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Politics, passion and ‘prolific’ scholarship: Professor James Morone reflects on 40 years at Brown

Students, colleagues discuss Morone’s influence, teaching

<p>Courtesy of James Morone</p><p>To keep students in the large lecture class engaged, Morone often walks up and down the aisles and cold-calls on students.</p>

Courtesy of James Morone

To keep students in the large lecture class engaged, Morone often walks up and down the aisles and cold-calls on students.

One weekday in 1982, James Morone ventured into the basement of Maxcy Hall, struggling to see the chair of the University’s urban studies department through a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke. Morone had come to convince the chair to hire him for a position at the University teaching political science and urban studies, despite never having earned a graduate degree in the latter discipline.

He had also come to resolve a misunderstanding about a recommendation letter he’d submitted, confessing to the department chair that the letter was from Brian Barry, a professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Chicago — not Brian Berry, a famed professor of urban geography, also at the University of Chicago.

“He looks at me through the smoke and starts to laugh,” Morone recalled. “And he goes, ‘oh my god, we’re gonna hire the wrong f*cking guy.’ ”

Today, Morone is a professor of political science and urban studies at Brown. He previously served as the chair of the University’s political science department, director of the public policy program and chair of the faculty executive committee. Morone said this could be his last semester of teaching at the University, as he told The Herald that he plans to retire in the “near future.”

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According to Morone, the department chair agreed to hire him over forty years ago on the condition that he promised to bring the enrollment of a class called “Introduction to Urban Politics” from 25 students to 100. Morone has taught the course, now known as POLS0220: “City Politics,” since 1982. 

By Morone’s third year teaching the course, he was lecturing to a crowd of about 150 students. The next year, the course’s enrollment hit 350, he said. Eventually, Morone wound up capping the course’s registration to limit enrollment to 500 students. This semester, 226 students are enrolled in the course.

Back in 1982, “I had a huge advantage in preparing the course because I knew nothing about the subject,” Morone said. “Everything I read, I read through my students’ eyes.”

“City Politics” explores how cities create governance in different national political contexts, diving into both institutional and cultural perspectives on city politics, he explained.

According to Toby Arment ’23, a teaching assistant for “City Politics,” the course explores historical eras marked by urban revolution: the rise of cities, the development of political machines in cities, the rise of progressive reformers and how that history has shaped city politics today. Course materials explore the corruption and racial injustice embedded in urban politics.

Arment took Morone’s class as a first-year and ultimately decided to concentrate in urban studies. For him, the course shed light upon the inner workings of American democracy.

“You begin to understand why it is so hard to get anything done in America,” Arment said. “But also the idea that no matter who you are, no matter how much power you have, you can always have a voice in politics.”

Morone, who was born in Brazil and moved to New York at nine years old, said he “watched the classic civil rights movement unfold” in his first years in the U.S., which were marked by the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“There was something transcendent and dreamlike about coming of age politically in a moment of hope,” Morone said. “That spirit of wonder about possibility and reform never left me.”

According to Dietrich Neumann, professor of history of art and architecture, Morone’s “colloquial but erudite style” is what attracts students to his classes. 

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“I always thought that Jim Morone had an extraordinary, truly outstanding talent as a speaker and lecturer,” he said. “He managed to interest hundreds of students in urban politics and help them understand how our cities work.”

For Howard Chudacoff, professor of history and American studies, Morone proved himself  “a prolific scholar” the moment he arrived at the University. “He has been one of the most popular and influential teachers I have known,” Chudacoff wrote in an email to The Herald.

Morone often walks up and down the aisles of his large lecture class and cold calls on students to keep them engaged. “It’s that unique experience where you take a large lecture class but it feels like a seminar,” Arment said. “No one is going to be dozing off in the back of this lecture.”

Over the years, students who took “City Politics” have even gone on to hold political office themselves. Morone recalled meeting a former student when he addressed the new members of Congress in 2008.

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“He comes up to me and says, ‘Professor, remember me?’ ” Morone said. “He was telling the other members, ‘Watch out because this guy will cold call on you.’ ”

As Morone looks ahead to his retirement, he told The Herald that the thought of parting ways with “City Politics” is “a little scary.”  

“My identity has been so wrapped up in being ‘the guy who teaches City Politics,’ ” he said. “I’ve written 12 books. They’ve won awards. But still … I’m ‘the guy who teaches City Politics,’ and I have to give up that identity.”

Morone told The Herald that while he currently has no definite plans for his retirement, he intends on writing more books and living abroad at both Oxford University and Paris. 

“I love to (teach this class),” Morone said. But “there are things I haven’t done that I want to do, and if I don’t do them now, I’ll never do them.”

Morone said that he hopes his students walk away from “City Politics” with both knowledge of, and a renewed sense of hope in, the American political process.

“Brown students across the political spectrum tend to want to make a difference,” Morone said. “They want to understand the reasons … for despair, but not to give in to it — to believe that it can be transcended by extraordinary people at extraordinary times.”

“That’s my pact with the students, to give them that,” Morone said. “That’s the Brown dream.”



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