2018-2019 Rights Writers Announced


Congratulations to the 2018-2019 Global Human Rights Scholars Program’s Rights Writers.  These undergraduate students were competitively selected to join the third year of the Institute’s “Rights Writers” team, where participants use a shared blog platform to explore in-depth and thoughtful analysis across a range of diverse human rights issues, shaping discussions at Duke and beyond. The project provides a public space for students to offer their insight as well as develop analytical and writing skills, particularly with regards to writing for a general public. Global Scholars blog on a monthly basis about a human rights topic of their choice, read and comment on one another’s draft posts, and meet regularly to discuss. In addition, the Scholars program offers students an opportunity to engage with the work of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and its network of scholars and practitioners.

The Rights Writers will blog January-May 2019.  Visit the blog


Chelsea Jubitanachelsea jubitana

Chelsea Jubitana is a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, double majoring in Public Policy and Global Health, and minoring in Psychology. She is interested in a number of human rights issues, but specifically those that impact children and racial/ethnic minorities. As a result, she conducted research over the past year surrounding the socio-economic gap in the United States. This is to be published by the close of the 2018-2019 academic year titled, “Upward Mobility: The Pitfall of the American Dream”. This evaluates the duration of time it will take each race to reach a point in which moving between socioeconomic groups would be equitable. It also evaluates that policy has in determining social mobility. Given that she is interested in issues that impact children and racial minorities, she wishes to do more in-depth research on the human rights implications of mass incarceration in the US in comparative perspective because the issue is equally detrimental to both parties. (Topics:  implications of mass incarceration in the US in comparative human rights perspective)


erin mcdermottErin McDermott

Erin McDermott is a junior from Glasgow, Scotland, majoring in Political Science with minors in Economics and Art History. She is passionate about urban policy and the ability of cities in combating global issues. She first got involved in this field after participating in the Governance, Policy, and Society DukeImmerse program, and she currently is in a Bass Connections research team that analyzes the intersections of urban spaces and the creative arts. At Duke, Erin is an International Karsh Scholar, Vice President of the Center for Race Relations, and a podcast producer for Hear at Duke. (Topics:  human rights and urban spaces, especially sustainability, equal protection, and inequality)


Kate Watkins kate watkins

Kate Watkins is from Winston-Salem, NC. She is majoring in Biology and History with a concentration in the History of Medicine, Science, and Technology. In addition, she is minoring in Chemistry and writing a thesis based upon vaccine social support research she conducted with Bass Connections in Roatan, Honduras. Her blog posts will focus aging policies in the US and abroad, considering related ethical topics such as elder abuse, the right to die, and patient autonomy. (Topics:  human rights and end of life care in the US in comparative perspective)


margo armbrusterMargot Armbruster

Margot Armbruster is a first-year from Wisconsin prospectively studying Political Science or Global Cultural Studies. She’s excited to be writing this semester on rhetoric in the conversation about migration to Germany, focusing on the real consequences that language has in migrants’ lives. In addition to this Kenan Institute Program, Margot is involved on campus in the Classics Collegium, Something Borrowed Something Blue, American Grand Strategy, and the Duke International Relations Association. (Topics:  political rhetoric and migrant outcomes in Germany)


Phil Ma phil ma

Phil Ma is a sophomore from Beijing, China, majoring in Political Science and Mathematics. His interests include international human rights law and ethics as a field of philosophy. In addition to writing with the Global Human Rights Scholars Program, Phil is also on the American Grand Strategy Council and works as a research assistant to Professor Bruce Jentleson on the changing dynamics of relations with China in the 21st century. Last summer, he helped with Duke’s interests involving domestic climate policy in DukeEngage D.C. In his free time, Phil likes swimming and watching stand-up comedy. (Topics:  human rights violations in China, and the strategic and economic pressures that limit international responses)


sonali mehtaSonali Mehta

Sonali Mehta is a junior studying Public Policy and Human Rights. She is an advocate for the use of restorative justice in university cases of sexual violence. Sonali has been involved with Kenan since participating in Project Change her freshman year, later participating in the Kenan FOCUS and as a member of Team Kenan. She enjoys photography, drinking tea, eating hummus, and re-reading Harry Potter.  (Topics:  comparative human rights approach to sexual violence in the US)

Contract, Consent, and Cannibalism: Victorian literature and the ‘liberal individual’

(English, Ph.D.)
2017-18 Kenan Graduate Fellow in Ethics

Illustrated London News

In October, with support from the Kenan Institute for Ethics, I attended the annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) to present research I completed last year as a Kenan Graduate Fellow in Ethics. This conference represents the largest annual gathering of interdisciplinary scholars working on mid-to-late-nineteenth-century British literature and culture. In addition to enjoying brilliant panels and plenary talks, consulting with a former advisor, and networking with colleagues, I presented a paper to my fellow Victorianists and gathered valuable feedback for use in revising my first dissertation chapter.

My research contests political liberalism’s conventional presumption that a social system organized around contractual relationships among individuals ensures the self-sovereignty of its members. According to an influential nineteenth-century narrative of political progress, societies evolve from a foundation in status-based, group relations to a system based on freely-willed agreements between individuals. This understanding of progress privileges a particular kind of political subject, the “liberal individual,” who is said to exercise rational decision-making procedures to form consensual agreements with others. I argue that while Victorian political theory was conceiving and disseminating this narrative, the Victorian novel was revealing the concept of the liberal individual’s autonomous consent to be a powerful political fiction. In our contemporary society, we remain Victorian in our reliance on a model of individual consent as the underlying justification for our political system; my interest in the Victorian novel thus lies in its ability to reimagine and critique the political conditions that we take for granted today.

My experience as a Kenan Graduate Fellow introduced me to the wider community of Duke graduate students working on the same ethical issues that my dissertation seeks to address, in disciplinary fields only apparently far-removed from literary studies. I met economists, public policy scholars, political scientists, theologians, historians, sociologists, and philosophers, all working from different perspectives on aspects of the ethical implications of constructing our democratic institutions around the concept of the agential rational actor. Learning about my peers’ research on seemingly far-flung issues—abortion rights in Ireland, the psychology of climate change, the interaction of self-help rhetoric and perceptions of inequality, among many others—revealed to me how interconnected our research actually was. By engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue that put into conversation the expertise and perspectives of a diverse set of scholars, I was able to better articulate what I research and why it matters. My experience as a Kenan Graduate Fellow enabled me to contextualize my own work in a wider set of issues while introducing me to a group of smart, engaged, fascinating people with whom I continue to collaborate. The continuing support of KIE made it possible for me to share these insights with my fellow Victorianists at the 2018 NAVSA Conference.

My conference paper, entitled “Contractual Cannibalism in Great Expectations,” discussed an 1884 incident of cannibalism amongst the survivors of the wrecked yacht Mignonette. The “case of the Mignonette,” as it was popularly referred to at the time, caused a sensational public response, much of which centered on the (legally irrelevant) question of whether the men should be held accountable for their failure to observe the “custom of the sea.” This norm sanctioned cannibalism by starving castaways, but also loosely prescribed that the appropriate procedure to follow in determining a victim was to draw lots. The centrality of lot-drawing to the popular understanding of the distinction between licensed survival and illegitimate brutality, I argue, places consent at the center of the determination of who eats whom, rendering an agreement to draw lots a kind of contractual cannibalism. Lotteries make survival cannibalism legible to liberalism by transforming an act performed under extreme duress into the natural consequence of an agreement entered into by willing individuals. I contend that it is the durability of this liberal fiction of consent that the Mignonette Court was invested in maintaining when it found the survivors guilty of murder.

I further argue that more than twenty years before the sinking of the Mignonette, Dickens had anticipated and theorized in Great Expectations (1861) the issues that the law would soon be forced to confront. I contend that in Great Expectations, Dickens employs an association between cannibalism and shipwreck to allude to the era’s preoccupation with castaway criminality and the problems of consent it raises.  Through this historical referent, Dickens suggests that the violent process of individuation that protagonist Pip willingly undergoes in becoming a modern liberal subject resembles a species of self-cannibalism. Pip’s attempts to distinguish himself from the “coarse and common” mass—to exercise individual autonomy under conditions of constraint in order to enter a larger modern civil society—have the outcome of destroying Pip’s agency, apparently by his own consent. In a liberal society, implies Dickens, the act of agreeing to a social contract is an exercise in self-cannibalism, a violence committed against the individual by that same individual. This contractual mechanism resides at the core of civil society in the cases of shipwreck castaways and ordinary citizens alike.

My experiences as a Graduate Fellow in the richly interdisciplinary environment of the Kenan Institute helped me conceptualize how the historical phenomenon of survival cannibalism, the theoretical concept of the social contract, and a literary representation of individual development and social collectivity were in conversation with one another. I’m grateful to my colleagues for their discerning feedback, their ingenious insights, and their lively engagement with the ethical issues that matter in our world today.

Re-Imagining Borders Technologies

Miriam Ticktin

Last week, Professor Miriam Ticktin (Anthropology, New School), shared new research to a packed room as part of the Roots and Routes Series. In her talk, “Re-Imagining Borders Technologies: Designing New Political Forms”, Ticktin shared work from a current collaboration on how reimagining borders enables a new politics.  Her argument highlights the symbolic role of borders, arguing that border walls not only defend but define territories altering categories of natural and human kinds. Describing borders and border walls as technologies of containment, Ticktin illuminated how borders do more than regulate human—they alter our sense of ourselves and of the commons. In contrast to the perspective of borders as either open or closed, working with designers and architects, Ticktin argues for a specultative politics that moves beyond these dichotomies and conceives of borders as permeable, temporary and multilayered. Revisioning borders as welcome lounges or flyaways is an ethical challenge to current conceptions that determine who is allowed to move and who is not.

Next in the Roots and Routes Series is award winning author Valeria Luiselli who will speak about US migration on January 18 at 7pm at the Durham Arts Council. (link)

Weekly Roundup, 11/14-11/21

It’s common knowledge—at least at Duke— that as the semester ends, academic work picks up, and students move into isolation and try to hold out for a) Thanksgiving, that harbinger of ‘the end,’ and, in quick succession, b) winter break, that solidification of one semester’s end and a few weeks to pretend that the next one won’t begin. Spoiler: it does, eventually.

Working on the flip side—no longer as a student, but now as a staffer who works in oftentimes student-oriented university programming—it’s common knowledge that instead of trying to reform student behavior or their workload or both, we try to avoid planning too many large-scale events during the end of the semester. This past week, however, a few large-scale events presented in some form by Kenan drew admirably good-sized amounts of students and publics alike. It’s heartening to witness people attend events out of sheer interest, and even more so to witness people attend events out of an apparent interest in coming together against a backdrop of intense isolation. Because especially in these days of early darkness and chapped lips, coupled with the ambiguous sense of things ending and maybe? maybe not? beginning again, it’s easy to feel alone.

A typical scene at Hack Duke. Photo by Katherine Scott.

A recap of some events this past week that energized my late-fall blues:

Friday, November 14: Opening of the Nannerl O. Keohane and Frank Hawkins Kenan Gallery. Several students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered for the opening reception and remarks. The gallery will house both a permanent collection—chock-full of outstanding visual art by local artists, including CDS faculty member and photographer M.J. Sharp, and past What is Good Art winners—and a rotating collection, now displaying Kenan’s Good Question series. You can see photos from the event here.

Saturday-Sunday, November 15-16: Hack Duke: Code for Good. Team Kenan co-sponsored the third-ever Hack Duke event, which brought together teams of students to huddle together over the course of two days—largely sans-sleep—and engineer projects exploring the connection between technology and social good. The teams organized around four tracks: Inequality, Energy and the Environment, Education, and Health and Wellness. See the students in action here, and learn more about the event and its teams on the Hack Duke website.

Tuesday, November 18: “The Sacredness of the Secular and the Secularity of the Sacred: Re-imagining the Role of Religions in Public Life.” Renowed philosopher Charles Taylor participated in a public interview with KIE Senior Fellow Luke Bretherton in the Goodson Chapel at the Divinity School. The Chapel—a formidable space fit for a formidable guest—was packed full, mostly with Divinity School students. Taylor and Bretherton talked about the changing nature of faith communities, the convergence of political issues and religion in the public sphere, and the line between beneficent and misanthropic action in modern institutions (among other topics). We sent some live-tweets out during the event (if you want to backtrack to this Tuesday’s Twitter timeline), and there will be a video of the talk available soon through Kenan’s website.

Wednesday-Thursday, November 19-20: “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel (11/19), and discussion (11/20) with Adrienne Keene on “Social Media, Activism, and Mascots.” The Forum for Scholars and Publics and Team Kenan teamed up to present a series exploring Native American fashion and identity. The fashion show and panel on Wednesday evening displayed apparel and jewelry from Native American designers and brought together Adrienne Keene, postdoctoral fellow at Brown and author of the blog Native Appropriations; Jessica Metcalfe, author of the Beyond Buckskin blog & boutique; Susan Scafidi, Fordham Law professor and and founder of the Fashion Law Institute; and Shayne Watson, fashion designer (Shayne Watson Designs). Keene returned the next day to the Forum for Scholars and Publics for an invigorating lunch discussion on recent mascot appropriation controversies. There were two excellent student-authored pieces reflecting and reporting on the series of events: one from Recess in the Duke Chronicle, and one from Duke Today.


Dashing through the Cold and into 2014 at Kenan

By Michaela Dwyer

Dear readers: I write to you hunkered down in the basement Bear Den (West Duke 01E) in the midst of polar vortex 2014, on a day when local schools are delayed due to cold weather and college students sit stranded on tarmacs in hopes of soon being en route back to Durham. It’s a new year at Kenan and the Insider is doing the groundwork to help usher it in—groundwork looking a lot like shuffling about to refill mugs of tea and emailing folks across the campus and across the country as we work to secure the moving parts of Kenan’s spring programming.

Over the holidays, I visited family up north. As happens at family gatherings, I was asked a lot of questions about what I “do.” As you may have surmised from my past blog posts, I’m the type of person who is easily overwhelmed by questions like that, because “doing” means a lot of different things for me on a daily basis: I read an article on my phone, alternate between projects at work, read a few pages of a book, go to an art exhibit or a movie, eat dinner. (Through all of these activities is an emotional flux too various and thorough to describe here.) Then I’ll go to sleep pulling at the strings of the past 24 hours, convinced that they weave together somehow, and wake up lingering in a dream threaded from one moment of the day before. As I enter a new year I want to take comfort in the idea that as humans we just get all of this; that our daily lives are scrapped from and connected by a series of thoughts and activities. But this leaves out the work that needs to be done—the making sense of things, the pulling at the strings in the company of others, like a giant communal Cat’s Cradle.

And I appreciate both being with family and ringing in the New Year for a chance to renew this mode of being, of doing. The postgraduate fellowship is multi-part, and moving-part by design, and, yes, explaining that is sometimes hard. To my cousin’s chagrin, my job is not just “sitting around all day and thinking about ethics.” It’s more like “moving around all day and thinking and doing ethics in a large and diverse community.” In the spirit of the new year, I’ve selected and profiled a few different programs I’m especially excited about this spring at Kenan—all of which reflect the wonderfully busy and interdisciplinary nature of the Institute itself.

Midway over the years. Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

Ethics Film Series: The South

Way back in August and September of 2013, Nathan and I began throwing around ideas for the Ethics Film Series. They stemmed largely from our personal interests and movies we’d seen recently or wanted to see: “toward an ethics of art!” “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present!,” “family!” As N.C. natives, we’d both entertained the idea of the American South, but (and I speak for myself here) feared its potential specificity, a restrictiveness in programming films that treat a certain geographic region. And then we realized that this concern was exactly what we wanted to unpack in a series of public film events. What does it mean to bind a region to certain themes, to understand it according to (often-)dark historical events? What does it mean to praise a “New South” defined by glitzy restaurants and urban rejuvenation as much as—and especially in North Carolina—stark poverty and deep divisions of race, class, and cultural attitudes? We think these are questions worth asking, and especially in the company of our local community. Our series, free and open to the public, begins on Tuesday, January 21 with the 2007 documentary Moving Midway. Director and Triangle native Godfrey Cheshire will be on hand to discuss the film, which feels particularly relevant after Ani DiFranco’s recent plantation-based artist retreat fiasco.

DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted

In the spring of 2012, I was on the cusp of becoming a senior and in the midst of re-working summer plans, doubting my major, pondering adding a certificate program to my course of study, and wracking my brain day after day about what I wanted my life to look like post-Duke. In short: lots of thinking at the expense of doing. DukeImmerse, which began that same semester, was nowhere near my college “plan,” as it shoddily and ambivalently was, and two years out, I regret that. That spring, Kenan piloted one of Immerse’s first two programs. It was themed around issues of human displacement, and is now known as DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted. This year, the semester-long program will engage twelve students in four related courses around a central research question: how does displacement affect the well-being and the social identity of those displaced? Students will collaborate with local and international refugee communities, work both in and outside of the field in Durham and in Nepal and Jordan, thinking and doing via oral history and original interdisciplinary research. The experience is both intensive and experiential, analytical and personal, and demanding in different ways than a typical academic semester. I’ll get a glimpse of what DukeImmerse looks and feels like this spring, as I work with the twelve students in their Field Ethics class on documentary ethics and production.

Teju Cole. Photo courtesy of A Piece of Monologue.

Ethics Book Club, Teju Cole, and the Humanities in full force

This past fall, I helped begin Kenan’s first staff-wide Ethics Book Club. Our group—hopefully the first of many at the university—has actively sought out texts that explore lively and unique narratives and tell of life from very different and very particular voices. We started with John Green’s Young Adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and have moved to Katherine Boo’s nonfiction work Behind the Beautiful Forevers. On the horizon is Teju Cole’s novel Open City. Cole is Kenan’s 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecturer, giving a talk on April 24 titled “Here Comes Everybody: The Crisis of Equality in the Age of Social Media.” He is also a photographer, art historian, cultural and political critic, and notorious Tweeter. He’s a model of what it means to live and work widely in the 21st century, and what it means to grapple, as we all do, with media, globalization, and the ethics of how we as humans interact—and especially how those forces can cohere into art. I’m excited both to read Open City and to meet Cole. And I’m excited that Kenan continues to push these issues to the forefront of this university and community, helping to shape a multi-dimensional and innovative understanding of the humanities in our time.