Course Q & A

How did the course start?

The course began in the 1990′s, and it was originally co-taught by Prof. Anne Hall and Prof. Larry Goldberg. The idea was to have a “Great Books” course, but with an emphasis on the questions of human nature that were fundamental for politics. Dr. Hall and Dr. Goldberg insisted on addressing each student formally, calling them “Mister Wilson” or “Miss Riley.” The students began to address each other this way outside of class, and began to gather for informal discussions. By 1996 the course had expanded into a four-semester cycle — a year of Ancients, followed by a year of Moderns. The course came to be part of the standard offerings of the Honors Program (as a section of HNRS 32), and the financing consisted of the English Department paying for Dr. Hall to teach one course per semester, as well as employment of Dr. Goldberg as a lecturer.  Anne Hall has written an entertaining account of the early years.

What does the course involve?

Elements of Politics has always been a blend of philosophy, essays, history, and literature. The amount of assigned reading is staggering, but students are richly rewarded with class discussions in which the deepest and most lasting questions are confronted unflinchingly. It meets for 90 minutes twice a week, and each meeting requires hours of careful scrutiny and preparation of the texts.  The 90 minutes are spent in lively discussion facilitated by Dr. Goldberg, in which students raise and pursue questions that emerge from the text.  Dr. Goldberg expects each student to arrive with two particular passages they would like to discuss, with a clear idea of what they found interesting or puzzling about the passage.  The assignments consist of writing a 750-word Précis several times a quarter, as well as a term paper and final exam.  The point of the short writing exercise is to formulate the essential points of an author with precision:  many a student can attest that writing these shorter exercises proved far more difficult and time consuming than writing a term paper.  The precis exercises are always returned promptly with extensive comments, even though the course often has 10-15 extra students enrolled.

The course also involves the formation of deep friendships, as students seek to continue the intense intellectual engagement outside the classroom.  Inspiration by great authors has spawned many a coterie of friends — in the Aristotelian sense of “friend” — and these friendships extend beyond the semester or year… sometimes spanning decades.  At student request, Dr. Hall and Dr. Goldberg have frequently hosted reading groups in their homes.  Dr. Goldberg also began offering Greek tutorials and small-scale seminars on Shakespeare.

How did the course evolve?

In 1999, Anne Hall moved with her husband to the University of Pennsylvania, and the course was jeopardized because Dr. Goldberg lacked permanent employment within a University Department. An impassioned group of students and alumni petitioned the English Department and the Honors Program to find a way of maintaining Elements. An arrangement was finally devised whereby Dr. Goldberg would work for the English Department in an Adjunct position, with an additional requirement of teaching Basic Composition (ENGL 10) each year, a fairly time-consuming burden. Dr. Goldberg accepted the bargain and carried on teaching energetically, even offering gratis some courses that were above and beyond his billet.

In the early 2000′s, due to overwhelming student demand, the Honors course was expanded into a six semester series, and then an eight-semester series. In the current eight-semester version, two courses in the sequence are offered simultaneously (course 1 and 5, then course 2 and 6, etc).  In the words of one supporter, “The sequence is carefully designed so that the two courses each semester complement one another—for instance, ancients and moderns—providing comparison and contrast and thus affording a deeper education.  A number of students take two courses at a time, and offering four a year also gives students the opportunity to take several segments during their time at Carolina, which many have done.”

In 2008, the course lost the support of the English Department (Honors courses are usually funded by departments’ paying the salary of the instructor). Alumni made an appeal to Holden Thorp, then Dean of Arts & Sciences, to facilitate an arrangement. At that time, the Dean of the Honors College stepped in and graciously agreed to support the course indefinitely, in its popular eight-semester format — 2 courses in the fall and 2 courses in the spring. Dr. Goldberg received a fixed-term employment contract to teach 2-and-2 for three years, the maximum employment period for a fixed-term contract.

How popular is the course?

The course has had a waiting list every semester it has been offered.  The course offerings were doubled in 1996 and again in 2003, but the demand continues to exceed the capacity.  Honors courses have an official enrollment limit of 15, but every semester extra students earnestly show up — usually sitting on the floor the first day — in order to get admitted to the class.  Often Dr. Goldberg will allow up to 30 students to take the course, never wanting to deny anyone an opportunity to engage with humanity’s greatest thinkers.  At the start of the fall semester 2011, there are 70 students registered to take the course (two sections, each with a waiting list), which means there is enough demand for Goldberg to teach 3 sections each semester.

What kind of students take Elements of Politics?

The group has always attracted bright students interested in the public good, which often includes pre-law and pre-med type majors (political science, biology, economics).  The course also gets positive word-of-mouth among Morehead-Cain and Robertson Scholars, and the room once had 40 prospective visitors during a Morehead-Cain finalists weekend.  Somewhat unusually for a Great Books course, the students have remained a vibrant mix of majors including math, history, physics, English, and computer science.

The course attracts an uncanny number of outstanding students who go on to win Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, and Churchill scholarships, as well as contribute to the University in leadership positions in student government (we estimate that Goldberg has taught 1/2 of the Rhodes in the past decade, and 2/3 of the last decade’s SBP’s).  While we do not think this is the only or even the best measure of personal excellence, it is remarkable that the course consistently draws such a talented and diverse group when UNC has thousands of courses and tens of thousands of undergraduates.  To this, Dr. Goldberg says, “Incidentally, I do not take any credit for any awards these students have received.  On the contrary, I have been honored to have these and a multitude of other excellent students.”

How is the course in jeopardy?

In 2011, a decision was made by the Honors Dean to partially cancel the course (cutting funding by 50%), so that it would only be offered once in the fall and once in the spring (normally it is offered twice in the fall and in the spring, but there is currently enough demand to offer three sections in the fall and in the spring!). The precipitating factor cited was the expected budget shortfall for the 2011-2012 academic year. However, Dr. Goldberg receives a salary of $7500 per course (as of 2009), so the cut from 4 to 2 courses per year represents a net savings of approximately $15,000, which is surely minor in comparison to the entire Arts & Sciences budget, or even the entire Honors Program budget. The students and alumni are puzzled and dismayed by this decision, since the UNC budget cuts were supposed to be handled in a way that least compromised the essential mission of the university: education. Moreover, the current generation of UNC Honors students are expecting and greatly anticipating the continuation of the course in its current format.

But most importantly, Dr. Goldberg has indicated that he is willing to teach gratis so long as students want to learn. In the past he has taught gratis when there were budget shortfalls, but administrators have said that it is no longer possible to allow unpaid teaching due to a vague and general concern about adjuncts being overworked.  We have appealed to Chancellor Thorp by email to help, and he referred the matter to the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.  Initial indications are that the office of the Dean of the College is disinclined to reinstate the course, but things are evolving rapidly.  The students, alumni, and supporters are resolved to press ahead on every front, and support grows by the day.

What is Larry Goldberg’s involvement?

In a word, none.  Dr. Goldberg has never asked students to do anything on his behalf, and so everything done to-date has been entirely organized by students and other supporters.  However, Dr. Goldberg has expressed that he would like to go on teaching five or six courses per year (in fall 2 sections of Elements, plus Shakespeare Elective; in spring 2 sections of Elements, plus Friendship elective).  This was what was agreed with the Chancellor and the Honors Dean in 2008, and so we students are pressing to keep the course intact for as long as Dr. Goldberg is able to teach.

 

If you would like to help in efforts to make sure the course continues, please see How to Help.