Taking on City Hall

By Torri Still / May / June 1998
December 28th, 2007

The introductory lecture course looms large in the lives of first-year undergraduates - often, unfortunately, as an impersonal, sleep-inducing experience. An esteemed professor stands at a lectern and delivers a weighty oration, while a sea of students scribbles madly. He or she must simultaneously impart knowledge and entertain, prodding the members of a passive audience into piping up with questions and comments. It's a formidable task, even for a seasoned teacher. Unless, of course, you're James Morone.

As the students enrolled in Political Science 22 filed into Alumnae Hall one typical day in March, Morone, a professor of political science, was already on stage, swigging coffee and bottled water while pacing back and forth like a boxer preparing for the big fight. "When I teach City Politics," Morone says of Political Science 22, "it dominates my consciousness. I'm intensely focused on getting students engaged in the subject and doing the reading. It forces me to organize my whole life. I think my sock drawer is even more organized when I teach this class."

Most of City Politics's 420 students have no background in political science. But Morone turns their lack of knowledge into an advantage, wowing them with manic lectures punctuated with personal anecdotes. Unlike smaller and more specialized courses, City Politics attracts students from a variety of disciplinary neighborhoods: first-year students testing out political science as a potential concentration, juniors and seniors fulfilling requirements in political science and urban studies concentrations, and senior biology concentrators taking their first (and last) course in politics. All are subjected to the passion of a professor who, in his words, "believes the sun rises and sets based on this stuff."

Yet Morone recognizes that passion is no substitute for intellectual rigor. "Even if you have a political science background," he says, "it doesn't mean you'll ace the course." Morone's keen, roving eye spots the yawners, the latecomers, the unfortunate souls wearing bright-colored clothing. "If a student yawns, I'll call on him or her in the next three minutes," Morone explains. "But I know it's hard for students to talk in front of 400 people. If they obviously haven't done the reading, I may pick on them a bit, but I'm not into humiliating them. They know if they've given a good or a mediocre answer."

His empathetic approach makes class participation less frightening for the dozens of students who do participate in the lectures, either as volunteers or victims. "If you say something that's almost there," explains Alissa Silverman '01, "he'll get you there." Hythem El-Nazer '00 agrees: "He'll give you an answer backwards if he has to. There is a definite impetus to come prepared, though."

During the semester, City Politics winds its way chronologically from James Madison to Tammany Hall to today's urban problems. Jason Barnosky, a graduate student in political science and a teaching assistant for the course, describes the class as "a combination of theory and history, using cities as a microcosm of the American experience." Because it is an introductory class, Morone must introduce certain contextual concepts - pluralism and federalism, for example - before delving too heavily into the particulars of city politics. "The study of urban politics has often been criticized for being too city-specific," Morone says. "We can't be naïve about the national frame." Morone warns his class that viewing politics as a layer cake with distinct levels is simplistic. In fact, he explains, the fragmented and mixed layers of federal, state, and local governments more closely resemble a marble cake.

To illustrate this metaphor, Morone gives his students a scenario: Donna Shalala, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, designates each of them "czar of coordination." As czars, they are in charge of coordinating the thousands of agencies, on multiple levels, that are supposed to carry out Clinton's urban policy. "What do you do?" Morone inquires. Students toss out solutions like "get them together and talking" and "streamline," and Morone nods. "But," he says, "remember that these agencies have different sources of funding and authority. Public agencies compete just as private ones do. It's not in their interest to coordinate, so it's difficult for there to be an effective czar."

In 1983, Morone, fresh out of grad school, was asked to raise enrollment in City Politics from thirty to 100. Within three years, more than 400 students were signing up for the course.


If anything, City Politics is a class about the impediments, both historical and structural, that stand in the way of solving urban problems. "Cities have the most acute needs of American society, like homelessness and unemployment," Morone tells his students, "but they face them with the weakest tools and institutions." The burden on cities has been growing in recent years, he explains, as the stature of the federal government has become diminished in the public's mind. Cities are now expected to handle problems that were once the responsibility of the federal government, whose constitutional authority and budgetary power are much greater.

"Mayors face one hell of a job keeping the various balls in the air," Morone tells his class. "They're reliant on state legislators and the feds for money, so they're constitutionally dependent on people who may not live in, or even like, the city." One way city leaders cope with this situation is to hone some of the tools used by old-style political machines. Mayors and city officials who lack the funding and authority to deal with such complex problems as poverty and environmental degradation are forced to rely on the time-tested tactics of favors, threats, and party loyalty.

Despite such difficulties, Morone remains optimistic about cities. One reason is the reformist attitudes of the students who pass through his class. Many of them are there expressly to figure out how they can effect change. Alissa Silverman says she remembers her mother going to battle over plans to build a highway though their neighborhood. "I've grown up in a family of reformers," she says, "so I took this class to get a bigger picture of how community organizers can be most effective." Morone encourages such connections between theory and practice. "City politics is about communities people live in and care about," he says. "The joy of teaching at Brown is that the kids agree with that and are willing to participate in their community."

Morone has been teaching City Politics since 1983, when he was hired, fresh out of graduate school at the University of Chicago, with the plea that he raise enrollment in the fledgling class from thirty to 100. Within three years, word of mouth had increased the class's popularity to its current level. Morone estimates that more than 500 students turned out for the first lecture during "shopping period" this semester, only to find that, should they choose to enroll, they had a paper on James Madison due within the week. Nevertheless, 420 stayed.

In addition to delivering lectures, Morone must coordinate ten teaching assistants and eighteen discussion sections, which offer students the opportunity to discuss the class in a more intimate setting. Although Morone holds office hours and makes an effort to learn the names of those who raise their hands during lectures, the T.A.s have the most direct contact with students. Morone encourages them to do more than regurgitate the week's reading and lectures.

In one of Jason Barnosky's sections this spring, students were asked to apply some of the tools and terms they'd learned to a discussion of urban poverty. Barnosky first reminded them of the "pluralism model" Morone had discussed in lecture that week: individuals form groups, there is a mutual adjustment among groups, and the result is a "political outcome." With that model in mind, Barnosky asked the students how to address the problem of urban poverty. The students were soon off and running with their own metaquestions: Where does poverty come from? Does poverty have to exist? Is there a finite amount of money in the world? Barnosky sat quietly and let the discussion run its course before deftly steering it back to the model. Do the poor even have the resources to form political groups? he asked. As the students began debating that question, the bell rang. Many of them continued the discussion as they walked out the door.

"A lot of the questions [students] raise in section are very philosophical," says Briann Greenfield, a graduate student in American civilization and a City Politics teaching assistant. "Morone is providing them with a model for analyzing things they see and read about every day."

And read they do. In addition to the books required for the course, all students must subscribe either to the New York Times or the Boston Globe. For their final paper they must apply their newly honed skills of political analysis to one particular issue they've followed in the newspaper over the course of the semester. "This assignment is very hard for them," says Morone, "because they have to take a leap of faith at the beginning that they'll learn enough to do something they can't yet do. When they pick up a newspaper at the end of the semester, I hope they see the news in a richer and more complicated way."

Although City Politics begins with 400 students who know little about political science, by the end of the semester some of them are hooked. In March, Hythem El-Nazer was only halfway through the course, but his ambition for a political career was at a fever pitch. "Professor Morone has really lit a fire under me," he said. "An insider's look into city politics might dissuade some people from entering the field, but it's made me want to go into it to end corruption and discrimination."

Morone says he is gratified above all by the number of students who later write to tell him how the class continues to shape their thinking, years after grad-uation: "They say, `I've got a job at a bank or at a legislator's office, and I see the world through lenses you've polished for me.' "

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May / June 1998