Political Theorists in Three Words

An exercise I have been trying in my Contemporary Political Theory course has been asking students to come to class with a three word summary of the assigned reading. The idea was inspired by twitter hashtags like #LibertarianismInFourWords. I’ve done it once – for Leo Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?” (I’m not counting the beta version, which was, without advance warning, asking students to pick one word for Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Indispensability of Political Theory.”) Tomorrow I will try it for a second time with Sheldon Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation.” At the beginning of the class, we go around the table (there are 22 students in the class) and everyone introduces themselves and their three words. At the end of the class, we do another round, with everyone repeating their initial three words, and then either suggesting a new three word summary or keeping their initial one, along with a short justification for their choice (whether they kept the same three words or chose new ones).

The assignment serves a few purposes. First, it forces all the students to do at least enough of the reading to come up with a plausible three-word summary. One word, as I discovered with MacIntyre, doesn’t do this, because it is all too easy to pick vague adjectives like “intriguing” or “abstract,” or a word that doesn’t indicate they’ve read more than the title (e.g. “Indispensable”).

Second, it forces everyone to talk in class, and gives everyone the space to say something in class. Having said in the syllabus that the best way to learn political theory is to talk about it, I don’t want to have a class where a few students do all the talking while some others remain silent the whole time.

Third, getting students to give three words at the beginning and the end generates some pressure to reflect on how their understanding of the material has been changed by the discussion. With Strauss, about half the class changed three-word summary on the second round.

Finally, the exercise gets students to do what I said in the previous post I would try to do in this course: translate political theory to other registers and discourses. As we discussed in class, few people are going to work their way through dense, abstract works of political theory (as one student put it: “admit it, you don’t go home at night and read Leviathan for fun!”) Nevertheless, as we learned with MacIntyre, all of us, trained political theorists or not, use something like a theory of the political to make our way through the world as the social beings that we are. Or to borrow one student’s three-word summary of Strauss, “philosophy still necessary.” Few things seem as unconducive to thinking deeply about politics as the 140 or 160 character limit that increasingly define contemporary communication. Learning to find ways to converse meaningfully about how we should live together, even within those technologically-imposed limits, is an important skill to cultivate.


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