248-A Cabell Hall
University of Virginia
P.O. Box 400786
Charlottesville, VA 22904-0786
Overview Founded thirty years ago, this well-regarded interdisciplinary program was launched by a small group of University faculty from several departments committed to the idea of broad social inquiry. It offers to diverse and qualified students the opportunity to pursue the study of society, and the study of politics—conceived both in its broadest and narrowest senses—without being limited by the boundaries, or the methodological preoccupations, of the relevant disciplines. With the advice of associated faculty, independent and capable students can fashion a program of study that reflects their intellectual interests and goals. Some students construct a program that emphasizes thought and significant thinkers (e.g., J. S. Mill, Karl Marx, Max Weber, John Dewey, Hannah Arendt) or concepts (justice, liberalism, welfare, human rights). Others place greater emphasis on concrete studies—in the past ( the African-American civil rights movement; war crimes tribunals in the aftermath of genocide), or in the present (contrasting public health and human rights approaches to the HIV pandemic; the role of NGOs in promoting economic development.
Some students are more theoretically oriented, others more practically inclined; all share a deep curiosity about the content and implications of social and political thought. In consultation with advisors, and within reasonable limits, students devise an interdisciplinary set of classes geared toward their broader interests and to the preparation of a substantial (80-100 page) thesis in their fourth year.
An intensive, year-long core seminar offered in the third year focuses on developing the skills of disciplined discussion and persuasive writing on broad issues of social and political thought. Through weekly essays and focused discussion, students learn to analyze texts with both imagination and rigor.
Among the departments and programs that have played a considerable role in this program are history, politics, sociology, anthropology, studies in women and gender, religious studies, philosophy; and more recently, economics, bioethics, and English.
The program is an outstanding major for a variety of future activities—in many cases perhaps even better than a major in a single department. Students graduating from this program often pursue further study in graduate and professional schools, gaining admission to the nation’s top programs. Members of recent classes, for example, have been accepted to law schools at Harvard, Chicago, N.Y.U., Virginia and Yale; and to Ph.D. programs at the same and similar institutions. Other students have gone on to careers in publishing, investment banking, labor organizing, and positions in NGOs and advocacy groups like Amnesty International. In short, PST majors find themselves well-prepared for careers in a wide variety of fields.
Because of the intensive nature of this two-year program, study abroad during the school year cannot ordinarily be allowed during the regular school year; but many PST students study abroad in the summers or in J-term.
Faculty Michael Joseph Smith, the program director, is a Thomas C. Sorensen Professor of Political and Social Thought, and an associate professor of politics. Other faculty associated with the program include (among many others) Ellen Contini-Morava, Richard Handler, and Ira Bashkow of anthropology; James Childress, Charles Mathewesand Charles Marsh of religious studies; John Arras and Talbott Brewer of philosophy; Lawrie Balfour, Colin Bird, Robert Fatton, William Quandt, and Denise Walsh of politics; Herbert Braun and Alan Megill of history; Krishan Kumar and Milton Vickerman of sociology; Ellen Fuller and Farzaneh Milani of studies in women and gender; and Rita Felski, Michael Levenson, Jahan Ramazani, and Carolyn Rody of English. The program’s high reputation often leads other faculty from throughout the University to agree to act as thesis advisors for PST students.
Students The program attracts able, creative, diverse, and independent students with strong interests, both theoretical and practical, in politics and society. Each spring about 18 - 20 rising third-year students are selected for the program from a substantial applicant pool. Students are chosen on the basis of strong grades, a writing sample, a faculty recommendation, and a short essay explaining the student’s interest in the field. Applications are available on the PST website and are normally due around March 1 or the Thursday before spring break. PST majors share an intensive, full-year core seminar in their third year in which they write short essays virtually every week. In the fourth year, students focus on their individual thesis projects, while sharing a weekly thesis seminar and workshop during the fall term. In this way, they come to know each other, and their professors, deeply and well, creating a genuine intellectual community of students committed to learning.