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Wearing all the hats

November 14, 2022 - Beth Brauer and Brianne Wolf, Ph.D.

Faculty Spotlight: Brianne Wolf


Job title: Assistant Professor of Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy, Director Political Economy Minor

Hometown: Grand Ledge, MI

What classes do you teach?

I teach in the PTCD major; so far I have taught Constitutionalism and Democracy, Radical Challenges to Liberal Democracy, and a senior seminar on Adam Smith and whether liberal society can balance self-interest and the common good. I also teach the core course for the Political Economy minor: Politics and Markets.

How long have you been at JMC?

This is my fourth year at JMC as a faculty member. I joined the faculty in fall 2019, but I have actually been a part of JMC for much longer. I first walked through Case Hall's doors in Fall 2006 as a student. After taking MC 201, I was sold on the PTCD major and began taking classes in the major. I didn't discover my interest in political economy until graduate school when I was trying to make sense of the 2008 financial crisis.

Growing up in the Lansing area, did you think you'd go to college and work so close to home?

No! In fact, I proudly declared as a self-assured teenager that I wasn't interested in attending MSU because my dad, grandma and grandpa, and great-grandpa had all taken classes here, and I had grown up with Michigan State in my backyard. I was certain I wanted a new adventure. I also thought MSU was too big for me and wanted a more intimate college experience.

I was so wrong! A family friend was an IR major in JMC and invited me to come to a few classes with her, and I was completely captivated by the experience. I saw serious students thinking through important questions and all very engaged in the learning process. I heard their passion for public affairs and realized I was home.

My first job was directing a new major in political economy at Ashland University, and when JMC had a position open for teaching in and directing the political economy minor, I knew I wanted to return to the special learning community that is JMC. I wanted to return and share my love of political philosophy and political economy with students and hopefully excite them about understanding ideas and their nuances - which allows us to have a better debate and discussion when so often we want to view things in black or white.

The Sennholz Lecture is scheduled for later this week. What is it and why is this event important for the JMC community?

The donor support for this lecture grew out of a friendship between John B. Meade, D.D.S. and his wife Jean and Professor Hans Sennholz and his wife Mary. They loved discussing ideas about political economy, especially those rooted in the Austrian tradition. It is very fitting that we have a lecture honoring Dr. Sennholz here at James Madison College because he was extremely dedicated to his teaching throughout his career. The annual lecture honors the friendship between the Meades and the Sennholzes and extends the conversation about political economy for James Madison College's students, faculty and the wider MSU community.

The Austrian School focuses on interactions in the market broadly construed and the order that results from these interactions. The Austrian tradition of political economy analyzes market signals like prices to understand how buyers and sellers make decisions and coordinate their actions, but also considers how social rules and customs inform choices and the resulting structures of the market and society.

I try to select speakers who will encourage students studying political economy here at the college to apply their knowledge to a pressing public affairs issue. We also offer time for the students to informally connect with the speaker so they can ask questions about their own research or career aspirations.

This year we are so excited to have Dr. Chris Coyne visiting from George Mason University to talk about his book, "Tyranny Comes Home." His work as a whole analyzes the political economy of military intervention and, in this book, he considers how military intervention abroad has unintended consequences for the liberties of citizens back home. I think a surprising implication of his work are the implications for citizens' responsibilities in and judgment of public affairs.

His talk is open to the public in Case Hall at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17. It will also be available via Livestream on YouTube.

When you aren't teaching, what keeps you busy?

The project I'm thinking through right now is my book project, tentatively titled "Beyond Rights and Price: Liberalism with Taste," which argues that that since its emergence, liberalism has been concerned with moral development in addition to the protection of individual rights, justice, rule of law and the flourishing of markets. Focusing on the thought of David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville, I show how taste serves as a solution to problems brought about by modernity such as faction, self-deceit, individualism and inequality.

I also have a number of other small projects on the history of political economy in progress - for example, right now I'm working on an article on bankruptcy and the moral economy in Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."

When I'm not reading for classes, honors options or my research; teaching classes; or attending events at the College or conferences elsewhere, you can find me playing play dough, shaking a tambourine, making muffins, racing monster trucks, visiting the otters at Potter Park Zoo, or reading "Pout-Pout Fish" or "The Phases of the Moon" with my two boys - ages 2 (almost 3!) and 10 months - and my husband.

I feel my best and do my best thinking when I get exercise, so I love to take the boys on walks with my husband and I do a regular weightlifting program. After all, Adam Smith, following what he took to be the tradition of “the Greek and Roman republics” recommended “military and gymnastic exercises” so that people who work in the factories in the emerging capitalist system following the industrial revolution wouldn’t be rendered incapable “of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life” or “of the great and extensive interests of his country” (WN V.i.f.58; WN V.i.f.50).

I also very much enjoy singing with my church group every Sunday. Like Rousseau, I think singing is good for my soul. He wrote, “But the accents of the voice pass all the way to the soul; for they are the natural expression of the passions…. It is by means of them that music becomes oratorical, eloquent, imitative..." (Rousseau, Examen, OC, V, 358-5 as cited by John Scott, (1998).

And finally, as David Hume argued speaking about judging the quality of wine: “Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste” (Of the Standard of Taste). I work on developing my delicacy of taste trying new varieties of coffee, wine, or beer with friends when I can steal some time away.