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A Tightly Choreographed Life

By Carol Brévart-Demm

QA_Nackenoff_Carol.jpgThe relationship between Carol Nackenoff and her field of scholarship was by no means a case of love at first sight. As an undergraduate at Smith College, she considered a major in English, but her father talked her out of it. She thought about music, history, and French but rejected each. Ultimately, a charismatic professor of political philosophy lured her into the field she has been researching and teaching for the past 19 years at Swarthmore and, before that, on the faculties of Rutgers University and Bard College.

Now Richter Professor of Political Science, just completing terms as coordinator of the Environmental Studies Program and division chair for interdisciplinary studies, the vivacious Nackenoff is passionate about her research, which examines late 19th- and early 20th-century phenomena such as the relationship between Americans’ economic and employment experiences and their belief in the American Dream, competing notions of citizenship, and the role organized women played in building the American state. These interests are reflected in Nackenoff’s publications, which include her book The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse (Oxford, 1994); and Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy (University of Illinois Press, 2009), for which she was both a contributor and co-editor.

Passionate about music, Nackenoff learned piano and violin as a small child, and thanks to the voice lessons she took starting in graduate school, she sings first soprano—both as a soloist and chorist—in operatic, early music, and classical performances. In retirement (for which she has no firm date), she plans to build a harpsichord and fulfill a desire she’s nurtured since sixth grade—to learn to play the oboe.

What appeals to you most about political science?
I’m drawn to great questions of political philosophy—such as the relationship of the individual to community—as well as questions of justice and how to design a political system that people willingly consent to. I appreciate that political science attends to history and historical patterning. I want to make sense of political fears and struggles of other eras and love showing how they left ideational and institutional legacies.

What are you working on currently?
I’m examining Americans’ perceptions of citizenship during the period from 1875 to 1925—a time of intense conflict over inclusion of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants in the polity. I like to unpack archival materials to try to reconstruct political culture and world views. In this project, activist groups in which women are heavily involved figure in virtually every chapter. After teaching law for so many years, I’ve also been able to incorporate a dimension on court battles and legal struggles into my work. I’ve also been publishing a bit on constitutional law issues in recent years.

What is your favorite course to teach?
My honors Constitutional Law seminar has become a favorite. I began teaching constitutional law around 1990 and, in the early years, didn’t know much more than what was on the syllabus, but law just kept getting more interesting for me. I also love teaching my newest course Environmental Politics and Policy. That has become a real passion.

If you could have had another career, what might it have been?
I’d like to run away and join the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. If I didn’t think I were too old to do it, my fantasy would be to sing professionally.


At age 8, Carol Nackenoff took her first trip west with her family. Quite the cowgirl, she evidently felt comfortable astride this bucking bronco at a Colorado ranch. So what if the bronco isn’t real?

If you were given the chance to write someone’s biography, whose would you choose?
Probably a biography of Associate Supreme Court Justice David Souter. I found him to be an intriguing, active member of the Court—often one of the few recent justices who thought in ways that made sense to me. I’m sorry he retired.

If you were to host a TV show, which would it be?
One of the MSNBC news shows. The Rachel Maddow Show would be fun.

If you could switch places with any head of state in the world, who would you choose?
I’d rather be on the Supreme Court. People believe that chief executives have much more power than they really do. I believe we’ve fallen into making far more political promises than any individual in one branch of government can deliver on. On the Court, you have the chance to think out loud about legal principles and their meaning and to try to reason about the meanings of terms that may be aspirational—like equal protection—while still adhering to bounds set by law and precedent.

What’s the craziest spontaneous action you ever took?
I’m less spontaneous than I’d like to be, but some years ago, I had the idea of turning off my upstairs neighbors’ electricity. I lived in an apartment, and their music was too loud and they wouldn’t turn it down, even late at night. I came up with the idea but didn’t have the guts to execute it. My husband did that. And the neighbors didn’t have a key to the room where the circuit breakers were. They had to call the janitor. We did it several times before they realized what was happening (they finally were evicted for nonpayment of rent). I’d like to be more spontaneous, but my life is pretty tightly choreographed.

What are some of your other interests?

I’m somewhat maniacal about getting my 1,000 lap shirt at the Swarthmore Swim Club every summer. I did it in nine days this year. I also like to make my own herb-wine–based vinegars, bake, read really good novels. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Jonathan Franzen. I also love to travel. In July, I visited Central Europe to look at the programs our environmental studies students attend there—in Krakow and a new program in Brno, Czech Republic—and then I stayed on and went to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague on vacation with my husband. I’ve often said that I will travel anywhere where no one is shooting at me.

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