application of U.S. national security policy throughout U.S. history. It will consider the continuities and changes that have occurred based on the evolution of America’s capabilities, interests, and position in a world that has changed dramatically over the last 200 years. While briefly examining America’s rise to power, we will spend a fair amount of time considering the development and evolution of America’s Cold War national security strategy. We will then examine the changes that have occurred since the end of the Cold War and after 9/11. We will also examine how America’s national security institutional infrastructure has been adapted over time to meet new conceptions of threat. Throughout the course, we will focus on the interaction between the development of strategic visions, the development and execution of policy options, and the process of national security policy making. Students will be expected to participate actively in class and prepare a significant research paper, among other assignments (paper drafts, presentation, exams, etc.).
  • Racism and Western Political Philosophy (PTCD)
    This course examines the place of racism in Western political philosophy.  While color distinctions/color consciousness and forms of oppression have been pervasive features of the human condition, racism is a modern European phenomenon.  What has been (and is) the relationship between this modern European idea of racism and Western political philosophy, especially liberalism and socialism?  Is political philosophy, like racism, at bottom ideological? 
  • The Spirit of Political Liberty (PTCD)
    This course examines Shklar's "liberalism of fear" to see whether it provides the most persuasive defense of limited constitutional government.  It also examines Hannah Arendt's revival of the active life of old Greek politics.  The course discussion will revolve around these central questions: What is liberalism?  Is it a coherent and defensible theory of politics?  What is politics?  What most threatens political life in the 20th century?
  • Sex and Law (SRP)

    The purpose of this seminar is to examine the intersection and conflict between sex and law in a liberal democracy - in particular in US liberal democracy. In order to examine this problem we will look closely at a range of materials. First, we will refer to a number of writings of liberal theorists to provide a theoretical framework for our review of subsequent court decisions. Second, we reflect on some feminist critics of liberalism in order to broaden our context. Finally and perhaps the most obvious, we will read from the evolving body of court decisions, primarily US Supreme Court but also some state, circuit, and district court decisions that are weighing in on this subject matter.

    One of the most interesting aspects of this area of law is that it cuts across so many other areas of law. In our study of the problem of sex and law, we will find ourselves confronting issues of federalism, freedom of expression, due process, equal protection and the commerce clause. Hence we enter into a varied and complex area of the law. Among the questions we will examine are:  Should sexual matters be regulated? If so, which branch and level of government is the proper authority to regulate sexual matters? To what extent should sexual matters be regulated?  Is there a right to privacy? If so, to whom does it extend and is it absolute?   What is a family?  What is a marriage?  Is pornography a form of free expression? If so, should it be protected under the First Amendment and to what extent?  As the capstone experience in your studies at MSU, the seminar will draw on and hone all of the skills you have been developing during the past few years - writing, research, listening and speaking skills. Each student will run a seminar session and will critique each other's work.

  • The Politics of Tolerance and Reconciliation (SRP)

    From 1995 to 2003, the government of South Africa, sought to address the atrocities of the apartheid regime, through Truth and Reconciliation Commission.   In 2005, the town of Greensboro North Carolina commissioned a body to address the effects of a civil rights clash that resulted in the deaths of a number of demonstrators in 1979.  In Northern Ireland, the European Union has supported numerous efforts to promote ethnic reconciliation through a special support program.   These kinds of commissions and programs signal a new repertoire in efforts to heal the effects of protracted racial and social conflicts.  But these are not the only public responses to repair the past or atone for longstanding injury:  official apologies, reparations, commemorative markers and museums all attest to the global importance of public responses to historic injustice and on-going intolerance.  But none of these initiatives come without controversy and contention over their purpose, impact, utility and value

    This seminar examines the cultural politics involved in initiatives to foster tolerance and reconciliation.  Can commissions on forgiveness actually create conditions that make reconciliation possible?  What does it mean to face history?  Does it require reparations?  Apologies?  Who is responsible?  How can long standing grievances be addressed and repaired?  What are the effects of cultural initiatives to foster greater communication and interaction among groups that have been in conflict?  Can we really teach tolerance?  And why are such cultural and political initiatives so rampant in the twenty-first century?  Is looking at the past a way of avoiding the future or is it a necessary step to the future?

    Together, we will look at efforts at reconciliation in the post-conflict South Africa and Northern Ireland and post-civil rights United States.  But students may take up other case studies and other domains for the promotion of tolerance (e.g. sexuality, gender, disability) in their research.