January 2012

Before the Semester Starts . . .
By Lee Trepanier on January 06, 2012

With my sabbatical finished in the fall, I am looking forward to teaching next week. Admittedly I was a little concerned that I may lose interest in teaching while on sabbatical; but, thankfully, this did not transpire. Having said that, I do think the sabbatical was well-deserved, as I felt myself not making teaching a priority in the last academic year due to the fatigue of teaching for ten consecutive years.

For the next fifteen weeks I plan to write once a week about my experience of returning to the classroom in teaching PS 118 (Introduction to Politics). I have designed the course as follows: In the first week we review the syllabus and conduct assessment required by the university; weeks two to five we focus on liberalism (Mill, Tocqueville, Smith); and weeks six and seven we look at classical and contemporary political theory (Aristotle and Rawls respectively). From weeks eight to twelve, we examine social contract theory (Locke, Rousseau); and in the final weeks we focus on political ideology (Arendt, Lenin, and Weber). The textbook assigned is a reader of the history of political thought.

I should finally mention something about the type of institution and the character of the students whom I teach. SVSU (Saginaw Valley State University) is a regional, comprehensive, public institution in rural Michigan (two hours north of Detroit). Its focus is primary undergraduate teaching with a few Master’s programs for nontraditional students in the region. Most of the students who enroll at SVSU are white, first-generation college, and work substantially during the school year while receiving financial aid. Quite frankly, most of the students here see education in utilitarian terms and are mediocre in ability and drive. Occasionally you come across one who is exceptionally bright and able, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

So we’ll see how this semester goes. Every semester is different than the previous one, so hopefully it will be productive and enjoyable to both me and the students. Only time will tell.

Teaching Conservatism
By David Kidd on January 11, 2012

Perplexity, like the Muse, shows up in the most unexpected places. Who hasn’t experienced that moment of bewilderment when asked to explain something that a moment ago seemed so simple? St. Augustine’s complaint could have been uttered about other things besides time: “I know what it is, but when asked to explain it, I no longer know.” So also conservatism: a phenomenon simple enough to figure prominently in speech but slippery enough to resist definition. What is a teacher who wishes to explain conservatism to do, and how can he or she do it without inviting the scorn of colleagues?

The word “conservative” is often hurled rather than said, and, like a catapulted rock, needs to bear very little meaning within itself in order to achieve its end. This probably explains why the word gets used so much. As an epithet, “conservative” means backward (perhaps also willfully ignorant), but the descriptive power of the term is much less important than its ability to designate something as unworthy of further consideration. In this respect, calling someone a conservative is something like calling him or her crazy, as in: “Why doesn’t Lord Whimsy want to live in our Occupy Wall Street encampment and hit overturned buckets with his hands until people we don’t like give us jobs?” “Whimsy’s a conservative.” “Oh. I see. Well, forget him.”

It’s not hard to imagine a similar relation to the word within the halls of academia, where surely there are some to whom it seems that studying conservatism is at least a waste of time and possibly worse. Such people may also believe that a conservative teaching about conservatism is unwittingly undermining his or her own subject; that is, by investigating the nature of conservatism, a professor threatens the very thing by which conservatism is derisively considered best protected (viz. ignorance). Nevertheless, to those whose esteem of conservatism is so low, the teaching of a serious college-level class on the subject must seem as absurd and perverse as critiquing the songs of the mentally retarded. It’s just not the sort of thing a normal, well-adjusted person would do. The teacher who attempts it risks funny looks (and worse!) from his or her colleagues.

Thus, the teacher who would teach a course on conservatism may have to surmount formidable prejudices held both by students and by peers. (That teacher will need to perfect the intellectual virtue of winsomeness.) Herein lies one of the most maddening ironies of higher education today but also an opportunity. For the ability to see through prejudice—i.e., critical thinking—is the second most widely touted good that higher education is meant to cultivate. If I were teaching a course on conservatism, I’d call it “Applied Critical Thinking.”

Week One: Syllabi & Assessment
By Lee Trepanier on January 16, 2012

The first week of teaching is finished for my PS 118 (Introduction to Politics) course. It was relatively easy, as on the first day I reviewed the syllabus and handed out the assessment assignment; and on the second day, collected the assessment essays and had the students take the multiple-choice exam on the assessment. The assessment is three pages of reading where students have to write a 400-word response to it and then take a multiple-choice examination. It is mandated by the administration, so I do not have a choice in the matter.

Initially I was not happy that assessment cut into the course time, but now I’m reconciled to it and have incorporated the assessment in the course. Assessment counts for 3% of the student’s overall grade; and I curve the grading favorably to the students. This forces the student to take the assessment seriously. Although it is only 3% of their overall grade, it is the first thing they have to take in the semester and most want to make a good impression on the professor, so the students tend to put a good effort into it.

It’s too early to get a feel of the students, but, as the semester progresses, I’m sure I’ll get a better sense of them.

Week Two: Mill
By Lee Trepanier on January 23, 2012

The second week concluded with a look at Mill’s defense of freedom of expression as a way for society to reach an understanding of truth. The students seem to grasp the fundamentals of the argument, but it is not clear whether they know how to analyze it in terms of its strengths, weaknesses, and underlying assumptions. My hope is that they will reach that point mid-semester. For the time being, I just want them to get use to reading primary texts and understand what the author is saying. Although this may seem more appropriate for high school, I have found it is not only necessary with the caliber of freshmen we receive but also a useful step for them to engage in analytical thinking and writing later in the semester.


Week Three: Tocqueville
By Lee Trepanier on January 30, 2012

The readings over Tocqueville went well this week. I used Tocqueville’s comments on majority tyranny to illustrate how equality and liberty can come into conflict with each other. The students seem to grasp the concepts; however, they had difficulty applying it to actual public policy, e.g., affirmative action, the Affordable Health Care Act. Nevertheless, it is nice to know that we are making progress on the theoretical front of things, if we are lagging a bit on how to apply these concepts to the actual world.

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