Q&A with Michael Goodhart, Director of the Global Studies Center

Issue Date: 
February 22, 2017


Michael Goodhart, associate professor of political science, assumed the role of director for Pitt’s Global Studies Center this January. The Center’s research, curriculum development, and outreach activities focus on global politics and economy, sustainability, cultural dynamics, peace, conflict, and security, and health and well-being.

“Students are hungry to understand the world,” Goodhart says. “Their lives are profoundly shaped by global processes in ways that are really visible to them — everything from popular culture to climate change to a constantly shifting global economy. We try to equip them to make sense of these processes in ways that will help them navigate this fascinating but really complicated world we inhabit.”

How does the Center make global problems relevant to a student in Pittsburgh?

One priority for the Global Studies Center is connecting the global to the local. A lot of our programming stresses that the global is not “some place out there somewhere” but a set of processes that affects us here as well, offering a great framework for helping students make sense of the world and of how they fit into it. They can learn about their own community along with the wider world, as part of the wider world.

Pittsburgh is a great place to do this. From its beginning, Pittsburgh was at the leading edge of globalization. The French and Indian War was part of the first global war; our steel industry drew people in from all over the world and created a product that shaped — literally and metaphorically — the modern world. Now the city is experiencing a high-tech renaissance strongly influenced by global structures and processes. So this is a wonderful context in which to help students see and think critically about the relevance of global connections. We are developing new courses and programs that take advantage of this local opportunity, and that give students the chance to learn about the world through their experience of the global right here where they live.

Your research has focused a lot on human rights. How has the way we understand and study human rights evolved?

For years, the study of human rights was dominated by philosophers, political scientists, and legal theorists. As a result, there was a lot of focus on abstract questions about the nature and justification of human rights, on treaties and human rights law and mechanisms of enforcement. This was interesting and valuable scholarship, but it conceptualized the field rather narrowly, missing a lot of the historical, social, and rhetorical significance of human rights.

More recently, a new generation of scholars in a much broader range of disciplines is focusing on how people make and use human rights claims in defending and challenging their identities and communities. There’s greater attention to what we might call the social and transformational dimensions of human rights theory and practice.

Right now, for example, I am doing some work on the growing global phenomenon of human rights cities. These are cities — on every continent — where governments or social movements or both have committed to realizing human rights at the local level. Interestingly, Pittsburgh is one such city. In 2011, the City Council issued a proclamation declaring this a human rights city, and there is an active Human Rights City Alliance here that is working with some success to try to leverage that proclamation to enact change in the city. Studying this kind of thing is new in the field of human rights. It’s also a great example of how we can connect the global to the local through research as well. Paying attention to this local dimension of human rights practice transforms our perspective on a lot of debates in the field.

You’re developing a Global Across the Curriculum program, which would promote the “globalization” of courses in a variety of disciplines. Why is this needed?

Global Studies is a new field. We’ve heard from many faculty that they’d like to make their courses more “global,” but aren’t quite sure how to do so. Many disciplines still conceptualize the world in national or international terms — as if states were natural containers of social, economic, and political life. Global Studies emphasizes connections and disruptions, focusing on transnational structures, processes, and interactions that cut across familiar boundaries of all kinds.

The inspiration for Global Across the Curriculum came from the very successful Writing in the Disciplines and Speaking in the Disciplines programs in the Dietrich School. These programs help faculty integrate meaningful writing and speaking into any course. The aim of our program is to help faculty work through how they might make their courses more global and to provide some tools and resources for them to do so. The program will offer stipends to faculty who agree to participate in a seminar that meets seven or eight times over a semester and to create or revise courses based on what they learn. The seminar will cover some basic global studies pedagogy and provide a forum to think about and discuss how they might integrate it into their own teaching. We think it’s an exciting way to connect folks around the University who have a shared interest in the global while also expanding the menu of Global Studies courses available to Pitt students.

How else are we cultivating globally engaged students?

For the first time, Pitt has a global plan, called “Embracing the World,” that outlines ways for everyone across campus to engage globally. It was developed with the leadership at the University Center for International Studies and will help to guide how the University addresses the global in research, teaching, and community engagement. We’ll be cooperating in developing a new global credential to be available for Pitt students; we’re also developing innovative new study away programs

The Center offers a free annual mini-course called “Muslims in a Global Context.” Why is this important?

Recent developments in our country indicate an urgent need for better understanding of Islam and Muslims. There is a lot of misunderstanding and even fear, and whenever policy is driven by fear and misunderstanding, things don’t go well for anyone. Our weekend-long mini-courses provide a rich framework for helping people understand the Muslim faith and Islamic culture. We hope that they dispel stereotypes and provide students with reliable information they can use in making sense of public debates and policy. The mini-course model makes it possible for many more people to participate, regardless of school or course of study. 

What advantages come to a Pitt student who has a Global Studies Certificate in his or her portfolio?

I mentioned earlier that Global Studies emphasizes thinking about connections and disruptions caused by transnational structures, processes, and interactions. We refer a lot to this kind of “global thinking” as a shorthand for identifying and analyzing the main transnational or globalizing processes affecting the world today, the social struggles they spark, and the main academic and political debates surrounding them. Students in our program also gain an appreciation of cultural diversity and difference, they acquire important language skills and international experience, they develop a sensitivity to complexity, and they learn a lot about themselves and about how global forces affect their lives.

Global thinking is useful in almost any career one can imagine. Our alumni have won impressive national and international scholarships and gone on to fascinating careers in academia, in government, in business, in public health, and in the not-for-profit sectors. They do really well, and we’re very proud of them.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.