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POL S 456 A: Institutional Failure

Meeting Time: 
MW 11:30am - 1:20pm
DEN 256
Joint Sections: 
LSJ 456 A
Becca Thorpe
Rebecca U. Thorpe

Syllabus Description:

POL S/LSJ 456: Institutional Failure

Mon/Wed. 11:30-1:20, DEN 256


Professor Thorpe:

Office hours: Tues. 12-1:30 & by appt  

OH link:


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; the politics of housing and polarization of inequality; a centuries-long American drug war; the politics of policing 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 as conceived by the Founders and in a modern era. This will provide a framework to assess the rise 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.


In-Person Learning/Expectations

The course will take place in person. Class sessions will not be recorded. Please contact the professor immediately if you will need to miss class on account of your health or other personal circumstances.


Requirements & Evaluation

Participation (15%) & short presentations (10%): Participation will be evaluated on the basis of two criteria. First, students are expected to read the assigned material before seminar and contribute to discussion regularly. Students will be penalized for more than 1 unexcused absence. (I will provide alternative participation points for excused absences.) If you are uncomfortable speaking in class, then coming to my office hours to discuss material or raise questions will also contribute to your participation grade. 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, provide thoughtful critiques of the arguments, raise questions and draw connections to other readings from the course.

Essay Exam (30%):  Students will construct 2-3 essays based on class readings and discussion. The exam is scheduled to take place on February 27 in the Political Science Computer Lab (SMI 221).                                       

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 February 8, 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 March 6 so that I can provide preliminary feedback.

Response papers (15%): 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 10:30am) in order to receive full credit. The responses will be graded as superb (4.0), very good (3.5), satisfactory (3.0), needs improvement (2.5) or unsatisfactory (no credit).


Course Material

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

*White Space, Black Hood. 2021. Sheryll Cashin. Penguin Random House.

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

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

*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, the course requires students to watch Season 3 of The Wire. The series is available on DVD format at Suzzallo Library and 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 (

POLS/LSJ 456 syllabus - WI2023

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)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
October 26, 2022 - 10:03pm