Optimistic Politics

Five questions with Alisa Kessel, professor of politics and government

Despite working in a field that relies on criticism of society and humanity—her current research is exploring what the phrase “rape culture” means—Alisa Kessel believes political theory can be a source of hope and optimism. “If you can look at all that’s wrong in the world and still imagine that justice is possible—that’s the calling of political theory,” she says. “I think that’s pretty powerful.” As a professor of politics and government, she encourages her students to apply concepts they’ve learned in the hopes of creating a better world for themselves and others.

Q: Your area of expertise focuses on how oppression, political agency, and power exist within democratic communities—topics that are especially relevant in today's society. What is the value (or harm) in using current events to illustrate educational topics? 
A: I want all my classes to offer students concepts for deepening their understanding of how justice, democracy, freedom, and equality manifest in the world. These are abstract concepts, but they are also realities that we live out every day—some of us in very painful ways. I think the harm of teaching about politics, especially now, is that we are all experiencing this political moment in different ways. For some of us, the threat of police violence is more immediate than it is for others. For some of us, anxiety about the spread of COVID-19 is more immediate. For some of us, the problem of food insecurity is more immediate. And for those of us who study and teach politics, it has been hard to navigate our subject matter in a way that is both critically aware and humane.

Q: You're working on a project tentatively titled Refusing Consent that centers around the phrase “rape culture.” Tell me more about how you became interested in this topic and the research you've been doing.
A: I was drawn to the issue of sexual consent when a student came to me to share her experience with intimate-partner violence and sexual assault. The more I explored the topic of consent, the more I came across the phrase “rape culture.” People use the phrase all the time—we probably overuse it in the mainstream—but few scholars have really taken the time to explore what the concept means and what it does. My first impulse was to say that “rape culture” was a catch-all phrase that should be rejected, but as I have worked on the topic, I have changed my mind. My goal has now become to contribute to our understanding of rape culture in an explicitly intersectional way.

Q: What do you want students to take from your classes?
A: I want students to leave my classes with the ability to not only read and understand complex material but apply concepts to political contexts. I know the subject “sticks” when students are able to have a provocative conversation about ideas like freedom and oppression. It “sticks” when they think about how they have been oppressed and how they have, in turn, participated in the oppression of others. When students walk away from class still talking and debating with each other—those are the days when the subject “sticks.” 

Q: What has it been like trying to rethink education during this time of shifting mediums, remote learning, and adjusted classrooms?
A: As teachers, we rely on our own experiences and intuitions, as well as the advice of others, to help us figure out what will work and what won’t. It’s pretty hard to do that in a learning environment (online and synchronous, in my case) that so few of us have actually experienced.  But we also learn as we go. For example, a few weeks ago I participated in an online conference and realized that listening over Zoom is very different from listening in person. I noticed (and my students confirmed) that visual aids can help a great deal. I realized I need to do even more of that. So, we just keep adjusting as we learn. 

Q: Tell me about yourself outside of the classroom.
A: In my professional life, I spend a lot of time with my nose in a book or a screen. I also live in my head a lot, so when I am not working, I am usually doing something outdoors like hiking or gardening. I try to get out all year long, no matter the weather.


By Anneli Haralson
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Jan. 31, 2021