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POL S 456 A: Institutional Failure

Meeting Time: 
TTh 12:30pm - 2:20pm
* *
Joint Sections: 
LSJ 456 A
Becca Thorpe
Rebecca U. Thorpe

Syllabus Description:

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. We will examine the rise of a permanent U.S. national security state; suburbanization and urban gentrification; a centuries-long American drug war; the politics of policing in American cities; the rise of mass incarceration; and failing 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 during the constitutional founding and in a contemporary context. This will provide a framework to assess the history of American empire, the development of a military-industrial complex and the growth of executive power over a vast national security establishment. Second, we will examine how a legacy of racial capitalism promotes segregated housing patterns, militarized policing and punitive forms of punishment. 

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.


Remote Learning/Expectations

In accordance with university policy, we will be meeting remotely (via Zoom) for class sessions. Please note that this is a small seminar, and it is structured to prioritize student discussion. Accordingly, the course will take place synchronously, and regular attendance/ participation is required. To protect student privacy, the seminars will not be recorded. If you must miss a class, please email me in advance and let me know.  


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. This includes interactions in Zoom seminars and on the Canvas discussion board (see below). 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. The exam will be open note and open book.

Research paper (30%): Students will write an 8-10 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 November 3, 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 24 so that I can provide preliminary feedback.

Response papers (10%): One (1) 500-650 word response paper will be due each week. I will post 2-3 discussion questions on Canvas to help guide your readings for each seminar and focus our discussions. 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. Responses must be uploaded to Canvas before seminar begins (by 11am) in order to receive full credit. The responses will be graded as superb (4.0), satisfactory (3.0), or unsatisfactory (no credit).


Discussion Forum

All students are expected to raise questions, comments and reactions to reading material on the Canvas discussion forum. This is meant to be a space where everyone can interact about course content, discuss current events as they unfold, and receive clarification about the material. This forum is a particularly important medium for students that must miss a class or for those that are more comfortable conveying their thoughts in writing. 


Course Material

The following reading materials and videos are required for this course: 

*The Power Elite. 1956. C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press

*Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs. 2007. Doris Marie Provine. University of Chicago Press.

*The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. 2017. Richard Rothstein. New York, NY: W.W. Norton

*The Wire. HBO television series created, produced & written by David Simon. Season 3 required.

*Why We Fight. 2006 documentary written & produced by Eugene Jarecki.

*The House I Live In. 2013 documentary written & produced by Eugene Jarecki.

*Electronic copies of articles, book chapters, videos, etc. available on the course website

The courses texts are available at the university bookstore (free shipping is available) and at online retail outlets. In addition to the written texts, the course requires students to watch Season 3 of The Wire. The series of available for rental or purchase on Netflix, Itunes and Amazon. We will be integrating the series into our class discussions in the second part of the course. There are 12 episodes in Season 3, so I suggest viewing at least 2 episodes/week. If you are not familiar earlier seasons, character descriptions and episode summaries are available at the HBO website:

Additional study material and reading questions are available on Canvas.  


Your Physical & Mental Health

Given the challenging circumstances that we are all experiencing, I will be flexible about deadlines throughout the quarter. Please let me know ASAP if you are experiencing difficulties resulting from personal or family illness, financial hardship or family circumstances. I will make every attempt to make appropriate accommodations that will help you succeed in this class, while allowing you to prioritize your physical, mental and emotional well-being.


Academic Integrity

Plagiarism will not be tolerated under any circumstances. All students should also make sure they are familiar with the Student Conduct Code.


Religious Accommodations

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available here. Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Form.


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: 
August 5, 2020 - 9:05pm