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Moglen explores the virtue of a just society

Seth Moglen helps his students imagine what it would be like to be treated as if they were less than human. Through his courses in African American literature, the assistant professor of English provides students with the opportunity to understand the intimate, emotional, familial and personal meanings of slavery.

"For many students, slavery is an abstraction and through my classes, it ceases to be so," says Moglen, who also teaches courses in modern American literature. "Suddenly they have a sense of what it would have been like to be a slave."

Moglen's classes, which consist of a diverse blend of students, offer an opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth.

“For many of them,” he says, “it is the first time in their lives they've been able to openly discuss race, racism, and the history of race relations in America," he says.

In one of his classes titled "Imagining Freedom," Moglen uses narratives written by actual slaves and abolitionists, which gives students a first-hand experience of what it must have been like to be held as property.

The experience also forces them to examine the other side of the issue--what were thousands of ordinary, churchgoing people thinking who held other human beings as slaves? "I want students to understand that people who held slaves were ordinary people like them, and this is something they have to come to terms with," he says.

Moglen's passion for African American literature was fueled by jointly by his childhood in a racially diverse Manhattan neighborhood and a life-transforming experience in an American intellectual history class as at Yale.

"The civil rights movement was present in my childhood," says Moglen, who grew up as a child of politically active liberal
parents. “Then, at Yale, I read the writings of African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I was extraordinarily moved by them--those writings seemed to be among the most humane, expansive, and idealist statements of what equality could mean that I had ever experienced."

In the arena of his other love, modern literature, Moglen has
just finished a book, Mourning Modernity: Literary Modernism and the Injuries of American Capitalism, a work of literary criticism that stems from his dissertation, which he is currently pitching to publishers.

"It's wonderful to feel the sense of completion after so many years of work," he says.

In his spare time, Moglen enjoys jogging on the tow path, which he calls "natural and post-industrial at the same time," and reveling in the "condensed, poetic landscape" that is the city of Bethlehem. He lives with his partner, Kristen Handler, director of the Women's Center at Lehigh, in a home on the South Side, where he has a clear view of Bethlehem Steel.

"Although I didn't move here because of it, I've developed a tremendous fondness for Bethlehem," says Moglen. "I encourage my students--take a walk through the city and get some sense of what it is about. There is a lot more interesting stuff going on here than I think they often see."

Since he came to Lehigh from the University of California Berkeley in 1999, Moglen has found his time as a member of the Lehigh faculty to be a genuine pleasure. "When I visited Lehigh, I got the sense I'd be joining a real community of scholars and everything I heard about the students told me that they were very well-prepared and my experience here has borne that out."

One of the things Moglen says he loves most about Lehigh is the constant and rapid change. "Even in the five years I've been here, I've noticed the student population is becoming more diverse and more attention is being placed on the humanities and social sciences," he says. "I'm at an institution that's in the process of intellectual and social transformation and that's exciting."

--Elizabeth Shimer

Posted on Tuesday, April 27, 2004

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