Excellence in teaching political science is essential to the discipline. This interview series highlights campus teaching award winners who have been recognized by APSA for their achievements. If you or a colleague has won a campus teaching award in the 2018-19 academic year,please let us know! Submissions are due by June 21, 2019. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.
Joel Alden Schlosser is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bryn Mawr College, where he has been a faculty member since Fall 2014. Prior to that, he held the Julian Steward Chair of Social Sciences at Deep Springs College, where his teaching was featured in the CNN Documentary Film Ivory Tower (2014). He has published articles and chapters on topics ranging from ancient figures such as Thucydides, Herodotus, and Euripides to contemporary writers such as James Baldwin, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, and Claudia Rankine in journals including Political Theory, Journal of Politics, Political Research Quarterly, Theory & Event, Law, Culture, and Humanities, and Raritan. His first book, What Would Socrates Do?, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014 and featured in an interview by Andy Fitch in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is just completing his second book, Herodotus in the Anthropocene. He teaches courses on ancient and modern political thought, politics and literature, and democratic theory. His teaching ranges from classic texts like Plato’s Republic to current figures such as Angela Davis. At Deep Springs, he especially loved teaching Public Speaking, one of only two curricular requirements at the college. At Bryn Mawr, he has enjoyed interdisciplinary collaborative courses (called 360 Clusters) as well as first year writing courses, named for Bryn Mawr’s Nobel Prize recipient, Emily Balch.
What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
When I entered the classroom in Duke’s Perkins Library for the beginning of my first ever course, I had a flutter of nervousness just like when I would mount the stage at one of my many piano recitals – a sudden lightness in my stomach as my hands began to perspire. But when I saw the students sitting around the long seminar table, another feeling immediately overtook the first: gratitude. Look at these interesting people all eager to learn something! And I’m the professor! I can’t believe this is my job.
Forming that first class were students from Canada, China, Kazakhstan, and the United States. I had students from north and south, east and west. I had a high school student, a senior who only needed these credits to graduate, and a midcareer public servant completing his policy degree. And we all assembled to study political philosophy.Teaching has been an education for me. I’ve learned just how precious and fragile the space of the classroom is. If I am lucky and play my own role just right, I can hold a space for wondrous things to arise: trust and friendship among all participants; understanding not just of material but of what we bring to the material and why; a sense of community and just how much we can accomplish together.
I remember that I introduced myself and asked the students to introduce one another. Then I leapt in: What is the good life? This was the question posed to me not quite eight years before in my own Introduction to Political Philosophy course, my freshman year at Carleton College. It was the question that had kept me studying political philosophy ever since. And it was the question around which I had now designed the present course. I wanted the students to feel the urgency of the question – how are we to live? – as well as encounter some of the ways thinkers had addressed it.
To take up this question in a new way, I proposed a simulation. I passed out slips of paper with roles for students to play. Each one had a name and a few basic ideas. “Iggy” was Kant. “Fritz” was Nietzsche. I had them read the description of their role and imagine themselves in that mindset. Assuming this role, how would your character choose to live? How would they organize collective life? When I asked them to begin, the room fell silent. It was like that pause when the pianist sits at the keyboard, fingers poised, and the audience holds its breath. A beat. And then we were off – an excited, energetic discussion that brought all of us into the conversation of political philosophy and created a tenor for all of our work during the next seven weeks. It was a delight.
Teaching has been an education for me. I’ve learned just how precious and fragile the space of the classroom is. If I am lucky and play my own role just right, I can hold a space for wondrous things to arise: trust and friendship among all participants; understanding not just of material but of what we bring to the material and why; a sense of community and just how much we can accomplish together. I say this is precious and fragile because in my decade of teaching I’ve encountered the difficulty of preserving this space. Often success has been outside of my control. But I have learned to focus most on listening and building relationships with students; the rest usually follows.Just as I seek to engage present questions with historically-sensitive work from the history of political thought with my research, I strive to use my teaching to introduce students to alternative perspectives and vocabularies from this history in order to broaden and deepen how they consider the present
How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
My experience teaching in a variety of disciplines and institutions has taught me a number of pedagogical lessons. First of all, I take a developmental view of learning. I structure all of my courses around incremental assignments that build from basic skills of analysis to more advanced critical thinking, thus teaching thinking through staged writing and reflection. In the introductory level courses I teach at Bryn Mawr, for example, students first interpret difficult arguments; then analyze and criticize these arguments; then create their own arguments. At each stage I use peer revision to focus on particular aspects of academic writing: introductions, the use of evidence, and conclusions. By the end of the course, students move from struggling to understand the claims of a text to advancing their own arguments in conversation with other authors, both the authors we have read and their fellow authors in the class.
Alongside my developmental view of learning, my experience teaching has also shown me the crucial role of questions as tools for developing learning. I frame all of my courses with “big questions” – about justice or political life or freedom – that grab students’ attention and sustain it throughout the semester. On the first day of class I tell students that these questions have challenged writers and thinkers for millennia and that in this class they will join a community of inquiry spanning these many centuries. Once students view their own writing as part of a conversation about big questions, students recognize the meaningfulness of their work and pursue creative answers. No longer do they write mere “papers,” but “essays” that attempt to say something new and significant about important matters of concern. In my upper-level courses students write critical reviews that enter conversations with significant contemporary political thinkers such as Charles Mills or Bonnie Honig or Jürgen Habermas. By placing students in a lively and momentous conversation about political life today, our work together in the course gains meaning and importance. The “big questions” of today create spaces for developing learning while giving students stakes for their activities.
These questions also give an urgency to my courses that heightens the engaged learning I seek to develop in my students. By “engaged learning” I mean connecting what we learn and do in the classroom to students’ preconceptions and their daily interaction with the world around them (their “mental models”). I often do this by introducing material with film clips, images, or recent newspaper articles. In my “The Future of Democracy” course at Deep Springs, for example, students took turns presenting “Democracy in the News,” introducing and then discussing how democracy had appeared in current events and beginning to analyze these events with the theoretical lenses we had developed during the course. In this way, students practice connecting academics to “the real world” and begin to see how our theoretical inquiries lead them to see this world differently, appreciating its complexity and gaining confidence about how to understand this complexity. In all of my courses, while students work with texts and rhetorical styles ranging from the fifth century BCE to the twenty-first century today, I seek to bring the study of the history of political thought to the urgent political realities around them.By “engaged learning” I mean connecting what we learn and do in the classroom to students’ preconceptions and their daily interaction with the world around them (their “mental models”).
Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
In just over ten years of teaching, I’ve designed and taught almost thirty different courses. Across a variety of subjects and styles, I’ve found that almost any “text” (broadly understood) can open meaningful learning. In all of my courses I seek to integrate questions from contemporary politics with the history of political thought: Greek tragedy and the Hollywood Western; Hegel and contemporary identity politics; international relations and Herodotus. I have taught Susan Sontag after Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, Charles Mills in the midst of Rousseau and Kant, and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture alongside Judith Butler and Sophocles. Just as I seek to engage present questions with historically-sensitive work from the history of political thought with my research, I strive to use my teaching to introduce students to alternative perspectives and vocabularies from this history in order to broaden and deepen how they consider the present.
What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
As a student of democratic theory, I’ve come to see the one-on-one meeting as essential not just for political organizing but for effective teaching. At the beginning of every semester, I meet one-on-one with each student, sometimes for as few as five minutes. I ask them what interested them in the course but also what else they’re studying and doing. Do they play sports? Work on campus? Have theater productions on the horizon? I ask about any excitements or apprehensions. At the end of the meeting, I tell each student that they now know where my office is and I hope to see them back again soon. Most of them return at least once over the course of the semester.
Using this tool outside the classroom prepares students for real engagement inside: they trust me, they feel that their opinion matters, they have stakes in the conversation that we’re undertaking together.
Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
I attended a large public high school in Seattle, Washington, so when I arrived at Carleton College as a freshman, I had never experienced a seminar before, let alone a class small enough that the teacher had time and energy to consider your opinions and ideas. Carleton offered special first year seminars with low enrollments and intense writing. I chose a religion course on “Faith, Hope, and Love” taught by Louis Newman. The syllabus included texts like the Book of Job, Victor Frankel, Martin Luther King’s writings, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Louis, as he asked us to call him, began the first class and every class after that by asking us what we thought these enormous words even meant: faith, hope, and love. Rather than tell us what to think, he elicited our best thoughts and then helped us to cultivate them through discussion, writing, and revision.At the beginning of every semester, I meet one-on-one with each student, sometimes for as few as five minutes. I ask them what interested them in the course but also what else they’re studying and doing.
Louis’s success as a teacher stemmed from his belief in the importance of relationships. He and I met frequently during my years at Carleton, but we did not often talk about the courses I was taking — in fact, I don’t remember talking about these much at all. In my first one-on-one meeting with Louis in his book-crammed office, he leaned across his desk and asked me with solicitous kindness: How are you doing, Joel? I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. Why did this teacher care about me? Louis taught me to see that the intellectual and the personal are deeply connected; we learn best when we care about our subject as well as the people studying it (including our teachers). I told Louis about my background, my family, my questions. I was not struggling, but these conversations connected me to Carleton and the promise of a liberal arts education for integrating all of the parts of ourselves in thoughtful, if sometimes fractious, unity.