By Douglas Van, Political Science
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023
The history of political thought is enigmatic. Studying ideas well requires students to take seriously the beliefs and moral commitments of persons from radically different contexts from one another and from themselves. In a survey course like Democracy: Ancient and Modern, this endemic feature of the field is especially demanding. Students from week to week have to shift focus with blurring rapidity. They have looked at the ideas, practices, and institutions related to democracy from ancient Greece, the Roman Republic, the medieval period in Europe, the American and French revolutions, early feminist writings and suffrage movements, the Russian revolution, and our contemporary moment with our relative norms of representative democracy. An entire century sometimes only received one lecture and cluster of readings devoted to it before students moved on to another context. And, within a given historical and geographic context of import to the course, internal diversities of views exist as well. In short, there are analytical puzzles on top of analytical puzzles. Swift movement through time and place—with so many variables that weigh on analysis—caused some students struggle to get a firm grasp on particular thinker’s ideas and how they stood alongside others they were reading. Before students could focus their analytical lens with precision, the camera was jostled to instead center on a different object which required a yet new effort to focus. To respond to this problem, I taught research questions that are intended to help structure students’ reading and writing. In doing so, I worked to help students assemble their lenses of analysis, understanding the lens’s proper composition and make, so that they can better analyze with clarity and speed in line with the requisites of the course they signed up for.
In addressing this obstacle, the first thing I posed for students to think through in discussion and as they read is a governing question which entails a complex of other questions. I asked them, “how do we render the writing we are studying reasonable?” When I posed this, I did not mean this to imply that we should agree with those we study. But rather, we should understand what their reasons are for writing and arguing what they do in the way that they do. When a student reads Hobbes’ defense of monarchy in preference over democracy, it is not immediately clear how to make sense of his view. Many of us find the view morally and politically abhorrent. So, my first question above implies still other ones: “What was going on the world that our object of study might have been responding to?” “Who was the intended audience for their writing?” “What do we think was the purpose of their political intervention by creating the writing object that we now study?” “How have authors used existing ideas and discourses in interesting and creative ways?” A reader might well ask these questions and still find the views of those we read offensive—oftentimes rightly so. But, when students applied these questions they engage serious thinkers and actors with more sympathy and seriousness than they might otherwise. Students therefore engaged in studying history and often mediated the influence of their own prior political preferences. Once I had taught and stressed these questions, I showed how to apply them in practice. After several weeks of discussing together in section with an eye for reasonableness, I developed a number of short lectures based the courses readings that demonstrated how to analyze a text and make arguments about it. Students have a variety of ways that they learn skills and subject matter. But, by first describing the lens, then focusing it collaboratively with my students, and then showing a somewhat polished image that can be captured by it, students had the opportunity to understand analysis at a variety of stages. Analyzing historic texts more or less by themselves for their paper assignments was then more accessible.
The improvements in learning for students were apparent along at least two metrics. First, students’ papers improved as they incorporated discussion of context and audience to inform their readings of course materials. Some who previously wrote in a way that stressed current popular political preferences, also moved away from taking clear positions as a part of their paper assignments. Second, as students are right now planning their final papers for this course, several students show qualitative improvement in how they approach them. Rather than trying to accomplish the impossible task of writing in with any specificity about democracy as a concept through nearly all of known Western history, students have asked if they can write in a focused way. In doing so, they are choosing to focus their analytical lenses so they can get clear on particular ideas, practices, and where they emerged from. Many students have, in brief, taken on board and are actively applying the complex of questions I encouraged to create stronger readings and arguments about them.
to focus their analytical lenses so they can get clear on particular ideas, practices, and where they
emerged from. Many students have, in brief, taken on board and are actively applying the complex of
questions I encouraged to create stronger readings and arguments about them.