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POL S 456 A: Institutional Failure

Meeting Time: 
MW 2:30pm - 4:20pm
GUG 204
Joint Sections: 
LSJ 456 A
Becca Thorpe
Rebecca U. Thorpe

Syllabus Description:

POL S 456/ LSJ 456: Institutional Failure

The purpose of this course is to think critically about how and why political institutions fail to achieve their goals or operate in a manner that they were originally intended to and the consequences of these failures. To do so, we will examine the rise of a permanent US national security establishment; a centuries-long American drug war; the politics of policing in American cities; the rise of incarceration; and inner-city schools on the basis of 1) policymakers' expressed aims; 2) the goals the institutions in question were meant to serve; and 3) the human costs of failure, particularly for the most disadvantaged members of society.

The course is divided into two main parts. First, we will examine leading theories of political power and policymaking in the United States during the constitutional founding and in a contemporary context. This will provide a framework to assess what President Eisenhower famously called the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex and the growth of executive power over a permanent national security establishment. Second, we will examine the role of various governing institutions in combating poverty, waging a War on Drugs and launching inner-city school reform, with a particular focus on politically marginalized populations.

As backdrop for this seminar, we will be watching a season of the HBO television series The Wire, which follows police officers, drug dealers, public school educators, politicians and citizens of Baltimore. The series is meant to complement the scholarly texts that we will be reading in the latter half of the course.


Requirements & Evaluation

Participation & short presentations (30%): Participation will be evaluated on the basis of three criteria. First, students are expected to read the assigned material before seminar and contribute to discussion regularly. Second, each student will give a 10-minute presentation based on the readings for that day and help facilitate class discussion. Presentations should discuss connections between the assigned readings for the day, provide thoughtful critiques of the arguments, raise questions and draw connections to other readings from the course. Third, students will give a 10-minute presentation of your research papers at the end of the quarter.

Essay Exam (30%): Students will construct 2-3 essays based on class readings and discussion. The exam is scheduled to take place on November 19.

Research paper (30%): Students will write a 10-12 page research paper on a subject related to class material, which will be due during finals week. 1-2 page descriptions of paper topics will be due on October 29, and we will set aside class time periodically to discuss your research in progress. The first three pages of your papers will be due on November 28 so that I can provide preliminary feedback.

Response papers (10%): 1-2 page response papers will be due each week. The prompts will ask you to address a question or argument raised in the assigned reading for that day and are meant to serve as foundation for class discussion. The responses will be graded as superb (4.0), satisfactory (3.0) or unsatisfactory (no credit).

POL S/LSJ 456 - Fall 2018 syllabus


Catalog Description: 
Examines why political institutions fail to achieve their goals or operate in a manner they were originally intended to, and the consequences of these failures. Topics include the national security establishment, the drug war, concentrated poverty, mass incarceration, and inner-city schools. Offered: jointly with LSJ 456.
Department Requirements: 
American Politics Field
GE Requirements: 
Social Sciences (SSc)
Last updated: 
October 17, 2018 - 9:10pm