Thursday, June 8, 2017

Teaching American Democracy at the American Studies Center - University of Warsaw (ASC-UW)

The Course: American Democracy and Critical Perspectives

Last Fall, I was fortunate enough to be selected as the first faculty member from Daemen College to participate in the exchange program with the American Studies Center of the University of Warsaw (ASC UW). The ASC is one of the largest American Studies departments in Europe offering interdisciplinary B.A., M.A. and postgraduate programs. As one ASC student explains, the “program extends into many areas of research including history, political science, literature studies, cultural studies, and social sciences which gives us a broad perspective on America and allows students to pursue their various interests.”

The American Studies Center (OSA-UW). 
Photo credit: Lisa Parshall
The course was designed to provide a critical view of American democracy with respect to the treatment of minority groups within the United States political system. I chose as our focus, the role of Native Americans and African-Americans—two groups with distinct, yet in some ways parallel experiences, as “the first and the forced” among our citizenry (Leiker, Warren, and Watkins 2007).
Felix Cohen, the foremost scholar on Federal Indian Policy, wrote in 1953: “Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith” (390). Cohen’s seminal work included the following observation by Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) director, John Collier:

“What sort of treatment dominant groups give to subject groups- how governments treat minorities– and how big countries treat little countries. This is a subject that comes down the centuries and never was it a more burning subject that in this year (1939). So this is the question: “How has our country treated its oldest and most persistent minority, the Indians. How has it treated them, and how is it treating them now?”
Felix S. Cohen, author of the Federal Handbook of Indian Law
Photo Credit:

The displacement of sovereign democratic nations in the founding of our own, and the subsequent treatment of Native Americans under federal policy, stands in stark contrast to American democratic ideals. So too has the treatment of African-Americans and the continued legacy of slavery and segregation presented a paradox for the celebration of American democracy. These brutal histories, and the contemporary realities faced by minority communities, are ongoing “problems” for a democratic political system that is founded upon the logic of equality and the promise of equal protection under law.

The design for the course was already ambitious, covering a blend of historical and contemporary issues impacting Native and African Americans as lens through which to view the effective functioning of the American political system. I had no idea in designing the course that events would conspire to make the spring semester one of the most dynamic times to be teaching a democracy course. The 2016 election and developments of the early Trump Administration provided twists that were both a challenge and an opportunity. Whatever one’s politics, the first few months of the Trump Administration have proven eventful in terms of the daily news cycle; and the functioning of the executive branch has been anything but routine.

Even as we talked about the fundamental elements of what constitutes a democracy, intelligence reports confirmed efforts at external election interference; the investigations of the House and Senate investigatory committees lurched on in fits and starts. Then came the firing of FBI director, James Comey, and Trump’s tweets about the possible existence of tape recorded conversations raised the specter of a brewing crises with shades of Watergate. Former National Intelligence Director, James Clapper, asserted that American institutions were under assault—internally as well as externally. With mounting pressures, an independent counsel was named. The ongoing litigation over Trump’s travel ban sparked more rhetoric challenging the independence and legitimacy of judiciary. The President’s first international trip revealed a United States out of accord with important democratic allies on climate and trade. On his return, Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Treaty and there were renewed assertions of executive authority in the aftermath of two international terrorist attacks. In short, the basic foundations and function of our constitutional system of separated powers and checks and balances were on full display. 

The pace of developments germane to minority rights was no less spectacular. A course which started with a historical overview of the loss of Indian sovereignty and territory ended with the administration’s intention to privatize ownership of federal lands. Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee and the first justice in a long while to have substantial experience with Native American legal issues (from his time on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals), assumed his seat on the Court. Our classroom discussion of the Standing Rock Protests coincided with news of another leak in the newly opened Dakota Access Pipeline. Our discussion of the long history of Civil Rights, concluded recent announcements by Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, that the Department of Justice was rescinding federal investigations of state, local, and tribal authority and proposed budget cuts in the civil rights divisions in the departments of labor and education. And our discussion of voting rights was topped off by the Supreme Court’s condemnation of the North Carolina redistricting efforts for using partisanship as a proxy for race with the surprising key vote of Justice Clarence Thomas.  

All of this was set, of course, within the context of global politics, the rise of national populist movements, and a re-examination of democratic trends. As one of the students noted, “the rise of nationalistic sentiments and populism in global politics,” makes understanding “American democracy’s place in the international arena even more important.” When and how do democracies backslide?  What are the harbingers of democratic dysfunction? 

Reflecting on the timing of the course and the importance of American studies more generally, one of the students writes:

The United States, being one of the hegemons of democracy is an important subject of study. I think it is a very good time to study American Democracy, because of what’s been happening in both Europe and in the United State over the last few years. As more and more people are starting to doubt democratic systems, they are turning towards nationalistic ideas. America exerts huge influence on the rest of the world: politically, economically, culturally. Some would even say that we may be witnessing a moment, when some democratic principles are being questioned or dismantled. People assume that democracy will last forever; however, it is not so simple.

The American Studies Center Sign
Photo Credit: Lisa Parshall

Unique Perspectives on American Democracy

The students at the OSA-American Studies Center are among the best and brightest, and it was a rare treat to teach a class to graduate students who brought a unique perspective on these issues of American Democracy. Impressively, my students were not just well-versed in basic American history and politics, they were avid consumers of American news, which greatly enhanced our discussions and allowed us to incorporate current events in our consideration of democratic processes.  

Each of the students in my class had chosen the elective because of their interest in minority rights in the United States. Their broader research interests, however, were much more varied and included African-American political thought, gender and queer studies, immigration, and international politics. For several students, the consideration of Native Americans’ place in the American Political system was of special interest. “Even though I have been enrolled in an American Studies program for four years now, I had never had a class on Native Americans and my knowledge about them was very limited.”  The absence of courses dedicated to Native American tribal sovereignty and federal Indian policy is common in the curriculum of American colleges and Universities as well. 

The perspective of the course was designed to be a critical one, providing students with “more diverse and nuanced perspectives, instead of an idealized picture” of a “utopian American democracy.” For one student, the class “confirmed my view that American Democracy (just like any other democracy) isn’t perfect and there are flaws, which are often overlooked in school or university curricula.... Thanks to the broadening of my knowledge concerning Native Americans and African Americans position within the American legal system, I was able to more fully understand both the causes and the consequences of contemporary inequalities.”

As importantly, I learned a great deal from the students regarding the state of liberal democracies in Europe and Poland, and of the impact of globalization and economic decline on minority rights. Their own interests sometimes took the course in unexpected, yet no less important directions as we expanded our lens to consider the place of women and the LGBT community in politics. Overall, the interaction of  such differing vantage points helps to “force both students and faculty to step out of their bubble and confront different ideas about America and American Democracy, and greatly contributes to academic development.”

The Exchange Program Between Daemen College and the ASC-UW

The exchange program was made possible through the efforts of Professor Andrew Wise, the Director of Daemen College’s Polish Studies program in collaboration with Dr. Sławomir Józefowicz, the International Mobility Coordinator at the ASC and with the support of ASC director, Dr. Grzegorz Kość.

In Fall 2017, Assistant Professor Dr. Karolina Krasuska will travel to Daemen where she will team-teach a course with Professor Andrew Wise: HST 206, Twentieth Century Europe. For faculty and students in the classroom, the exchange is “an opportunity to learn about the different culture of studying and teaching. Even though both Poland and the United States are considered part of the so-called Western world, there are some, maybe even considerable, differences in the approach to the subject of university studies. This is a chance to see differences in the curricula; the observations may serve as an inspiration as to what could be changed or differently implemented.”

As envisioned, students who take part in the exchange would not necessarily be limited to taking coursework in the ASC (University of Warsaw) or the Department of History and Political Science (Daemen College), but may potentially take classes in other disciplines of their specific academic interest. The respective departments might, in other words, serve as a home-base for students seeking to take coursework at the partner institution, allowing them to partake in the immersive experience which comes from studying abroad. “Above all else, the exchange is a chance to experience living and/or working in a foreign country: an experience that may prove to be essential in one’s future career and life.”

Łazienki Park (Park Łazienkowski) is one of many beautiful greenspaces in Warsaw.
Photo Credit: Lisa Parshall

American students traveling to Poland will discover a safe and comfortable experience.  There is no shortage of places to explore in Warsaw, including beautiful parks, cultural and educational museums, cafes, and clubs.  The Metro system is convenient and easy to navigate. And cities like Krakow and Gdansk are easily accessible by train.  ASC students advise our English-speaking students not to view language as a barrier: in Poland “most young people can speak English at least on a communicative level, so there’s nothing to worry about.”  They also add that “some Americans might have a stereotypical idea of Poland, since we are economically disadvantaged compared to the rest of the European Union,” but note “that we are not in poverty and our cities are comparable to big cities in Europe.”  The important thing is to “keep an open mind,” and “to take the opportunity to try to learn something about the Polish culture.”

Scenes Along the Royal Way in Old Town
Photo Credit: Lisa Parshall
Special thanks to the ASC-UW class for their contributions of thoughts and observations to the blog (and whose quotes are indicated by italics).

Daemen College students who are interested in learning more about the Polish Studies Program and/or the exchange opportunity with the ASC-UW should contact Dr. Andrew Wise, Professor of History, at  Daemen College’s Global Programs Office can help any answer questions you may have about studying abroad and can help provide logistical support.   


The First and the Forced: Essays on the Native American and African American Experience.  Edited by James N. Leiker, Kim Warren, and Barbara Watkins (2007).

The Federal Handbook of Indian Law, Felix S. Cohen (1942).

The Erosion of Indian Rights, Felix S. Cohen (1953).