My teaching seeks to inculcate the skill of normative analysis, the craft of philosophical argument, and the value of practical self-reflection.
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 under current conditions. But without practice, few students can discern the principled assumptions that buttress a view, let alone evaluate those assumptions.
One might think that helping students to locate the source of principled controversy is simply to teach them to be more critical readers. But getting to the heart of a philosophical dispute requires more than a suspicious attitude toward the text. As a starting point, it requires explicit analysis of an argument’s structure. 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 which quickly disintegrates into skeptical defiance. 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 crafting normative arguments of their own requires fundamentally different methods than those they have learned in other disciplines or at earlier stages of education. 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 explaining an assertive 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. But, as more advanced students discover, 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 which is not covered by any writing guide. I find that holding in-class workshops on the craft of philosophical writing and requiring 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 particular 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) as a result of the course. Some of the most rewarding moments of teaching come when students are moved to reform their habits or change their career plans as a result of the critical reflection that the course has kindled.