Lab Courses

What is a lab course?

We’re glad you asked! We’ve started a new series of courses we’re calling Human Rights Labs, that have a strong practice-based component, which are going well. There are a lot of relatively new advocacy organizations that have started up in Kingston, so it’s made it quite a bit easier logistically to connect to more advocacy groups in the area. We continue to work with partners in NYC and beyond, as well. If you have any thoughts about collaborating with us on a practice-based course idea, please let us know – we’re always up for exploring ideas. We’ve included the course descriptions below, in case you’re interested in learning more about what we’ve been doing this past year

HR Lab Course Descriptions, 2019-2020 Academic Year


An introduction to human rights advocacy, with a practical component. Half of the course focuses on the history and theory of human rights advocacy: what is it to make claims for human rights, or to denounce their violation, especially on behalf of others?  How and when and why have individuals and groups spoken out, mounted campaigns, published reports and exposés?  How do they address, challenge, and sometimes work with governments and international organizations like the United Nations? We will look at human rights advocacy from the campaign to abolish the slave trade to the founding of Amnesty International to the Save Darfur movement.  How has the human rights movement come to be defined by transnational advocacy networks – and how do they in turn define what human rights are?  This half of the course serves as an introduction to human rights work as a mode of legal and political practice.  The other half of the course involves hands-on work with the human rights organization Scholars at Risk on some of their cases of detained or threatened scholars.  We will  research specific events and individuals,  communicate with families and lawyers and other advocates, write country and case profiles, propose strategies and tactics for pressuring governments and other powerful actors, and develop appeals to public opinion  — all while recognizing the ethical and political risks this work may involve.  Readings include texts by Samuel Moyn, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Adam Hochschild, Kenneth Cmiel, Stephen Hopgood, Rebecca Hamilton, and others. Taught in conjunction with a parallel seminar at Bard College Berlin.  Information about Scholars at Risk can be found at

HR 321 Advocacy Video: Clemency

State governors (and the President) in the United States possess a strange remnant of royal sovereignty: the power of executive clemency, by which they can pardon offenses or commute the sentences of people convicted of crimes. They can do this to correct injustices, show mercy, or undo disproportionate punishments. Clemency doesn’t just happen — it requires a lot of work on the part of the incarcerated person and his or her advocates. But there are almost no rules governing what a clemency appeal looks like, so there is significant room for creativity in how applicants present their cases. In this seminar we will join forces with a team of students at CUNY Law School and the human rights organization WITNESS to prepare short video presentations that will accompany a number of New York State clemency applications this fall. Proficiency with video shooting, editing, and an independent work ethic are prerequisites. A training day with WITNESS staff and two site visits to a correctional facility are essential elements of the class. This is an opportunity to work collaboratively with law students and faculty, to do hands-on human rights research and advocacy, and to create work that has real-life impact. The first half of the semester will be spent in an intensive video production phase led by Professor Brent Green. The second half will be devoted to the study of clemency and pardons, emotion and human rights, first-person narrative, and persuasion by visual means. A screening of the videos, and a public discussion on criminal justice and clemency, will cap the class. This is an Engaged Liberal Arts and Sciences (ELAS) class.

HR 219    Mapping Police Violence

This class emerges from my preoccupation with the recent increase in media and political attention to extra- judicial killings by police officers in the United States. Predominant questions will include: What can we know about police violence, and what are the barriers to data transparency and distribution? What are the means–political, legal, economic, cultural– through which Western societies authorize the police to use deadly force?  Can we measure the impact of police violence on a range of exogenous factors like public health indices, adjacent property values, educational opportunities and the distribution of social services? In pursuit of answers, we will engage political theory, history, sociology, economics, and cultural studies to produce an interdisciplinary study of police violence. I use the word “produce” with great intention.  Students will be tasked with producing new knowledge about police violence.  As a collective, we will use demographic analytical tools, alongside datasets from the Police Data Initiative, to spatially apprehend police violence incidents in a given city.  Students will then bring their own research questions to our collectively generated maps.  In that sense, we will also think critically about how to ask a research question, and how to pursue a variety of research projects.

Urban Abandonment: A Housing Justice Lab (2-credits)

This practicum will involve students in a pilot  study of housing vacancy and real estate speculation in Kingston, NY.  Across the country—most recently dramatized in Oakland California’s Moms4Housing movement—real estate speculators maximize investments by withholding potential housing from real estate and rental markets.  By manipulating the vacancy rate, speculators can drive housing costs up while avoiding rent stabilization rules. These issues are manifest in nearby Kingston, one of many mid-sized cities around the country experiencing rapid demographic change as a steady steam of Americans abandon major cities in search of “tranquil, small town life.”  Our project, in collaboration with the Real Kingston Tenant’s Union and the Kingston Community Land Trust will investigate the investigate the vacancy rate in Kingston’s “Midtown,” a working class community sandwiched between Uptown and the Rondout, two rapidly gentrifying commercial districts.

Through a GIS practice called “Counter-mapping,” we will document and visualize the hidden transcript of housing in equality in this rapidly changing city. Students will learn about the economic and politics of land valuation, and strategize–in partnership with housing justice activists–against systematic rent increases, evictions and other tactics endemic to speculative land investment.

US Border Dynamics: From Guatemala to Upstate New York (2- or 4-credit)

This semester, the Human Rights Program will be hosting a tutorial on ‘US Border Dynamics: From Guatemala to Upstate New York’ for students who are interested in exploring US border enforcement and the changing relationship of the US border to culture, politics and life choices in the Americas. This is a two credit tutorial (with a 4 credit option for students who write a paper or complete a media project). It will involve shared reading, media and outreach to experts and activists involved in border work.