While cleaning out some old files, I recently came across a copy of my Williams transcript.  Looking at it produced some surprises, and my older son was not very impressed with my grades.  (My arguments about grade inflation did not impress him either.)

One of the items on the transcript was a political science class I took as senior with Prof. Michael MacDonald called Settler Societies. The class was a comparison of the similarities and differences between the conflicts which were then present in Israel, South Africa, and Northern Ireland.  One of my clearest takeaways from the class was how intractable each of the conflicts appeared, and how it seemed as though there was no way for any of them to be “resolved” short of full scale civil war.  Much to my surprise, within 10 years, both the situations in South Africa and Northern Ireland had fundamentally shifted (“solved” is probably not exactly accurate), despite there being no obvious way forward at the time I took the class.  It appears that the class has now morphed into a senior seminar called Identity Politics: Conflicts in Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, & South Africa“.  Here is the course description:

Identities have been either the stakes, or the guise taken by other kinds of conflicts, in Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa for centuries. They have led to, or expressed, political divisions, clashing loyalties, and persistent and sometimes consuming violence. They also have produced attempts by both internal and external actors to resolve the issues. This research seminar will engage the origins of the conflicts and the role of identities in them, the role of disputes about sovereign power in creating and intensifying them, the strategies for reconciling them that are adopted domestically and internationally, the deals that have been struck or have not been struck to bring peace in these societies, and the outcomes of the various efforts in their contemporary politics. The course will begin by reading about both the general theoretical issues raised by conflicts in these “divided societies” and various responses to them. After familiarizing ourselves with what academic and policy literatures have to say about them, we then will read about the histories and contemporary politics in each society. With that as background, students will choose an aspect or aspects of these conflicts as a subject for their individual research.

For some reason, this course has stuck with me through the years, even though it has no professional relevance for me.  Perhaps it was that the subject matter always seemed relevant to current events (and it still does).  Perhaps it was because of Prof. MacDonald’s talents as a teacher.  Probably some combination of both.

What Williams classes still stick out in your mind?


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