Campus Teaching Award Winner: Daniel Kapust

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. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.

Daniel Kapust is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has been a faculty member since Fall 2011. Prior to that, he served as assistant professor at the University of Georgia, where he was tenured and promoted in Spring 2011. He has published articles and chapters on figures such as Cicero, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Rawls, and Tacitus in journals including the American Political Science Review, Political Theory, the Journal of Politics, History of Political Thought, Journal of the History of Ideas, and the European Journal of Political Theory. His first book, Republicanism, Rhetoric, and Roman Political Thought, was published by Cambridge in 2011; his second book, Flattery and the History of Political Thought: That Glib and Oily Art, will soon be published by Cambridge as well. He regularly teaches courses on Roman political thought, Hobbes, Machiavelli, deception, and sociability, along with introductory courses in political theory. In addition, he serves as the faculty director of UW-Madison’s Political Economy, Philosophy, and Politics Certificate Program, which he helped to create.

What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years, between serving as a teaching assistant or lecturer in graduate school and as I’ve worked my way through the tenure track. In that time, I’ve taught courses ranging from 5-student graduate seminars to 200+ student large undergraduate lecture courses, dealing with topics from across the history of political thought and a number of themes in contemporary political theory. My first teaching experience was, as I recall, both terrifying and exhilarating—I was a teaching assistant for Bernard Yack at UW-Madison, someone who was and is vastly wiser than me, and I found myself (with very little training at all) in front of a room of 22 undergraduates, some of whom were roughly my age, and all of whom thought (rightly) that the professor knew better than I did. So I did what I tend to do when I get nervous—I made a lot of jokes, told a few stories, and 20 years later, I’m still at it.

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
I tend to use a fair bit of humor in my teaching, both to engage the students and to show them that it’s alright to enjoy political theory—along with using a wide array of examples from popular culture, for much the same reasons. But I also do these things in a more purposeful way, as I think there’s not much point in studying political theory if it cannot be made concrete and practical. So along with trying to engage students and lead them to enjoy a subject that I find intensely enjoyable, I also try to show them that what they’re studying is intimately related to the world they already inhabit, a world that is always filled with people who are different, who have a story to tell, and who we should try to listen to with compassionate understanding—just as is the case with the texts we encounter.

Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
In terms of materials, I tend to enjoy teaching works that shock the students through their unfamiliarity and their capacity for making students see things differently; I’m especially fond of teaching Hobbes’s Leviathan in this regard, as it is a text that, at least initially, students are inclined to agree with, and which they find more and more shocking and discomfiting as we progress. Basically, I enjoy teaching any text that hues to Bertrand Russell’s description of the ideal work of philosophy: a work that begins with premises no one would deny, and ends up with conclusions no one would accept. In terms of my favorite courses, I enjoy teaching the large intro to theory course, but especially enjoy teaching a topical course I’ve developed titled “Politics and Deception.”

What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
I’d say that the most effective tool for engagement is probably the least original or sophisticated: listening to what the students have to say, taking it seriously, engaging it, and being willing to abandon my lecture or lesson plan to pursue what they find interesting. So far, they haven’t complained.

Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
I don’t think I could point to anything particular, but two of my undergraduate instructors stand out: one was my professor (Annette Debo) for an African-American literature course at the University of Maryland-College Park, which is one of the best courses I took as an undergraduate. I recall her talking, on the first day, about a fact that didn’t escape anyone in the room: she was not African-American, and she was teaching a course on African-American literature, and while she would not have shared many of the experiences of the authors we encountered, she worked hard in her scholarship and teaching to try to encounter the authors as sympathetically as possible by taking seriously their voices and their experiences. The other was a professor (Charles Butterworth) who taught the intro to political theory course at Maryland, and who inspired me to become an academic. What impressed me most about him and his teaching was how seriously he took it – and how seriously he took his students. We were all “Mr.” and “Miss,” or “Mrs.,” depending on our choice, and there were to be no hats in the classroom (he would not teach until everyone had taken off their hats, and he would single people out in even a large lecture hall to take theirs off). Now, at the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but what I realized over time – I took a number of courses with him – was that formality is egalitarian, and if you are going to take seriously the materials and the students in the class, they need to take each other and themselves seriously.