A new summer course taught by Dr. Ella Street investigates what it means to be free

New on the Summer Session roster this year is the online course GOVT 3796 Freedom taught by Dr. Ella Street, which runs June 3-21, 2024. The three-credit class, open to both undergraduates and adults though Summer Session and high school students through Precollege Studies, will examine one of the most difficult questions in political theory: What does it mean to be free? Students will investigate possibilities through exploring the history of political philosophy and how modern capitalism and neoliberalism shape the way we think about freedom.

SCE recently asked Dr. Street what Precollege and Summer Session students can expect from taking her course.

Is this your first time teaching “Freedom” as a Summer Session course for Cornell? If so, what inspired you to offer it?

I was a postdoctoral fellow in the government department at Cornell from 2021–2023 and really enjoyed participating in the intellectual community there. [Dr. Street is currently a research associate at the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto]. I love teaching and miss being in the classroom, so when I was offered the chance to teach a summer course at Cornell, I jumped on it.

What are some of the things you enjoy about teaching about this course?

I’ve assigned essays and books that are a pleasure to read and exciting to discuss, so I’m looking forward to all of it. I’m also experimenting with a new final assignment this year—an annotated playlist, which will give students the chance to select five to 10 songs that they think are about freedom and to write about each song, drawing upon ideas and concepts we’ve learned in the class. I’m excited to see what students come up with and to think more about how music and cultural imagination shape our understanding of freedom.

What do you hope your students come away with by the end of the course?

We’re going to begin the course studying early modern theorists of government by consent—something most of us now take for granted. I want students to understand the roots of this idea and the kind of political freedom it supports. We’ll also read critics of modern society who argue that people have become individualistic, profit-driven and obsessed with productivity at the expense of living free, meaningful lives. I want students to take these critiques to heart and wrestle with them. Finally, students will be asked to consider the legacies of colonialism and slavery in the American context and reflect on how our conceptions of freedom are shaped by these past and present forms of domination.

For any high school student that takes the class, what should they know about taking a rigorous, three-credit course in just three weeks?

Be prepared to devote most of your time to this course. To get the most out of it, you’ll want to come to class ready to engage in conversation with others, based on your careful reading of the assignments. I will be available to support students and help them work through difficult assignments, so don’t worry if something isn’t making sense right away. That’s the point of taking the course and reading difficult texts together.

What’s it like to teach an online course where there are motivated high school students in class?

Motivated high school students will fit right in with the undergrads in this kind of course. We’re all in it together–attempting to think through what it means to be free, asking big questions and grappling with the complex ideas we’re encountering in the texts we read. High school students bring enthusiasm and fresh perspectives to our conversation, and I look forward to learning from them, too.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the course?

It’s going to be a lot of fun. Every student I’ve ever met cares about freedom and wants to be free. This course will give students more conceptual and analytical tools to think deeply about what freedom means and what it requires. It’s a course that will be valuable to students for thinking about how to live their own lives, and what kind of world we want to live in.

To learn more about Precollege, which is open to high school juniors and seniors, visit the website. To learn more about Summer Session, which is open to undergraduates, visiting students and any interested adult, visit the Summer Session website.

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		Dr. Ella Street