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Faculty Ideas: Democracy Labs

At the Immediate-Launch Democracy Lab information session on Sept 6, many compelling ideas were shared, and a number of those present expressed interest in partnering with other faculty.

To capture the great concepts articulated at the information session and more, faculty were invited to share their ideas via an online form. These ideas are posted to this page (below).

Interesting in adding your idea for a Democracy Lab here? Submit your idea.


Colin Bird (PPL/Politics/Philosophy/Media Studies)


The Wisdom of Strangers

When rulers are unaccountable to the ruled, injustice, oppression, privilege and legitimate grievances go unrecognized. Under such conditions, citizens become prone to cynicism, apathy and a sense of frustration. This in turn breeds mutual mistrust and, eventually, radicalization. The violence we saw in Charlottesville last month was a particularly malignant manifestation. Rioting, Martin Luther King Jr. remarked, “is the language of the unheard.”

To resist this tendency, estrangement from one’s compatriots must cease to be feared and become a valued resource for honest and reasoned discussion of common problems. The social costs of admitting that one’s political convictions are corrigible, that one might be wrong, or have something to learn from those whose outlook and life-experiences are very different, must be reduced. If one could summarize our proposal in a single, animating, phrase, it might be this: the wise reorientation of civic patience. Today, we are too little patient with what is unfamiliar, different, strange; we are not impatient enough with errant nonsense. 

We propose a lab with two mutually referential elements, both of which we envisage supporting a nationally prominent series of podcasts.

• Partner with Politics, the Law School, and Psychology, to create a Virginia Rural Urban Dialog Project. Convene two groups of 16-20 adult participants, recruited half from Charlottesville and half from rural Albermarle (and surrounding) counties, so that a quarter are UVa College or University students. Participants will be recruited through professional, trade, community, education, and faith organizations so that a diversity of backgrounds and demographic characteristics are included. Two initial dialogues are projected for the Spring of 2018, one focusing quite specifically on the events of August 11 and 12th this year, and the second inviting citizens to reflect on how their respective political and religious outlooks interact with each other. Subsequent topics will incorporate what emerges from the initial dialogues and the research interests of the interdisciplinary investigative team.

• Propaganda Busters: Partner with PPL, Philosophy and Media Studies to establish a class (incorporated into the existing undergraduate forum) in which students analyze political speech with a view to identifying the fallacies, bullshit, mistaken inferences, ambiguities, spin, implicit dodgy assumptions etc. it contains. The point would not be merely to expose empirical inaccuracy. The problem of propaganda in our society is far deeper than that of ‘alternative facts’; indeed, to focus on that issue misses the real problem, for it reinforces the dogma that, outside empirically verifiable facts, there is only ‘subjectivity’ and incorrigible opinion. Propagandists know this well: it suits them fine to have people arguing about statistics or inaccurate reporting because it obscures the deeper problem that the political positions they advocate depend on indefensible normative principles, ethically dubious assumptions, and other irrational appeals. That is why we have chosen ‘wisdom’ as our framing category: for unwisdom and folly are about more than just ignoring the facts. Wisdom consists, not in knowing facts, but in responding to them in a defensible, justified, responsible, democratic, manner. 

Frederick (Fred) Damon (Anthropology)

As an anthropologist I have been lecturing about our election system since the early 1980s, first in my classes here, eventually around the world (Paris, Lima, Singapore, Chengdu [2016, leading up to the Trump election]). From an anthropological point of view our system appears as a rather common type of system but its particulars are deeply embedded in our history and culture. I would like to add this set of insights to this larger project. We should not overestimate the exceptionalism of our system nor think it could be easily exported anywhere. 

My thesis was eventually published in Taiwan (2003) and after the most recent election in a reduced form in an Oxford University Anthropology journal. It needs to be updated by adding at least two more anthropological models and some material Wallerstein published about the franchise in the 2011 Vol. IV of his MWS series.

Gertrude Fraser (Anthropology) 

I have an interest in two issues:

1: I am interested in how nation states, especially ones understood as democratic govern through the production and management of emotion. These could be negatively valenced such as fear, cynicism, paranoia, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, hate or positively valence such as happiness, hope, aspiration,optimism empathy. We could explore the intersection of politics and emotion drawing on a range of perspectives culled from as anthropology, politics, religious studies, psychology, neuroscience, trauma, feminist scholarship ,biology. What forms does this take and what is the movement back and forth between govern--mentalities and individual response--or more collective expression?

and 2: I would want to explore these issues in the more conventional scholarly approach but would also want to explore with students how to draw on performative approaches such as theatre, choreography, poetry to deepen the exploration of such issues. We could invite artists in residents to collaborate with students, community members and faculty. Individuals I have in mind are:

Laura Goldblatt (College Fellows)


Although the “public humanities” is deeply concerned with public engagement, and has made major strides in bringing the results of humanities research to public awareness, our existing inquiry suggests that academic research and public-interest humanities programs do not share much in the way of methods or content. (STEM fields struggle with the same issue.) We started with the following question: “Can academic humanities research be made into a stronger mode of direct address to public audiences?” In the early phase of our joint research, we came to the conclusion that this was the wrong question. Much of the most valuable work in the public humanities was motivated by contact with non-academic communities—readers, writers, performers. In addition, much of it did best in spaces that were neither entirely inside the university nor outside of it. Furthermore, we had been concerned all along with the unprecedented proportion of humanities Ph.D holders working outside the university, breaking a historical pattern of higher dependence than non-humanities fields on higher education for employment, Today, “the public” includes not only many “lay” individuals who are interested in humanistic inquiry, but also people who already possess the advanced training necessary to complete humanities research. This abundance of unemployed or alternatively-employed PhDs is a crisis but also an opportunity for new institutional formations to join academic and public humanities as never before. Our research question has become, “How can we best enable academic researchers and community members to define and pursue research problems together?”

Our project contributes to scholarship and policy on the public humanities—and to the future of higher education—through these outcomes:

1. Staging a conference, forums, speakers, classes and place-based projects to bring together three types of groups: (A) academic scholars; (B) community humanities practitioners; (C) hybrid groups of academics and community scholars. Some will be recorded for future analysis and, in selected cases, public viewing. A subset of conference proceedings will be included in an edited volume. Our purpose is to identify favored practices and generate new ideas that could serve as the foundation for collaborative humanities efforts between higher ed and communities.

2. Creating an archive of our proceedings including records of practices for public consultation. This archive will consist of: (A) an edited volume comprising selected conference proceedings; (B) a website that includes a tabulation of individuals and groups who have been active or who are now currently active in what we call the community humanities. The website will also start a systematic compilation of, and publications about, the post-World War II history of experiments in para-academic, autonomous, community-based, and hybrid academic-community practices of humanities research.

Nizar F. Hermes (MIddle Eastern & South Asian Languages & Cultures)

A Moor in Jefferson's Court: Histories, Realities, and Legacies’ of Islam and Muslims in the USA

This unit/forum will make the case that beyond the unfortunate discourses and practices of Islamophobia and Westophobia, there have always been positive exchanges and attempts at cultural understandings between the Islamic world and the West in general and the USA in particular. In the context of the USA, we will explore the early presence of Muslims in America and the diplomatic exchanges between the USA and the the Islamic world especially North Africa. Of particular importance is the 1777 Moroccan official recognition of the United States (the first nation to do so). Related to the first part of Twainian title is the fascinating story of the first Muslim diplomat in the USA (1805-1806): Sidi Soliman Mellimelli (who was the envoy of the Bey of Tunis to Thomas Jefferson).

As we explore the challenges contemporary Muslim refugees face at post-Trump America, we will also examine the first Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees to the USA in the 19th centuries from the Levant and Yemen, chief among them the famous Lebanese-American writer/poet Gibran Khalil Gibran. This will also be related to the Islamic backgrounds of thousands of African slaves from West Africa who lived in Virginia especially at Mount Vernon. The aforementioned issues will be connected to: discourses of Islam’s compatibility to democracy, clash of cultures, Islamophobia and the overall Muslim-American relations since the heinous attacks of Sep. 11, the perceptions of and discrimination against American Muslim women, and Trump’s controversial Muslim travel ban. We will also explore the hopes and impediments of Muslim students at UVa and the Muslim community of Charlottesville at large before and after the tragic events of August 11 and 12, and reflect at optimal venues to initiate an intercultural dialogue conducive to democracy and peace-building.

Denise Walsh (Politics/Women, Gender & Sexuality)

I have two teams comprised of 1 undergraduate and 2 graduate students each, working on violence, opposition and backlash to women's participation in politics and civil society globally. Both teams have received external start up funding and are comprised almost exclusively of women of color; one team has already produced a USAID report and will have a paper to present at a professional conference spring 2018; the second team also includes a multidisciplinary group of 12 scholars from the US and UK who are writing white papers on this topic for a feminist research seminar to be held at the University of Michigan. 

I would like to bring the two teams together under the broader umbrella of a lab that would be interested in studying themes such as repression of democratic participation; violence, opposition and backlash in democracies; democratic backsliding; risk and resistance in democratic politics, or the role of marginalized groups in contemporary democratic politics. 

I also am a co-director of the Power, Violence and Inequality Collective ( with Nick Winter. We have a network of scholars working on power, violence and inequality from across the university. We would be interested in being part of a lab, and of course we would be happy to facilitate connections for those working on proposals for a democracy lab.