Just Another End of the World
Stop Worrying and Live with the Apocalypse
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about what it’s like to teach in the pandemic and how my students coped with the end of the world.
Just Another End of the World
I taught a lot last semester. Not as much as some, but more than others, and well more than enough for me: two intro/required courses with more than 200 students apiece and one honors seminar with just over 20 students.
Teaching courses that are so different is always a challenge. Large lecture courses can incorporate more or less interactivity through in-class exercises, group work, and carefully crafted assignments, but fundamentally they will always rely on some measure of, well, lecturing to large groups. It would be great if intro courses could be smaller, but the economics of higher education won’t allow this. Large courses subsidize big ones, and unless tuition soars, we invent “adjunct deans”, or governments decide to actually fund education again, the question is how to do large courses as best as can be, not how to replace them.
If larger courses tend to all be the same, smaller courses are each happy or unhappy in their own away. One can treat them as low-prep free-for-all seminars, or one can overplan every moment of class time—and of outside assignments. The course I taught last Fall, The Politics of the End of the World, tries to combine programmed and open-ended activities in nearly equal measure.
All courses should have a thesis, and Politics of the End of the World sports two. The most obvious one is substantive: some part of our world—or some world in which we find ourselves—is always ending, and we should think about whether and how politics contributes to the preservation or the ending of those worlds. The varieties of apocalypses that humans have imagined, faced, or created—the Second Coming, atomic warfare, bioweapons, grey goo, and the ever-popular Extinction Comet II: This Time It’s Mammalian—mostly seem to exist outside politics in the popular imagination, but really they are all just as political as the worlds they’d bring to an end. That’s even more the case for more localized or targeted world-ending, from how tariff changes can squash local economies centered on manufacturing to how aggressive public-works programs can eradicate recurring problems like, say, dysentery.
This is the programmed part of the course. Students read—a lot (here’s the syllabus)—about how societies have faced, created, and responded to world-ending dynamics, and they learn how to identify them and discuss them as, essentially, ordinary parts of any society. (Indeed, world-ending is essential to world-building.) This term, thanks to going remote, we ended up having magnificent guest speakers who have written on the topic, like Hayes Brown, Kelsey Atherton, and Alison McQueen.
But the real thesis is that we don’t ask college students to do enough meaningful work in college.
Meaningful work, to me, is the kind that matters after you’ve done it—and has the potential to matter to someone else, too. Most school assignments aren’t meaningful, and to be fair they don’t have to be if they’re meant to lead to meaningful outcomes down the road. What bothers me is that a lot of classes don’t have those kinds of meaningful outcomes, which may explain why students don’t seem to retain anything from course to course. Why would they? Without something meaningful happening in the learning process—either in class or in course assignments—the class, well, wasn’t meaningful. And why waste the brain cells remembering something that ended up not mattering?
To make the course meaningful, students work in groups of five or six to create a podcast episode exploring some end of the world. This year, as with the first time I taught the course, everything was focused on Massachusetts, because it turns out the world has ended a lot in four hundred years (indeed, the fact that “Massachusetts” has “four hundred years of history” suggests that someone else’s world ended about four hundred years ago). Few of the students had podcasting experience, but more than that: this was the open-ended part of the course. A group project, entirely online, with skills that practically nobody had, about a topic that pretty much no group knew anything about.
Ah, yeah, and we were working during a pandemic, which made the whole “end of the world” thing a little real. (I can’t disclose any details, but I can say that a lot of students dealt with a lot of issues during the term.) And thanks to budget cutbacks and campus closures, I had to raise the money to provide students with the equipment and licenses necessary to carry everything out (an immense thank-you to donors, including several long-term subscribers to this newsletter).
I’m pleased to announce the students performed splendidly. The podcast, Final Examination, has been updated with its new “season”. You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, someday soon inshallah Google Podcasts, and of course online.
The students examined how White families reacted to the Boston busing/school integration crisis of the 1970s—and how those families prevented integration from ending their racially segregated world. They looked at how Boston’s thirst for water led the state to drown four towns under the Quabbin Reservoir, literally erasing them from the map. They considered how labor activists—some as young as ten—in Lowell, Massachusetts, sought to end that town’s exploitative labor practices. And they looked at how changes in American politics, especially decisions like Dred Scott, brought an end to racially integrated whaling in Nantucket.
More than two hours of listening await. This sort of assignment is, I think, exactly what universities ought to be doing in upper-division courses—not mouthing platitudes about STEM and critical thinking, but actually doing projects that require learning and integrating practices from around the curriculum. Pulling this off during Covid required some adjustments but the students, I think, managed to learn from what their predecessors in an earlier iteration of the class did and make even better content.
What I’m Writing
Newsletter updates have been slow because most weeks I can write for money or, well, I can write for you. Over the past few months, I’ve published several pieces you might be interested in:
Pieces for Foreign Policy about January 6 and its causes, including one written and published while the Capitol was still held hostage and another examining how mainstream political science didn’t understand the limits of American democracy until recently (if we’re being generous)
An essay about why academic book reviews suck for The Chronicle of Higher Education
And an explanation of why Republican senators won’t convict Trump even though some of them would like him out of the 2024 presidential field for The Washington Post