Instructor: Charles Beitz
Description of Course Goals and CurriculumModern Political Theory is a political survey class that covers works from the 17th to 20th centuries and covers most of the more famous and well-known political works of the time period. This class is "modern" in the sense that modern refers to post-Renaissance theory, so don't be fooled into thinking you're reading 21st century works. POL 303 will cover multiple works quickly each week, spending at most around two weeks on each author. Beitz has his students start with Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan before transitioning to John Locke's Two Treatises on Government and his Letter Concerning Toleration. Afterwards, Mill's On Liberty, Marx's Capital and Communist Manifesto, before finishing with what is evidently Beitz's favorite (he wrote a famous response to this work), John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Professor Beitz wants his students to 1) comprehend the arguments in the selected works and the context of the time they were written, 2) allow students to critique and debate the arguments in a group settings, and 3) allow students to compare and contrast similar arguments that are found in different works in class.
Learning From Classroom InstructionProfessor Beitz gave lectures in a very traditional sense: laptops were not permitted in lecture, and he read from his notes directly to the class. He handed out a lecture outline so you could follow along, but the outline didn't contain points so much as it contained guiding questions. In this way, Professor Beitz expects you to follow along and pay attention to his lectures. Attendance isn't mandatory, but you're going to miss a lot of important material if you don't come. Beitz will often tell the class which topics he would like to discuss in precept, and always emphasizes the most important points of the books in lecture. In this way, going to lecture having done the reading helps you understand many confusing parts of each work. Precepts are mostly used for discussion on specific points. Depending on your preceptor, they may press students more on topics, or may have preceptor-led discussion. Many, but not all, of the topics that are covered in precept appeared as essay prompts or topics for the final. Going to precept is mandatory, but listening to what others say about the arguments and positions in the readings really helps you solidify your understanding of each work.
Learning For and From AssignmentsThe two graded essays that are required for the class definitely are similar types of questions that are asked on the final. Additionally, you'll be assigned a not-for-grade essay at the beginning, which is designed to get the class to learn how to write about politics without fear of a bad grade. It's super important that you receive the feedback and talk to the preceptor if necessary if you feel like you are struggling with the writing; it will help you learn to approach the concepts. Reading assignments in general are usually fairly dense albeit short, and may require more time than you may think. Beitz uploaded key questions to each reading that you should check out before you read because it helps you filter out the less-useful information. A useful strategy to understanding readings is to create an outline of the work after you have read each chapter or section. Rather than just underlining important parts and having to flip back to them later in precept, creating an outline helps you see the flow of ideas the writer presents in a succinct and straightforward manner. It'll also help you for the final. The final itself was actually easier than I thought it would be. Professor Beitz gave us 8 questions, three of which were on the final, and only two of which we had to answer in essay format. There were also some short answer questions that were pretty rudimentary. Some of these questions dealt with specific arguments that the authors used in their texts, which is probably in the final in order to test who actually read (or at least came to lecture!) the work. An example of this type of question is: "In Leviathan, what is Hobbes's response to The Fool's argument?". We spent a decent amount of time in both precept and lecture, so if you took notes on this and studied, you'd be able to answer it.
External ResourcesA potentially useful external resource is Stanford University's Plato encyclopedia, which has a huge list of famous works of political philosophy and will help you understand their core arguments better.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course SelectionIf you PDF the course, it can definitely be a fifth class because the workload is fairly standard, but only take it as a fifth if you have an interest in the material. This is a pretty standard POL theory class, so if you want to take something about political theory, this is the class you want. Freshman can take this class, too, as it doesn't require any upperclassman-level skills to do well. If you think you have an interest in this class, don't be afraid to take it! If nothing else, it will give you some worldly knowledge about oft-discussed philosophers whose works still affect the discipline today.
Modern Political Theory