Providing Skills, Not Summaries: Improving Reading Comprehension in Political Theory

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Mark Fisher, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2012

In teaching Modern Political Thought, I was immediately faced with a problem that will resonate with many other GSIs in the humanities. The course is structured around the close reading of various canonical texts, allowing students the chance to engage directly with some of the most profound thinkers of the Western tradition. However, these thinkers are also profoundly difficult, and many students struggle to find any meaning in these authors’ prose. This left me in a paradoxical position: the greatest resource of the course I was teaching was also its greatest stumbling block.

Faced with this problem, it seemed that my first task as a GSI was to help students gain access to these texts. But here I quickly ran into a second problem. Though political theorists find these texts pregnant with meaning, there is a lack of consensus as to how they should be read. If I was to try and teach students how to read these texts as a political theorist would, how could I do some justice to the range of approaches that political theorists actually use?

In an attempt to address these problems, I created an exercise that I called the “Philosophical/Rhetorical/Historical” exercise, or P/R/H, and decided to devote half of every section to it. The activity attempted to teach the students three reading approaches commonly employed by political theorists of different stamps. To this end, students read a specially chosen excerpt from the week’s reading three times, each time employing a different reading approach. In the first reading of the passage, I encourage the students to read “philosophically,” extracting an abstract, logical argument from the passage. After discussing what such a reading produced, students then read the passage “rhetorically,” analyzing the particular diction, mode of argumentation, and literary devices utilized in the passage. Having then discussed the fruits of this approach, we finally read the passage “historically,” thinking about how the historical context might help us get a grip on what the author understood himself to be saying. Occasionally, this final reading required the introduction of an external historical source, but often the historical background given in lecture provided enough context for the students to do something with this approach. Finally, we considered how the three readings related to each other, comparing and contrasting each with the others.

At first students were intimidated by the P/R/H exercise, as most had never employed such specific reading strategies to a text. As a result, I led the exercise for the first couple of weeks while the students largely listened. By the third section, however, students began to volunteer their own thoughts. By week four or five, many students who had first looked bewildered began to engage critically with their fellow students, professor, and GSI over various readings of the text. By week eight, most were even able to build their own interpretive arguments. By the end of term, the great majority of students were comfortable utilizing all thee of the approaches and could run the exercise successfully without my intervention.

From the dramatic improvement of the students’ written assignments and the decreased need to summarize each week’s reading for the students, it was clear to me that the exercise performed its skill-building function well. However, what I did not expect was that students would also end up enjoying it to the extent that they did. Many listed it as their favorite part of section in their evaluations. One student even claimed he’d learned more from doing this exercise than from two prior semesters of political theory. This feedback made me think quite differently about the GSI’s role in section. While our first impulse is often to try and “translate” the lecture into an idiom they are more comfortable with, this experience convinced me that the greatest service we can perform for students is to teach them the skills needed to speak our language.