My Philosophy of Teaching

Home Writing Politics Vita Teaching


Marc Stier


I. My Way of Teaching

II. Two Types of Courses

III. Other Teaching Activities

IV. What I Teach

Home | Teaching | Writing | Vita

Prefatory Note

In 1994, the members of the political science department at UNC Charlotte were asked to write a piece outlining their philosophy of teaching. This essay was meant to be the introduction to a Teaching Portfolio that would be used in the process of evaluating our performance as teachers. Thus this piece mainly discusses how I taught at UNC Charlotte. My style of teaching has not changed much since I came to Temple University in 1997, although I largely carry out my teaching in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple in one of the two styles I describe below. With the exception of two parenthetical remarks about teaching IH at Temple, I have not made any substantive revisions to this piece.


In this introduction to my teaching portfolio, I would like to make some general remarks about my aims in teaching and about how the courses I teach reflect these aims. These remarks are divided into four parts. In the first part I will discuss matters that apply to all of my courses. In the second part I will say something about the two different types of courses I teach and about some specific features of each of my courses. In the third part I discuss some of my extra-classroom teaching activities. In part four I turn from a discussion of how I teach to what I teach. I also talk a bit about the content of my courses have changed over time. This part should be read in conjunction with my syllabi. Elsewhere I discuss the consequences of my style of teaching for the student and peer evaluations I have received.

Let me make one prefatory remark. What I describe here is my own approach to teaching-or rather, approaches since, as I indicate below, I teach two types of courses which are somewhat different from one another. I do not intend to describe how I think everyone should teach. I am a pluralist about most things and especially about teaching. I do think that every university should have some faculty members who teach as I do. But I would not want my daughter to attend a university in which everyone taught as I do. There are many sound ways to teach. These ways attain different aims and are appropriate to different subject matters and to the varying personalities of different teachers and students. And these ways of teaching should be evaluated in terms appropriate to them. What follows, then, is an account of my own style of teaching and how it has developed.



I want to describe here the central aims I try to attain in all of all of my courses, in both political philosophy and American politics.

To Contents

Challenging The Best Students; Helping The Less Prepared and Motivated

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of teaching at UNCC is the wide range of ability, preparation and interest among our students. Each faculty member must make his or her own decision about how to deal with this. My own choice has been to direct my courses towards the very best students. My courses make the, often counterfactual, presupposition that all of my students are interested in and capable of fundamental and far reaching reflections about political and social life. That does not mean that I ignore students who do not meet this standard. None of my courses presuppose very much background in the subject matter. I initially present material in the most elementary fashion and I frequently summarize the conclusions we have reached. As I indicate in Part II, I have developed various techniques to make complicated and difficult ideas accessible to my students. Moreover, I take pains to motivate my students by showing how abstract theoretical ideas about politics have implications for our day to day lives.

How, then, are my courses oriented to the best students? In three ways. First, in addition to presenting broad conclusions and some of the reasons for them, I try to present detailed arguments for the claims I make. The depth and detail with which I present my own views or those of the classic political philosophers whose texts I interpret is not very different from that found in the most advanced graduate seminar. As a result, in each class, there are moments in which all but the best students feel a little confused or lost. The other students will, I hope, have a general sense of what is going on and will be able to state and understand some of the conclusions I present. But they will not be able to grasp all of the subtle twists and turns of the arguments we are discussing.

Second, I very rarely present one view. In courses on American politics, I present conflicting views of the way our political institutions and practices do and should function. In courses on public policy I present a broad range of views about what problems should be addressed by government action and about what policies might best deal with these problems. In courses that deal with classic texts, I often point to plausible interpretations contrary to the ones I favor. And I choose texts that take very different views of a good polity and society. Most of my problem oriented courses, such as Politics and Reason and Democracy, are organized in a dialectical format in which I present in some detail two or three different views before coming, in the last few weeks of the course, to my own. Students often find this confusing. In Modern Political Philosophy they first think that I am a Machiavellian, then wonder if I support Locke's views and then think that I may be a Rousseauian or a Marxist before, in the last class session, I suggest that, on my view, there are serious problems with as well as something to be learned from the work of all of these philosophers. In Politics and Reason, students often ask whether I am "merely presenting" or "defending" the naturalist and interpretavist views I later criticize. Students who expect to be told the truth and nothing but the truth about politics and society are sometimes frustrated by the range of possible views I present and, even more, by the good arguments they learn for each of them. I try to make it difficult for students to conclude that one view-even my own-is obviously correct and the others obviously wrong.

Along the way, I try to show students that many of our conventional ideas about political and social life are questionable. I am not reluctant to challenge sacred cows of all sorts, including my own. At a time in which oversensitivity to slights is rampant and everyone in academia seems to be carrying not chips but logs on their shoulders, I am sure my style occasionally discomforts or upsets some students. But that, too, is something that cannot be avoided if one is to take political and social ideas seriously. Most of my students recognize that my aim is to get them to think matters through for themselves and that I am as non-partisan as I can be in challenging them.

Finally, all but the best students are sometimes confused by my willingness to try out new ideas in class by recasting or rejecting notions we had already developed or by heading off in an entirely new direction. I improvise and experiment in class and always hope that each class session will lead me, and my students, to some ideas that we did not have before. I do not just teach political philosophy but try to do political philosophy in front of my students. To adapt a favorite saying of Miles Davis, I try to teach more than I knew before I entered the classroom.

I would certainly not claim that this is the only or necessarily the best way to teach. There is something to be said for methods of teaching that try not to confuse students, that explicitly tell students what they need to know while avoiding unnecessary details and that attempt to bring everyone along all of the time. As I have indicated, my approach may be frustrating for some students who are interested more in conclusions than the reasons for them, do not want alternative views to consider, and who certainly do not want to see their teacher confused. That I teach in this way, however, seems to me to fit the primary subject matter of my teaching, political philosophy as well as my own inclinations, And, at the same time, this style does teach students something that they cannot learn in other kinds of courses. Let me start with this last point.

Most of the time, our aim as teachers is not just to impart information but to train our students in a style or mode of thought. In order to accomplish the latter task, our students need to be pushed beyond their inclination to merely assimilate information and repeat it to us on examinations. And there is no way to do this except by taking them through the process of reasoning that leads to one or another conclusion. We have to force them to recognize that there typically are a variety of plausible views about difficult and complicated matters and that our conclusions are only as good as the arguments for them. In addition, if this kind of education is to be more than a simulacra of real intellectual activity, it is useful for students to see their teachers engaged in serious and difficult thought. This is one of the best ways to learn that intellectual accomplishment is difficult and is always accompanied by mistakes and false starts, as well as uncertainty and turmoil. This kind of experience is, as I have indicated, difficult for many of our students, not only because it is intrinsically difficult but because so much of their previous education has lead them to expect pat answers to every question. But it also does a great deal to encourage them. Only by engaging in serious intellectual activity can students experience the joy that accompanies it. My style of teaching undoubtedly loses some students along the way. But I have little doubt that it also inspires and motivates many students who would otherwise never understand what serious intellectual activity amounts too and why it is so much fun.

The nature of the subject matter of many of my courses-political philosophy-also makes my style of teaching appropriate. (This actually goes for my courses on American political institutions and practices since these courses tend to be more theoretical course than the typical American Politics course. And it is true for Politics and Film as well since this courses is, in large part, an effort to explore American Political thought by means of the study of films). However one teaches political philosophy, there is no question that it is one of the most conceptually difficult parts of the political and social sciences. Political philosophy challenges us to make explicit, and then revise, our implicit understanding of the nature of human beings and political and social life. It confronts us with alternatives to our deepest assumptions about what political and social life is all about and about what is good and right. To truly get the benefit of political philosophy, one must take these challenges seriously. To read the great works of political philosophy as if they were mere cultural artifacts of the past-to fail to take seriously the possibility that they may be, in whole or part, true-is to lose any chance for these books to teach us about our own lives. A course in political philosophy that tries to teach the conclusions of the different political philosophers without examining the arguments they give for these conclusions, or one that gives superficial accounts of the nature of their thought is, I think, worse than no course in political philosophy. For it leads students to conclude that there are no better or worse ways to understand the fundamental nature and best form of political and social life. It trivializes some of the most important questions we can ask by offering students a smorgasbord of pat answers and leaving the impression that no one answer is better than any others. (That, by the way, is why I almost never use text books in my political philosophy classes.) The only way to avoid this is to delve into both the classic texts and contemporary works in search of not just conclusions but elaborate, detailed argument for them. And then one has to compare and contrast the different arguments for these varying conclusions in some depth.

My style of teaching is appropriate for courses in American politics and political philosophy courses for another reason. I follow Aristotle in holding that politics is not a subject in which there is one truth that can be applied in all times and places. That is not to say that there isn't right and wrong in this field. I do think that it is possible to rationally defend one view of how our political system works over another. And I also think that we can rationally defend a vision of the ideal form of political and social life and a true conception of morality. Rather, Aristotle's claim is that our view of how politics works and what we should do in a particular case must be guided not just by broad theoretical propositions but also by our judgments about the particular case. The conclusions of political and social inquiry, of both the explanatory and evaluative type, hold in most circumstances and for the most part. And there is no one best way to realize our view of the best polity and society. Rather we need good political judgment in order to determine the best path to follow in a particular case. And good judgment requires that we grasp the various advantages and disadvantages of political institutions and practices in difference circumstances. That is one reason there is a continuity, rather than a sharp break, between evaluative and explanatory issues. A comparative view of different political systems (and different political philosophies) allows us to recognize that different kinds of political and social institutions and practices are appropriate in different circumstances. This lesson has, of course, implications for courses that deal with institutions as well as with ideas. Thus my course on the Congress focuses not just on how Congress works today but also on how it has worked in the past and might work in the future. My analysis of the different ways that a legislature can be organized is, in turn, shaped by my account of how political institutions should be organized on the different views of the primary aim of democracy.(1)

Each of us must teach in ways appropriate to our own personality and concerns. The final reason I teach as I do is that I enjoy the challenge of pushing myself to an ever deeper understanding of our political and social life and because I find it stimulating to have to think on my feet. Moreover, this kind of teaching very much contributes to my own research. All of my courses are related, in one way or another, to my research and, in particular, to the book I have recently completed, Politics and Reason. This book is a broad analysis of contemporary political philosophy and the philosophy of political and social science. Not only does material from this book make up most of my lectures in the course with the same name, but large parts of what I teach in Democracy, Psychoanalysis and Politics and even The Congress are drawn from this book or from my next book, Democracy. And my seminar courses on the history of political philosophy focus on the classic texts that I give special attention to in my research.

To Contents

An Emphasis on Writing

A second important feature of my teaching is the great emphasis I give to writing. I am no stickler about grammatical niceties or about spelling. (Thomas Jefferson, who lived before Webster, once said that he would not trust anyone who could only spell a word in one way.) But I do insist that my students write clearly and precisely, that they make sound arguments, and that they organize their work. Writing well, as I see it, is fundamentally a matter of thinking well.

All of my students write essay examinations and two or three papers. Even when I taught 130 students in Politics and Film, I required essay exams. I also spend a great deal of time correcting papers and examinations. I believe that there are no shortcut methods for helping our students learn to think clearly and express themselves well. This effort requires painstaking attention to their ideas and their modes of expressing them. As the copies of my comments on some student papers found elsewhere in this teaching portfolio indicate, students can usually expect to receive from me a page or two of single spaced typed comments on both their papers and exams.(2)

To Contents

An Informal and Concrete Approach to Political Ideas

A third feature of my approach to teaching is that I try to be very informal in class. I tell lots of jokes and stories and encourage students to do the same. I sometimes put on and tease my students and play along when they do the same to me. I take political philosophy, but not myself, seriously.

Connected to this informality are my efforts to relate the philosophical, political and moral ideas to contemporary situations and circumstances that my students are likely to be knowledgeable and concerned about. In doing so, I try to find examples that are likely to be entertaining. So I explain the notion of a communal goods by talking about Madonna concerts; clarify Plato's understanding of the role of comedy and tragedy in life by talking about why Lucille Ball often makes us uncomfortable; elucidate Machiavelli's understanding of the role of accusations in political life by talking not just about negative campaign advertising but about how freedom of speech for Jay Leno's attacks on the Presidents acts as a safety valve for popular dislike of government; and talk about the constitutive role of language by comparing the abilities of my cat, Theo, to those of my daughter, Katja, when she was 2.

In teaching this way I, first of all, want my classes to be not just approachable but fun, exciting and exhilarating. My aim-only rarely attained-is for my students to leave my classroom dancing. But I have other aims as well. There is a great deal of doubt about intellectual life in America. Given their practical benefits, we are tremendously respectful of the sciences and technology-although we are inclined to think of scientists and engineers as just a little bit out of touch with other aspects of the world. But we have little tolerance for reflective thought about the ends of life, that is, about of ideals and values. And we certainly find it hard to believe that people who wrote books over 2000 years ago could have much to tell us about what is important to life.

One way to overcome these sentiments is by showing that thinking about our political life and the ideas that underlie it can help us understand our own life and the difficulties we find in it. I try to show my students how a little bit of reflection can help them understand what is important to them and how to deal with issues that are raised in all of our lives. Moreover, I try to show them that this sort of reflection is, itself, a good thing. Our students often think that to take philosophical ideas seriously or to try to understand political life rather than engage in it makes one not only a stuffed shirt but someone incapable of appreciating, let alone dealing with, the wide variety of human beings, with their multitude of different ends. In my own approach to teaching American politics and political philosophy, I try to show them that this is precisely the opposite of the truth. Thinking about human nature and the human good in a serious way, and considering alternatives to our political institutions and practices, keeps one from being a stuffed shirt because serious thought gives us some ironic distance on our own lives and makes us aware of human foibles and dilemmas, including our own. At the same time, it leads us to try to understand the varieties of people and activities around us. The study of politics teaches us that we cannot understand life unless we grasps its tragic and comic dimensions and how close they sometimes are to each other. That recognition enriches our response to every day events and to our fellow human beings.

To Contents

A Broad Range of Courses

I have taught twelve or so different courses during my career at UNCC (and about eighteen or so total, including those I taught before I came here). My courses draw on most areas of political science as well as a range of other disciplines. I teach courses on the history of political philosophy from Plato to Socrates, on American political thought, on contemporary political philosophy and the philosophy of social science, on American political institutions and practices and those of the other liberal democracies, on research methodology and on politics and film. Since coming to Temple University I have taught the the two Great Books courses that make up our Intellectual Heritage program and I have also taught English Composition. My courses on contemporary political philosophy include not just substantial analyses of the contemporary politics of the United States and the other liberal democracies, but also a great deal of material that could be taught in other disciplines. Politics and Reason draws upon contemporary metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of language while Psychoanalysis and Politics draws upon material from contemporary psychology. And I am developing a new course, entitled Representations, that will compare the understanding of the notion of representation found in the philosophy, political theory and paintings of the last 300 years. I do not think that there are many other academics interested and willing to teach such a range of courses. In particular, there are not that many political philosophers who would not only teach a course in research methods, but do so in a way acceptable to the scholars in the other sub-disciplines of political science.

I have and continue to teach courses that meet a variety of General Education goals, including courses that meet that writing intensive (W) values (V), arts and ideas (A), literature and ideas (L) and individual, society and cultures (C) goals. I have taught courses in the Women's Studies program and in the Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program. A student could meet almost all of their general education courses-with the exception of those in the natural sciences and math-without leaving one of my classrooms. (And I have taught courses on statistics at other universities that would meet the math requirement at UNCC.)

My colleagues have often wondered why I teach so many different courses. The reason is not just that I like variety-although I do-but that my research is unusually broad. I teach different courses to tie my research and teaching closer together. This has not only made my courses better but has also very much contributed to the development of my research.

The tie between my research and teaching is true for my film course as well. One reason I began to teach the film courses was that my research on interpretation and about the role of language in constituting our political and social life had led me to raise questions about the languages of art. My study of film style has influenced what I write in chapter 2 of my book Discovery or Invention? . And it has also given me a number of excellent examples of different individual and political and social phenomena that I use in the book.

To Contents

Technological Innovation

I have been one of the leaders at UNCC in using various new technologies in my courses. As I will describe in part II below, in my lecture courses, I use computer generated transparencies to outline my lectures and also use the computer to prepare copies of these transparencies for my students. These transparencies, as well as  lectures notes, summaries of class discussion, and paper and examination topics all appear on my World Wide Web site. I was one of the first faculty members to encourage students to hand their papers in to me on floppy disks. This has enabled me to do a much better job in commenting on student papers and in showing students how to revise and improve their work. I have been working in the last few years to develop a computerized textbook for my course Politics and Reason. This semester over half of the students are using the computerized version. Soon they will be using a hypertext version of my book that is available on the Web. I have received a CID grant to complete this project.

I have also received a number of CID grants to develop the Political Science Data and Graphics Archive. This archive contains computerized data files along with charts and tables based on these data. At the moment it includes over 160 data sets. Another 100 or so will be entered into the system in the next year. I have made the data, charts and tables accessible to other faculty members by means of a loose leaf note book containing hard copy and transparency versions of the charts and tables as well as floppy disks containing the computer files. I am currently finishing a computerized system for indexing and presenting the data in the archive. With this system, faculty members with little or no computer experience will be able to find the data they want, print a chart or table on paper or a transparency or display the chart or table to our students on a large screen monitor. Ultimately, my aim is to have this system in front of me whenever I teach a course in which I make reference to political, social and economic data. Then, when some question comes up which calls for examination of one of the data sets, it should take no more than half a minute to find the right data and project it on the monitor. Once our classrooms contain computers tied to the campus network, all members of the faculty should be able to do this.

To Contents

The Demands of My Way of Teaching

My way of teaching is very demanding because I teach a range of courses, because my courses continually evolve and change, and because I put so much effort into correcting the essays and exams of students. In addition, the difficult nature of my courses means that I spend a great deal of time with students outside of class. In addition to meetings with individual students, I encourage students to form study groups and regularly meet two or three times with three or four study groups before each exam. The results of all this effort have, I believe, been worth it for my students. And I know they have been worth it for me.

To Contents



In this part, I would like to discuss in a little more depth the style and approach of the two different kinds of courses I teach.

First Type: Seminars

Some of my courses—Constitutional Law; Law, Justice and Morality / Civil Liberties; Ancient Political Philosophy; Modern Political Philosophy; American Political Thought; Body and Soul; Psychoanalysis and Politics and Politics and Film are run as seminars. (I teach Intellectual Heritage courses at Temple University in essentially the same way.) Class sessions consist almost entirely of discussions in which our aims is to interpret some text or film. In these courses I usually sit down at a table in front of my students and lead them through the texts. (Students read these texts in great detail and at least three times: before class, during class, and while preparing papers and exams.) Our discussions are not free for alls. I work through the text with my students. When first approaching a text, I avoid generalities of all sorts. I also try not to look to far ahead. I ask them (and often, they ask each other) focused questions that are meant to elucidate the meaning or meanings of particular passages. As time goes by, we do try to put these passages together. And this, of course, involves considerable re-thinking and reevaluation of the conclusions we have already reached. At the same time, we come to recognize that sometimes there are different, plausible, ways in which these passages can be understood and thus different, plausible, ways of reading the text as a whole. At the same time, I insist that there are many more incompetent ways of reading the text. And in many-though perhaps not all cases-there may good reasons for judging one plausible interpretation better than another.

Socratic discussions is the best way I know to work through an argument with students in detail and to encourage an appreciation of the joy of creating and understanding such arguments. But it is difficult to work through complicated texts quickly. So, in these courses, I generally focus on just a few texts. In the two courses on the history of political philosophy, I do always not try to cover all the classics, from Plato to Nietzsche. This has its problems, in that I certainly think it is useful for students to have a broad understanding of this history. To some extent I try to provide it in Politics and Reason.

(Given the long syllabus in Temple University's Intellectual Heritage courses, it is impossible to devote as much time to each text as I did in my seminar courses at UNCC. The only solution to this difficulty is to be quite focused on certain themes in a large number of texts. I try to focus the attention of students on certain passages in the texts which we examine in great detail. In order for a course of this sort to work, however, there must be some consistent theme carried through from the beginning of the course to the end. Otherwise, the course degenerates into an haphazard collection of materials. In the IH 51, my focus is on ethics and fortune. I ask my students to think about the different understandings of what an ethical life is, why we should live such a life, and the extent to which such a life makes for human well being either in this or the next world. In IH 52, my focus is on the tension between the bourgeois life and economic prosperity of Lockean liberalism and the romantic demand for self-expression.  I try to show our students how Marx hoped to combine these two ideals, Freud tried to show why they could not be combined and Gandhi called them both into question. While these themes are the pegs on which the different parts of the course rest, they do not dominate our discussions, which are focused on the individual texts. Rather than being a grid brought to the texts, these themes--along with many subsidiary themes--emerge from our discussions.)

There are frustrations in teaching a course of this kind. Dennis Dorin once remarked in a department meeting that, because he uses the Socratic method, students who are used to lectures sometimes think that his teaching is disorganized and that he is unprepared for class. That is true for me as well. Students fail to recognize just how much more difficult it is to teach in this style and how much more prepared and organized one has to be in order for class discussions to go well. There are other features of these courses that are occasionally frustrating for students. We often examine alternate interpretations of the classic texts and of the movies in my film course. And we sometimes change our minds as we delve deeper into texts. In addition, some of the texts-in particular those I teach in Body and Soul and Psychoanalysis and Politics-raise issues that are disturbing and troubling to students, most of whom are not very well acquainted with the tragic dimensions of life.

Students are typically required to write two or three papers in these courses. (I have sometimes offered them the option of taking an in class essay examination, but for very good reason, they infrequently choose to take this option.) Students do not write research papers but interpretative works that show how a political philosopher answers a particular question and how this answer rests on his or her political philosophy as a whole.

To make these courses more accessible and welcoming to students I occasionally stop and give a brief lecture (of no more than 10 minutes) summarizing where our discussion has gone. (I never do this in advance of the discussion, however.) I frequently ask students to refer back and forth from one text to a students, helping them to learn to compare and contrast different ways of thought. I welcome questions of all kinds, both in and outside of class. Students are given the opportunity to revise and rewrite their papers. And I try to keep students focused on the concrete implications of the philosophical ideas we study for their own lives.

In addition to my efforts in class, I also prepare lengthy outlines of the arguments we have discussed in classes and put these on my web site. I discourage students from looking at these materials until after class discussion. But they are a very good way for students to review and organize the material we have discussed. And sometimes it allows me to give students another perspective on that material. Every semester, a few students think that they can skip class and just read the notes. They learn better after the first examination. These notes are summaries of our discussions and thus of the particular intepretations we have come to in class  (I revise them to some extent from year to year.) Thus the notes are difficult to understand if a student has not first taken part in our class discussions.

As a result of these efforts, I think that I help all interested students gain at least a minimal grasp of the thought of the texts we study. And many students are really awakened by these courses. They learn to read and think in ways they have not done before. They gain a new respect for how our lives can be changed by books. And they come to think seriously about what kinds of lives they want to live.

To Contents

Second Type: Lectures with Discussion

My courses Introduction to American Politics; The Congress; Politics and Reason; Democracy; Politics, Economic and Justice; Public Opinion; Parties, Interest Groups and Elections / Comparative Political Behavior; Equality and Social Welfare Policy; and The Politics of Criminal Justice are, in part, lecture courses in which I present my own ideas and theories. (When I teach Research Methods, I also adopt this approach.) In these classes I stand up and, for about half of each class session, lecture. I present material that I have developed in my books and papers and also, as I indicated in Part I, try to expand on this material in new ways. I do not lecture straight through the hour, however. I frequently stop for questions and comments. And I often ask students questions as a means of making one of my points. Quite often-at least twice a class session-this leads to an extended period of discussion although I try to keep the discussion focused on the main topic of my lecture.

I lecture in these courses for three reasons. First, the material I want to discuss with the students has not been published and is usually not available for them to read. Or, in the case of Politics and Reason, the material I want to discuss is relatively technical or specialized and thus is difficult for students to grasp without some initial overview. Second, central to these courses are my efforts to present a wide range of ideas that I then compare and contrast. Thus, in the Democracy course, I present two broad conceptions of democracy, liberal and participatory; five dimensions on which liberal democracies vary; two broad arguments for participatory democracy; and, at the end of the course, my own view which tries to bring liberal and participatory democracy together. The leisurely pace of one of my seminars at UNCC would simply not allow me to cover so much ground.

Of course, it is possible for a seminar to move much more quickly and cover more texts than mine typically do at UNCC. Moreover new, technical and specialized ideas can be discussed in a seminar style class if the students are willing and able to do a substantial amount of the work themselves, by reading a great deal and frequently writing about what they have read. Thus, quite frankly, the third reason I lecture in these courses is that most students at UNCC are not willing-and some are not able-to do the intensive work that would allow a seminar course to cover as much ground as I do in these courses. I have taught the material in these courses in a seminar format elsewhere. I did this when I was a teaching fellow at Harvard. And I also did it when I taught at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks. It was possible to teach this second kind of course in a seminar format at UAF because classes there generally had less than ten students. In addition, substantially more time was spent in class--and, because UAF was a residential campus, in discussions outside class--than is true at UNCC. Moreover,  the political science department was fairly small at UAF and our majors tended to be somewhat more intellectually engaged than political science majors at UNCC. I would very much prefer to dispense with lectures and teach all of my courses in a seminar format. But I see no way to do this under the circumstances in which we usually work at UNCC. (Occasionally, however, when class sizes drop and students seems especially eager, I do substantially reduce the time devoted to lectures in these classes.)

Whether they are taught as lecture or as seminars, these courses cover more ground than my courses that focus on relatively few books or on Supreme Court opinions.. Thus, to some extent, I must give up the intricate attention to the detail of arguments that is found in the first type of course I teach. Still, I do present fairly detailed arguments in these courses and, what is more, I do so very quickly. I have developed a number of techniques to help make this type of course accessible to students. Most importantly, I outline my lectures with transparencies for an overhead projector. And I give students a copy of these transparencies in outline format. (These outlines can be found in my teaching portfolio and at my web home page.)

In most of the courses of this type, such as Introduction to American Politics, The Congress and Democracy, I also use a wide range of graphs and tables to buttress my arguments and to serve as a point of discussion. In others, such as Politics and Reason, I supplement the outlines of the lectures with a number of handouts that summarize the argument I present in a detailed and comparative form. (Of course, the data found in the graphs and tables I make for The Congress and Democracy are useful stimulants of class discussion when I present these courses in a seminar format.)

This approach helps me to organize my lectures and helps students organize their note-taking. And it also gives students material to take home and study. The result, I think, is that my lectures challenge the best students while enabling even the less prepared and motivated students to grasp the main lines of the arguments I present.

Students in these courses take examinations or write papers which ask them to compare, apply and critically evaluate the material I have presented in lectures. Students also have the option to write longer research papers which apply the material in a more original way. Students in The Congress course write papers that use original research into congressional documents to trace how a bill becomes law. Students in Democracy have written papers that show how ideas of participatory democracy can or have been used in local governments and corporations (In some cases, this research paper is a requirement. As teaching loads have gotten heavier, however, it has become more difficult to assign these papers, since they require almost weekly or bi-weekly meetings with each student. I am trying to balance the various demands of my different courses in a way that will enable me to institute this requirement in all of my courses in the future.)

One lecture course I give is different from the others: research methods. Political scientists at other institutions sometimes find it surprising that, even though I teach political theory, I not only teach research methods but was put in charge of revising this course at UNC Charlotte. But I received graduate training in advanced multivariate statistical analysis. And my interests in both the philosophy of social science and empirical research in political science make it exciting for me to teach in this area. In reworking this course, I added substantially to the lab manual and revised the rest, wrote a new guide for research designs, and developed a new set of class room exercises. I also modified the content of the course in a number of ways. I revised the philosophical background of the course, replacing 1950s style positivist epistemology with a more pragmatic approach. I also added some discussion of the interpretative elements of the political and social science. These philosophical revisions helped me attain another aim, to put qualitative approaches to political and social research on the same footing as quantitative approaches. I have tried not to skimp on instruction in statistics. But, at the same time, I have focused more on such non-quantitative research methods as the close reading of texts; in-depth interviewing; participant-observation; and the like. I have not taught this course for a number of years but I will probably do so again in the near future. When I teach the course again, I plan to create transparencies and outlines of my lectures as I do in the other courses described in this section.

To Contents



My main efforts in teaching have focused on my courses. But I have pursued other teaching activities as well. I have made a number of off campus presentations and have served on the committee on teaching excellence. I spend a great deal of time advising students, whether I am their formal advisor or not. In recent years I have found myself writing twenty or so letters of recommendation a year. A large number of students are brought to my door by their reading of the pamphlet I wrote for the department Graduate School and Career Opportunities for Political Science Majors. As I mentioned above, I have developed a Political Science Data and Graphics Archive.

I have also continued to advise a number of senior theses in a number of different fields that use a great variety of methods. In the last few years I have advised a political theory thesis on Aristotle's Ethics and another on the work of Simone de Beauvoir; a thesis on attitudes towards the Holocaust that conducted a statistical analysis of an original survey; a philosophy thesis on Fred Dretske's conception of reference in language; another philosophy thesis on the political implications of Richard Rorty's metaphysical and epistemological views, a comparative politics thesis on the status of women in third world countries that have had leftist revolutions; a thesis on the political theory found in the plays and prose of Vaclav Havel as well as others.

To Contents



While I have focused in this essay on my teaching style, I should say a word about what I teach.

Political Philosophy

There are at least five good reasons to read the classic and contemporary texts of political philosophy. Each such reason controls how we read and teach these books. 1) We might read them in order to understand the ideas that have shaped human life in different times and places. Thus one way to understand our own lives is to read the books that originated the ideas we live by. 2) We might read these texts in order to understand how their authors were responding to or were influenced by the political and social conflicts of their own time. 3) We might read classic books in order to understand how their authors were responding to or were influenced by previous writers on politics. 4) We might read them because we hope to learn some important truths about political and social life. 5) We might read great books because it is enjoyable to see great minds work out fascinating ideas and present them in a rhetorically effective way. I try to read the history of political philosophy with all of these aims in mind. But, for me, the aim to which all the others are subordinated is 4): I want to learn what these books can teach me and my students about who should rule and to what ends. My main effort then is to explore what these texts can teach us about political and social life in general and in our own time and place. Thus I presuppose that it is possible to learn something of enduring value from books that have been written many years ago. And I also presuppose that we can reach rational conclusions about the good and the right. I do not make these presuppositions in a dogmatic manner. Indeed, I teach many texts that call these presuppositions into question. But, we must start with at least an open mind about these presupposition if we hope to learn from these texts. If, on the other hand, we start with historicist or relativist presuppositions, then we can only read old works of political philosophy with the concerns of the intellectual historian in mind. (And we can only read contemporary works of political philosophy as expressions of an interested or ideological position.)

By the same token, we must begin reading these books with the assumption that their authors have good reasons for the conclusions they reach. But, we must also acknowledge that writers are not in total control over their own ideas and not always rights. (Indeed, since the authors of the classic texts books disagree about so many things, they cannot all be right.) So, at time, I will try to reconstruct the argument of these texts in ways that helps us see in them truths that their authors may not have been able to express in their most powerful form. And I also compare and contrast the claims of the great political philosophers, testing them against each other and our own experience of political and social life.

My approach in teaching contemporary political philosophy is not very different from that I employ in teaching the classic texts. Again, the pursuit of the truth-if it exists-is my main objective. There are three further, and distinctive, features of my courses in contemporary political philosophy. First, I always study the works of contemporary writers in the context of previous work in the history of political philosophy. Thus I try to show my students how contemporary work is a response to, development of, or, in some cases, a rejection of the ideas of previous political thinkers.

Second, my courses attempt to break down the barriers between explanatory and evaluative work in political theory. In both my research and teaching, I have been trying to overcome the unfortunate tendency in contemporary political philosophy to deal with a very restricted range of issues. It is certainly important to talk about our what rights we have and what principles of distributive justices should regulate our economic life, as contemporary political philosophers typically do. But it is as important to discuss questions about the common good raised by our contemporary debates about citizenship; education; crime; the environment; relationships between men and women and the family; and work. It is astonishing that so many people who call themselves political philosophers ignore these issues most of the time. It is also important to move from general questions about liberty and distributive justice to a more detailed examination of institutions and practices. For I reject the notion that it is the job of political philosophers to settle on some abstract principles and then let other political and social scientists devise institutions and policies. This view makes two mistaken assumptions. Its supposes, first, the we can define abstract rights apart from any detailed account of the good of human beings in general or in a particular time and place. And it supposes, second, that we can draw a hard and fast line between ends and means in political life. But, there are often good intrinsic reasons to live under one or another kind of government or to work within political and social institutions and practices of a certain type. Thus decisions about implementing a particular public policy or designing a particular institution cannot be separated from the broadest questions about how we would like to organize our political and social institutions and practices as a whole.

In order to address these issues, my courses in contemporary political philosophy must range far beyond the kinds of material usually found in courses of this sort. For I have to continuously take into account what contemporary political and social scientists have learned about the different aspects of our political and social life. Thus, in two of these courses-Democracy and Politics, Economics and Justice-I draw upon classic and contemporary texts in political philosophy and contemporary studies of political and social life in America and in the other Western liberal democracies. In another course, Body and Soul, I consider some of the questions brought into prominence by contemporary feminist theorists in light of both how these same issues were addressed by Plato and Rousseau. I address many of these same issues from another perspective in my course on Feminist Political Thought, which considers a wide range of writings, from feminist (and anti-feminist) tracts to theoretical works to empirical studies of the place of women in contemporary life. In Psychoanalysis and Politics I explore what the theoretical writings of Freud and more recent writers in the tradition of psychodynamic psychology can teach us about our political and social life. Anew course I am developing, Multiculturalism and Pluralism, will consider a wide range of work, including books and essays by of contemporary philosophers, sociologists, educators and literary critics. Law, Justice and Morality addresses contemporary political dispute involving our rights and liberties from the point of view of constitutional law and moral philosophy. It also draw upon the research I have done with Saul Brenner of UNCC on the relationship between jurisprudential and empirical accounts of judicial decisionmaking. The Theory of the Just War considers classic and contemporary work on both ethics and international relations.

Besides allowing me to address the kinds of important issues political philosophers have begun to neglect, another great advantage of the approach I take is that my courses show the continuity between political theory and the other sub-fields of political science. Political theorists often feel isolated from much else that goes on in political science departments. Some of the fault for this unfortunate divide does rests with political scientists who insist that their explanatory studies are entirely independent of any evaluative implications. But, on my view, even more of the fault rests with political theorists who have been unwilling to address the issues of importance to their colleagues (and the rest of the world) and who have not realized what they can learn from contemporary explanatory studies of political and social life. I am happy to say that, in large part because of my view of political philosophy, I have never felt isolated from any of my colleagues in the political science departments in which I have worked.

Third, my courses in contemporary political theory all present my own ideas. As I mentioned above, they are typically organized in a dialectical format in which I present two or three different views before presenting my own, which usually synthesizes the alternatives. As is usually the case in a good synthesis, my views transcend the alternatives I have presented by rejecting some of the presuppositions they share. I try very hard to make the best case I can for all of the contenders. If my views seem most plausible to my students at the end of the course-they don't always-it is not because I have stacked the deck in my favor.

Finally, a special feature of all of my courses in political philosophy is that I am very interested in the philosophical presuppositions of political and moral thought. This, of course, reflects my research interests, which in turn, results from my belief that questions of political and moral philosophy are intertwined with questions of metaphysics and epistemology. This is true in two ways. On the one hand, political and moral philosophers often defend their views by claiming that, given the nature of knowledge, we cannot rationally make certain political or moral claims or we must accept certain moral presuppositions. On the other hand, political and moral arguments often presuppose a particular picture of the nature of human action and human ends. Given my focus on philosophical matters, my courses on the history of political philosophy delve much more deeply into the metaphysical or epistemological of the political philosophers than the typical course. And, similarly, my courses on contemporary political philosophy pay a great deal attention to current disputes about philosophical issues. Moreover, my course Politics and Reason deals entirely with fundamental issues concerning the nature of and relationship between political and social explanation and moral evaluation. This course draws upon the philosophy of social sciences and contemporary moral philosophy while introducing students to some of the leading issues in contemporary political philosophy.

To Contents

American and Comparative Politics

I began my career as an Americanist and continue to enjoy teaching courses on American political institutions and practices. In recent years I have only had the opportunity to teach The Congress and Introduction to American Politics. But, in the past, I taught a wide range of the standard courses on American politics as well as policy oriented courses such as Equality and Social Welfare Policy and The Politics of Criminal Justice. On the other hand, given that my courses on contemporary political philosophy draw upon a wide range of contemporary studies of the liberal democracies, there is no clear dividing line between my political philosophy and American politics courses. Many of these courses-such as Democracy or Politics, Economics, Justice could be taught under the rubric of American politics. Or, since these courses consider work on most of the liberal democracies, they might be considered courses in comparative politics.

My approach to teaching Introduction to Political Science and courses in American politics is distinctive in five ways. First, my central aim in these courses is to present a theoretical overview of political institutions and practices, one that enables students to both explain and evaluate them. I expect students to come away from my courses with a theoretical framework that helps them to understand what is likely to happen in our political life. And, in my courses on American and comparative politics, I also expect them to relate this knowledge to broader issues in democratic theory. Thus my students are asked to think about what changes in our institutions and practices would lead to political results that are closer to their own view of the proper ends and means of democratic politics. For example, the basic framework I use in evaluating our political institutions in courses such as The Congress is that provided by the account of liberal democracy I present in my course Democracy. Thus I try to show students that their evaluation of Congress must ultimately rest on some view of how a liberal democracy should be organized. My courses on American (and comparative politics), then, really form a sequence with my course Democracy. Many students who want to hear the whole story take Democracy and one or more of my the American (or comparative) politics courses.

Second, while most courses on political institutions focus on structure and process, I make a serious effort to tie structure and process to policy outcome. I do this for two reasons. First, while structure and process are, in themselves, interesting to political scientists and political junkies, for most citizens they are only important in so far as they determines who has power in a political community and how the distribution of power impinges on policy outcomes. Thus these courses focuses on two questions, who rules in the United States and to what end, or with what policy implications. One of the most fascinating features of liberal democracy is that power is partly hidden: it is not obvious who-besides themselves-our representatives represent. Examining the structure and process of our government helps us answer this question. And, then, we can examine what difference the distribution of political power makes to public policy. The second reason I approach courses in American and comparative politics in this way is that it is necessary if I am to meet my first aim of helping students evaluate our political institutions and practices.

Third, I try to present this broad theoretical view of politics by discussing original research with them, including case studies and quantitative analyses of political and social life.

Fourth, my courses on politics have a strong historical component. While I focus on politics today, I believe that we can understand contemporary institutions and practices life only by seeing how they have developed historically and what the results have been of the historical alternatives to our current way of conducting politics.

And fifth, my courses on American politics have a strong comparative component since, once again, we can only understand the consequences of our own form of political life by seeing how politics is carried out in the other liberal democracies as well as in non-democratic regimes. Given this focus, in recent years, my course on The Congress has looked at times like a course on comparative legislative behavior. Indeed, I have considered teaching it as a comparative politics course. And, when I teach Parties, Interest Groups and Elections or Public Opinion, I might do so under the rubric of comparative politics.

To Contents

Changes in My Courses Over Time

To look at the syllabi of my seminars on the history of political philosophy, one might think that they have not changed very much, except that I have cut the number of texts studied and adopted some different ones. (Indeed, a member of a faculty curriculum committee charged with approving one of my courses on the Ancient political philosophy once complained that my syllabi did not seem very up to date!) But, in fact, these courses have changed dramatically. Each new text is an opportunity for my students-and me-to explore new ideas and a new way of thinking. Given how much effort teaching a new text demands, I try not to work more than one new book into each syllabus at a time. And, of course, each time I teach an old text, my views develop and change. I do not assign any secondary works to my students. Not only is much of this work awful, but to read secondary works would interfere with their effort to develop their own critical faculties. I read this literature, however. Typically, in one semester I try to read one or two books or articles about each book I teach. While this reading often helps me revise, expand or improve my interpretations of these texts, the most important developments in my own thoughts comes from my own reflections and my interaction with my students.

I have already described one way in which my courses on contemporary political philosophy and American and comparative politics courses have changed and developed: I have developed the slides, charts and tables that I make use of my lectures and class discussions. Another way in which they have changed is evident from looking at the evolution of the syllabi I have given students. As my own ideas about the topics of these courses have developed I have reorganized them and modified their content.

Thus, for example, Democracy is unchanged in that I try to bring together classic and contemporary works on democracy and that I organize the course around the competing ideas of liberal and participatory democracy. But the basic framework I use for understanding the different types of democracies has changed radically. I once followed other political theorists in arguing that there are two basic understandings of liberal democracy: the contractarian / pluralist view and the utilitarian / majoritarian views of democracy. I now argue that this distinction unhelpfully combines five separate and independent dimensions of democratic inequality.(3) Similarly, I now argue that there are two different views of participatory democracy that are in some tension with one another. And, finally, I have developed an original conception of how liberal and participatory democracy can be combined. These revisions in my theoretical understanding of liberal democracy have very much changed my courses on American and comparative politics.

My course Politics and Reason has changed as my book of the same name has changed. Although the basic framework of the course remains the same, I have made many substantive revisions in my discussion of each of the philosophical perspectives I present in class: naturalism, interpretavism and critical interpretavism. Many of these revisions have been due to interaction with my students. Student questions and comments have lead me to drastically revise more than one chapter of my book, to expand others in one or another particular direction, and also to make innumerable smaller improvements in the text.

To Contents

Home | Teaching | Writing | Vita