Tag Archives: Political theory

Teaching theory: fast and slow

In preparation for the start of classes, I have revamped my syllabus for a Critical Theory course (syllabus posted on my academia.edu page – here). I’ve previously taught it a few times, as a kind of survey of Frankfurt School and (post-)structuralism. I liked the variety that offered: students come out with at least a passing acquaintance with Marcuse, Horkheimer & Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Baudrillard, Jameson, and a few others that happen to be catching my fancy that year (Giorgio Agamben, Jane Bennett, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Slavoj Zizek…) It is a combined senior undergraduate/MA course, so I don’t feel the responsibility to give them really solid understanding of any particular theorist or school; it is more about whetting their appetite.


But the new version is different, focused more resolutely on the Frankfurt School, and specifically on undertaking a close reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment. We’ll read that book (about 200 pages) over 5 weeks, or 15 hours of class time. About 4 minutes per page if we get to the “Notes and Sketches” section at the end, or a little over 5 minutes per page if we don’t.

After we finish Dialectic of Enlightenment, we move to more contemporary critical theory, and start reading at a pace that is perhaps more appropriate to “fast capitalism.” Four books (each fairly short) in four weeks. I know that today we need to be able to assimilate written material quickly, and assigning a lot of reading material so that they learn how to skim texts effectively can get them to learn how to do that.

But before getting to that point, I want us to consider the idea that something important is lost in the drive to process information ever more efficiently. “Thought must consider itself” is perhaps the central message of Dialectic of Enlightenment (“the necessity for Enlightenment to consider itself” – p xvii in the Jephcott translation). And consideration, much less reflexive consideration – “thinking about thinking” – doesn’t happen if we don’t make time for it.

A number of years ago, I was at a conference where a senior political theorist advised that: “However much reading you are planning to assign for your course, cut it in half.” His point was that good texts (like canonical works of political theory) repay deep reading. And that students will rarely engage in deep reading unless the course is structured to encourage or even demand it.

The other story I am keeping in mind going into this course, is one told to me by Bill Leiss, who graciously attended a workshop I organized in 2006, and who had been a student in a graduate seminar taught by Herbert Marcuse, on Hegel’s Phenomenology. What was Marcuse like as a teacher? Certainly Leiss recalled the class, and Marcuse, with a great deal of affection. Marcuse’s approach was to start the class by asking a student: “Read the first sentence, and then tell me in your own words what you think it means.” Then another student for the second sentence, and so on. I can’t imagine that the class got through the whole book, whether they had a whole semester or a whole year. But reading and talking about a book at that pace and in that way is about the closest thing to a guarantee that students will understand it. Certainly the way that the experience was retold, some four decades later, shows the impact of that kind of teaching. Now, who has time for that?


Teaching & Translating Marcuse: Making the Critique of One-Dimensionality Accessible

This is another update on teaching political theory – my Contemporary Political Theory course which includes in-class exercises to translate theoretical concepts and texts to more applied setting. In other words, how can we use political theory in (so-called) “real life”? The course is actually just finished (except for the grading), but this post is on the second of three major texts covered in the course: Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. A subsequent post will talk about teaching Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

One of the problems confronted with Marcuse’s text is that, despite the claim that it ignited the New Left in the 1960s (“The foremost literary symbol of the New Left” according to the New York Times, as quoted on the book’s back cover), it is still a dense work of political theory. And the central argument about “one-dimensionality” at least suggests that the flattening out of concepts – the “making accessible” (or “dumbing down”) of philosophical content – is a significant part of the problem facing contemporary society. Talking about the “popularization” of great works of the past, Marcuse writes:

“but coming to life as classics, they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth.” (p64)

Maybe these exercises deprive Marcuse’s book of its antagonistic force. I hope not. Or at least no more than the mere act of putting it on the curriculum does.

A couple of the exercises that we did repeated what we did for Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition: In one class, after reading about Marcuse’s philosophy of language, students each wrote a postcard to Marcuse from 2014, and then (in small groups) responded to the postcards as Marcuse. In another class, students drew posters representing Marcuse’s ideas. This one is notable for its subtle (or perhaps unintentional) reference to Pink Floyd.

photo 1

This one I think is Adbusters-worthy.

photo 2

After reading just the first two chapters, students had to pick four relatively recent developments that could be put on a Marcusean Likert scale (something that Marcuse would think is great; pretty good; pretty bad; terrible). Things that were terrible were easy for them to come up with, and some groups struggled (appropriately) finding something contemporary he would think is great. The middle categories sparked the most discussion. Would Marcuse see the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rise of the internet as “pretty good” or “pretty bad”?

Since they didn’t want to perform political theatre again (as much as I liked watching it) I had them come up with a storyboard for a movie about repressive desublimation. Here is one for “Repressive Desublimation: A Day in the Life” (though I think best title award goes to the group that came up with “Michael Bay’s Repressive DesubLEGOmation”).

photo 3

In the last class on Marcuse, students were assigned to come up with a buzzfeed-style quiz on “How one-dimensional are you?” Each group came up with some good questions, but my original plan to have them come up with a scoring mechanism was cleverly usurped when they decided that no matter which answers were chosen, anyone taking the quiz was one dimensional.


Translating Political Theory: Mid-term Report

Mid-term break seemed like a good time for an update on my ongoing pedagogical experiment in teaching political theory via a series of “translation” exercises. The break is now over, and this post has been languishing in my “drafts” all week because I have been struggling to think about how this fits with the idea of the “flipped” classroom. But I’ll save that for a later post.

The course is one in “Contemporary [read: 20th century] Political Theory.” We’ve worked our way through Arendt, The Human Condition and have just started Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. The class meets 2x/week, and the assigned reading averages 50pp/class, or 100 pp/week.

Most classes, the first half is spent discussing the assigned reading. It is a small enough class that I don’t have to do too much lecturing, and we have just enough time to focus on figuring out a few key concepts. I’m (sometimes acutely) aware that we don’t have time to fully explore the texts, and I’m sure lots of important ideas could be explained and assessed more rigorously. But I’ve cut this to carve out time for the translation exercises… In the second half of the class, students are given exercises that get them to think about how the abstract concepts we’ve been figuring out might be mobilized in domains other than a political theory course. Some examples, and then a few words on why I am doing this.

In one class, where the assigned reading was the chapter on “Labour” (Chapter II) of Arendt’s The Human Condition, working in small groups, students were told to make a poster that conveyed Arendt’s message. Here is one example.

Arendt poster

A couple of chapters later, each student wrote a postcard, from 2014, to Arendt. In the next class, the postcards were distributed to groups of students, who had to write a response (what would Arendt say?) on the back of the postcard. Here are a couple of examples (messages to HA on the left, responses on the right – note that the ones shown don’t specifically correspond with each other).

Arendt postcards

The last few minutes all the cards were circulated and we had a brief discussion of them. Among other things, we learned that Arendt can be snarky (bottom right is just one example)!

For the last class on Arendt, students (again working in small groups) had to write a brief convocation address from Arendt to the class of 2014. Props to the group that mashed up Arendt’s ideas with the Dr Seuss classic “The Places You’ll Go.”

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.

Do more then survive,
Do more than merely live,
Take action to assign value and meaning.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
You’re too smart to let technology develop things that [don’t? -Ed.] allow us to access the truth.

And you may not find any
You want to create,
In that case, of course,
Just vita activa all day.


I’m sorry to say so
But, sadly, it’s true
That Bang-ups
And Hang-ups
Can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
In a labory-lurch
And your life will fly by
You’ll be left in a hearse.

And will you succeed?
Questionable… but you might indeed!

(Insert some scientific formula that leads to a percent)… guaranteed!



Be your name Biro or [names of students redacted]
Or [names of other students redacted]
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!

Homo faber is waiting.

So… get on your way!

So after half of a semester: I will acknowledge that effectively cutting the time that we have to discuss the texts directly means that students are probably losing something in terms of the depth of their understanding of the texts. Or at least, the students who would be most engaged in class discussions are. I do sometimes leave class wishing we had an extra half-hour to dig further into some particular concept or other, to make sure they really “get” it. Arendt scholars might well be horrified by mis-readings found in the examples above. The skill of reading opaque or polysemous texts closely is often developed in political theory classes, and I do worry that students might not be getting enough of that.

But. These are rich texts, and I suspect I would have those worries no matter how much time we spent on them. And If they really are intrigued by the ideas in the text, they can always go back to it (and they do have to show understanding of the texts through writing assignments). But I take the point of an undergraduate political theory course not to be the production of professional “theorists,” who have developed and internalized careful interpretations of particular canonical thinkers and texts. I think it is more just getting them comfortable with theory: abstraction, conceptual thinking and analysis, political vision. In an interview with Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze described theory as “a relay from one practice to another” and “like a box of tools… it must be useful” and (citing Proust) “necessarily an instrument for combat.” So: not “theorists,” but people who can and will use theory. In order to see it as a tool, we have to practice wielding it.

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.

Teaching Political Theory in 2014

This semester I am teaching for the first time a course in Contemporary Political Theory. The course’s calendar description defines “contemporary” as WWI to the present. The back end of that period more or less coincides with the birth of “political theory” as a recognized academic field. And while I think “political theory” will continue to live on in one guise or another, between the adjunctification of post-secondary education, and the recurring struggles to preserve political theory as a field within an increasingly quantitatively-oriented discipline, it is not difficult to imagine that “the present” might be near the end of the period when “political theorist” is a viable career choice. 

So what to do in a course like this? On the one hand, there is SO much to cover. I started making a list of 20th century political theorists that I thought students should know something about, and quickly got to about 20 before I realized that even the illusion of comprehensiveness was impossible. On the other hand, how to pick and choose among all the “really essential” readings? In fact, why should students, the vast majority of whom are not going to go on to study political theory at the graduate level, much less teach it, know about Rawls, Habermas, Foucault, Schmitt, Lenin, Dewey, MacKinnon, Sandel, Young, etc.? In asking this latter question, I am not saying that the impulse to theorize politics is unimportant or dying off, nor that there is nothing to learn from reading any of these theorists. But I do think it is increasingly questionable whether theorizing politics should or will be done mainly through the continued reproduction of cohorts of professional political theorists working in university political science departments.

In the course we’ll spend the first two weeks looking talking about what it means to “do” political theory (readings: MacIntyre, Strauss, Wolin). The question that I’ll be hoping to work towards or through, has to do with political theorizing at a time when “epic theorizing” (to use Wolin’s term) seems no longer possible, and the more traditional answers about the importance of political theory within political science, or about passing on canonical knowledge, are for various reasons increasingly unconvincing (at least to me). After that opening section, we’ll spend the rest of the term reading three books, all from the middle of the 20th century, and perhaps representing a last gasp of epic theorizing. 


As we read those books, I’m going to try to get the students to think of political theory as a tool (essays will require them to connect each book with a contemporary political problem that is of interest to them). And to translate political theory into various other registers. Through exercises in class, we’ll try to bring the theories into other domains, contexts, and languages: postcards, skits, board games, etc… Inspired by Tim Kaufman-Osborn’s idea of political theory as a “mongrel” field, the idea is not to cultivate a few students who will want to become “political theorists” but that all (ok, many) of the students will see the importance (or even just possibility) of theorizing politics, whatever they do in their post-university lives.