The Davies Forum

Each semester a different group of selected students called Davies Scholars participates in the interdisciplinary Davies Seminar under the direction of that semester's Davies Professor.

Spring 2022

Forgiving the Unforgivable: The United States, Slavery, and Genocide

Taught by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice

Humans make mistakes. We do things that we shouldn’t do. The question is not whether or not this will happen; rather, how should we deal with these regular occurrences after the fact? Because humans are social creatures, and interacting with others is part of normal lives, forgiveness and apologies are central to the human experience. They are a component of one’s relationship with other individuals, other collectives, and even oneself.

But what does forgiveness mean? When someone forgives another person, what happens? And what happens when one group of people does something wrong to another group? What about if something heinous—perhaps best framed as something unforgivable—happens? In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these questions are not merely theoretical; they aren’t thoughts limited to the ivory tower.

This course grapples with some of the most important elements of being a human (i.e., determining the best way/s to move through mistakes, even those that might be called indefensible) and a member of U.S. society (i.e., confronting the systemic legacy of both slavery and Indigenous genocide). Creating a context for students to learn about foundational questions at the core of their twenty-first-century identities, students will find that the structure and content of this course is relevant to themselves personally as well as to their student selves attending a university on “American soil.”

Spring 2021

Making Sense of a Post-Western World: Interdisciplinary Tools, Global Perspectives

Taught by Nora Fisher Onar, International Studies

The United States and Europe—in many ways, epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic—may emerge diminished in their global leadership role(s). This outcome, in tandem with political turmoil in the United States, arguably has accelerated a structural trend underway for at least a decade, the eclipse of Western primacy in world affairs. To make sense of our nascent post-Western order, students will develop a toolkit drawn from “global International Relations”: an interdisciplinary approach to world affairs which foregrounds traditionally marginalized perspectives on outstanding economic, social and security challenges. We will ask if, why, and how the United States-led West is in decline, and seek to understand what this process—and our persistent common challenges as humanity—look like from Asia, Africa and Latin America. The course, as such, speaks to anxieties about the West’s relative decline. But rather than respond with economic and cultural nationalism (atavistic energies which have been exacerbated by today’s pandemic), the seminar explores how our present crisis and the post-Western world it augurs offer not only challenges, but also opportunities to build a more equitable global community. Our inquiry, as such, will be driven by the overarching, analytical but also normative question: How, in a world after Western primacy, can we better live together?

Fall 2020

Political Animals: Democracy from Athens to America

Taught by Jessica Blum-Sorensen, Classical Studies, and Nathan Dennis, Art History and Museum Studies

Designed specifically to run during an election year in the United States, this seminar examines the origins and development of democracy as a political ideal from Classical Athens to the present through the historical interactions between philosophical design and social narrative, the archaeology of democracy and its visual legacy, and the historical and cultural parameters that have empowered and amplified certain voices in the democratic process while disenfranchising others. The "Founding Fathers" of the United States looked to the Classical past as a model for their new Republic. But what did (or still does) such a model entail? The worlds of Greece and Rome were built on rhetorics of the ideal citizen – male, able-bodied, wealthy, and native-born – and on the exclusion of the Other, constructed through gender, ethnicity, nationality, and even aesthetic values. This course, therefore, investigates the physical and rhetorical construction of American democracy through the lens of the Greco-Roman past, placing contemporary discussions of citizenship and authority, the visual emblems and architectural spaces of political power, and the future of democratic ideals in the context of the historical, spatial, literary, and visual dynamics of democracy's own origins. 

Spring 2020

The End of the World: U.S. Values and the Apocalyptic Imagination

Taught by Lois A. Lorentzen, Theology and Religious Studies

Apocalypse is both a state of affairs and an interpretation of that state of affairs…the script by which reality is being managed, imagined, narrated, sometimes to stress the blunt horror of the end of a world-genocide, ecocide, some cultural or local omnicide -and sometimes then to stress the wild hope for a world to come

(Catherine Keller – Apocalypse Then and Now,13)

The world as we know it is about to end. Reading the news (or Facebook posts) one might conclude that the United States, if not the world, is on the verge of ecological, political, social and economic collapse. Climate change, the nuclear threat, failing political systems indicate to many that “we are in apocalypse.” Popular culture embraces apocalyptic themes with movies (The Road, The Book of Eli, The Matrix, I am Legend, Children of Men)and popular TV shows (The Walking Dead, The Rain, The 100, Z Nation). In the context of climate change and broken political systems, collective and individual helplessness/hopelessness may lead to despair that our collective problems are so overwhelming that no human solution is possible. The end is near.

The preceding may seem overdramatic (as is the idea of apocalypse). The intention of apocalyptic discourse is to highlight urgency and the need for immediate change. Climate scientists for example, say that collectively we must act now (and it may already be too late). Yet, contemporary existential threats of the “end of the world” whether by nuclear disaster, climate related catastrophes, social/political breakdown, are normalized, part of the daily news, university classes – the backdrop to our everyday lives. Our students (and their professors) too often become temporarily enraged and “activist” in the face of urgent social/environmental problems, but then give up.

Yet as Keller notes above, apocalyptic imaginings also “stress the wild hope for a world to come.” This course explores both the despair and the wild hope of contemporary U.S. apocalyptic visions as a lens to uncover “values in contemporary America”, the intent of the Davies Forum.

Fall 2019

Decolonizing International Human Rights

Taught by Sadia Saeed, Sociology

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 ushered in an age of human rights activism by states, non-governmental organizations, grassroots social movements and individuals. The result has been spectacular. An impressive array of rules governing issues as diverse as the rights of indigenous peoples, warfare, and global economic justice (to name a few) has altered both state policies and how states are evaluated. Yet, the elucidation of this trend continues to be mired in controversy. Where, when, how and why did human rights originate? Are human rights universal and eternal or are they an expression of a particular culture and time? Do human rights reflect international consensus or are they reflective of power inequalities among states?

Taking cues from critical and postcolonial theory, an emerging scholarship is revisiting these questions in a bid to decolonize international human rights. The aim is to analyze how histories of capitalism, colonialism, and racism have intersected with Enlightenment thought to produce a mixed legacy. This mixed legacy, which is the main subject of the present seminar, reflects that human rights discourses have both aided imperial interventions and provided a language for emancipation. This Davies seminar will examine this aspect of international human rights from a global, historical, and sociological perspective.

Spring 2019

Silicon Valley Uncovered

Taught by Tamara Kneese, Media Studies

Once known for its vast plum and apricot orchards, the stretch of land comprising the Santa Clara Valley is now home to major corporations like Intel, Google, Facebook, and Apple. Silicon Valley is a hub of innovation, so-called disruption, and a booming tech economy. It is also a place of extreme wealth inequality. San Jose was the birthplace of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Movement. Today, as Google plans to build a “village” in downtown San Jose, the many janitors, cafeteria staff, security officers, and other contract workers who power tech campuses are also fighting for recognition and living wages in one of the most expensive regions of the US.

Going beyond stereotypes of Soylent and scooters, we will uncover both historical and contemporary cultures in Silicon Valley. In this Davies Forum, we will critically approach the imaginaries associated with Silicon Valley as a place and an idea, especially looking at the structural inequalities that allow the tech industry to flourish. How do Silicon Valley narratives impact the San Francisco Bay Area and the broader world? What new forms of collectivity and organizing, as well as oppression, are emerging in this changing landscape?