My teaching seeks to create an inclusive environment for cultivating the skill of normative analysis, the craft of philosophical writing, and the virtue of ethical self-reflection.
Before I was a political theorist, I was an activist fighting against discrimination and economic inequality. My egalitarian commitments and my experiences in grassroots organizing with marginalized groups infuse my course policies, syllabi design, and classroom management. Perhaps the most obvious way that exclusionary practices can enter the classroom is through the presentation of material. As we know, the canon of political thought, and much current literature, disproportionately represent the voices of white men. I conscientiously design my syllabi to showcase contributions from women and minorities, and in my presentation of material I take care to avoid assumptions biased by my own privileges and cultural background.
But creating an inclusive learning environment requires a more general appreciation for the ways in which inequalities in status, power, or privilege can manifest. Take, for instance, the current controversy over digital distraction. Many instructors now only allow laptops in classrooms for students with documented disabilities. Though well-intentioned, this policy neglects the unfortunate side-effect of reinforcing the stigma toward disability. Since I believe reinforcing this stigma is ultimately costlier than the price of digital distraction, I choose to permit laptop usage by all students (under an honor system).
Teachers may fail to realize that unregulated classroom discussions can also reproduce unjust background inequalities. For instance, students often enter discussions with different levels of practice in, and natural affinity for, public speaking. I thus try to create additional opportunities for less vocal students to make their voices heard (such as through structured presentations and blog posts), and to work one-on-one with uninhibited students to cultivate the virtue of discretion.
The most fundamental debates in political discourse reflect principled disagreements, but the heart of disagreement is rarely obvious, especially to untrained eyes. Identifying the controversy’s source requires peeling away the narrative shell of an argument to reveal and evaluate the assumptions that support it. Newcomers to normative inquiry find this exercise unnatural. They can summarize an argument in sequence, and they can tell you whether they find the argument’s policy implications feasible. But I have found that, without practice, few students can discern the principled assumptions that buttress a view, let alone evaluate those assumptions.
Learning how to locate the source of principled disagreement requires practice in explicitly analyzing argument structures. To this end, I have found that holding exercises in manually mapping out arguments at the beginning of a course can help students develop firmer foundations in analytical reading.
To appreciate which assumptions are most pertinent to question takes additional training, however. A student who has just learned to pick out assumptions will initially begin by questioning the meaning of every word, a process that quickly disintegrates into defiant skepticism. I have found that framing the philosophical context in which the material sits can help to channel students’ critical urges. Circulating detailed reading guides and discussion questions in advance, though initially more burdensome for the instructor, can help students to focus their reading and thinking around central issues that they might otherwise miss. Requiring students to give in-class oral presentations deconstructing an assigned reading, and to submit discussion questions of their own design, provide additional ways for students to practice the skill of analyzing normative content.
Students often find that the writing methods they have learned in other disciplines or at earlier stages of education have not prepared them for crafting their own normative arguments in a philosophical essay. How to advance a unique position in a way that is fair to opposing views is an especially challenging task—for beginning and advanced students alike. Beginning students are prone to characterize alternative positions in uncharitable ways. In this, they fail to realize that writing a strong academic paper is not about asserting a bold opinion but about convincing the reader that one’s position is more reasonable than the alternatives. Thus, I teach students to separate an author’s identity from the position she advocates, to try to imagine why someone would be drawn to a position they find unpalatable, and not to shy away from admitting the limitations of their own claims.
As more advanced students discover, however, learning how to argue fairly is more difficult than it first appears. One’s first instinct is to give one’s interlocutors the benefit of any doubt, to interpret so generously that one ends up losing all confidence in one’s own position. Making a meaningful contribution to a debate sometimes requires reframing the debate’s terms, a skill that is not covered by any writing guide. I find that holding in-class workshops on the craft of philosophical writing and encouraging students to present drafts in office hours significantly improve students’ chances for producing strong papers.
Finally, unlike more purely intellectual pursuits, political theory is also inescapably practical: it contains the resources for critical reflection about the institutions under which students live and their options for sustaining or reforming them. For many students, a course in political theory provides a rare opportunity to question their inherited dispositions and to think carefully about their own roles as institutional agents. Yet students often fail to appreciate sufficiently how a given intellectual debate applies to their own lives. Above all, I encourage students to try to bring their behavioral choices into line with the principled convictions that they reach (or reaffirm) through the course. Some of the most rewarding moments of teaching political theory come when students are moved to reform their lifestyles or change their career plans as a result of critical self-reflection that the course has inspired.