The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

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Letter to the Editor: A thank you note for F23 POLS 210 and F23 POLS 253

Shortly after we returned to campus after Thanksgiving break, I was moved to receive a gift from some wonderful students who were taking my course American Political Thought: a poster of Victoria Woodhull, a socially radical feminist activist and journalist who ran for president of the United States in 1872 under the banner of the Equal Rights Party; Frederick Douglass was nominated as her running mate. The first woman stock broker on Wall Street, Woodhull advocated for legal reforms to make it easier for women to divorce their abusive husbands and she was unapologetically supportive of free love over government-sanctioned marriage. Due to her controversial views, Woodhull was marginalized by other activists within the women’s suffrage movement. “My students get me,” I bragged to a friend after receiving the “Woodhull for President” poster. Like all great gifts, this one indicates that the givers had been paying close attention.

Looking at this poster reminds me that learning to teach college students is an incredible experience. While I taught independently during graduate school, I was privileged to do so minimally compared to graduate students at some other doctoral programs. After five semesters at Bucknell, I am still adjusting to the exhilaration and exhaustion of being a fulltime professor and research-producing scholar.

Developing into a teacher is teaching me how to theorize again and—it often feels—so much more deeply than even some of my most intense intellectual experiences in grad school or college. This is certainly because teaching, like theorizing, is active thinking. But lately, I feel that becoming a professor—not the moment of initial hire but the self-directed lifelong development it permits (still true despite the effects of neoliberalism on the academy)—is a life I knew I would want long before I had experiential knowledge of it. Because teaching is central, not marginal, to vibrant intellectual life, a liberal arts college rather than a research university is the most ideal place to be a professor, especially a professor of political theory.

Recently, I told a friend that I was a writer before I was a political theorist—but that is not entirely true. Theorizing, the thing we are all learning in my classes, is merely thought, an activity that occurs at all ages and in all other activities that engage the intellect. At the outset of “Theory as Liberatory Practice”, the text to which my Introduction to Political Theory builds, bell hooks quotes Terry Eagleton’s view that “children make the best theorists, since they have not yet been educated into accepting our routine social practices as ‘natural’, and so insist on posing to those practices the most embarrassingly general and fundamental questions, regarding them with a wondering estrangement which we adults have long forgotten.”

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Some academics feel that their (our) work is not vocational but, for me, the change of luck that now allows me to spend my days in the classroom has been both a new beginning in my intellectual life and a reencounter with myself when I was first learning to learn as a child and becoming aware of myself as intellect. To paraphrase hooks, teaching can be a liberatory practice—which does not mean it is always or automatically one.

Learning to teach my students is teaching me not only how to theorize anew but how to write in new forms and genres–syllabi, handouts, worksheets, and lectures. Teaching is a form of thinking and writing one cannot do alone.

As we neared the end of Plato’s Republic in the fourth week of this semester in POLS 210, I made a text (a handout) for my students so they would know a bit more about the learners who taught and still teach their teacher to learn–which is to say, about themselves. Here is part of it:

F23 POLS 210 Day 13 Handout-5-2-3

When I wrote to MZ and CZ, I thanked them for teaching me that teaching is difficult and joyful because teaching is thinking. I told them that they are both with me in the classroom all the time, especially when I teach Plato. I thanked them also for putting so many of their thoughts into writing and publishing them through their prodigious scholarship so that I can talk to them whenever I need to, which is very often when I am preparing for class (especially if I am teaching Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, or Lincoln).

Without even realizing it, my students at Bucknell are giving me the great gift of continuing to get to know (learn from) my teachers, now through the lens of their scholarly works rather than their embodied presence in classrooms. Although I am not a scholar of Plato, I chose to become a teacher of Plato when I came to Bucknell in Fall 2021. For the past five semesters, I have had the privilege of teaching (reading) Plato’s Republic in its entirety with students who are reading it for the first time. My five most recent readings of the text have left me less certain about whether Plato’s ideas are truer than the ideas of other theorists we read in the course. But I am more certain that I require students in order to read that dialogue (and many other texts) to the best of my ability. I’m not philosopher-king material so I need a little salutary coercion to fully develop my mind’s potential.

Many years ago, my teacher Professor Catherine Zuckert, who held me and all of her students to very high standards out of love for our minds’ potential, persuaded me that young people should read Plato because his portrayal of Socrates prompts them to raise the question “How can I best live?” Next time I talk to her, I will ask CZ for her views on why people who are no longer particularly young should continue reading Plato. Having just recently turned 35, and being neither particularly young nor particularly old, I think (and feel) that reading and rereading this text is helping me learn to be gracious, a virtue needed most in moments when we receive gifts that we might not understand or that make us feel like we have not quite been understood, which sometimes happens around the holidays.

This semester, with Taylor Swift on the portable bluetooth speaker I bring to class, I sought to provide my own perspective on why people of all ages should read Plato, inviting my students to decide if they found it persuasive. While sometimes difficult to understand, Plato’s Republic is a love story: an invaluable gift from a friend that only feels boring and bizarre when we, its recipients, fail to be gracious. It seems to me that only an incredible act of love could have moved a mortal mind to expend (give) the energy needed to create such a text, simultaneously an immaculate work of philosophical art and an expansive and flexible tool for teaching. Even more than the author’s love for his teacher and main character, I interpret the text as a reflection of Plato’s love for us, for all of the human students and teachers he knew he would never get to meet (but somehow already knew), those of us who get to meet ourselves and one another by doing the work of savoring this strange and complex and beautiful old book in the oasis of college classrooms.1 Whatever information they might compile and convey, AI-generated works will never contain any serious meaning because they were not written by beings with bodies that can blush and sweat like Thrasymachus or grow old like Cephalus or have variable desires like Glaucon and Adeimantus. Socrates, who often seems super-human, isn’t the only or even the most important character in the dialogue.

F23 POLS 210 & F23 POLS 253, because college courses are communities in the Aristotelian sense, our goods have been mutually constitutive these past fifteen weeks. But college courses are unique forms of community because, unlike poleis, they are meant to be temporary. Plato and Aristotle lament the tragic likelihood of political change and decline (“nothing gold can stay”), recognizing that a permanently just (or even just enough) ordering is desirable (the regime to ? for)–but is nevertheless highly unlikely in the political realm. Plato and Aristotle ask us to lower our expectations for politics and to raise our expectations of ourselves, a perspective Machiavelli and Hobbes reverse.2

As I near completion of my 27th semester of higher education (I am an extremely lucky ?), I theorize the transience of college courses as salutary (beneficial, good, useful) for two reasons. Firstly, having only fifteen fleeting weeks together gave our community its intellectual (creative) intensity, and intensity generates power to keep ideas resonating into the future. But secondly, because my sensibilities are more modern than ancient (though sometimes more ancient than contemporary), I theorize hierarchical authority between people as good for human beings only when it is temporary, rooted in consent, and clearly limited to specific goals and activities.3 An educational community is a useful model for normative theorizing about political community but, as seasoned political theorists, we ought (that is a normative claim) to be attentive to the limits of the conceptual comparison. Devoting our attention to the distinction (distinctiveness) of our community relative to other communities reveals to us the great gift we have been given: the chance to actively think all together, which is now a happy memory.

I hope you each get a gift or two that makes you feel understood this holiday season. Thank you for all of the gracious attention you gave our community this semester.

In friendship,

KB

1 I choose to believe that this is the reason he doesn’t allow us to get to know him directly, speaking only
through his characters.
Rousseau reverses this again by saying we should raise (revolutionize) our expectations of politics and ourselves. Big question: would human beings be happier if we placed less faith in politics to bring about perfect justice? Or does that lead to complacency with regard to injustices?
3 Who should rule over others and on what basis?

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