It is only the second day of the semester and a student is lying on the floor, stabbed by an imaginary dagger thanks to their classmate. I was nearly on the floor too, but out of laughter, after witnessing one of the most theatrical reenactments of Lockean justice.
Prior to class that day, my students were required to read excerpts from Locke’s Second Treatise. Despite this, my experience told me that probably just a handful of them could explain Locke’s state of Nature in accurate detail at the start of class. This is not to say that the students had not done their assignment. Rather, it was my suspicion that many of these freshmen and sophomores perhaps had never read old English, encountered political philosophy, or analyzed a primary theoretical text before. Following this fit of laughter, however, my hunch was that most could now describe Locke’s theory. My certainty, though, was that those who saw an abstruse and irrelevant text before, now saw a politics that was accessible and engaging.
I detail this particular day because it highlights my motivations for and goals in teaching. I want students to leave my classroom with the confidence and skills to critique, so as to improve the political world. Politics has relevance to every person, and it is my aim to help individuals realize this, so that they are able to critically act on this reality.
As a teacher, I get the privilege of playing a crucial role in developing my students’ capacities for critical thinking. Many students are surprised when I ask them the simple question, “what do you think?”. Across primary school and higher education, there is now increased support for student-centered pedagogy. Yet, to this day, students enter my class with an expectation that they will be given “the answers” to politics. Whether we are applying canonical political thought to the present or comparing the merits of assemblage theory versus intersectionality, my students are astounded when I sometimes respond with, “I don’t know, what do you think?”. I view it as my responsibility as an instructor to encourage students to cultivate a unique and informed political perspective.
My teaching begins and ends with my students. Whether they share the same course number and title, no single course of mine is ever the same. This is because a student-centered pedagogy means teaching to the actual students in the room. The reason I will sometimes sit in a desk alongside my students and ask to hear about their stories is to remind them precisely of this. Students can only be equipped with tools to apply classroom knowledge to real-world political engagement, if they are allowed to be themselves – experiences, values, and all.
I certainly challenge my students on their views, but they first and foremost must be offered a space to vulnerably wrestle with complex political questions, an opportunity that many students have never had. In my role as the department representative to the University of Colorado’s Center for Teaching and Learning, I helped other educators in cultivating such a space, offering a workshop called “Building Community in the Classroom” where I shared my techniques for fostering connections and running content-based activities. For example, as ridiculous as these skits sometimes are, there is no better icebreaker to critiquing social contract theory than having students comically act out Hobbesian, Lockean, and Rousseauan states of Nature to each other’s entertainment. My lectures are built through bottom-up discussion, and the various classroom activities that I implement are intended for students to maintain their personalized authenticity in relation to the material. This is two pronged: students begin to recognize the prevalence of politics throughout their lives and become invested in my course. To quote a few of my students’ course evaluations:
“Always willing to answer our questions really helped [sic]. I liked [that we] were constantly challenged to going beyond the readings and form our own understandings….you made sure to create a safe open space to express our ideas and I greatly appreciate that.” –Spring 2020
“…the only class I looked forward to going to every week. I truly believe I have a deeper understanding of the content than I otherwise would have because Owen was my instructor. I know this was in large part due to Owen’s obvious love, commitment, and passion towards not only the material but teaching my classmates and me.” – Fall 2021
“…you have helped me to unpack a lot of stuff in my own life through the recitations and classes we have had this semester. Thank you for giving me a classroom to grow in and truly have civil dialogue in.” – Fall 2021
“Owen is an amazing professor who allows for constructive discussion throughout class time. Lecture is not a place where we sit and just listen to Owen, he allows the class to discuss and allows us to realize the main ideas on our own.” – Spring 2022
What elates me in these testimonials is that these students were able to both understand the class content and relate it back to themselves. One could ask any political scientist to compile a never-ending list of the issues that plague politics today. Although my research does important work by further diagnosing political inequities, I believe teaching is the most meaningful outlet for most academics to act on this political reality.
Research is inseparable from education, and my emphasis on the latter moves the debates had among scholars to the knowledge, and hopefully actions, of students and the general population. Regardless of whether it is via formal pedagogy, academic research, or public facing work, the ultimate aim of my work remains the same: enable more individuals to access political knowledge and use it to develop their own perspectives on how to realize a better political world.