My purpose in the classroom is to help students articulate their questions about the human condition. I argue to students that questions of communal ethics matter for political life. Foundational to my philosophy of teaching are two tenets. First, the classroom is a place set apart to consider the perspectives we meet in our texts. Second, students deserve high expectations for their development in a course. The study of politics invites students into conversation with persons whose reflections concerning the human condition elicit our response.
I want students to understand the classroom as a place to consider primary texts in political thought, as well as film, speeches, songs, and literature. Accordingly, my practice in the classroom is a combination of lecture and structured discussion that incorporates student writing. For example, to help students in Introduction to Political Theory evaluate Thomas Hobbes’ argument for the legitimacy of government, I ask them in class to imagine that we are in the state of nature. I explain Hobbes’ thinking about social chaos in the context of limited resources, giving students the example of a scarcity of pizza. Students continue their thinking outside of class with short papers in which they critically compare Hobbes’ theory of political order with, for example, Aquinas’ theory of political order. They then return to class to debate their conclusions with one another. I evaluate students on their ability to engage the argument of the text, for themselves and with one another. I guide them, as needed, in identifying the fundamental goals—such as safety or individual freedom—embedded in one another’s arguments for or against Hobbes’ vision of communal life. It is their task, as part of the debate, to assess the value of the competing goals we identify. This exercise enables students to transition from reading a 17th century text to being personally invested in the question of whether we need Hobbes’ sovereign.
Because I expect students to demonstrate thoughtfulness as they progress in a course, I provide opportunities for critical analysis. In order to think about the possibilities of civic action, students in my course on Civil Rights read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theories of direct action in preparation for the lecture. Subsequently, outside of class, they write a one-page essay in response to a set of prompts that asks them to analyze the relevance of King’s philosophy to contemporary racial tensions. For example, they might write on King’s contention that nonviolence and militancy are compatible as well as necessary for the success of civil rights recognition. Or, they might assess King’s theory of civil disobedience. They then debate their responses with one another as a class. In their classroom conversation, some students highlight King’s writings, while others incorporate their reflections on current conflicts on American campuses or on the film Selma, which we watch together as part of our study. I evaluate their ability to appraise King’s theories in their arguments. In assignments such as these, students refine their ability to think about the questions their texts present as important for living together in political community. They leave the classroom better prepared to weigh competing aims in political life.
In summary, I invite students to participate in a long-running conversation on the human condition. Ultimately, I guide students to make their education in political science part of a college experience in which they move toward thoughtful action in the world. The value of this approach to teaching students to think about politics is that it enables them to reflect on the requirements, as well as the potential, of ethical communal life in and beyond the classroom.