Tag Archives: Teaching

Electronics in the Classroom

I was part of a twitter conversation over the weekend about student use of electronic devices in the classroom. My thinking about and practice around this issue has changed over time. I’ve started using it as an opportunity to engage in, and think about, democratic governance in the classroom. What follows is a bit on the weekend’s conversation and the background on my situation, and then a discussion of that practice.

The conversation started with Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) tweeting about the hard line he plans to take on cellphones:

Untitled copy

Perhaps not surprisingly, this got some pushback. Robin Nagle (@rznagle) linked to a piece by Michael Oman-Reagan, which makes the case for uninhibited student use of technology in the classroom quite strongly. It’s quite a thought-provoking article (but do we really need that many rhetorical questions?) Oman-Reagan points out that a few studies about student tech use have been widely but uncritically circulated. Like the one done at McMaster University a couple of years ago, which found that the most harmful effects of student laptop use were on non-laptop using students, who were distracted by the screens around them. Alberto Roca (@MinorityPostdoc) pointed to this study, which seems to come to somewhat different conclusions (the article is paywalled; I’ve only read the abstract). Paper note-takers did better on exams than laptop note-takers, but it didn’t matter whether students were in a classroom where laptop use was restricted to a particular “zone” (presumably less of a potential distraction for non-laptop-users).

My own thinking and practice on this has evolved over time. I teach at a university that pioneered digital tech in the classroom, and our faculty contract stipulates that we have to “explor[e] the use of information technology in developing effective means to meet pedagogical needs.” This was in place before I arrived in 2002, and while not a total tech booster, I dutifully learned how to use powerpoint, our CMS, etc. In this environment, laptops in the classroom just seemed to be a fact of life (students had paid quite a bit for them, as part of their tuition, so it was difficult to make the case that they shouldn’t bring them to class). It was argued that they could take notes more efficiently, and of course, without leaving the classroom, they had a world of information at their fingertips. (During my job interview, a senior administrator bullish on the program basically described it as giving students the ability to fact-check the professor in real time.)

Cellphones, on the other hand, well, that seemed to be a different issue. Those annoying ringtones were just a distraction, something that interfered with the creation of a pedagogical space where we all had a common focus. Lines were (or seemed) clear, and I was comfortable putting a statement like this in my course syllabi:

Students are encouraged to bring their laptops to class for note-taking and similar course-related activities… Catching up on email, messaging, updating your Facebook page, gaming, random net surfing, writing papers for other courses, etc. should NOT be done during class time. Attempting to multitask seriously impairs your ability to process new information and to engage in meaningful dialogue (i.e. to learn and do well in this course). And it is rude. Similarly, while in class cellphones should be turned off or silenced and ignored.

And then: cellphones became smartphones, capable of doing just about anything that laptops do. And laptops became smaller. And tablets, ipads, e-readers, etc. filled in that gap between “computers” which can have a positive function, and “cellphones” which are just a distraction. Worse: I had the increasing sense that I was totally clueless about how students actually use these various technologies. The first time I heard “I use my phone to take notes,” I was skeptical, but had no way of actually judging whether it was true, or what to do about it. The psychology of learning is a big field that I am not trained in, and in any case technology use is a fast-moving target.

Admitting that I can’t become an expert, I do a couple of things. 1) Revert to traditional, old school pedagogy in cases where I can and think it’s worthwhile, 2) find ways to avoid the vexed question of whether students learn better with computers or paper, and 3)

  1. In seminar-style classes, I have either outright banned or at least strongly discouraged tech use. In these classes we spend class time in discussion, often working through difficult texts or ideas, and we all need to be focused on the same thing (text) in front of us. I tell students that it is a discussion class: I won’t lecture. And these classes are small enough – rarely more than 15 students, often more like 8-12 – that I can get all students involved in the discussion. Within certain parameters, I let the students set the agenda for discussion: they decide what is worth talking about (important, interesting or confusing) in the texts. And if they don’t have any questions or comments about it, we’ll sit in awkward silence for the three-hour block. Fortunately this hasn’t happened yet.
  2. In larger classes, I’ve tried to incorporate more active learning in class time. This really started with a Contemporary Political Theory course in 2014 (first time I explicitly completely banned electronics), and some of those ideas are documented here. And I did some more in a Politics & Mass Media course (40 students) last year (two things storified here and here). And increasingly in my Intro politics class (one thing storified here). Intro classes in my department are capped at 65, and 2nd and 3rd year classes are smaller. So “larger classes” is obviously a relative term, and it would be harder to do at least some of these things in a 200-person lecture (but see here).
  3. Finally,in my Intro class, for the last three years I have let students determine the electronics policy in our class. Untitled1 copy

I tell students that I do this out of my ignorance of what you darn kids do with your newfangled gizmos. But I do it for other reasons, as well. My initial thought was that it would give the policy a kind of legitimacy that it wouldn’t have if it was imposed by some clueless old dude who just wants to get your cellphones off my damn lawn. I’m less sure about legitimacy now, but I’ve found other reasons to continue doing it.

The class is, after all, an introduction to politics. This exercise, which they are told about on the first day of class and do on the second day, gives us a concrete example of deliberative democratic decision-making as a starting point for the course. And it also fits with one of my aims for the course (in which a majority of the students are non-majors), which is to introduce students to democratic citizenship and think of politics as an activity that they engage in, as well as an object of study. The process invariably involves not just getting students to construct logical arguments, refer to evidence, think critically about the arguments presented – the kinds of things teachers want students to do in all kinds of classes. But it also forces them to engage in the specifically political activities of articulating their needs in ways that make sense to others, listening to the articulated needs of others, and negotiating a solution that everyone can live with. Politics, as I mention in the course syllabus, is fundamentally about answering the question: “how should we live together?” At least for one aspect of how they will live for three hours per week over a semester, this gives them a chance to explicitly figure that out.

I’ve done this three times now, and the results have been pretty similar each time. A number of students are committed to the idea of paper note-taking. A number really want to use their laptops. And a few will, with varying degrees of sheepishness, admit that they really don’t want to go 50 minutes disconnected from the world outside the classroom. They realize that generalizing their own preferences can have negative implications for others, and they try various forms of argument to persuade others. When these fail, they end up with as much of a live-and-let-live policy as they can find, usually with laptop users relegated to the back of the classroom so their screens won’t distract people behind them. If things like texting are allowed, they have to be done “discreetly,” so as not to distract others. This emphasis on maximizing individual choice without impeding others’ freedom isn’t a surprising result in a liberal society. And it provides a good point of contrast when we talk about non-liberal approaches to politics (like Plato’s idea that there is one best way for human beings to live) later in the term.

One somewhat surprising result is that students have tended to demur on the question of enforcement: what to do when someone breaks the rules? I tell them that policies need enforcement mechanisms, and the limits we have to work within (no expelling offenders from class, for example). I had thought they might come up with creative forms of social sanction. But they seem to not want to deal with this problem, and if anything, leave it to me to deal with offenders. I’m torn between two contradictory conclusions about this. More pessimistically, this can be seen as evidence that we (or at least the subset of “we” that finds itself in my Intro Politics class) don’t really trust ourselves with institutions of democratic self-governance. Maybe this is because we are so thoroughly constructed as liberal individualized subjects that we don’t trust collective processes, even when we are a part of them. Maybe we are post-political and don’t trust that we non-experts can make the right decision. Maybe in liquid modernity we are too uncertain about our future selves and their desires.

The more optimistic reading of it, is that it represents an intuition that institutions of coercion are only necessary in large groups, with relative strangers interacting in systems that aim at the (re)production and legitimation of inequality. At least ideally, university classrooms don’t fit that description.


Engaging students in double-blind peer review

This is the first of what I hope will be a few posts about a “Politics and the Mass Media” course that I taught in the Winter 2015 semester. I experimented with a few things in that course, at least partly because when I was starting to prepare the course last summer, I was reminded by someone who teaches such courses regularly (and, like me, is in his mid-40s), that today’s “students inhabit a media universe that is not at all like the one we have in mind when we use the term ‘mass media.'”

I learned a lot teaching that course. It was a busy term so I didn’t have the chance to write about it much at the time. Although I did whip off a couple of Twitter essays that I posted to Storify – here and here – my attempt to catch up to the new media universe.

This post is about an experiment with an assignment, that wasn’t necessarily specific to a Politics & Mass Media course: getting students to engage in double-blind peer review. It was similar to the double-blind peer review process that we often undertake as academics, but in this case it was a process for improving, not screening or filtering, written work.

One more point to set the context: I think that learning to write clearly and persuasively is one of the most important skills that students can get out of university (and particularly a BA degree). And yet, for what I think are good reasons, I am reluctant to mark drafts of students’ essays. I tried this as a way to get around that problem. I’ll briefly describe the process, how student work was assessed, and then say a few things about the pluses and minuses of doing this.

The process:

  1. About a month into the semester, students were to submit a 2-page overview of their proposed essay topic. The assignment gave them quite a bit of latitude (a comparative media analysis on an issue or event of their choosing). I had a marking template for these (below), which included a space for me to include an “author ID number,” as well as feedback on their proposed topic.
  2. The week after the mid-term break, students had to bring to class 3 copies of a draft essay. No name or identifying info on the paper, except for their author ID number. I organized the redistribution of those essays (recording who got which papers on a spreadsheet), and then handed them out the beginning of the following week.
  3. Students had one week to review the three draft papers that they were assigned. The instructions were to provide constructive feedback (not assess or grade), and a template was provided (below). Reviews were submitted to me, and I gave them back to their authors, matching up ID numbers to student names.
  4. One week after that, each student submitted a package that included at least one of the draft copies of their essay (usually more than one, since most reviewers marked up the drafts), all three of the reviews that they received, and a 1-2 page “response to reviewers.” Like a response to academic reviewers, the assignment was to discuss how the paper was going to be revised in light of the reviewers’ comments.
  5. With all that paper, I assigned a grade for each of the reviews, marked the response to reviewers, and then returned it all to the authors (emailing people their review marks). Marking the response also gave me the chance to guide authors, if I thought the reviewers had all missed something important, or (more often) if an author wasn’t giving serious enough consideration to a reviewer’s ideas.
  6. The final paper was due a couple of weeks after that, at the end of the semester.

rubric for topic overview peer reviewer's template

Assessment of students’ work:

This was the major assignment for the course, worth a total of 50% of students’ final marks. It was broken down as follows:

  • The topic overview was worth 5%
  • Draft essays were not graded, but the logistics of this process made it very important that these be submitted on time. So there was a penalty imposed (or at least threatened) for late drafts.
  • Reviews were worth a total of 10%. Three reviews were graded out of three marks each, according to a rubric (most got 2 or 2.5 out of 3). One additional point was given if all three reviews were submitted by an early deadline.
  • Response to reviewers was worth 10%
  • Final paper was worth 25%

What worked:

At least based on what they told me, students seemed to really enjoy this exercise and found it valuable. One student commented on the fact that there are surprisingly few occasions when they actually get to see their peers’ work. I was also pleasantly surprised by both the amount of effort that students put into the peer reviews (often marking up draft essays quite extensively), and by the positive character of the feedback (see below). Students did not use the veil of anonymity to deliver unduly harsh comments. Although when students know their classmates fairly well, that veil can be pretty thin: author identities can be guessed based on topic choice, writing style/ability, etc.

student comments1 student comments2

Reviews generally tended to focus on the mechanics of how the essay was put together: was there a clear thesis statement, did it flow logically, was the writing clear and grammatically correct, and so on. I’m not sure whether I was happy or disappointed to find that students who turn in poorly written work can actually edit the work of others reasonably well. Although I don’t have a clear baseline to compare it to, I think most if not all of the final essays ended up being more polished in terms of clarity of presentation than they otherwise would have been. Some of them were probably improved in terms of content (soundness of analysis, theoretical sophistication, methodological rigour, etc.), but that was more hit-and-miss.

Words of caution:

Overall, this was a good experience, and I will probably do it again, in some classes. But a couple of cautionary notes. First, I think this size of class (38 students) is about the maximum. The logistics of shuffling around that much paper were fairly daunting. 38 students x 3 drafts x 10 pages = a lot to carry around. And re-sorting 100+ papers to distribute to peer reviewers (and then back to authors) required time and quite a bit of floor space. I briefly considered doing it electronically, but based on my skills and what I have available, I think it would have been even more work. In a smaller class (under 20-25) even the pretence of anonymity would be gone.

Also, a process with this many steps necessarily means working to tight timelines, so the scheduling (including scheduling the time to grade, where necessary) needs to be done pretty carefully, in advance, with some cushions built in for unanticipated disruptions. A couple of students’ drafts or reviews were late or didn’t come in at all, which was not surprising, but made things more complicated. I knew it would happen, but couldn’t have known which students would be delinquent, nor whether promises like “I will submit it first thing Monday morning!” would in fact be kept. The process had to be flexible enough to deal with this, and the fact that delinquent students were also harming their peers.

When assigning peer reviewers, where possible, I tried to have students get at least one reviewer who was writing on a similar topic, since I thought they would be more likely to provide good feedback on the content and not just structure or mechanics. I also wanted to avoid having people paired up (A reviews B’s paper and B reviews A’s paper). And I know that some students are, shall we say, more careful readers than others, and so wanted to try to have each student get reviews that were roughly similar overall in terms of quality. The spectrum of reviewer quality turned out to be narrower than I thought it would be, in a pleasantly surprising way.

As I said, overall, I am happy enough with how this went, that I will probably do it again. Both the iterative writing process, and the opportunity to teach and learn from their peers, are good experiences.

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.