Introduction to
Political Theory

M-W-F 10:30-11:20| Dalrymple 42


course guidelines


political theory

Rice Library

close reading

debate page

course description | the books | papers & daily assignments | grading criteria

Course Description:

This class considers how politics has been discussed within the western tradition. Although the primary readings cover over 2,500 years of political writings, the themes are surprisingly few. In each era, political writers struggled to answer the problem of how best to grant power over people and how to enhance citizenship within that power structure.

Along with primary readings, we will consider two cases that illuminate the role of political thinking in contemporary struggles to end poverty and racism. The first case promotes a radical humanist pedagogy, known as the Clemente Series. The second case considers the Black Panthers efforts to dismantle Amerika.

(back to top)

The Books:

Mitchell Cohen & Nicole Fermon, Editors, The Princeton Readings in Political Thought
Earl Shorris, Riches for the Poor
Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power

Most of the readings are fairly short. You will have the luxury to read slowly and carefully, to think about what is being said and what is being left out of the author's framework. Many of the authors talk to each other so that when Aquinas speaks of the Philosopher, you will know what Aristotle said in his original argument. Having short reading assignments should give you room to practice your own political thinking and to find your own political voice.

(back to top)

Papers and Daily Assignments:

In order to develop your political voice, you will be writing two one-page essays each week for most of the semester. The first one-page (double-spaced) essay of the week will explore a passage from the day's readings. The second one-pager will explore a passage from the reading and will tie in a theme from a classmate's one-pager.

Exploring a passage is a fairly specific activity. First copy down the quotation. As you do so, pay attention to what words are used, what metaphors are employed, and what images are invoked. Move inside of the world created by this passage, palpate the meaning from the inside and then extend its logic gently into the rest of the essay. Exploring a passage does not mean quoting someone else and then running off in an entirely different direction. It does not mean springboarding into a random free association. Exploring a passage is part of a larger practice known as close reading, in which you lean on a part of an essay in order to explore the logic of the whole. On the first Friday, I will give you my one-pager on the reading so that you can get a sense of what I'm looking for.

The weekly schedule will run as follows: At the end of Monday's class, you will exchange a one-pager with a classmate. The point of this is purely voyeuristic; you'll get to see how someone else explored a passage. On Fridays, I'll take your classmate's Monday assignment and your Friday one-pager.

Five-and Ten-Pagers: Over the course of the semester, you will be writing three essays, two brief (5 pages each) and one extended (8-10 pages). All of these essays should have a clear argument (your voice) and engage with the readings (other voices). Here are two ideas on how to craft a political theory paper:

The Big Question: Begin by asking a big question, i.e. What is justice? How does Plato define justice in The Republic? Provide a passage that supports your interpretation of Plato's theory of justice. Is there anything in the reading that might be read against your interpretation? Give space to that counter-argument. Consider the question of justice and its complications in terms of your own experience. What leads you to read Plato in a certain way?

What do we do? Each of our authors is struggling within a political predicament, using arguments to justify certain activities. By reading political theory, we learn how to educate children, when to use force, how to survive oppression, and when rights do more harm than good. For this paper, begin by describing a difficult decision that requires action. How would you justify following a certain course? What unintended consequences might you forsee?

Here is a helpful link when it comes to writing political theory (used with permission of author):
Some Notes on Writing Political Theory

(back to top)

Grading Criteria:

Attendance is critical. If you have to miss a class, please let us know. Reading is essential. Class discussion assumes that each one of you has a good grasp of the reading. Active participation in the class discussion is necessary. Writing clear and lucid prose is the stuff of the whole affair.

(back to top)