Pozen Curriculum Spotlight: Human Rights Bundle

When Fernanda Ponce, AB’23 learned about the Human Rights bundle, she was still coming to terms with seeing her study abroad experience canceled due to COVID-19. In the structure of the bundle, the second-year Sociology major saw a chance to replicate the quarter she’d expected to have abroad. 

“I thought, ‘Maybe it’ll give me a glimpse into what I missed,’” she remembers. 

The Human Rights course bundle, “Human Rights: From Human Dignity to the Politics of Law,” was offered in Autumn Quarter as part of the College’s 2020-21 course and program innovations, which called for course designs ideally suited to a hybrid learning environment.

The sequence began with an intensive version of the two-course “Human Rights in World Civilizations” Core sequence, which investigates the history, philosophy, and rhetoric of human rights through a variety of disciplinary lenses. The third course, “The Politics of Human Rights Law,” examined the way international law interacts with the politics of law, with special attention paid to the interface between emergency powers and international law.

The three courses ran sequentially, each in a three-week intensive format. An optional fourth course, “Documenting Change: Narrative and Memory in Turbulent Times” was offered in a standard, quarter-long format. In “Documenting Change,” students contributed to the Pozen Center’s new archival project, which documents in real time our current moment of extraordinary global change.  

Postdoctoral Instructor Amy Krauss, who taught the bundle’s second course, says the sequence gave students a chance to develop “a firm grounding in a critical, but still hopeful engagement with human rights regimes. I hope students were able to see the connections and tensions between the three different approaches to human rights—which might help them formulate their own critical positions.” 

Fernanda credits these connections for creating a singular academic experience. “The classes connected wonderfully, picking up on questions and loopholes that were left open in the previous parts,” she says. “It was the first time that a class has really pushed me to keep discussion going, even beyond the classroom. I think even the professors were surprised at times by how engaged we were with the material.”

That high level of engagement led to community-building and friendships that will last far beyond Autumn Quarter. “I never thought this would’ve happened, but I met one of my closest friends doing an all-online virtual quarter,” Fernanda says. “Our intellectual curiosity brought us closer together. We would have discussions about the class every other day; it was great.” 

Students enrolled in the Human Rights bundle also had the opportunity to complete an optional internship in their field of interest, and Fernanda was one of eight students who opted for a placement. She’s spending this academic year interning part-time with I Grow Chicago, a nonprofit helping to build cultures of hope and support in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. 

Fernanda explains that pairing her internship experience with the bundle “challenged me to think beyond the scope of I Grow and the local community it serves—to think about the larger systems at play.” 

For conceptual artist Soo Jin Jang, AB’22, the bundle was as useful for sparking creativity as it was for exploring new critical frameworks. Inspired in particular by the bundle’s opening course, taught by Professor Ben Laurence, Soo created two art pieces that she says “visually convey the philosophical theories inspired by this class” (you can see photos of Soo’s work in the carousel below). 

In ‘Registration,’ Soo used oil paint on canvas to create a visual representation of natural rights: a registration card. “This card is a kind of social contract between the government and me,” she explains. “I’m talking about the basic rights that we had in our most natural state, before we had government. Everyone knows that we have these rights, but we overlook or forget their importance because they’re invisible.”

What look like serial numbers on the card are actually a series of dates; they commemorate the year that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the year that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, respectively. 

Soo’s second piece, ‘The Wall Lethe,’ uses a vision of utopia to interrogate social inequalities, in the form of “a solid wall that obscures prejudice and prevents us from knowing who we are.” 

“I think justice is what you agree with in a hypothetical situation where you do not know yourself,” Soo explains. “It’s difficult to make the right decisions when we pursue only our own interests.”

In making the piece, Soo was inspired by John Rawls’s “Veil of Ignorance” theory, which holds that in order for members of a society to choose a fair and just social structure, an original position and attendant veil of ignorance are necessary. For her title, Soo turned to Dante: in the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the River Lethe causes souls to forget their sins. 

With Autumn Quarter and the bundle now complete, Soo plans to continue her work as a human rights advocate and artist. Fernanda is looking forward to the rest of her internship at I Grow and the chance to apply newfound critical frameworks in her upcoming coursework. 

It wasn’t study abroad, but “in the end,” Fernanda says, “I think the bundle was just perfect for me. It kept me engaged every single day.”

Images of ‘Registration’ and ‘The Wall Lethe’ courtesy of Soo Jin Jang, AB’22