When I was an undergraduate taking a course on Black London at Vassar College, I was captivated by Discrepant Engagement, a book of Black literary criticism by poet Nathaniel Mackey. He called discrepant engagement those practices that ‘accent fissure, fracture, incongruity, the rickety, imperfect fit between the word and the world.’ That phrase from 1993 is still the most perfect description of the areas I want to explore in my scholarship and my life.
My favorite course to teach is undoubtedly Introduction to Sociology. It attracts all class years from across the College—engineers, seniors heading to med school, sophomores, and first-years considering an anthropology and sociology major or minor. So it brings together 35 individuals from all over the country and the world with unique experiences and goals, aside from our shared experience of being in class together and trying to make sense of the shape of our lives and our agency within them.
I tell students that, while the course materials are very challenging, I hope one of the texts we read will be, as Kafka says, ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ Then I want them to take whatever it is that moves them or makes them angry or passionate, and to shape sociological research questions around it that they can actually study. Those research proposals may grow into an independent study project or may even shape a career—and I can give them examples of Lafayette students who have done just that.
In fact, I joined Lafayette because I loved that I could teach undergraduates in a multidisciplinary department and engage in a broader community of learning that reached across the College. I’m interested in many different subjects and am lucky enough to be able to learn from colleagues all across campus: from how concrete cracks, to governance around renewable energy, to conflicts over healthy food, to the amazingness of cicada killers and cichlids.
Democracy is in a dramatic crisis in the United States and is sometimes quite literally attacked, as in the Jan. 6 insurrection and the voter suppression efforts happening right now in Pennsylvania. I study the solutions people have offered—usually more of some kind of civic activities thought to be virtuous—and why they don’t work as well as we might hope. My current research is on the failure of leaders in higher education to confront existential threats to liberal democracy, free speech, and young people’s futures.
Ph.D., University of California San Diego (2006)
Marquis Distinguished Teaching Award for Distinctive and Extraordinary Teaching, Lafayette College (2022 and 2016)
Academic Research Committee, Richard King Mellon Summer Research Fellowship, Lafayette College (2017)
Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Faculty Lecture Award, Lafayette College (2013)
Outstanding Article Award: “Is There a Place for Private Conversation in Public Dialogue? Comparing Stakeholder Assessments of Informal Communication in Collaborative Regional Planning”; Collective Behavior and Social Movements Section, American Sociological Association (2008)
Fellow, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia (2005-2006)
Lee, Caroline W. 2015. Do-it-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lee, Caroline W., Michael McQuarrie, and Edward Walker, eds. 2015. Democratizing Inequalities: Dilemmas of the New Public Participation. New York: New York University Press.