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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Claire Curtis

Posted by: knottshg | March 9, 2018 | No Comment |

Dr. Claire Curtis has been teaching in the political science department at the College of Charleston for twenty years. Since joining the department, she has taught classes in political theory, including the required introduction to political theory course, contemporary liberalism, and utopia/dystopia. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and Bowdoin College, Dr. Curtis’ is the author of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract and is currently working on her second book. Her own research interests lie in utopia/dystopia and the intersections of political philosophy and fiction. In the Q&A below Dr. Curtis shares her own experiences from her time at CofC and elaborates on her current research.

So, you’ve been in the political science department at CofC for twenty years now.

That’s really weird.

What made you decide to become a professor?

I went to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and I thought I was going to be a classics major. Then summer between high school and college I went to the Soviet Union on a high school trip and I came back from that like, “oh my gosh I have to study the Soviet Union this is so cool.” I got to college, and I took this upper level Soviet studies class and I started taking Russian and a couple of other classes. There was a guy in the political science department at Bowdoin who did soviet politics and so I took all the classes he offered and then I was like, “oh I kind of like this political science thing.” My junior year I went to Poland and when I [came] back from Poland I decided that “that was all really interesting, and I am no longer interested in Soviet Studies or behind the iron curtain, I have gotten that out of my system.” I went back to Bowdoin for my senior and was taking a political theory class and thought (a) I really like this political theory stuff and (b) I thought what many students think when they’re seniors in college and not sure what to do: I knew what I was good at, and I was good at school. So, I thought, “I’ll keep going to school.” I didn’t apply to that many graduate programs. I got in to Johns Hopkins. I went because I was good at school.

Was it research or teaching that drew you to the career?

I think it was more about teaching. I went to a small liberal arts college where people really paid a lot of attention to classes and most of my political science classes were under twenty [students]. The political science professors were very enthusiastic, everyone wanted to talk about various things. That was my model: you do research, but you’re also engaged in teaching. Between teaching and research, I was interested more in the teaching part.

Can you tell me a bit about the book you’re working on?

I wrote a book in 2010 about post-apocalyptic fiction and the social contract. That was a really interesting project, but it also told a story that I think we’ve moved past. We’re thinking about how and why we live together differently now. I think mirroring that theoretical point is that if you start thinking about post-apocalyptic fiction that has been written in the 21st century, there are a certain number of literary post-apocalyptic fictions that I think are thinking about the human experience of living together differently. One of the critics of the social contract that I find really compelling is Martha Nussbaum. She is interested in what’s called the capabilities approach, which comes out of the development economics of Amartya Sen. The idea is that when we think about humans living together instead of thinking about the distribution of particular goods to particular peoples, we instead should think about what human beings would like to do and be. Nussbaum comes up with the list of ten capabilities that we are aiming towards. The book is an attempt to explain the human capabilities from Nussbaum via these novels. The way that I categorize them is: capabilities that are particular to the human body; capabilities that are particular to human emotion and cognition; capabilities around our interactions with others; and [capabilities] around control over the political and material environment. The idea is to divide the book into four sections with each section looking into these kinds of capabilities. Nussbaum talks in many of her works [about] how we’ve not achieved these capabilities, and I think that makes it very hard to figure out what a world would look like that did have these capabilities. The novels that I’ve chosen sort of give an indication, even in this post-apocalyptic context, of communities that are providing these capabilities. Although I’ve been thinking about framing the book slightly differently, but I’ll leave it at that.

What do you think is the value in studying fiction in conjunction with political theory or philosophy?

Well I think people learn best through examples, but the problem with theory is that it can seem very abstract. You can talk about the construction of an argument, you can talk about the rhetorical moves being made in the argument you can talk about the logical movement being made from point A to point B in an argument, but it is political theory and so the argument has to come down to the ground at some point. That can be really hard to do. I think one way of doing that is to use robust empirical examples, but that can get really complicated in political theory because you get so caught up in the particulars of the empirical example [that] you lose the whole reason you we’re looking at the example. What fiction does is give you this closed space and then we can have a debate over the meaning of that closed space; but we don’t have to have a debate over the meaning or the empirical understanding of the reality or how it got there or all of the complications that come up when you look at actual empirical examples in the actual world. So, I like it because it has a beginning and an end. I like it because authors are putting people together in particular scenarios to think through how people would think and react.

What has been the most challenging part of the research and writing process so far?

Finding time to do it.

How have the classes you’ve taught at CofC influenced your research or have they?

Some of the classes that I’ve taught have come out of specific research interests that I have. The class I taught on gender, theory, and law actually came out of an NEH summer seminar where I was doing some research around issues of sexual harassment. The utopia/dystopia stuff that I do, I’ve always been interested in that. I took a class on utopia/dystopia in college and I think it’s a really interesting way to think about political theory. I’ve published on The Dispossessed and it’s really great to talk to students about that. I’ve published on the Parable books and Octavia Butler. I like the opportunity to talk about things that I’m interested in writing on. Once I tried to do an FYE around post-apocalyptic fiction and reading the social contract after I’d written the book. I think there are definitely connections; it’s just not always super linear. Nothing I ever do is really linear.

What do you love about research compared to what you love about teaching?

I love to read books so it’s always nice to be doing research. In a sense that’s somewhat [truer] when I’m getting to read a novel, but it’s equally true if it’s a theorist that I’m particularly interested in. I love the reading part of research and I love putting together the puzzle. I think in teaching, it’s about back and forth and the sharing of ideas and the energy of the classroom. Because research, at least the kind of research that I do, is a lot in your head. You spend a lot of time thinking to yourself and talking to yourself. It’s good to go into the classroom and get some energetic conversation about ideas instead of just the conversation inside my head.

How do you keep up the energy in the classroom?

I drink a lot of coffee. Sometimes there are classes where the class itself produces its own energy. I really think this stuff is interesting; so, my goal is to get other people, even if they don’t love it, to at least find it interesting. One of the ways of doing that is to be super enthusiastic about it. And to drink lots of coffee.

What has been your favorite experience at CofC so far?

My favorite experience is probably teaching POLI 150. I love teaching the social contract. It’s a story that is deeply familiar to us, but we don’t have the vocabulary to understand its familiarity and understand the differences between what Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Rawls are saying and why that matters. Probably every class that I teach there’s a certain portion of that class that I’m like “oh I can’t wait till we get to that part.”

What do you think has been the experience that has had the most impact on you?

I mean in some sense this is probably the more honest answer about why my book has been sitting unexamined. In 2006 or 2007, a woman who was then the Director of Women’s and Gender studies, a woman who became the director of African American studies, and I started a writing group. We met every single week and we had rules for our writing group. Coming out of the writing group, I published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the rules for a perfect writing group. Both of those women in the last year and a half died. It was personally very hard because they were both really my best friends here. One died very unexpectedly, but the other had a brain tumor so there had been a long time talking about death and [saying] “How are you going to redo that writing group?” And I’ve yet to figure it out how to redo a writing group. In the 20 years here, that was definitely the biggest challenge.

 Dr. Curtis’ article on the “Rules for a Perfect Writing Group”: https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Rules-of-Writing-Group/126880

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