I expose students to different viewpoints to allow them to construct not an opinion, but a judgment … something that they can understand and defend in light of empirical facts, history and counterarguments.

Michael James

“In studying race, ethnicity, culture and democracy, we come across numerous difficult questions,” says Professor Michael James, political science. “How do minority groups get their interests fairly represented? What institutions, laws or policies ensure fair representation? What counts as fair representation?”

Questions like these, though sometimes challenging to explore and discuss, help students learn to think critically and reflectively. These subjects are debated thoroughly and openly in James’ Race, Ethnicity and American Legal Thought class. “In order to facilitate discussion across divergent or conflicting perspectives, you must let people speak and understand what they are thinking before you critique it. Your critiques have to be presented in a way that’s respectful, civil and doesn’t try to intimidate or silence,” he explains.  

“A broader issue is, how do you facilitate democratic discussion across group lines, and how do you even define a group? How do you define someone as African-American, as Hispanic, as white? How do you deal with groups that internally have different interests?”

James argues that such types of identities are a social construction, yet are still quite meaningful and can have real effects on people’s lives. “There are social or political practices, laws or perceptions that create boundaries around groups, which are real boundaries, but they’re not natural. It’s not unlike money. What makes a little piece of paper worth $20? It’s a social agreement to decide to give something a certain amount of value. That is, in many ways, the same way you think about group identities. They are created and maintained by various forms of social agreement.”

James’ goal in asking these types of questions is to get his students to think about where these types of identities come from. Once the questions about identity construction are explored, the conversation can then move to policy and institutions.

“I try to structure class discussion and readings so that in each session, we are exploring two different opinions on a given topic. I try to break each issue down into three questions — constitutionality, legality and morality,” he says. “By giving students a chance to see the best arguments I can find that oppose each other, I expose students to different viewpoints to allow them to construct not an opinion, but a judgment — not something they just think of off the top of their heads, but something that they can understand and defend in light of empirical facts, history and counterarguments.”

Posted Sept. 23, 2016

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