Thursday, December 24, 2015

Fall 2015 Teaching

Reading over my students' final essays from "Introduction to Ancient and Early Modern Political Philosophy" (syllabus) yesterday, I'm thrilled to witness the birth of political theorizing. So many of them have taken up the skill of integrating arguments from the history of political thought into their own considerations of political questions. To reflect on freedom, one student examines eleutheria (the ancient Greek word commonly translated as "liberty") in Aristotle and then contrasts this with Republican liberty in Polybius and Cicero. To develop her own thoughts on dissent and politics, another student links the need for contestation in Machiavelli's political theory with Socrates' ceaseless questioning. Yet these students do not merely survey what others have said. Instead, they take up this thought and bring it into their own inquiries and arguments. They make Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero their own internal interlocutors, partners in the dialogue they have with themselves. The history of political thought thus becomes a resources they can internalize and bring to bear on the challenges and questions they face today.

I want to think more about this process of integration, of internalizing and diversifying the dialogue of the self with the self. My framing of the course in terms of its "big questions" seemed to have helped here.

The questions connected to the students' lives insofar as they identified themselves as living in democracies (or wanting to) or prided themselves on tolerating dissent. I had a good feeling about this class from the first day, when our discussion of the desirability of democracy drew from students' experiences in India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Russia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States. The stakes of defining democracy are unavoidable when considered from these multiple positions.

The times our discussions flagged came when the topics felt too distant from the students. I could have bridged these gaps more, but I didn't anticipate that the health of the soul, for instance, would not compel them. I feel this concern so viscerally, in such a chest-thumpingly embodied way, that I found students' complaints of the "abstractness" of Plato's Gorgias flummoxing. I read a passage aloud, in stentorian voice, to convince them but it failed to penetrate. I need to devise new ways of showing my students why what seems abstract might matter.

It was a political class. They loved Aristotle and Polybius and found Socrates annoying. Herodotus's Constitutional Debate became a frequent point of reference (to my delight) and Aristophanes' Clouds fell away. By "political" here I mean a concern for what Aristotle calls the arrangement of offices and duties. The students wanted to discover the best forms of living together. They wanted, for the most part, constructive political theorizing.

I write "the students" but I should add that their lack of homogeneity made the class even better. Some students defended monarchy as a form of rule. Others declared that Socrates deserved to die. I even read a final essay claiming, with Callicles (of Plato's Gorgias), that doing injustice is part of living well. Integrating the history of political thought introduces a new mode of disciplined thinking but it does not determine any particular political position. I just hope I can continue the conversation with these extraordinary young people.

[Addendum: I already posted a reflection on my other course this semester, "Arts of Freedom" (syllabus), on Serendip, the course management program we used. You can read that reflection here.]

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fall 2015 Courses

Fall has arrived! I'm thrilled to return to Bryn Mawr to teach two courses: Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ancient and Early Modern," an introduction to western political thought from Herodotus to Machiavelli, and "Arts of Freedom," a seminar that investigates questions of freedom in American politics.

In "Ancient and Early Modern Political Philosophy," we begin with the ancient world around the Mediterranean, considering the different political forms that arose in both the “east” and the “west” before turning to a closer study of the ancient Athenian democracy and its defenders and critics: advocates for democracy like the Pericles of Thucydides’ "Funeral Oration" as well as critics such as Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias. We’ll also consider how critics of Athens served or harmed the democracy, examining Socrates’ own activity through the lens of Plato’s Apology as well as Aristophanes’ satirical depiction of Socrates in Clouds.

After considering the transition from city-states to empire in the Greek world through our reading of Aristotle’s Politics, we turn to republican Rome to examine another political form as well as questions about leadership, rhetoric, gender, and freedom that arose within it. Influential as the Athenians were to founders of modern political regimes, it was most often as a negative examples; the Romans were much preferred, as testified by the American “Senate,” among other institutions. We’ll study early articulations of the virtues of the Roman Republic in Polybius and then turn to its most ardent defender, Cicero, who also anticipate the corruption that spelled its end. Plautus’s comedy, Capitivi, gives us a view of the structures of authority in their gendered inflection as Rome became an empire. The philosophical arguments of Epictetus, a slave in the empire, opens questions about the possibility of living well in an unjust world.

We conclude our journey across space and time by leaping forward to Renaissance Italy and Niccolo Machiavelli’s from Florence. Machiavelli stands as a pivot between the ancient concerns for virtue achieved through community and the creation of the modern state.

Click here for a draft of the "Ancients and Early Modern" syllabus (revisions pending).

In "Arts of Freedom," we begin with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) as a kind of invocation for the entire course. Rankine raises the question of what it means to be a citizen in the United States, a democracy that still prides itself on the freedom it promises yet also contains within it various modes of subjection and subordination: the powerlessness of the impoverished; continuing racial domination; and the highest per capita rate of imprisonment in the world. Rankine invokes these themes while also crafting an art of resistance in the poem itself, a stunning and powerful creative act against the broader structures she details. Rankine also serves to remind us of the personal and positional experiences of the broader theoretical and political questions that we will pursue in the course.

From Rankine we move backwards to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835 – 1840). A visiting observer of the early United States, Tocqueville famously saw Americans and the American democracy they had fashioned more clearly than they could see themselves. Reading Tocqueville will help us understand not just the promise of America but also particular American delusions, the simultaneous commitments to equality and liberty that also blind citizens to the exclusions and violence that these entail. Reading W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) will further illuminate the implications of these exclusions, in particular those of African Americans ostensibly freed after the Civil War but still living in the ruins of their subjection and enslavement. In the wake of Tocqueville and DuBois we will ask, along with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which brings Tocqueville’s and DuBois’s concerns to the present: What are the conditions of freedom today? What arts of freedom survive and where might they be located?

To begin to imagine contemporary arts of freedom we will again step back from the present moment to study the Freedom Struggle – what was later called the Civil Rights Movement – as it developed in the American South and inspired the Student Movement and Women’s Movement in the 1960s. Reading Charles Payne, Doug McAdam, and Sara Evans alongside primary texts, works of art, and songs from these movements we will try to theorize arts of freedom in different modes – political organization, consciousness raising, artistic creation, and so forth – as part of broader social movements. In the final stage of the course, we will then take our conceptual and theoretical lenses to analyze three recent movements that have laid claim to their own arts of freedom: Occupy, #blacklivesmatter, and prison abolitionism.

 Click here for a draft of my "Arts of Freedom" syllabus (revisions pending).

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Spring and Summer 2015 Recap

The spring was full: dynamic and energized students in both of my classes; senior theses to advise, some of them extraordinary; a trip to SUNY Oneonta to give a talk on liberal education; a trip to Las Vegas for the Western Political Science Association annual conference and a roundtable on What Would Socrates Do?; workshopping my latest paper on Herodotus with the terrific graduate students at Penn; serving as an external examiner for the Political Science Department at Swarthmore College; and meeting the outstanding students for the “360” I’ll teach in the fall entitled “Arts of Resistance,” with my course as one in a cluster of three courses organized around questions of silence, voice, and participation in institutions, with a special focus on schools and prisons. I’m out of breath!

Among the many good events, a few successes stand out: the acceptance of my essay on Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and the politics of literature by Theory & Event; the “official” launching of the Tri-Co Political Theory Workshop, which Paulina Ochoa-Espejo and I did by winning a $3000 Mellon Seed Grant to fund guest speaker visits and dinners; the publication of book reviews of Adam Sandel's The Place of Prejudice (in Contemporary Political Theory), of Matt Brim's James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination (in Theory & Event), and of David Branscome's Textual Rivals (in Polis); and, perhaps most importantly, the tangible sign of my students’ appreciation in our Hannah Arendt cake at the end of last semester. (Notice that it reads: “Happy Political Thinking Arendtians”!)

Now that the summer has begun, I’m concentrating on two facets of what I think will be a single project continuing where my DeLillo essay ends. I received a grant from the Center for Social Sciences at Bryn Mawr to read much more deeply into what I call “the politics of language,” studying some of the philosophies of language in modern political thought (e.g. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) but then devoting a good deal of time to Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell as well as their epigone and critics such as Bourdieu, Derrida, and Butler. (My syllabus was inspired by Jason Frank's "Politics and Language" course taught at Cornell in 2010.) I’m writing a contribution to a roundtable on “American Literature and Political Theory” for this fall’s APSA meeting that makes an argument for American poetry as oriented by what Adrienne Rich calls “the dream of a common language”; the politics of language allows me to elaborate what I mean by “a common language” and how it names a literary yet also political project that has received little attention (as far as I know) in political theory circles. At the APSA, I will elaborate this broader argument through a reading of Claudia Rankine’s brilliant book-length poem Citizen.

Alongside this reading and writing, I’ve devoted an enormous slice of my time to rereading all of Joan Didion’s books – five novels, seven works of non-fiction, and two memoirs in all – as I prepare an essay provisionally titled “Joan Didion and the Dream of a Common Language.” As I’m still finishing a complete draft of the essay, I’ll say only that I’ve learned an immense amount from Didion’s writing but I also think she comes up short, in a way, on the broader project of “the dream of a common language” that I’m trying to develop. How and why she does so is what makes reading her work so worthwhile.

As these two projects have progressed, I’ve filled the gaps with ongoing concerns as well as anticipatory excitements: writing on Herodotus as I craft fellowship proposals for the fall (since I still do intend to write this book on Herodotus next – and have a very good idea of what it will look like!); reading about prisons as well as a series of prison narratives and studies in preparation for my 360 cluster; and perusing literature that Didion names as formative for her own work as I try to learn how to read her more intelligently. This last project led me to the most sublime experience of the summer: reading Conrad’s Victory while gazing eastward across the Indian Ocean, supine on a lounge chair overlooking Diani Beach, Kenya.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review of David Branscome's Textual Rivals

My review of David Branscome's Textual Rivals has now appeared in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought. You can find a copy of my review here. Consider this another small step in my ongoing project on Herodotus as a political thinker!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Midsemester Reflections

I've nearly reached the midpoint of the winter/spring semester at Bryn Mawr and it's been a full and rewarding past two months. Students in both of my courses are bringing terrific energy and curiosity; it's also been a pleasure to get to know them through reading their writing, listening to their contributions, and meeting with them one-on-one. 

In the "Power and Resistance" course -- updated syllabus here -- we have analyzed power and violence through the lenses of Fanon and Arendt; examined the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri in light of these theories; and more recently considered power and exploitation in Appalachian mining communities as well as Foucault's theory of disciplinary power when applied (via Iris Marion Young) to pregnant mothers suffering from addiction. I've been deeply impressed by my students' maturity and insight when discussing (and disagreeing) about these heavy topics.

In the "On The Human Condition" course -- updated syllabus here -- we have now worked through Arendt's Between Past and Future as well as the first few sections of The Human Condition. Our weekly three hour meetings give us plenty of time to delve deeply into the recesses of Arendt's mind; we've also devoted a lot of time to considering how Arendt's book can inform contemporary political thinking about a variety of situations, from environmental sustainability to social media to political equality. I've found this return to one of the texts most formative for my own thinking entirely delightful; students' responses and questions have led me to new ideas and questions despite having had these arguments with me (or with myself) for over a decade. Next week we'll talk about "work"!

Much else has been afoot as I prepare two essays for presentation in March and April: a piece on Socrates, James Baldwin, and liberal education at SUNY Oneonta next month; and another stage of my Herodotus project -- this time on materialism -- at the Western Political Science Association conference in Las Vegas the month after. What Would Socrates Do? will also be the focus of a roundtable at that conference, so I've been fortifying myself for what I hope will be stimulating criticism!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

One Semester Later: Lessons Learned Teaching at Bryn Mawr

Teaching at Bryn Mawr College has finally given me a chance to experiment and reflect as a teacher across a relatively stable stretch of time. As a visiting professor at Carleton College, I never taught for more than two consecutive terms and at Deep Springs two factors conspired against more systematic improvement: I rarely had the chance to teach the same course again and the extremely small class size – I averaged around eight students per course – made it difficult to distinguish the effectiveness of my pedagogy from the changed dynamics or abilities of the students enrolled. At Bryn Mawr, however, I have the chance to teach courses repeatedly as well as larger and thus more consistent classes. This gives me a terrific opportunity to fine-tune my teaching in ways not previously possible.

After one semester at Bryn Mawr and seventeen students officially “taught,” it’s a little early to draw any strong conclusions about what I should change and why. But my participation this fall in the Teaching and Learning Institute’s Pedagogy Workshop, led by Alison Cook-Sather, provided a terrific space and set of resources (both in terms of research materials and, perhaps more importantly, in terms of interlocutors) to reconsider my teaching in the context of the BiCo. I present, then, some “lessons learned” as well as new strategies and tactics for teaching well as I continue to teach and grow in this wonderful learning community.

1. More structure for discussion. At Deep Springs I was accustomed to active and dynamic discussions. Students seemed to intuitively understand the value of learning from one another and the importance of collaboration for reaching insights that would not be possible in a professor-centered learning space. But this fall I found I needed to do more to explain and demonstrate why we would have discussions and what kinds of learning they can facilitate. Throughout the semester my consultant (a Haverford student who partnered with me in my TLI-sponsored activities) and I have experimented with different strategies for engaging students and helping them to understand what can come of collaborative rather than performative discussion. One especially effective strategy for this was the “silent discussion” – the first time I tried this students could hardly contain their excitement and were high-fiving with exhilaration. Here’s a description of the activity from the Teaching and Learning Institute:

Silent Board Discussion: After you give the instructions, there should be no talking out loud at all during this activity. Write a key term or statement on the blackboard and circle it.  Invite students to come up to the board and define/discuss the term by drawing lines out from the circle (like spokes from the center of a wheel), writing a response at the end of the spoke, and circling it. As responses are added to the board, students can draw lines out from those circled responses and “speak” to them. When students have finished writing, give them a few minutes to read what is up on the board.  Then talk out loud about it, referring to what people have written.

The first time I tried this activity, I followed this description but I noticed three issues: first, students still talked with one another; second, some students did not write anything; and third, some other students made their contributions and then retreated behind their laptops and checked out. To address these, I had students move all the chairs to create little theaters around each blackboard, instructed students that they must contribute at least once, and reminded students again of the “silent” part of the discussion. It worked even better: students actually responded to one another; by virtue of these responses they were able to build their ideas in new directions and toward new insights; every student, moreover, could see his/her/their contribution as part of a whole, covering the entire board.

Here are images of our silent discussions of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality:

2. More transparency. When I read over my midcourse evaluations I was surprised I found I could do more to inspire reflection among students about their learning. When a question asked students to list activities that were either effective or ineffective for their learning, students would respond with activities that they liked or disliked. When we discussed the evaluations together as a class, many students again voiced preferences based on what was convenient or comfortable without mentioning how these connected with actual learning. My consultant and I talked about how we might have another short evaluation that prompted more reflection. We devised a follow-up evaluation that included this question: “Why do you think that reflecting on your learning (and Professor Schlosser’s teaching) is relevant to studying political philosophy?” The responses were terrific! Here are a few:

I think it’s important because political philosophy is really a process, and has been for hundreds of years, of people sitting down with these ideas, taking them apart, and trying to apply them to politics. Reflecting on my learning helps me to focus on why it’s important to keep participating and asking questions.

Reflections allows people to pause and to see the bigger picture. I think that everybody, especially people in political philosophy, should reflect once in a while. For the class, it allows one to see where they come from, where they stand in terms of knowledge and understanding, and see where they want to head. 

I think reflecting on learning is exceptionally helpful for realizing what works best and what doesn't.  Before we reflected, I thought that everything in the class was going as best as it could (I still really enjoy the class and think it is run really well!) but it wasn't until students brought up their concerns that I realized that there is always room for improvement.

This is kind of a broad question but the obvious is that if it betters our understanding of the course material it's very relevant. Then there is working in a community to better the learning experience for everyone, and also education is an integral part of any state, as we have learned, and so thinking about the ways in which we learn best and work together is helpful in understanding the importance of education.

I think that reflecting in the way the class is being taught and run is an interesting parallel to how we're reflecting on how societies can be run in class, and I think this whole system of feedback is an interesting exercise in not taking the structure of things for granted and trying to optimize an experience for all parties involved.

I think it's not only relevant to studying political philosophy but to all disciplines. It helps me reflect on how I can learn more effectively.

When we talked about the results of these follow-up evaluations, I distributed copies of all of the students’ answers to this question and underscored a few. The students’ positive response suggested to me that they had understood why reflecting on their learning was not only relevant to the course but also the all of the learning they were doing in the BiCo.

3. Aligning pedagogy and evaluation. A discussion of aligning pedagogical strategies and assessment during the workshop this fall also led me to realize that I needed to undertake more systematic lesson planning. While I’ve always specified course objectives and tried to align class activities to achieve these objectives, I’ve not been especially detailed about the day-to-day class meetings and how these contribute to overarching goals. In other words, I’ve not really scrutinized what I ask students to do outside of class – reading and writing – and how this may or may not provide the most accurate measure of what they are learning and how well. My TLI-related reading and writing this fall has led me to seek more integrity in my course design and execution: tighter connections between what I want students to learn and what I have them do inside and outside the classroom; and more explicit and frequent connection between what they are learning and what I’m assessing them on. For next semester, I’m focusing on lesson planning as a way to create more integrity in my courses along these lines.

The challenge of lesson planning comes when I try to define my course goals. What exactly do I want to accomplish in this course? Too often I have unconsciously repeated my graduate training, assuming that the primary goal of a course is to convey complex information to students. Upon reflection, I can see that while conveying information is important, it’s not everything I wish to accomplish. Chapter 3 of Elizabeth Barkley’s Collaborative Learning Techniques helped me to consider my course goals by drawing three circles for prioritizing these goals: the outer circle of things worth being familiar with; the middle circle of “essential information”; and the inner circle of “enduring understandings.” Stepping back from all of the information I wanted (or felt obligated) to “cover,” I thought about what would be “enduring understanding”: what I most desire students to remember long after specific dates and names and concepts had faded into oblivion. Here’s what I wrote for my upcoming course on power and resistance:

  1. I want students to be aware of the complexity of power and power relationships.
  2. I want students to understand the diversity of modes of resistance and how power relationships change.
  3. I want students to reflect on their own experiences in the power structures characteristic of contemporary social and political reality.
  4. I want students to develop their own paths of change and empowerment for dealing with these power structures.

Simply making this list changed my thoughts on the course: I realized that half of my goals for “enduring understanding” asked for self-reflection and creation from students. I needed, therefore, to provide models within the readings as well as activities that prompted students to consider their social positions with respect to power structures and to prompt them to think creatively from within these positions. Ultimately, I had to balance introducing the complexity and diversity of power and resistance (Goals 1 and 2) with creating and holding space for students to use this knowledge to reflect on and change their own lives (Goals 3 and 4). With these overarching course goals in mind, it became much easier for me to break down what I considered as essential information – such as the specific theories we would treat as well as key variables for assessing political contexts – and as information worth being familiar with – such as where Saul Alinsky developed his model of relational organizing or how Foucault’s theory of power has influenced feminism. (You can find a draft of my syllabus for this course here. Scroll down towards the middle of the syllabus to see the writing projects I designed to combine analysis and reflection.)

4. Focusing on student learning (and not my teaching). Creating “enduring understanding” requires repetition; lesson planning helps not only to “fill time” efficiently but to build learning structures to reinforce enduring understanding from multiple vantage points and for different kinds of learners. If I’m concerned with helping students develop enduring understanding and not just remembering formulas in time for the test, I need to design class activities and evaluation around student learning more specifically. I found this Chronicle of Higher Education piece very helpful for its simple instructions for creating lesson plans to focus on student learning. The article discusses how Meagan Rodgers devised a lesson plan that lists the date of a particular class, the goals for that class, the assignment for the class meeting, and announcements (here’s an image from her website). This covers the left third of a sheet of paper. On the right two thirds, Rodgers uses sticky notes to order that day’s activities, allowing her to shift the order or even move an activity to another day. There’s a clear connection between goals on the left and variable activities on the right.

I made one small change to Rodgers’ method: I added a section for “Assessment.” This helpful piece from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching emphasized the importance of including strategies for checking student understanding. I tend to ask a lot of questions in my courses, but I don’t always plan my questions with my course goals in mind. If I think of every class as speaking to at least one of my “enduring understanding goals” while also have two or three items of “essential knowledge” as well as a half dozen or so things that students should be familiar with, then I can also evaluate these: by having students summarize the main points of a discussion; by asking students to write about how the new topic connects to the broader topics; by connecting our class activities to the larger writing projects for the course more explicitly. In other words, my assessment won’t always take place in a given course but I want to make sure that everything we do in class feeds into the course goals and that I’m measuring these course goals on the basis of what we’re doing together.

Going forward, I’m trying to map the first few weeks of my “Power” course using the lesson planning strategies described thus far. I have clarity about my overall course goals but developing specific goals for each meeting is more challenging: I’ve broken up the course into four sections, each of which will have its own set of general goals that incorporate the three levels of what I want students to learn; after this, I want to have specific goals for each class meeting and thus a series of templates (following my modified version of Meagan Rodgers’ model) that I can fill with activities appropriate to course goals.

With these goals laid out in advance, finding the right class activities will be much easier. Rather than just thinking about what will engage my students in the day or two before a class meeting, I will have a more focused question: What will help my students develop these specific skills? Right now my consultant and I are creating a list of all of the activities that I have used this semester and what kinds of thinking they develop. With these at hand, I can simply scan the list and pick what will work given my goals.

5. Clearer expectations (and explanations) from the start. As the new semester has begun at Bryn Mawr I've also sought to be clearer about course expectations from the beginning -- as well as to encourage continuing dialogue about these expectations as well as other aspects of the course. To accomplish this, I began both of my courses by distributing an "annotated syllabus," a syllabus to which I had appended comments with elaborations and translations. I explained to students that now they could begin to annotate the syllabus as I went over my various comments. After I had come to the end I gave them a chance to discuss with one another what remained unclear, what they wanted to change, and so forth. The results were rich: students could clarify the specifics of unfamiliar writing projects; check about readings; and offer corrections to minor mistakes. Above all else, I found that this activity elicited student collaboration, which helped them to begin to see themselves not as consumers but as creators of their learning -- and of our learning together. (Click here for the annotated syllabus from my seminar on Hannah Arendt.)

Of course, encouraging collaboration with students requires more than just this first day's exercise. At the end of our syllabus discussion I suggested that the syllabus remain provisional until the end of the next week when we would return to our annotations and make sure everyone liked the results. To continue this collaboration, I left some sections of class activities open and encouraged students to voice their preferences about how we might best use that time. The goal remains the same: fostering not just collaborative learning inside the classroom but collaborative reflection about the structure and substance of that learning. And it just so happens that this kind of thinking is, in my opinion, an essential political skill.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Spring Semester at Bryn Mawr

It does not feel like spring on this gelid afternoon at Bryn Mawr, but I've just completed drafts of syllabi for the new courses I'm teaching this spring semester: Power and Resistance, which looks at \ theories and practices of power in contemporary political life; and On The Human Condition, a seminar examining Hannah Arendt and political thinking. "New" is not completely right: both courses update courses I taught at Deep Springs College, although each has some substantial changes; I think I've improved these courses dramatically, but I'll have to wait and see how well they work. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the coming weeks. (I will post final versions of these syllabi under "Teaching" once I start the semester in a few weeks.)