Proposed Interdisciplinary Minor to Focus on Human Rights

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Faculty and students from various disciplines are planning to propose an interdisciplinary minor in human rights to be offered at UC Berkeley.

According to the proposal, the minor will consist of five classes-an introductory lecture course addressing the historical, cultural and philosophical foundations of human rights, a capstone writing course and three additional electives.

"We sense a desire among students-and we ourselves feel it important-that real-life issues of justice, violence and the like be understood historically and through a variety of disciplinary lenses and also across cultures and time periods," said Alan Tansman, UC Berkeley East Asian languages and cultures professor and one of the minor's initial organizers.

Other professors involved with the minor include history professor Thomas Laqueur, English professor Catherine Gallagher and English associate professor Kent Puckett, assisted by students through the campus Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program.

A formal proposal is slated to be made to the College of Letters and Science and would go in front of the college's Executive Committee to be approved. The program is projected to be available to students in spring 2010.

The program is currently unfunded, and is projected to cost $138,500 annually to pay for the salary of an academic coordinator, faculty lecturers and GSIs. Tansman said organizers of the potential minor are working to raise funds to support the program.

"But the program will depend on many courses already on the books and on a core group of faculty doing extra work," Tansman said.

While the program has not yet been officially proposed, campus officials said it has developed significantly.

"I think a lot of people have put a lot of work into this," said Tyler Stovall, dean of undergraduate division of the College of Letters and Science.

Still, Stovall said organizers need to address the potential minor's implementation. Besides finding funding and instructors to teach the program, organizers will also have to find "an institutional home," he said.

Senior Alison Littman, a history major who is involved in crafting the minor, said in an e-mail that while it was difficult at first to formalize what human rights as a discipline would be, the experience was rewarding.

"Actually being involved in making something real happen on campus for my peers and future students, working hard to make sure that students can seriously study a discipline that is fundamentally devoted to improving people's lives and well-being ... hopefully this will lead to more serious discourse on human rights issues," Littman said in the e-mail.

Similar human rights programs have also been offered in numerous universities around the country, said Samuel Moyn, professor of history and director of the Undergraduate Human Rights Program at Columbia University.

"It's a national and international trend," he said. "Berkeley is relatively early--but not that early--in crafting such a program, which a number of leading universities already have set up."

Susan Gzesh, Human Rights Program executive director at the University of Chicago, said students who have a human rights minor appear on their transcript may be more appealing to employers.

"Everybody wants credit for their work," Gzesh said. "Making human rights an official minor on a student's transcript shows that it's not just a passing fancy and that the student did real work on human rights."


Contact Paul Edison at [email protected]

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