Robert F Barsky Author of Evaluating Organization Development

Robert F Barsky

Vanderbilt University

Robert F. Barsky is a Guggenheim Fellow & Professor at Vanderbilt University. He has published widely in language theory, literary studies, and border studies with an emphasis on humanistic approaches to human rights. He is the author of a trilogy of books about the milieus of Noam Chomsky and Zellig Harris for MIT Press. He is the founding editor of AmeriQuests (www.ameriquests) and Contours (, and he directs the W. T. Bandy Center. His new novel is called Hatched.


Robert Barsky works at the intersection of humanities and law, with a focus on border crossings. In his newest book, Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us about Vulnerable Migrants (Hart Publishing/Bloomsbury Press, 2021), written while he was a Rockefeller Resident Fellow at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Barsky suggests that many stories in the Western Tradition deemed to have enduring value offer insights into current discussions about the flight and plight of vulnerable migrants. He is also working on a history of the 1967 Refugee Protocol, negotiations (1965-1968), a project funded by the SSHRC Insight Grant Program, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Barsky is the author or editor of numerous books on narrative and law, including Undocumented Immigrants in an Era of Arbitrary Law: The Flight and Plight of Peoples’ Deemed ‘Illegal’ (2016); Arguing and Justifying: Assessing the Convention Refugees’ Choice of Moment, Motive and Host Country (2000); and Constructing a Productive Other: Discourse Theory and the Convention Refugee Hearing (1994). He wrote two biographies of Noam Chomsky, the biography of Zellig Harris, and is now writing the biography of Nathan Glazer. He is the founding editor of the international open access border-crossing journal AmeriQuests, and he recently started a new journal on art and border crossing, Contours Collaborations, in collaboration with MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group. Barsky has been a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, and a visiting professor at Yale University, the University of Northampton, the University of Memphis Law School, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Toulouse, France, the Law School of VU University Amsterdam, and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, at the University of Edinburgh.


    PhD McGill, 1992

Areas of Research / Professional Expertise

    Literature, Law, Migration studies

Personal Interests

    Tennis, skiing, gardening, biking, kayaking.



Featured Title
 Featured Title - Undocumented Immigrants in an Era of Arbitrary Law - 1st Edition book cover



What the Legal Setbacks on Obama’s Immigration Plans Say About..

Published: Nov 13, 2015 by Fortune
Authors: Robert F. Barsky

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration aimed at easing deportation threats for millions of undocumented immigrants suffered another setback. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, ruled 2 to 1 against an appeal by the Obama administration that would have changed the immigration classification of millions of undocumented immigrants on a class-wide basis.


Clamouring for Legal Protection

By: Robert F Barsky
Subjects: Classical Studies, Law

Robert Barsky is a Guggenheim Fellow and professor at Vanderbilt University. His multidisciplinary research combines social justice, human rights, border and refugee studies with literary and artistic insights into the plight of vulnerable migrants.

Below, Robert shares 5 key insights from his new book, Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing from PersecutionListen to the audio version—read by Robert himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing from Persecution By Robert Barsky

1. Even people who feel the most negatively about undocumented migration can have exceptions.

Generally, these are people that they know well—their roofer, for example, or the people who take care of their lawns, or babysit their children. If we get to know somebody who falls into a category about which we feel negatively, such as the category of undocumented migrants, we’re maybe willing to make an exception for them.

Similarly, we already know Dracula. We already know Dante and Alice in Wonderland. What happens if we imagine that they are living lives that resemble the lives of contemporary refugees? If we empathize with a character like Alice, we say, “Wow! What an amazing adventure,” and then think, “That’s not unlike an adventure that an undocumented migrant or a refugee might face. Maybe these refugees aren’t just here to steal the great resources of our country. Maybe they are not dissimilar from these characters I like.”

2. We have a special feeling in our hearts for canonical literary characters.

We love Alice. We admire Dracula. Well, maybe “admire” is a heavy word for somebody like Dracula, but we certainly think of him as a kind of gentleman with some terribly odd habits. What if we think about him as someone who is especially fascinating? When he gets placed into a coffin and floats across the channel to England, he’s a migrant, migrating from France to England—but he’s actually doing so in Transylvanian soil. He’s only able to travel when he’s sleeping on his own soil. What does that say? What does that mean? If we imagine him as a migrant, there’s something fascinating there.

“He’s only able to travel when he’s sleeping on his own soil. What does that say?”

Let’s also think about Milton’s Paradise Lost. At the outset of the story, Satan is a friend to God, but he’s kicked out of Heaven after a war caused by his uprising against God’s rule. Heaven is a kind of perfect place, so we can think about him as leaving a perfect place, and now having to find his way in a very imperfect place known as Hell. Will that jar us into thinking differently about people who come to our country, whatever our country is? They wake up in an entirely new setting, look around, and say, “Oh my goodness, this is unfamiliar. This is a place without my language, without my culture, without my friends.” Is this really that dissimilar from somebody who has been, say, forced out of the Ukraine by Russian soldiers?

3. The canon has a continuing and continued role in our world.

Sure, we are inundated by TikTok and Facebook and Instagram. Yes, people are more likely to see snippets of stories in YouTube videos than they are to plunge into hundreds of verses of rhyme in Virgil’s writings. And yet those texts, I think, maintain their value and importance. They keep a kind of credibility awake in our imaginations. Don’t we all remember when we read canonical works? Of course, canonical works can include Peter PanHansel and Gretel, and much more recent texts, like Beloved by Toni Morrison. Those texts maintain their importance because they’re a currency that’s known.

Even if we haven’t read all of Dante—say we’ve only read Inferno, or we’ve only heard of Inferno—we know that this Dante the Pilgrim goes down into the underworld, where he encounters characters who are being punished. And maybe we’ve never read the Odyssey, but we know about this ancient Greek story of this heroic warrior who is returning home after seven years of battle in Troy. And from that, maybe we have a degree of sympathy. Maybe we’re interested. We’re thinking about what it means to leave a war-torn zone in order to return home. Well, that’s often the story of a contemporary refugee. So maybe we’re learning something, even if we haven’t read the book itself, about contemporary refugees.

4. The idea that “we’re all migrants” hasn’t really shifted the landscape of political thought.

We always hear that line: “We’re all migrants, so we should be sympathetic toward migrants.” Well, that doesn’t seem to go very far. Nor does it go very far to hear that single story of that person you’ve never heard of in a discussion about somebody fleeing from, say, Yemen. It requires so much engagement, so much effort to get to know that person.

“[Canonical works] keep a kind of credibility awake in our imaginations.”

Whereas in fact, we already know many migrants. In fact, we might know these fictional characters better than we know ourselves. We not only know their challenges and the obstacles they face as they travel from place to place—we also know what they’re thinking.

Imagine Frankenstein’s monster, for example, from the work by Mary Shelley that is considered the greatest-selling novel in the history of the world (or certainly among them). We know about the unbelievable challenges that the monster faces on account of his creation, on account of his well-known and well-described ugliness, having been sewed together by Dr. Frankenstein out of many different body parts. But he is also a refugee; he flees after committing murder. He flees Geneva and goes up into the Alps in France. There he is a refugee himself, but he also takes care of a refugee family. And he has to do so secretly because he’s so terrifying-looking that he will frighten the people he’s trying to help.

5. Many of the authors who write about the challenges faced by vulnerable migrants, like refugees or undocumented persons, have been refugees themselves.

Let’s take, for example, Lord Byron. Lord Byron fled England because of his precocious habits, because he was condemned for his homosexuality. So he flees. As he crosses Europe, he writes Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and then he writes the great masterwork Don Juan. And Don Juan is very similar to Byron, fleeing because of his precociousness, because of his wanton disregard for authority. Lord Byron travels as he describes his traveler, and his traveler keeps getting into trouble because he doesn’t respect local customs. (And because he’s extraordinarily good-looking—people can’t seem to resist him, which, of course, leads him into more trouble.)

“How do we get into the minds of people who are suffering the pain of displacement? Maybe it’s by going back to the great books.”

In 1816, Lord Byron met with Percy Shelley, and then with Mary Shelley in the summer of that same year. Both Percy and Mary had fled England, as they couldn’t stand the customs, morals, and laws. And 1816 was an interesting year; it was abnormally cold in Europe because of a massive eruption that had happened the year before near Java. Dust was sent spewing into the atmosphere, which lowered temperatures all the way to Europe. So this was not just a story about migration as we think about Frankenstein or Don Juan. It’s also a story of authors who are, themselves, migrants. Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron were moving around Europe during an exceptionally cold summer. In other words, climate change pushed them to move around.

How do we better understand the crises we’re hearing about today in Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Ukraine? How do we get into the minds of people who are suffering the pain of displacement? Maybe it’s by going back to the great books, which are filled with characters who, although not always amiable—as in the case of, say, Dracula—are nevertheless endearing and endeared to us. Maybe by thinking about these great characters, we’ll think differently about the real people who have been displaced by violence, suffering, want, need, or even wanderlust, and who are now in our midst.

To listen to the audio version read by author Robert Barsky, download the Next Big Idea App

Article and interview with Robert Barsky concerning the Syrian refugee crisis

By: Robert F Barsky
Subjects: Area Studies

The current crisis has tested the limits of the European political will - REFUGEE CRISIS + INTERVIEW

More than 4.5 million refugees from Syria are in just five countries Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.

More than 4.5 million refugees from Syria are in just five countries We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.

An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

In a world where nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day as a result of conflict or persecution.


"The current crisis has tested the limits of the European political will, and has led to wild variations in the treatment of refugees"

More than 4.5 million refugees from Syria are in just five countries Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt:

  • Turkey hosts 2.5 million refugees from Syria, more than any other country worldwide
  • Lebanon hosts approximately 1.1 million refugees from Syria which amounts to around one in five people in the country
  • Jordan hosts approximately 635,324 refugees from Syria, which amounts to about 10% of the population
  • Iraq where 3.9 million people are already internally displaced hosts 245,022 refugees from Syria
  • Egypt hosts 117,658 refugees from Syria


The UN’s 2015 humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees was just 61% funded by the end of the year.

Funding shortages mean that the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon receive just $21.60 per person month or around US$0.70 cent a day for food assistance, well below the UN’s poverty line of US$1.90

86% of Syrian refugees in urban areas in Jordan are living below the local poverty line.


According to the UN around 250,000 people have been killed and 13.5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria

More than 50% of Syria’s population is currently displaced

One-in-every-two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year – half a million people – were Syrians escaping the conflict in their country

International Resettlement

In total, 162,151 resettlement places have been offered globally since the start of the Syria crisis, which equates to a mere 3.6% of the total population of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.

At least 450,000 people in the five main host countries - or 10% - are in need of resettlement according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

Amnesty International is calling for at least 10% of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees to be offered resettlement or other forms of admission by the end of 2016


Key facts:

  • Gulf countries including Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.
  • Other high income countries including Russia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have also offered zero resettlement places.
  • Germany has pledged 39,987 places for Syrian refugees through its humanitarian admission programme and individual sponsorship; about 54% of the EU total.
  • Germany and Serbia together have received 57% Syrian asylum applications in Europe between April 2011 and July 2015
  • Excluding Germany and Sweden, the remaining 26 EU countries have pledged around 30,903 resettlement places, or around 0.7% of the Syrian refugee population in the main host countries.

To discuss this topic and find out more, Admiral.News addressed a few questions to Robert F. Barsky who is a Professor of both literature and Law at Vanderbilt University, and a long-time researcher in the area of refugee studies, migration and, most recently, undocumented immigrants. 


1.The topic of refugees has been extremely keen especially because of civil war in Syria, situation in Afghanistan and Somali.  

So what is unique about refugees all around the world?

Refugees are people who are displaced, generally by upheaval in their country resulting from military activities, but also persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political affiliation. There are also many people who leave their country because they cannot make a living, which can be the result of many factors, including climate change, depletion of natural resources, or government policies that have negative bearing upon them.


2.How are refugees protected under international law?

In the wake of World War II, the international community gathered together in Geneva, and founded the United Nations (1948) and then the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which created the “Geneva Convention” of 1951. Originally designed to address the post-war refugee crisis in Europe, it was modified by the 1968 Protocol to allow people to claim refugee status on the basis of persecution in the host country. This Convention and Protocol serves as the principle apparatus in international law to address refugee crises, although there are now more instruments to bring the process up to date with current events, including efforts to help Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs), those who are in need of assistance but have not crossed an international border.


3. how does Europe try to solve refugee problem?

Europe is mandated by the adherence to the Convention and the Protocol to admit all refugee claimants, and to determine the validity of their claims. As such, this is not charity, it is law, and people who are in need of international protection have a firmly-ensconsed right to assistance. The current crisis has tested the limits of the European political will, and has led to wild variations in the treatment of refugees, from Hungary that has ostensibly closed its borders to refugees, to Germany, that originally accepted entrance of all claimants. The current impasse remains, though, and the European Union is struggling to come up with a unified policy, particularly in light of local resistance (leading, for example, to Brexit), and to the complexities of being front-line states (most notably Greece).

The European Union is struggling to come up with a unified policy

4. What is the impact of the USA in this matter?

The USA contributes considerable funding to all international organizations, notably the UN and UNHCR, and they also select large numbers of refugees from refugee camps. Nonetheless, much more needs to be done, as the numbers of people that have been admitted from the current waves is very small in the US relative to the international requirements that flow from the numbers (roughly 2 million).

5. Why is the crisis hitting Europe now?

The lingering Syrian crisis, with no end in sight, the constant tensions in certain areas of the Middle East, the crisis in South Sudan, and the heavy weight caused by the US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq have all contributed to the crisis. The latter two crises lay particular burdens on the US, given the massive invasions and the destruction that has come in their wake.


Author: Orkhan Khalilov


Fortune publishes article by Robert F. Barsky

By: Robert F Barsky

Robert F. Barksy recently published an article in Fortune entitled "What the Legal Setbacks on Obama’s Immigration Plans Say About the Grey Areas of U.S. Border Patrol". Visit the website or his author profile to read more.


Photograph by Kevin Lamarque — Reuters

Open Borders Not Giant Wall

By: Robert F Barsky

Vanderbilt University produces a video of author Robert Barsky discussing some of the issues that his new book, Undocumented Immigrants in an Era of Arbitrary Law, explores.


To read the article and see the entire video, please visit the page on Newswise.


WMOT report on Robert Barsky's 'Undocumented Immigrants' book, for NPR radio

By: Robert F Barsky

On September 10th, WMOT published an article entitled, "Should the U.S. accept more Syrian refugees? Vandy professor responds".

In this article, author Robert Barsky says the U.S. does more than most nations to help refugees around the world, but also says America can and should do more. Click the link above to read more.

LatinaLista and Futurity publish article on Barsky's new book

By: Robert F Barsky

Venture Nashville on Robert Barsky's work on Undocumented Immigrants

By: Robert F Barsky

On November 1st, author Robert F. Barsky published an article Venture Nashville entitled, "Crises in Migration, Europe and the Americas". It begins:

"The crises of refugees in or in transit to Europe, and undocumented immigrants in the United States, are huge international news stories, but most news coverage has left out crucial details that could help sway public opinion and move those in power to alleviate suffering. What is missing in the current discussion about these "crises" is acknowledgement of the fact that admitting and settling refugees isn't a matter of ad hoc charity or benevolence -- it is compliance with international law."


If you'd like to continue reading this article, please click on the link above.


"From Romantic Poetry to the Writings of the Beat Generation” Robert Barsky, 3.1

Published: Oct 09, 2015

Robert Barsky discusses the work of Zellig Harris

Published: Oct 09, 2015

Robert Barsky in Fort Collins, Colorado

Published: Oct 09, 2015

Robert Barsky discusses Noam Chomsky, and Immigration issues

Robert Barsky on "Noam Chomsky, Dissent, and Immigrant Rights."

Published: Oct 09, 2015

Robert Barsky "The Case for Open Borders"

Published: Oct 09, 2015

Published on Mar 11, 2014 Robert Barsky is a professor at Vanderbilt University, Nashville TN. The complete title for this speech is "Addressing the Plight of Undocumented Immigrants in the US: The Case for Open Borders" Hosted by First Unitarian Church of Denver Sunday, March 9, 2014 For more information on the author go to: