8 Love It. Do It Well. | Alisa Rosenthal

In Letter 4 of Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke made the following request of his correspondent:

I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

As a college student reading Rilke for the first time, I copied those words into my journal, recorded all the bibliographic information, and failed to think of them again. Years later, at a moment of doubt and frustration, I thought of Rilke and excavated my copy of his letters. There, in his injunction to “love the questions themselves,” and in the tantalizing promise of ‘perhaps’ and ‘someday’ and ‘gradually’ living into the answers, I found the articulation of the liberal arts that spoke to me as an undergraduate and still speaks to me today.

During my years at Gustavus, I have taught a range of courses in political theory and public law and have expanded the department’s curriculum in both of these subfields. I define my pedagogy with reference to three primary goals. First, I convey to my students that critical thinking and reflection should inform whatever they read, write, hear, or say. I encourage students to read and listen for incomplete or incoherent arguments, assertions without evidence, and opinions presented as facts. In my responses to them and in their responses to one another, they often identify their own use of unsupported assumptions, imprecise reasoning, and unsubstantiated claims. In so doing, students extend their understanding of political theory and public law from simple memorization and content mastery to genuine insight and analysis.

Second, I integrate the study of political theory and public law with the everyday experience of politics. I seek to disabuse students of the notion that political theory is divorced from political practice and lived reality of their lives. I encourage them to understand the world they live in as shaped by particular political ideas and values – ones that can be contested, discussed, debated, changed, and shared. Thus, students combine rigorous and close examination of classic texts in political theory with the development of their own political theories. For example, in Introduction to Political and Legal Thinking, students choose argument paper topics which bring the thinkers they are reading into dialogue with contemporary political events. This helps students see the ways in which political theory speaks to the ‘big questions’ that are asked, engaged, and answered and that they too have the beginnings of a political theory that can be articulated, questioned, and critiqued. While I emphasize the importance of historical contexts, I also stress that the enduring questions of political theory – what is the good life, how shall we live together in communities, who should rule, what is justice – continue to frame political and social discourse today.

Third, I encourage students to understand themselves as political and social actors, and to use that understanding as the basis for a serious engagement with the world. They are right to perceive social and political change as difficult to effect. But I argue that recognizing difficulty ought not to result in indifference or lethargy. My concern is not what they care about or devote their energy to, but that they care about, and work toward, something. I share my perspective, and seek to model engagement, critical thinking, listening, and active discussion of my, and others’ opinions. By showing that I care about our questions, I encourage them to see the classroom as more than a place to discuss course readings and assignments. It is also a place to develop and articulate one’s own views, and to engage with those who disagree. In so doing, I uphold the College’s mission of “foster[ing] the development of values as an integral part of intellectual growth.”

To build community in our classroom, I encourage an atmosphere at once informal and respectful. Students do, and are intended to, respond to one another, not just to me. My expectations for the students are high and my demands rigorous. The bedrock of my teaching is commitment to the profound importance of what we in the classroom do together.

Just prior to my arrival at Gustavus, the Political Science department created a new introductory course to political theory. During academic year 2004-2005, I taught the first several sections of that course, POL 160: Introduction to Political and Legal Thinking. The challenge of an introductory class in political theory is that students must simultaneously master the content of the course – presented through primary texts that are often dense and difficult – and an approach to reading and thinking which is often unfamiliar to them. Hence, I design the Political Science 160 syllabus to assist the students in learning how to read political theory and to develop their capacity to frame an analytic and critical response to those theories.

I spend significant time during class analyzing the text with students and working through particularly vexing or difficult passages. I begin class each day by asking students what questions they have from the day’s reading. This is far from a pro forma inquiry. Rather, their questions form the basis for the day’s discussion. It is almost always the case that the areas of the text with which they have difficulty are precisely those with the most theoretical significance. When they see that they are fully capable of identifying the crucial questions in and about the text, they are encouraged to see themselves as insightful readers and critics of even the most difficult texts in political theory.

Students develop their critical faculties through class discussions and through a series of argument papers required over the course of the semester. I do not assign topics for these papers but rather require students to isolate some aspect of a reading that they find both interesting and problematic, to explain the problem they have identified, to offer an argument about it, and to give an account of what is at stake in their argument. While students are required to represent the views of the thinker(s) they engage, the emphasis in these argument papers is on their critical engagement of the text.

I respond to student writing at some length and in significant detail. My intention is to communicate to students that I take their work seriously and that my expectation is that they will do the same. Most students recognize the value of a careful and thorough engagement of their ideas and their writing. In addition, they report that the grading rubric at the conclusion of the written comments helps them to identify general strengths and weaknesses.

In addition to class discussions, exams, and argument papers, I require students to participate in a “Social Contract Exercise.” This exercise requires students to work together in groups to write and defend a social contract for an imaginary community of shipwreck survivors. The assignment requires students to articulate their assumptions about human nature, justice, governance, and rights and to work with others whose assumptions and beliefs may differ. After each group completes their social contract, the contracts are posted online and a discussion about each contract begins. Finally, groups revise their contracts in light of the challenges raised and write an explanation for the changes they chose to make. This exercise links the actual institutions of government with the theoretical questions posed by the course thinkers and helps students to recognize the assumptions and presuppositions embedded within all constitutions.

Students also participate in two symposia, class meetings in which they are required to assume the persona and ideas of a given thinker and to debate the other thinkers from the course on a variety of topics. Students regularly remark on the usefulness of this exercise and I have long been interested in finding ways to expand and develop it. As part of this effort, I attended a Reacting to the Past workshop through the Faculty Resource Network at New York University in June 2006. The Reacting to the Past method involves the use of extensive historical simulations in which students immerse themselves in the theoretical and intellectual arguments of pivotal moments in history. Each simulation begins from a few central texts which students assume responsibility for knowing, engaging, and critiquing. Last spring, in Political Science 160, I centered the course on two of these simulations: democratic Athens (grounded in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates’s Apology and Crito, and Plato’s Republic), and revolutionary-era France (grounded in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses and The Social Contract and on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France). Students assumed roles ranging from radical democrats and Socratics in Athens to Lafayette, King Louis XVI, and Georges Danton in revolutionary-era France. In these roles, students worked together in factions to achieve their political and philosophical objectives through speeches, newspapers, politicking, riots, parties, and debates. In so doing, they delved deep into canonical texts of political theory and identified the connections between the central ideas of those texts and the practical political dilemmas they faced.

I have also worked with the department to expand our offerings in the field of public law through the development of a senior research seminar focusing on law and identity and through a two-semester Constitutional Law sequence. The Constitutional Law sequence presents a unique challenge. Although a 300-level course, most of the students have never read a Supreme Court decision and this class is their first substantial exposure to the field of public law. In many ways the challenge of teaching Constitutional Law is similar to the challenge of teaching an introductory theory course – students must master course content while learning to read a kind of text with which they have little familiarity. Just as I believe it crucial for political theory students to read the primary texts of political theory rather than textbook summaries, I think it crucial for constitutional law students to read actual court decisions rather than synopses and outlines. Consequently, I devote the early meetings of Constitutional Law to learning how to read cases, how to understand what justices are doing when they render decisions, and how to understand the process of constitutional interpretation. Students are required to brief every case assigned for class, a requirement that seems extraordinarily arduous in the early weeks of the course but results in their careful reading and consistent preparation. Where feasible, I have incorporated an extensive moot court exercise into these courses. My investment in these demanding pedagogical strategies –social contract exercise, symposia, and moot court experience demonstrates my commitment to the College’s mission to “balance educational tradition with innovation” and to “promote…the independent pursuit of learning”.

Because all Political Science majors are required to complete a major research paper, each tenure-track member of the department teaches a senior research seminar every other year (or more frequently). Students are often intimidated by the word “thesis” and concerned about their ability to complete such a long and sustained project. Following my first semester teaching the research seminar, I compiled a “red book” of the assignments that would lead the students through the research, organizing, drafting, and writing process. This step-by-step approach demystified the project for students and enabled them to see the final product as an opportunity to integrate the analytical, writing, and research skills they had been practicing for four years. Nathan Sellers’s (’06) senior thesis on the constitutionality of hate crimes statutes was published in the Pi Sigma Alpha Undergraduate Journal of Politics.

In addition to my regular courses, I have advised more than a dozen career exploration internships over January-terms and served as the faculty advisor for four of the students who spent January participating in Hurricane Katrina relief in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I take my role as an advisor of internships seriously and require students to submit a reflective journal, a final reflective essay, and to meet with me to discuss their experiences. Several of the internships I supervised and, most notably, the Hurricane Katrina Relief independent study are examples of students pursuing “lives of service” and “work[ing] toward a just and peaceful world.” As I facilitate their journey, I foster these aspects of the College’s mission.

Political theory and constitutional law are difficult to read and require care and attention. Students accustomed to cursory preparation discover the inadequacy of such preparation for a text-based discussion. But, though they may initially struggle through the texts, by the end of the semester, they are able both to read and enjoy them. As one student in Constitutional Law II (Spring 2007) commented, “She leaves your learning to you from the start, but… begins to help you see what to think about and how to identify issues/patterns as we go through cases throughout the semester. It’s the best of both worlds; student-led learning with challenging, enhancing guidance from the instructor.”

Another common theme that emerges from my evaluations is my students’ appreciation of my availability to work with them through challenging material and difficult assignments. Students challenged by course material often meet with me outside of class and outside of office hours. Students often remark on my enthusiasm and excitement about the material. There is little I can say about this except to note that they are right. I love what I teach and I love teaching it. That students observe my passion for political theory and constitutional law seems to me entirely right: these are the realms I find most energizing, exciting, and relevant.

I require students to take stands, to defend their positions, and to engage seriously and respectfully with others who may disagree with them. That is, students in my classes must defend their claims and learn to assess and critique the foundations and logic of the claims of others. I mentioned above that I do not hide my perspective from students. Given this, one concern is always that students with different political views will feel silenced or marginalized. In fact, however, many of my evaluations note that though the student disagreed with my positions, he or she learned to defend his/her own ideas more strongly through respectful disagreement than if questions or challenges had not been raised. Also, although my own positions are clear to students, I often make arguments that reflect other viewpoints or point out the shortcomings of the position with which they expect me to disagree. In so doing, students report that I make politics less polemical and more complex, forcing them to think through the left-right dichotomies they occasionally take for granted. This advances the College’s mission to “promote the open exchange of idea and the independent pursuit of learning.”

Much as I enjoy my work inside the classroom, I particularly value the opportunity to work closely with students outside of the classroom. I share the College’s mission of “help[ing] its students attain their full potential as persons” and I believe that some of my most important and valuable work toward this goal occurs outside the confines of a course or classroom. In addition to serving as academic adviser to Political Science majors and minors, I informally advise many students contemplating law school, graduate school, jobs, Teach for America, or simply wondering about the possibilities the future holds and how best to advance toward that future. As I have these conversations in my office, over email, and on the telephone, I recall – and often quote – my undergraduate mentor’s advice to me during such a conversation: “I don’t care what you do. I trust you. Love it. Do it well.” While our students often seek surety and a well-marked road, I seek to show them – in and out of the classroom – that the fulfillment of their potential will be achieved by following their own hearts rather than a prescribed path.



Teaching, Scholarship, Service Copyright © 2012 by Faculty of Gustavus Adolphus College. All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *