Narrative and Politics Graduate Seminar

This winter semester, I will be leading my graduate seminar on narrative and politics. There is still space in the seminar for graduate students to enroll, so I am posting about what we will be studying.

With the explosive growth of social media and the rise of Internet-enabled government, narrative has become an essential mode of public discourse, and a key means through which ideas about politics, governance, and policy are articulated and circulated. Political narrative is a topic that does not yet have an extensive body of research, which provides opportunities for scholars to get in at the outset and do ground-breaking research.

The seminar will use as its texts my well-received 2011 book Governing Fables: Learning from Public Sector Narratives as well as the new book I am working on entitled Public Representations: Narratives, Fables, Governing. Using a book that I have not completed gives students a chance to share in my own learning process and shape the ultimate outcome.

I will begin the seminar by presenting a number of conceptual frameworks for analyzing political narrative, including elements of structuralist narratology, canons of Hollywood story-telling, Erik Erikson’s theory of the human life-cycle, and psychocinematics, the study of mental processing of narrative.

The course will concentrate on moving-image narrative texts, in particular movies and television series. We will be studying recent texts from the UK and Europe, from Canada, and from the US that I discuss in Public Representations. For the UK and Europe, we will be focusing on Borgen, the path-breaking Danish television series about a female prime minister. For Canada, we will be looking at contrasting documentary and docudrama biographies of Tommy Douglas, renowned as the father of public health insurance, long-time premier of Saskatchewan, and leader of the federal NDP. We will sample the wide variety of American political narratives by studying two texts about the civil rights movement (Selma, All the Way) and the political satire Veep.

Another type of political narrative text is election advertising. I will present my research about narratives presented in political ads in the 2015 Canadian and 2016 US federal elections, and we will also look at ads in the 2019 Canadian federal election.

I have an assignment giving students an opportunity to tell their stories by applying Erikson’s model to understand the significant turning points in their lives. We’re in the course together, so I’ll tell my story too. Students have frequently told me that this assignment has provided an incredibly valuable opportunity to take stock and share their reflections with fellow students in a supportive environment.

The course also requires a term paper analyzing one or more recent political texts. Students may choose movies, television series, or literary texts not discussed in detail in either Governing Fables or Public Representations. Given the popularity of political narrative genre, there are many to choose from. Students who took the seminar two years ago wrote excellent papers. Two student papers from that year have been accepted by the academic journal Public Voices. Having a paper published while a graduate student is a great way to start an academic career.

I have taught the seminar twice before and have received excellent student evaluations. Numerically, they have been in the high 4’s. Student comments provide a more vivid picture of the course and their reaction to my pedagogy. Here are four representative comments:

  • “This was one of the best-taught courses I have encountered at U of T. The professor has an evident interest in his students and brought his own joy in the topic to the class. Assignments also nicely built on the topics of the course.”
  • “Professor Borins’s knowledge and expertise in the course content was extremely valuable. I liked the structure of the course with student presentations and discussion.”
  • “Professor Borins was great. He is extremely passionate about this topic and his excitement for it spreads to the students.”
  • “Professor Borins did a great job making the course feel very welcoming and collegial. He is always well organized and prepared (brings slides to class and uploads them to Quercus after). He is also very approachable and very responsive on email. He and his materials are straightforward and very easy to understand. I would recommend anyone to take a class with Professor Borins.”

I look forward to seeing some of the University of Toronto’s top-notch graduate students participating in the seminar. The seminar, by the way, will meet on Mondays from noon to two p.m., starting on Monday, January 6, 2020.

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