Letter from the Director



Dear Colleague:

Thank you for expressing an interest in my summer seminar on Punishment, Politics, and Culture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am looking forward to this seminar as an opportunity to talk with you about some of the most exciting and challenging ideas in the humanistic study of law. I have had the good fortune to do several NEH seminars. Each time I had a wonderful time with a bright and talented group of teachers. I am pleased to have the chance to do a new seminar and eagerly looking forward to assembling another stimulating and interesting group of colleagues.

From The Gospel of Matthew to George Bernard Shaw and former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, many have remarked that how, when, and why a society punishes reveals its true character. Punishment then tells us who we are. The way a society punishes demonstrates its commitment to standards of judgment and justice, its distinctive views of blame and responsibility, its understandings of mercy and forgiveness, and its particular ways of responding to evil. Punishment, Politics, and Culture--is intended to examine the nature and limits of punishment as well as its place in what I call the “American story.”

The subject of punishment shows up in the curriculum of schools across the country, in history, social studies, and literature courses to name just a few. School teachers regularly teach texts in which the fact of punishment, its purposes, or its fairness are central issues. Moreover, students often have direct experience with law enforcement and bring those experiences, and their complex reactions to them, to school. While not every topic or reading in the seminar will speak to these curricular and extra-curricular matters, throughout our discussions we will ask about how issues of punishment encountered in school settings are illuminated by the texts we read.

To help accomplish this goal, I will work with Amie Keddy, Head of the Upper School and English teacher at The Bement School, an independent K-9 school in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Since joining the Bement faculty in 2002, she has taught 7th, 8th, and 9th grade English, as well as 6th grade visual art. Since 2016, Ms. Keddy has served as Head of the Upper School. In that position, she is responsible for the development of curriculum, the well-being of students in grades six through nine, and designing and facilitating opportunities for the faculty’s professional development. In addition to her expertise as a teacher and school administrator, she participated in the 2016 version of this seminar.

This seminar will address three questions about punishment that go to the heart of humanistic inquiry.

1. What is punishment and why do we punish as we do? Punishment involves the imposition of pain in a calculating and deliberate manner. To acknowledge this fact locates the subject of punishment in relation to significant political and ethical issues, e.g. how do we deploy political and legal power in definingthe limits of freedom? What justifies legal restrictions on our conduct? What are the responsibilities of those who punish in relation to those subject to punishment?

2. What can we learn about politics, law, and culture in the United States from an examination of our practices of punishment? How have issues of punishment figured in our “national story”? What are the arguments that today shape our thinking about punishment?

3. What are the appropriate limits of punishment? Do we punish too much and or too little? Are we too strict or too forgiving? What is the appropriate relationship of punishment and mercy? Are there some acts which strain our capacity to make judgments or for which punishment, no matter how severe, seems an inadequate response?

The Seminar. We shall read closely, and discuss at length, material ranging from “classics” such as the Book of Job and Thoreau on civil disobedience, to legal cases, literary treatments of punishment, and film. The range is broad, asking each of us to move out from our areas of specialization to see the subject of punishment through an interdisciplinary lens. Participation in the seminar demands no specialized training in law or jurisprudence.

Let me say a brief word about the agenda for the seminar. In the first two weeks we will take up the first of the three orienting questions noted above. In the first week, entitled What Is Punishment About? On the Just Imposition of Pain, we will examine instances of punishment, or of a failure to punish, in order to explore how punishment is understood by those to whom it is applied as well as by citizens of the community in which it is applied. We read about and discuss zero tolerance policies in schools and the controversies about mandatory sentencing in the criminal justice system. To put our discussion in a broad context we examine relationships among punishment, moral guilt, and the law in two texts that have nothing to do with the United States, namely Stephen Mitchell and The Book of Job.

In the Job story the association of punishment, even undeserved punishment, and assumptions about guilt are so strong that when someone known for his righteousness is suffering his neighbors assume that he must be guilty of something. This reading invites an exploration of the pains of punishment and the social judgments that generally accompany it.

We will conclude the week by discussing when and why punishment is thought by some to be “essential.” We will consider the film Noon Wine and Thoreau’s essay. The former provides an instance in which someone who is in fact guilty of a crime is not punished and suggests that in the absence of punishment there can be no expiation of sin. The later illustrates the importance of punishment in theories of civil disobedience.

The second week–What Does Punishment Say about Those Who Punish?–turns from those who are punished to those who punish. We will examine some of the functions that punishment serves and ask about the demands that a just system of punishment makes on those who punish. This week takes up some classic arguments about punishment and includes a reading by George Herbert Mead suggesting that decisions about when, how, and who to punish work to draw boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in any community. We will discuss the film Judgment at Nuremberg to see one example of how judgment is represented in popular culture. Next we will discuss Herbert Morris’s “Persons and Punishment” and his argument that offenders have a right to be punished and that, as a result, society has a duty to punish. This argument will be contrasted with a Supreme Court decision, Robinson v. California, holding that certain people have a right not to be punished even when they are engaged in socially undesirable behavior. We will discuss the sometimes excruciating “costs” of discharging the duty to punish on those who do so. Here our text will be Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd.”

Week three is devoted to asking what we learn about America by thinking about our practices of punishment. Here we focus on two modalities of punishment, imprisonment and the death penalty. We will read some court cases to inquire about punishment in contemporary America. These cases describe conditions in our prisons and discuss what rights prisoners have in those institutions. They also open up a conversation about the intersection of race and punishment, and they will allow us to revisit the question of why we punish as we do.

Because the United States is one of the few remaining constitutional democracies that continues to employ capital punishment, we also take up the death penalty, asking about its justness and its place in the American legal system. Our attention will also be directed to court cases on the constitutional jurisprudence of capital punishment.

Week four--On the Importance and Limits of Punishment--concludes the seminar by revisiting some of the issues with which we began. We will look at Albert Camus’s “Reflections of the Guillotine” and Walter Berns’s For Capital Punishment, both of which are classics in the study of punishment. They focus on the question of whether it is just to take the lives of those who murder, emphasizing in particular the place of revenge in a system of punishment. We consider how these questions are portrayed in the film, Dead Man Walking.

We will also discuss whether there are ways of responding to crime that do not depend as much on the social deployment of pain as those forms of punishment most in vogue today? What is the place of reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, and reintegration in the future of punishment in America? Are there some acts which cannot and should not be forgiven? Are there some acts which are so heinous that no punishment could ever be adequate? Readings for the week include Toni Morrison, Beloved, and Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Having reviewed our agenda, let me note that because almost everyone has their favorite book or story in which punishment plays a key role, my choices of texts surely will not satisfy everyone. So rich are the possibilities that the problem is less one of choosing what to include, than of deciding what not to include. Practical considerations, e.g. the length of a book in relation to the time available, necessitate some exclusions, e.g. Crime and Punishment, The Executioner’s Song.

In reading and discussing the material we shall use the genuine seminar method, in which all contribute and all benefit from being both a speaker and a listener. What this means is that I do not see my role as a lecturer, but rather as more of a colleague and fellow participant. I will act as a resource for you as you engage with the material and the questions it raises, and as a facilitator to help insure that our discussions are as productive as possible.

On Monday evening of weeks two, three, and four there will a meeting, led by Ms. Keddy, devoted specifically to considering ways in which the materials and pedagogical approaches used in the seminar can be adapted and/or directly incorporated into K-12 lesson planning.  Ms. Keddy will work with participants to explore new approaches to their existing curricula as well as ways they might create new curricula based on their work in the seminar. The final session (on Thursday) in weeks 2 and 3 will be devoted to presentations in which participants draw on their work with Ms. Keddy in the Monday evening meetings. For those sessions (which Ms. Keddy will also attend), participants will be broken up into three groups (the membership of the groups will not be the same in each week). Each group will be asked to prepare a presentation and a paper in which the members show how they would use the material and/or pedagogical approach of the seminar in their teaching. Participants might engage the group in a K-12 sample lesson or activity, facilitate a discussion of how to translate seminar material to their classrooms, or model a classroom setting and ways teachers can link specific texts used in classrooms to the themes of the Seminar.

My Interests. For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the simple yet vexing question of how societies are organized and ordered, and of what role law and legal processes play in that process. I have found that reading and studying law and jurisprudence connects abstract issues of justice to the concrete issues of our day. In my own scholarship, recently I have been exploring such connections in the context of the death penalty, trying to figure out how the use of such a violent form of punishment influences law itself. (You can read more about me at https://www.amherst.edu/people/facstaff/adsarat) But the seminar will not be about my work; it will center on some of the most engaging work on punishment in law, politics, and culture.

Your Interests. As I have already said, no particular background is required for this seminar. However, you will need the interest and willingness to tackle rich and provocative material, and the patience to try to grapple with some of the most important contemporary issues of justice. If you are passionately engaged in current political and social issues, you would make an important contribution to the seminar. If you are a lover of literature and culture and are curious about the way either treats punishment, you would be most welcome. Or, if you are a physicist, librarian, administrator, grade school teacher whose curiosity is aroused by any of the words I've used to describe the seminar, you will be able to handle the seminar, benefit from it, and be of great help to the rest of us. Given our subject, almost everyone should have valuable things to say.

At the conclusion of the seminar I will be happy to provide each participant with a credit equivalency letter explaining how much in-service or graduate credit I believe participation in the seminar should carry.

Location. The seminar will be held in an air-conditioned seminar room on the Amherst campus. You will be designated a "Visiting Scholar" with full access to the College's library, computer, athletic, and dining facilities as well as the facilities at the four neighboring campuses. The facilities are quite good. During the summer the library is open weekdays from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. While there are many computers on campus, you might also be advised to bring your laptop computers as this will facilitate your work on the group writing projects.

You will receive directions on how to get to Amherst if you plan on driving. I have arranged for no-cost parking for you, and you may find it more pleasant to have your own car. However, there is easy public transportation, a local tradition of ride sharing, and a wonderful bicycle trail for those of you who choose to leave your cars at home. If you come by train, the nearest station is Springfield, Massachusetts; if you fly, the nearest airport is Bradley International Airport (near Hartford, Connecticut). Airport code (BDL).

Housing. I have arranged to house participants in a campus facility–Drew House- -with wonderful large air conditioned rooms, spacious social areas, kitchen facilities, and parking. Drew is a former fraternity house that was recently renovated. It is clean, efficient, and convenient. There are great advantages to living in close proximity to other participants in the seminar and, the dorm is located right across the street from the building where our seminar will meet and from the College’s dining hall. It is two blocks from the center of town. There are enough single rooms to accommodate everyone.

For those of you who prefer other kinds of accommodations, we will be able to assist you with subletting arrangements in the town of Amherst and surrounding areas.                                                                                                

For Drew House costs range from a low of $ 49.35 per day for lodging only to $ 51.50 per day for lodging plus linens. Because Drew has a kitchen participants may choose to cook for themselves. Costs for off-campus housing vary widely.

Social Activities. We will begin with a welcoming barbecue to initiate the seminar. I look forward to being able to begin the process of introducing you to the many virtues of the Amherst area as well as showing you around our gardens. Official greetings will be extended by

Stipends. As you know you will receive $3,300. A check for the first half will be waiting for you on at the first meeting of the seminar. We will arrange for check cashing services, and the College will be eager to settle accounts with those of you who elect to live in Drew. The second check will be ready for you about two weeks after the first.

Application. Application information is included with this letter. Once you have completed the application, please make extra copies, so that you can send me three complete packets, collated, paper clipped, and complete. This will be very helpful in expediting the selection process, and your cooperation will be much appreciated.

Perhaps the most important part of the seminar application is the "Application Essay." The essay should be no more than four double-spaced pages. It should address your interest in the subject to be studied; qualifications and experiences that equip you to do the work of the seminar and to make a contribution to the learning community; a statement of what you want to accomplish by participating; and, if appropriate, description of an independent project and its relation to your professional responsibilities.

If you have any questions about the seminar or the application process feel free to call me at 413-542-2308 or e-mail me at adsarat@Amherst.edu or my assistant, Megan Estes at 413-542-2380 or at neh@amherst.edu


March 1, 2019: Deadline to submit your application

How to submit your application:

1.  The Application Cover Sheet

  • Compete the cover sheet online at: https://securegrants.neh.gov/education/participants/
  • Follow the prompts.
  • Before you click the “submit” button, print the cover sheet and add it to your application package. Then click “submit.” 
  • You will be asked if you want to fill out a cover sheet for a second project. If you do, repeat the process.
  • Do not use the same cover sheet for different projects.


2.  A Résumé and References

Please include a résumé or curriculum vitae (not to exceed five pages).

This seminar requests two letters of reference.  Two referees may be from inside or outside the applicant's home institution.  They should be familiar with the applicant's professsional accomplishments or promise, teaching and/or research interests, and ability to contribute to and benefit from participation in the seminar.  Referees should be provided with the Director's Description of the Seminar and the applicatn's essay.  Enclose the letters with your application or Email: neh@amherst.edu or mlestes@amherst.edu.

3.  The Application Essay

The application essay should be no more than four double-spaced pages. It should address your interest in the subject to be studied; qualifications and experiences that equip you to do the work of the seminar or institute and to make a contribution to the learning community; a statement of what you want to accomplish by participating; and, if appropriate, description of an independent project and its relation to your professional responsibilities.


March 1, 2019: Deadline to submit your application

How to submit your application: Send three copies of your application to the address below.

For inquiries about the seminar application, please contact:

Megan Estes Ryan, Academic Dept. Coordinator

ATTN:  2019 NEH Summer Seminar

LJST Dept. Amherst College

PO BOX 5000

Amherst, MA   01002

413/542-2380  e-mail: neh@amherst.edu


Successful applicants will be notified of their selection on Friday, March 29, 2019. They will have until Friday, April 5, 2019 to accept or decline the offer.

 Note: Once you have accepted an offer to attend any NEH Summer Program (NEH Summer Seminar or Institute), you may not accept an additional offer or withdraw in order to accept a different offer.


Thanks once again for your interest.

Sincerely yours,

Professor Austin Sarat

Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought

Amherst College

Amherst, MA 01002

413-542-2308 (phone)                                                                                                                                                                         413-542-2264 (fax)