Introduction to Political Theory: the hybrid version

I am developing a hybrid version of my course, Introduction to Political Theory (PS 206).  This is a fairly standard course, taught on most college and university campuses across the country.  There are typically  two main ways of organizing the class.  One is a chronologically-organized “greatest hits” approach, where the students get a brief exposure to the main thinkers in the Western canon, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, etc.  The other way is to organize the course thematically, by issue or topic–and then bring in historical figures as they bear on the topic at hand.  I favor this latter approach: I start with questions like, why have a state? Do we have an obligation to obey the law?  What kind of state do we want to have–and in particular should it be democratic?  We then turn to issues about what the state should do–mainly with respect to distributive justice and questions of rights, liberty, and toleration.  Finally, we think about political issues beyond the state–global distributive justice, international norms, etc.  The students in the course tend to be a mix of political science majors and students taking the course to fill a Western Civilization distribution requirement.

So how to do this course as a hybrid, where we will meet only once a week for a couple of hours, and make up the rest of the time online?  Part of the answer, I think, must be to expose the students, outside of the classroom, to video material where political theory is discussed and/or debated.  There are some very good options available for this, two of the most prominent of which are the Open Yale Courses offered by Steven Smith and Ian Shapiro, both first-rate political theorists.  (See Smith takes the chronological approach, while Shapiro’s is more thematic.  Either would work well, but I have decided to build my course around Michael Sandel’s course on Justice at Harvard.  His course is extremely popular (900 undergrads sign up for it every year at Harvard), and Sandel is an excellent teacher.  PBS even made a series based on the course, and the series provides the video content.  This means that they have excellent production values.  Sandel’s book, Justice, contains chapters that mirror the organization of the course, so I’ll be using that as the main text for the class.  In addition, the class covers many of the topics I like to cover in my Intro course, and the website ( includes discussion questions, supplemental readings, etc.  Frankly, using the Sandel website is going to save me a lot of work–but even more important, the quality of the material and its “fit” with what I like to do anyway in my Intro course is just excellent.  It is a good way, I think, to get my feet wet in the hybrid pool.  (Sorry–bad metaphor?)

I am still working out some of the nuts and bolts of the course.  Right now my plan is that, for each of the nine modules (essentially, each week), I will have students read a chapter of the book, read the additional (primary) sources, watch the corresponding video lectures, take a quiz, and participate in an online discussion.  I am hoping that the latter will help set the agenda for our time together in class–it will tell me, I hope, what the students found interesting, confusing, etc.  I am thinking that, for the first time in my career, I will walk into class without any lecture notes at all–to try to get myself out of the mindset that I should be lecturing.  I may plan some in-class activities, but mostly I just want to use class time to have an interesting discussion of all of the material that the students will have been exposed to in various forms.  In some ways it will remain a conventional class: I will assign papers and there will be a final exam.  But I hope that this experiement both will shake up my approach to teaching, which hasn’t changed much in twenty years, and will appeal to this generation of students.

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5 Responses to Introduction to Political Theory: the hybrid version

  1. bourneam says:

    Your last comment is exactly how I was feeling/thinking. This will be the first time that I will walk into class without my agenda being 99% of the class time. The change does provide a challenging atmosphere that stretches my conventional practices.

    I believe one reason we are more challenged by hybrid course and online course design is most of us have never been taught in this environment. We’ve all had something like 20-30+ years of face to face education so we have a experienced framework to develop the face to face course. We are not as familiar with the blended learning framework from a student perspective. Maybe we should all have to enroll in an online class and see what it feels like from the student perspective.

    • hackerm says:

      I think this is a really good idea– having to take an online course as a student. It is a really different experience than being the instructor. I have helped my two kids with their online coures. You quickly understand how something that seems so easy and user friendly to the designer is actually a pain for the user. Very similar to what we are teaching computer science students about designing websites. The user experience (UX) is critical in the business world to keep customers coming back. Having a UX perspective may help us with our design work. I think you are on to something when you suggest that maybe we all should take an online course and see what it feels like from “their” perspective!

  2. duncanp says:

    This sounds like such a great course! I like the framework of using a text with the corresponding lectures, as this will provide students with helpful context and important issues to consider. And I, too, identify with your final comment…

  3. sakuraip says:

    I really like the thematic approach you’re using to structure the course–seems like a more effective way to really get students thinking critically and engaging the material with some of the larger questions that are clearly so directly relevant to our lives today, as the sample questions you pose above make clear.

    And like Amy and Patti, I really related to your last comment–am hoping that having to shake things up will open up some more effective teaching practices.

    (On a side note, much thanks for including the links–going to have to check out some of those lectures.)

  4. harwella says:

    It is a brave, new world…”walking into class without any lecture notes at all.” I find, as I hear that you have also found, that the hardest thing is changing our mindset about how we have done it and opening up to a new way to do things, especially when we can’t really see yet what the new thing will look like.

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