Recommended Courses

There are many ways to study American ideas and institutions at Duke.  This list of courses is not intended to be exhaustive; rather, we seek to give students a sense of the opportunities available to them in both the humanities and social sciences. Moreover, we encourage students who are interested in American ideas and institutions to take courses in multiple disciplines, and to seek out unfamiliar topics.

Our list of recommended courses is divided into three categories: courses that feature American ideas, courses that focus on core political institutions, and other recommended courses.

Courses that feature American ideas, ideologies, and thinkers
History 177S: Gateway Seminar: The Meaning of Freedom in American History
Focus on American conflicts over the meaning of “freedom” or “liberty.” Examination of changing definitions over time, and appraisal of the role that conflicts over “freedom” play in defining American identity and politics in the present. Course readings (mostly primary sources) introduce students to central disputes over meanings of “freedom” in American history, and student papers will also investigate conflicts or ideas about liberty. Instructor: Huston
Political Science 150FS: Citizenship, Patriotism and Identity
This course introduces students to fundamental moral questions about nation states and individuals’ membership in them. Do people owe more to their compatriots than to foreigners? Is it desirable – or at least permissible – for countries to have and promote a national identity? What different forms can patriotism take, and in which (if any) of these forms is it a virtue? Should we all be “citizens of the world?” These questions will be explored primarily through readings in contemporary moral and political philosophy. Open only to students in the Focus Program. Instructor: MacMullen
Political Science 175FS: Freedom and Responsibility
Conflicting visions of freedom and responsibility that characterize the modern world; the possibility of leading ethical lives in the face of conflicting demands that a complex vision of the good engenders. Readings include Luther, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Kant, and Jack London. Course aims to be an intense introduction to Western philosophical ideas of freedom and responsibility. Open only to students in the Focus Program. Department consent required. Instructor: Gillespie
Political Science 188FS: American Perspectives on Citizenship
An overview of American perspectives on citizenship. Explores ongoing controversies about the influence of liberalism and republicanism on American conceptions of citizenship, whether American individualism threatens civic duty, whether civil disobedience is justified, whether there are certain values and experiences that all American citizens should share, and whether national identities are relevant in an increasingly global world. Open only to students in the Focus Program. Department consent required. Instructor: Hanagan
Political Science 206: American Values, Institutions, and Culture
Introduction to American political theory and institutional development from European settlement to Progressive Era; origins and evolution of key political institutions, including congress, federalism, the presidency, the party system, and Supreme Court; ways in which these institutions resolve collective action problems; influence of competing political ideologies—especially, liberalism, puritanism, republicanism—on American political development; role of political ideologies and institutions in re-enforcing and resisting slavery, as well as racial and gender inequality. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 211: Democracy: Ancient and Modern
  Examines democracy in its ancient and modern forms, with special attention to Athenian and American democracy. Does modern democracy fulfill the promise of ancient democracy, or betray its fundamental tenets? Topics may include freedom, equality, and rights; democratic institutions; citizenship; rhetoric; democratic knowledge and decision-making; foreign policy; corruption; religion; and hope. Instructor: Atkins
Political Science 265S: Introduction to American Political Thought
Basic elements of the American political tradition examined through a critical analysis of the ethical and political issues and controversies that developed from its historical English roots to the present day. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 275: Left, Right and Center: Competing Political Ideologies
Analysis of liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and their diverse conceptions of justice, freedom, community, and equality. Exploration of how these political philosophies interpret various social, religious, and political issues. The origins of these ideologies in early modern European thought. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 373: Law and Politics
Examination of the nature and functions of law and legal institutions through critical interpretation of legal texts and practices. Relationships among bench, bar, legislators, and administrators in the development of public as well as private law. Attention to judicial reasoning used in the resolution of cases and controversies involving the common law, statutes including selected aspects of civil procedure, and the American Constitution. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 386: Theories of Liberal Democracy
Classic theorists, such as Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Tocqueville, Madison, and Marx, and contemporary theories of liberal democracy. Attention to the historical setting, the normative philosophical presuppositions, and the ethical and policy implications of the theories. Instructor: Grant


Courses that focus on core political institutions
Law 120: Constitutional Law
An examination of the distribution of and limitations upon governmental authority under the Constitution of the United States. Instructor: Adler, Blocher, Charles, Powell, Purdy, Siegel, or Young.
Political Science 116D: The American Political System
Focus on the institutional structure of the American national government, the goals of the political actors who operate within it, and the contexts that affect political action. Institutional analysis of the effects of the original constitutional structure and of developments since. Emphasis on the relationship between the preferences of the general public and the decisions of government actors. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 212: The American Presidency
The American presidency and its influence on American government and politics across various historical periods. The role of the presidency as it relates to important ethical and political issues and controversies at various times in American political history. Comparison with executive offices in various countries. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 318: Congress and the President
Critical interpretations of public policies and institutional practices to better understand the United States system of divided government. Special attention to understanding the consequences of cooperative and adversarial goals of the executive branch and the Congress. Features of this institutional balance of power in policy-making; institutional and political origins of laws and regulations. Instructor: Staff


Other recommended courses
African & African American Studies 230: The South in Black and White
Focus on present-day and historical documentary traditions in American South, with an emphasis on call and response between black and white cultures. The arts and humanities as imbedded in particular histories and cultures found in the South, and as performed in music and theater; and portrayed in documentary films, civil rights photography, Southern literature, and historical and autobiographical writing. Includes historical texts, oral histories and testimonies of living persons, along with documentary films, photographs, and writings from people in Durham and elsewhere in the region. Instructor: Tyson
African & African American Studies 295S: Black Muslims: Race, Religion, and Culture
The intersection of African, American, European, and Islamic cultures studied through the cultural and intellectual flourishing of black Islam. Topics include early Muslim communities established in the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade, Muslim slave rebellions in Brazil and the Caribbean, Muslim slave autobiographies, African Muslims in Europe, the emergence of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, women of the Nation of Islam, women’s Qur’an exegeses, Hagar as a black woman, black feminism, the Five-Percent Nation, Islamic hip-hop and rap, “the Black Crescent,” the black international and Islam, and the Black Panthers. Instructor: McLarney
African & African American Studies 314: Representing Slavery
Examines representations of the Atlantic slave trade in scholarship, literature, film, popular culture, and local site visits. We will examine portrayals of people who were enslaved, people who enslaved, as well as the nature of capture, the Middle Passage, and plantation life. We will also explore contemporary commemorations of the slave trade within museums, and the political mobilization of this history within the reparations movement. Through an examination of these materials, we will ask “why represent slavery?” and “what is at stake when representing slavery?” Instructor: Cobb
African & African American Studies 331: Black Popular Culture
The production and circulation of African American popular cultural forms including, but not limited to, popular literature, music, film, television, and art in the twentieth century. The ways in which African American popular culture may reflect the particular values and ethos of African Americans and the larger American society. Topics may include black cinema, blues and jazz music, black nationalism, hip hop, black social movements, blacks and sports culture, popular dance, and the cultural history of black style. Instructor: Lubiano and staff
African & African American Studies 345: African Americans: Mass Incarceration and Citizenship
Explores in depth the presence of African Americans within the phenomenon of U.S. mass incarceration and its implications for notions of citizenship. Surveys the history of prison build-up resulting from legislation and policy over the past forty years including the governmental discussions of drug policy and welfare reform that disproportionately affected African Americans. Course will explore definitions of citizenship and the means by which African American citizens were and are both included in and excluded from participation in the movement toward mass incarceration as part of their changing position in the U.S. polity. Instructor: Lubiano
English 260: American Literature to 1820
Works by authors of the colonial period and the early Republic. Satisfies Area II requirement for English majors. Instructors: Staff
English 266: African American Literature
Oral and literary traditions from the American colonial period into the nineteenth century, including spiritual as lyric poetry and the slave narrative as autobiography. Not open to students who have taken the former English 167. Satisfies Area II requirement for the English major. Instructor: Staff
English 269: Classics of American Literature, 1820-1860
What makes a “classic” of American literature? Why do a handful of texts endure while others have fallen by the wayside? By reading a variety of well-known texts from early American literature, we pose-and attempt to answer-these questions. Supplemental readings illuminate pivotal political debates, social movements, gender struggles, and ethnic clashes from 1820 to 1860. Texts include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Walt Whitman’sLeaves of Grass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as works by Dickinson, Melville, Douglass, and Poe. Films will include Sleepy Hollow (1999) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). Instructor: D’Alessandro
English 270: Classics of American Literature, 1860-1915
Prose and poetry by such authors as Cather, Chesnutt, Chopin, Crane, Dickinson, DuBois, Freeman, Gilman, James, Jewett, Twain, Washington, Wharton. Satisfies Area II requirement for English majors. Instructor: Staff
English 271: Classics of American Literature: 1915-1960
Prose and poetry by such authors as Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and others. Satisfies the Area III requirement for English majors. Instructor: Staff
English 373: American Literature: Cold War and After
American authors, topics and themes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Satisfies Area III requirement for English majors. Instructor: Staff
English 374: Contemporary American Writers
Novelists and poets prominent since 1984. Satisfies Area III requirement for English majors. Instructor: Staff
English 390S: Special Topics
The English department offers a variety of special topics classes related to American ideas and institutions. Some special topics courses may focus on a single American author, such as Zora Neale Hurston or Walt Whitman.
History 130D: American Dreams and American Realities
Examines the role of such myths as “rags to riches,” “beacon to the world,” “the frontier” and “foreign devil” in defining the American character and determining hopes, fears, dreams, and actions throughout American History. Attention given to the surface consistency of these myths as accepted by each immigrant group versus the shifting content of the myths as they change to reflect the hopes and values of each of these groups. Instructor: Wilson
History 299: Women and Popular Culture in US History
This course examines representations of women in popular culture in the United States. We will focus on the dramatic changes in the characteristics attributed to women over time; the multiple, often conflicting ideas about women that circulated at particular moments; and the influence of race, class, and sexuality in shaping popular conceptions about women. We will then consider what popular culture reveals about women’s lives: how it reflected and obscured the actual conditions of women’s lives; how it constrained women; and how women also used popular conceptions for their own ends. The course uses a variety of materials, including plays, novels, movies, images, and music. Instructor: Edwards
History 309: Alexander Hamilton and His World
Using the musical “Hamilton” as a starting point and a foil, this course examines Alexander Hamilton’s life, work, and impact in the context of his rapidly changing world. The course addresses some of the central issues tied to Hamilton’s life and career in both the Caribbean and the English colonies of North America: class and social mobility, the origins and character of the American Revolution, gender relations and ideas in the new republic, plantation slavery and controversies about it, the problems of unity and nation-building, the development of a US economy and financial system, party competition and democratic mobilization, the United States’ relationship to world powers. Instructor: Huston
History 337: The Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1815
Origins, evolution, and consequences. Attention to economic, social, and geographical questions, as well as military, political, and moral issues. Instructor: Hart
History 338 - The New Nation: The United States, 1800 to 1860
Examines the transformation of the new republic into a nation, focusing on the development of political institutions, the market economy, western expansion, and conflicts over slavery and the meaning of “freedom” for a wide range of people in the new nation. Instructor: Hart or Huston
History 340: The Civil War and Reconstruction: The United States, 1850-1880
The social, economic, and cultural aspects of the Civil War’s origins and outcomes as well as the resulting military, political, and legal conflicts. Focus on the contested and changing meanings of “freedom” in all sections of the country. Instructor: Glymph
History 342: The Making of Modern America: The United States from 1898 to 1945
Transformations in society, politics, foreign relations, and arts and literature between Spanish-American War and World War II. Course pays particular attention to domestic politics in the Progressive Era; the Great Migration and the “New Negro: the Jazz Age and the “Modern Woman;” the Great Depression; and the World Wars. Instructor: Deutsch or Lentz-Smith
History 343: History of Modern America: The United States from 1830 to Present
United States history since the Great Depression, with emphasis on the shaping influence of the New Deal and war. Examines transformations of everyday life and culture and the movements for social change they generated, including the labor, civil rights, and women’s movements, and explores the nation’s dominant role on the world stage and the impact of a global economy. Instructor: MacLean
History 344: History of US Social Movements
Examines the social movements that have shaped U.S. history, starting with the American Revolution itself and covering others including the anti-slavery movement, women’s rights, Populism, Socialism, the Ku Klux Klan, the labor movement, the Black Freedom Movement and broader New Left, lesbian and gay liberation, and the recent conservative movement, focusing on the ethical issues arguments they raised, and how new civil, political, and social rights were created through social movement organizing. Lectures and readings explore why these movements arose, what they achieved, why many opposed them, and what we can learn about American history writ large from their experiences. Instructor: MacLean
History 348: The Civil Rights Movement
An interdisciplinary examination of the civil rights movement from World War II through the late 1960s. Instructor: Gavins or Lentz-Smith
History 352: Immigrant Dreams, US Realities: Immigration Policy History
Immigrants and immigration policy in the United States from 1850 to the present, with focus on origins and power of immigrant exclusion during three waves of migration: Northern European and Asian migrations between 1850 and 1880, Eastern European, Latin American, and Asian migrations, 1880-1920, and Latin American, African, and Asian migrations, post 1965. Immigrant roles in shaping policy debates, citizenship rights, labor movements, and American culture, past and present. Instructor: Peck
History 362: United States Political History, 1900 to the Present
U.S. political history from 1900 to the present. Topics include the emergence, evolution, and decline of a “liberal” coalition; the creation of a “conservative” coalition; the development of a powerful federal state and its social and political results; the role of money in politics; the transformation of voting rights and voter participation; reform and radical movements and their relationship to party politics and the federal government. Instructor: Huston
History 363: History of Capitalism in the United States
Surveys history of various forms of capitalism in the United States, with focus on changing labor systems and labor relations, banking and finance, business enterprise and strategies, agriculture, government economic policy (including regulatory policy), and intellectual history of capitalism and its reformers. Instructor: Huston
History 373: American Indian History Since 1806
Examines images and realities of North American Indian cultures and history from early 19th century through present day. Focus on American Indian responses to Anglo-American nation building and encroachment, radical decline of Indian populations over the 19th century and complex survival strategies initiated by American Indians in the face of decimation, Anglo-American attempts at religious and cultural conversion; and Indian response and resistance, and demographic and political revitalization of Indian peoples in the 20th century. Instructor: Barr
History 395S: Post-1945 America
After providing an orientation to post-1945 US history, this course will guide students in the production of original individual research papers that aim for publishable quality. Students will choose topics according to their own interests that make use of the rich collections of primary sources in Duke’s Rubenstein Library. Sample areas for more defined projects include the history of advertising, the civil rights and Black Power movements, labor organizing, women’s history, alternative publishing, LGBTQ history, aspects of US relations with the wider world, environmentalism, economic thought, and the impact of globalization, particularly on North Carolina and the South. Some prior college coursework in 20th century US history desirable but not required. Instructor: MacLean
Political Science 120: The Challenges of an Ethical Life
Familiar but fundamental ethical questions: What is a good, worthy or just life? How is it to be lived, toward what ends? Readings include dramas and philosophical analyses, parables and auto- biographies, polemics and meditations, novels and political commentaries. Introductory course for the Ethics & Society Certificate. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 175: Introduction to Political Philosophy
An intensive comparative examination of the nature and enduring problems of political philosophy through the confrontation, interpretation, and normative assessment of classic texts from the Greek polis to the present. Selected theorists and their arguments and beliefs within the Western political tradition concerning justice, the good life, freedom, community, power, authority, and others. Careful attention to the ways argument and rhetoric operate in texts of political philosophy, as well as diverse modes of interpretation. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 205: Introduction to Racial and Ethnic Minorities in America
The politics of four of the United States principal racial minority groups—blacks, Latinos, Asians, and American Indians. Instructor: McClain
Political Science 209D: Contemporary Constitutional Law
Exploration of the role of the Supreme Court in the context of constitutional issues of particular importance in 21st century America. Includes the study of the structure of the Court itself, including an analysis of the nomination process, as well as the study of the Court’s work across a range of issues highlighting the most significant cases of the past decade, such as Citizens United (political speech for corporations) and National Federal v. Sebelius (Affordable Care Act). Focus throughout the course will be on opposing theories of constitutional interpretation. Instructor: Metzloff
Political Science 316: American Political Parties
Introduction to the American party system. Social choice, structural-functionalism, and systems theory: why parties might be a necessary component of advanced industrial societies. Comparison of different social settings (ethnic, religious, class divisions) and how constitutional and party structures may relate. Tripartite theory of parties: parties in the electorate, as organizations, and in government. Historical development of parties in the United States since the Founding. The impact of media, regional, racial, gender, ethnic, and class identities on American party development. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 319S: US Comparative State Politics
Intensive comparative examination of government, political cultures, and politics in the American States, including institutions (governors, legislatures, courts), history of federalism, policies, practices, and diverse cultural factors such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, urban-rural-suburban residencies that affect state politics. DukeImmerse students only. Instructor consent required. Instructor; Haynie
Political Science 343S: The US Border and Its Borderlands
Examines the challenges and opportunities of the US border from a geopolitical perspective. Detailed review of how the current US boundaries were set, and how this shapes current attitudes and conflicts. Assessment of various means of border control, including visa issues, border walls and port of entry screening. Cultural and historical comparison of two borderlands, Seattle-Vancouver and San Diego-Tijuana, and the EU experience. Overall course theme: Can the border effectively and ethically screen noxious elements without blocking legitimate and necessary travel and trade. Specific skills taught: policy memo writing and oral briefing strategies. Instructor: Kelly
Political Science 384: Inequality in Western Political Thought
Study of egalitarian and inegalitarian theories in the history of Western Political Thought. Distinction between forms of inequality (political, economic, social, racial, gender, etc.). Analysis of what kind of equality should be achieved (resources, opportunities, rights, respect, etc.). Connection of equality with other political and moral issues (freedom, responsibility, class conflict, well-being, poverty, exclusion, solidarity, difference, etc.) Readings include Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, Marx, Veblen, Du Bois, Friedman, Rawls, and Piketty. Instructor: Rousseliere
Political Science 449: Politics, Philosophies and Economics Capstone
Capstone course open only to students in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program. Integrates and synthesizes the analytical framework and factual studies provided in other PPE courses. Consent of instructor required. Instructor: Staff
Political Science 525S Race and American Politics
A broad overview of the salience of race in the American political fabric and how it structures racial attitudes on a number of political and policy dimensions. Instructor: McClain
Political Science 578S: Contemporary Theories of Democracy
Seminar has three aims: (a) to introduce students to some important topics and approaches in contemporary democratic theory; (b) to investigate the ways in which these issues are related to broader discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of democracy and the rule of law; (c) to familiarize students with a range of strategies for justifying or criticizing political arrangements or policies. Topics include social justice, individual rights and community, representation, deliberation, the relationship between democratic decision-making and markets and the normative implications of moral, religious and ideological pluralism. Instructor: Knight
Political Science 587S: Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Civil Disobedience
What justifies free speech? When can it be limited legitimately? What justifies civil disobedience? Is violent resistance ever justified? Answering these questions will constitute the key work of this course. Students will debate these questions by confronting key works in political philosophy and by thinking through how these theoretical questions come up in debates over: the regulation of pornography and hate speech, the ridiculing of religious figures, and the use of violence to protest unjust policies. Readings include works: Mill, Locke, King, Langton, Waldron, Shelby and Rawls. Instructor: Kirshner
Public Policy 370S: Press, the Presidency and Congress in a New Media Age
How political figures manage and avoid the press—and how the press manages politicians—in an era of 24/7 coverage, social media and the partisan echo chamber. Politician strategies of talking points, staged events, the empty theatrics of the daily White House briefing, and town halls on YouTube. Contraposed by cable news, partisan media and the relentless quest for conflict and scoops. Instructor: Adair
Public Policy 371: News as a Moral Background
Ethical inquiry into journalism and its effect on public discourse. Issues include accuracy, transparency, conflicts of interest and fairness. Topics include coverage of national security, government secrecy, plagiarism/fabrication, and trade-offs of anonymous sourcing. Instructor: Bennett, Adair
Public Policy 379S: The First Amendment in the Digital Age
Analysis of the role of the First Amendment in content-oriented media and communications. Examination of the relationship between American intellectual property regimes and the Bill of Rights, proscription of “any law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” Critical readings of commentary and some case law, with extensive classroom discussion in a small seminar format. Substantive topics include policy-based perspectives on digital encryption and performance, open source software, rights clearance issues, infringement theory in derivative works, dilution theory, and jurisdiction in cyberspace. Prerequisite Public Policy Studies 373S or PJMS 373S. Instructor: Staff
Religion 178: World Religions in American Life
Introduction to world religions through exploration of their manifestations in the United States, with the goal of understanding both religion and American life more accurately. Instructor: Morgan or staff
Religion 236: Religion in Black America
Survey of traditional African religions. Explores the various expressions of religion by African slaves and their descendants in the United States from the seventeenth century to the present. Central focus on the engagement of African in America with Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Instructor: Peters
Religion 237: Religion in American Life
A historical survey, with emphasis on the ways that religious experiences, beliefs, and traditions have found expression in religious communities and institutions, and in American public life. Instructor: Morgan or Staff