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Contemporary Challenges Cluster

For academic year 2020-2021. 

Montserrat students touring Manhattan's Lower East Side with Professor Ed O'Donnell.
Touring Manhattan's Lower East Side

Our theme for this year is Investigating Identities, Privilege, and Power. Identities -  including gender, race, class, and national identities – play an enormous role in structuring our experience from the earliest years of our lives. How free are we to define our own identities and how we express them, and how much do social and political institutions try to define them for us? How do we navigate the messages received from the media and educational, political, and religious institutions about what our identities “should” be so that we can define them in ways congruent with our own values? In every society, certain identities are granted, or forcefully take, more power and privilege than others, and throughout history people whose identities are seen as less valuable have fought to increase their power or for power to be shared more equally. Our cluster examines the ways in which power and identity interact at different times in our lives and in different parts of the world, and our ability to adapt to those dynamics or change them. Our seminars address identity formation and its effects in the U.S. and abroad: how we learn about identity in childhood and adolescence; how literature influences and portrays the identities of children and teens; how gender shapes our experiences and how we reshape it; how Muslim youth shape their religious and political identities in the U.S. and the Middle East; and how battles over national identity shaped how Indians fought British colonial rule and how American foreign policy is decided. 


NOTE: Some courses (as indicated below in the course descriptions) include a Community Based Learning component. These experiences will be organized as conditions allow in conjunction with the College's Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning.


Contemporary 1: Constructing Social Identities

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

ABC, 123 (fall) 

Exploring the art of and values inherent to Children’s Literature, we will read and analyze a wide range of stories that engage the imagination, intelligence, and emotions of developing minds. Children’s literature is not simple in purpose or creation. We will define the characteristics of a “good” story, and ask how these stories shape our ideas about social identity. What does a culture hope their children will learn from reading stories? What lessons linger in the cultural consciousness? What is challenged and changes? Literacy is more than the ability to decode the alphabet and the words that those letters form. We cannot underestimate how crucial “Kiddie Lit” is to the construction of social and personal identity.  

Minds Meet Culture (spring)

Human infants are born with certain tendencies in how they process information. The meeting of these processing biases with information supplied by the sociocultural environment results in particular understandings of the social world, for example, about gender, race, status, and power. How do children acquire these important facets of personal identity? What are the costs and benefits of these constructions? Are there ways we can disrupt these developmental processes? Should we? Building on the first semester's investigation of children's literature and literacy, this course will turn to developmental science in order to continue our investigation into social identities. A special focus will be on how we can create opportunities for optimal and equitable developmental outcomes.


Contemporary 2: Crafting Identities

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

The Truth of Masks (fall) 

Do we choose who we are, or is our identity completely modeled by social norms? We must admit that in social settings we all emphasize certain aspects of our personality while hiding others. Our identity results from a complex negotiation between our moral values and the values of our community. But, if we all wear a mask, what is the truth behind it? Drawing on a variety of sources, including literary works, films, TV shows and podcasts, we will explore how works of art can open a space of intimacy in which we can free our identity from societal norms. By combining in class-discussion with Community Based Learning (CBL) work with our community partners, we will be able to reflect upon the effects of both intellectual debate and real-life experience in shaping our identity. In addition, we will be conducting meditative exercises during the course of the semester to promote self-reflection and personal growth. We will incorporate direct experience and Community Based Learning into our inquiries as conditions allow.

Loving, Death and Power (spring) 

Why, in the age of communication, would we give an on-line “Like” to somebody whom we have never met but not say “Hi” to our classmates? Why is it still so difficult to address certain facets of our personality such as sexual desire, fear of death and thirst for power? With more modes of communication at our fingertips than ever before, we often still struggle to express ourselves meaningfully over these topics, making us feel like outsiders even in our closest communities. With a new series of literary readings, films, podcasts, and meditation practices, we will examine the duality between interpersonal struggles with communication as shaped by and impacting our notion of identity. As with the fall semester, CBL work will be a key component of the course to bridge the gap between our literary experiences and our experiences in real life. We will incorporate direct experience and Community Based Learning into our inquiries as conditions allow.


Contemporary 3: Gandhi, MLK & Non-Violence

Common Area Designation(s): Historical Studies
C.I.S. Concentration: Peace and Conflict Studies

De-Colonizing India (fall) 

Time magazine compared Gandhi to influential twentieth-century figures like FDR and Albert Einstein, calling Gandhi the single most important figure in the “crusade for civil rights and individual liberties.” How did Gandhi become such a central figure in the global struggle for human dignity? What was persuasive and effective about his method of nonviolence that brought down the British Empire in India? How did his strategies become a grammar of resistance for the various anti-colonial struggles around the world? In this seminar, we will explore together these questions and seek to understand how Gandhi grappled with local and global structures of power as he sought to build an ethically and morally just society in India.

Visions of Justice (spring) 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had never met Gandhi, was nevertheless deeply influenced by the “truth force” that was the lynchpin of Gandhi’s non-violent political philosophy. King particularly connected Gandhi’s “truth force” with Christian teachings to argue that it was possible to oppose non-violently the evils of racism without opposing those committing evil. In doing so, King made religious faith and moral considerations inseparable from his visions of justice. In this seminar, we will examine in-depth how King deftly interlinked non-violent political praxis, Christian doctrine of love, and various American political traditions of civil disobedience to make a powerful case for an inclusive democracy in America.


Contemporary 4: Gender in Everyday Life

Common Area Designation(s): Social Science
C.I.S. Concentration:  Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies

Defining Gender (fall) 

What is gender? What is gender normativity and why does gender have such a powerful impact on our everyday lives? How do theories of intersectionality help us to understand the ways that gender and social structures such as race, class, and sexuality interact and co-construct our lives? Drawing primarily on sociological studies and theories of gender, we will explore these questions and more, attending to the ways that gender shapes us and is shaped by us. Students will learn to think critically about gender in their own everyday lives and will also explore topics such as masculinity, femininity, stereotypes in popular culture, bodies, and the impacts of COVID-19 on gendered lives.

Redefining Gender (spring)   

Gender is a powerful social construct. But how do people challenge gender normativity and sexism in everyday life? Through the use of social scientific research, memoir, and feminist theories and praxis, we will consider the countless ways that people challenge binary constructions of gender and systems of oppression. We will explore questions such as: what can we learn about gender through learning about the experiences of trans and nonbinary people? How do race and social class impact trans experiences? What can we learn about contemporary approaches to social change from U.S. feminist movements of the past? More specifically, how are theories of intersectionality applied in contemporary movements such as #SayHerName and #MeToo?


Contemporary 5: Living in a Muslim World

Common Area Designation(s): Social Science
C.I.S. Concentration(s): Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies

Social Lives in Muslim Youth (fall) 

How does religious identity shape the political activism and social life of Muslim youth? We will use ethnographies, social science analyses, graffiti and music videos from two democracies – the U.S. and Indonesia – and two authoritarian regimes – Egypt and Saudi Arabia -  to answer questions including: how do community expectations affect Muslim youth as they date, write hip-hop songs, and play football in Michigan and New Jersey? How did Egyptian youth participate in anti-government demonstrations during the “Arab Spring”? Why have more young women started veiling in Indonesia since the country became a democracy? Why do Saudi male youth express dissent by drag racing, and how did young Saudi feminists campaign for the right to drive?  

U.S. Policy in the Muslim World (spring)  

How do the recent politics of Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen explain armed conflict there? What do those conflicts tell us about how the U.S. government, companies, and citizens should and do shape international affairs? We will use political science theories, Congressional debates, video diaries, and meetings with U.S. and foreign activists to examine questions including: how did Syria, where religious minorities faced little discrimination before 2011, become a center of sectarian conflict? How have Syrian refugees worked with people in Worcester and elsewhere to rebuild? Do U.S. weapons companies bear any responsibility for civilians killed with their arms in Yemen? Who defines the U.S. role in proxy wars like Yemen: the President or Congress?


Contemporary 6: To Be As a City Upon a Hill

Common Area Designation: Social Science

U.S. Abroad: Security or Ideals? (fall)

The United States often faces tough choices when making foreign policy. Often, these choices involve a key tension between fulfilling idealistic goals, like spreading democracy, and the “national interest,” such as enhancing security. Choosing and distinguishing between them is not easy: sometimes no choices are made and sometimes appeals are made to one to justify the other. How are those choices made? How does the identity of the United States factor into the decision making? With readings covering the spectrum of American history, this course will define these two poles, discover the source of the United States’ identity, and try to answer these questions: when, where, and how can we decide?

The Indispensable Nation (spring)

In the previous semester we learned of and defined the choices that the United States makes between ideals and the national interest. Now, we put what we’ve learned into action. Through seminal events in American foreign policy making, we attempt to answer the following questions – which principles guided that action? How did those decision makers make that decision? And how did their decision ultimately affect the American political community? We will examine events including: American “interventions” in Latin America, the War on Terror, American responses to international human rights crises, and other defining events from across American history.


Cluster Director






Contemporary Challenges:
Vickie Langohr, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science