Professor Ramona Grey teaches a course at the University of Montana called "Utopianism and Its Critics," and the list of books students read isn't short.
"Yes, but it's exciting. They get into it," said Grey, chair of the Political Science Department at UM.
Plato's Republic. Utopia. City of the Sun. The New Atlantis. News from Nowhere. Barbara Goodwin's writing about a lottery state versus work about a meritocracy as utopia.
Those books and their different viewpoints represent the first half of the course title. The students might be surprised to learn the identity of the critics referenced in the second part of the title.
"I tell them I expect them to be critics," Grey said. "They're the other half of that course title."
On the verge of a midterm election that's being fiercely fought by Montana candidates and in the midst of a national debate that's partisan and polarized, the political theorist with 21 years at UM talked about the lessons her students learn, the need for a shift in political discourse, and her work and play in the community.
Kipp McGuire, a 2013 graduate of UM and advance officer for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, said Grey always served as the devil's advocate in class. She pushed students to view issues through more angles than they otherwise would have, he said.
"She was really, really good about forcing us to always consider the other side of an argument, no matter what," McGuire said.
Grey was born in Oakland, California, and her time at California State University, Sacramento, and a community college influenced her desire to work in public education. She started at American River Community College. "You only paid for books and parking back then," she said.
Later in Colorado, residents with disdain for California told her that by living in Colorado she was part of "the real West," and she figured she wanted to stay in the neighborhood. She's been teaching at UM for more than two decades, and it fits the bill.
"I feel part of the real West now," Grey said.
As a professor, she covers the classics, starting with the ancient Greeks, through contemporary works. She presents principles debated in American history, and her students learn about the social contract and Marx and contemporary political theory.
The class about utopias and critics is one of her favorites. She and students from a wide range of majors cover a broad array of problems and issues, such as health and health care, crime and punishment, and the role of art in society.
"We really talk about these big issues that human beings have been talking about since the beginning of time," said Grey, who has a doctorate from UC-Riverside.
She pushes the students to bring current events into the classroom and evaluate them through the viewpoints they're learning in class. They talk about culpability versus responsibility and just and unjust behavior, and they have heated debates about fairness.
"I try to get them to bring issues in," Grey said. "That's what makes this so much of a lively, living conversation."
McGuire, who also worked as a research assistant for Grey, said some of his classmates loved her, but those who were looking for an easy grade were not too happy to be studying under the rigorous faculty member.
"She was a little bit tougher," said McGuire, originally from Helmville. "She had higher expectations for her students than what some other professors do."
Grey has higher expectations for the national dialogue, too. At a recent faculty panel in response to President Donald Trump's visit to Missoula, Grey discussed the importance of seeking middle ground.
She said some of the most important issues are morally tinged, and in some cases, good arguments exist on both sides. At the same time, she would like to see people work together for common solutions even as they remain committed to their principles.
"I'm hoping compromise will come back into fashion," she said.
She also places responsibility for the current political climate on everyday people, and she encouraged students to vote. The politicians are having the debate in the public eye, but the government they're working in belongs to the people.
"We bear responsibility for those who represent us and those who lead us — and for ourselves," Grey said.
When she has time on the weekends or evenings, Grey opens a book at her reading chair at home. She's currently reading Book of Ages: Life & Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore. It's about Ben Franklin's sister, and it talks about a time when women were supposed to learn to read, but not write.
"It makes me appreciate where I am right now and what I'm doing very deeply," she said.
Off campus, Grey has taught water aerobics a couple of times a week for 18 years, and she considers her students there a touchstone to the community. The students, mostly senior citizens, are concerned about the flagship, curious about it, and proud of it.
"There's a big connection that they feel to the university and a pride of being in a community that has the University of Montana in it," Grey said.