Christina has designed and taught undergraduate courses in Government at the University of Texas at Austin. She views her concentration on constitutional rights as offering an important opportunity to educate students about their own rights and duties in a constitutional democracy. Christina was chosen to receive the University of Texas Liberal Arts Council’s Excellence in Teaching Award for the 2017-2018 academic year. Read her interview with the American Political Science Association about teaching.
Constitutional Principles. Fall 2017. University of Texas at Austin. Syllabus.
In Federalist 1 Alexander Hamilton describes the project of the American framers to establish a constitution through “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” Ultimately the 1787 Constitution was a product of extensive compromise, as different philosophical and political commitments informed the kinds of choices that different camps would pursue for the young country.
In this class we study the political philosophical traditions that shaped the constitutional debates and eventually the American constitutional order. In particular, we look at the republican tradition as represented by Aristotle, and the liberal tradition as represented by John Locke. After gaining some familiarity with these thinkers, we can begin to understand the commitments and preoccupations of the American Federalists and Anti-Federalists when we read the ratification debates. Finally, in studying Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of the Early Republic, we see that these philosophical traditions and corresponding constitutional choices have consequences beyond the Constitution’s text. Even today these traditions continue to animate and define life in the American polity.
That the Constitution was the result of compromise is evident throughout the class. Most strikingly, America’s original sin of slavery poses vital challenges to many of the ideals and commitments we encounter in studying the Constitution’s foundations. Moreover, even those values that do seem to coexist productively sometimes collide–equality vs. liberty, security vs. local autonomy, democracy vs. individual rights. The framers sought to create a Constitution from reflection and choice. With the diversity of commitments and ideas informing the American constitutional order, however, perhaps the best we can hope for is a Constitution of constant striving, but never fully realized.
An Introduction to Rights: Theory, Practice, and Debates. Spring 2017. University of Texas at Austin. Syllabus.
It’s a free country! It’s my right! How many times have you heard these expressions? How many times have you used them? From these playground taunts to more serious appeals in public fora, the language of rights pervades American discourse today. This may be a virtue if this rights-consciousness results in a more just society. But it may be counterproductive as well. People may resort to “rights talk” at the expense of reasoned argument, preventing understanding or dialogue with others who seem to disagree. Moreover, emphasizing rights may distract from thinking about our duties as citizens or even as human beings.
If we are going to discuss and debate rights as much as we do, we should know something about them. Arguably, we should know something about their history, their status in law, and the important questions concerning rights that are up for debate even today. This course is an introduction to each of these aspects of the concept of rights, offering a broad introduction so that students walk away more informed on the subject of rights in general.
In the first section of the class, we read many of the essential texts from the history of rights theory. The second section covers in broad strokes the history of rights in constitutional law. Though we focus on United States constitutional law, I take opportunities throughout to draw comparisons with other countries. Lastly, we take up a variety of questions about rights that remain open for debate. Where do we think rights come from? How do we find rights in law? Can rights ever be limited or taken away? Are there limits to what the concept of rights can accomplish? After the first two sections of the course, students are prepared to weigh in on these big questions, and even offer some answers.