When I first came to UChicago, “human rights” was an abstract concept that had been floating around in my mind for several years. I had heard the term mentioned once or twice in high school while discussing slavery or war crimes, but it had never been addressed as a stand-alone concept. This unsatisfying vagueness is part of what initially drew me to the Human Rights program at UChicago. The program provides a critical exploration of historical, theoretical, and comparative perspectives on human rights. It allows students to study and debate exactly what does and does not define “human rights” as a concept and practice. The program also appealed to me because its courses are highly interdisciplinary, making them relevant to almost any major in the college. Gender and Sexuality Studies, Biology, Cinema and Media Studies, Psychology, you name it – they can all somehow relate to the study and practice of human rights.
The first class that I took within the Human Rights program was HMRT 20200: History and Theory of Human Rights. The class was co-taught by Mark Bradley, Bernadotte E. Schmitt Professor of International History, and Patrick William Kelly, a doctoral candidate in international history. Patrick and Professor Bradley did an excellent job of presenting different approaches to the study of human rights, then leaving it up to the students to decide which viewpoint or methodology they found most convincing. This wasn’t always easy to do: one of the main things I took away from the course material is that the study and practice of human rights can be quite complicated. The course material was very diverse, ranging from the novel Twelve Years a Slave to the film The Act of Killing to the United Nations Charter. We were also fortunate enough to have two guest lecturers for the class, James Dawes and Barbara Keys. It was a pretty cool experience to read each of their works, and then discuss their ideas and arguments with them in person. I was very impressed by this class – so impressed that I decided to go forward with the full Human Rights minor program.
In April of 2014, the Human Rights program organized and hosted a conference called Crisis of Humanitarianism. The conference consisted of a series of presentations and discussions on issues related to compassion, mobilization and power in humanitarian thought and practice in a variety of geographical spaces. All UChicago students were invited to attend the conference, which was also attended by professors and researchers from around the globe. The opportunity to be among such a diverse group of people who all shared an interest in human rights was inspiring, to say the least. I was able to attend a panel on the communication of solidarity through film, photography, and online media, and I can honestly say that it was fascinating! If the program hosts any more conferences in the future, I will definitely be in attendance.
The Human Rights program has also partnered with the Study Abroad office to create a one-quarter thematic program on human rights in Vienna. This one-quarter program allows participants to complete three of the classes required for the Human Rights minor – talk about convenient! I will be taking part in this program in spring quarter of 2015, and I couldn’t be more excited. One of the best features of studying abroad through the University of Chicago is that UChicago professors travel with you and teach your classes in whichever location you happen to be studying. This means that faculty members within the Human Rights department will teach all of my classes in Vienna, and also lead us on excursions and activities within the city. Some of these excursions will include visits to local NGOs and inter-governmental institutions in Vienna. We will also visit the memorial and museum at Auschwitz in order to explore the relationship between Holocaust memory and twentieth century global human rights politics.
If any of this sounds interesting to you, I have good news: the minor only requires five classes, making it easy to fit the program into your schedule. At least two of the five classes are drawn from the Human Rights core courses. The core classes consist of Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, History and Theory of Human Rights, and Contemporary Issues in Human Rights. For the remaining classes, you can choose from among the Human Rights core and approved upper-level Human Rights courses. Some of the topics addressed by these classes include health and human rights, history of humanitarianism, gender-based crime, or forced migration in times of war. Many of these Human Rights courses are open to both undergraduate and graduate students, making them a good opportunity to interact with grad students as peers in the classroom. So, long story short: the Human Rights program rocks. Visit their page in the College Catalog to read even more about the program and what it has to offer.