Enjoying a @PoliticalScienceClass But #NotAStudent
If you always wanted to take a political science class but never found the time, one University of Nebraska professor is making it possible—from wherever you are, and for free.
Ari Kohen is using the social networking site Twitter to open the discussions in his contemporary political theory class to the public.
By following the hashtag #pols386 on Twitter, anyone can read and join in on discussions about the theories of John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Michael Foucault, and others. Kohen also made the syllabus [PDF] publicly available so outsiders can read along with the discussion material.
Kohen first taught his class this way in 2009, when people routinely derided Twitter as a place for talking about what you had for breakfast.
But Kohen saw it as more than that.
“Twitter is democratizing. You can get in touch with anyone,” he says. “And if you have something interesting to say, they may write back.”
Kohen first became interested in Twitter when he realized it hosted vibrant discussions on political science and human rights. And he learned just how democratic the site could be when late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon replied to him about a reading list suggestion.
The combination of openness and substance Twitter provides is what drove Kohen to integrate the social networking site into his classroom—for the benefit of both his students and the public.
Rather than projecting Twitter onto a big screen behind him during lectures, Kohen encourages students to engage each other in conversation outside of class time.
And though he admits many students take the class just to fulfill a requirement, Kohen says he “wanted to give my students a sense that education doesn’t stop when you walk out of class” and that there are “a lot of people all over the world interested in these kinds of questions that they were studying.”
One highlight from the 2009 class was when Salon.com reporter Glenn Greenwald replied to a student’s post via Twitter.
“Normally they think of political philosophy as not hip or current,” says Kohen. “But a month and a half ago all of the prominent political bloggers had a weeklong discussion about Robert Nozick, which we’ll be reading in class.”
Beyond its potential hipness, Kohen said he sees studying political philosophy as essential for both personal insight and public dialogue. For example, political scientists on Twitter add research-based information to the public dialogue rather than simple punditry.
And, Kohen says, “The questions of political philosophy are the questions that underlie the policy debates that people are having.”
“If you hold some view on abortion or immigration or affirmative action, why do you hold it? What ties them together? What reasons can you put between your policy prescriptions and the statement ‘I just believe that.’?”
University of Nebraska students physically enrolled in the class are required to create a Twitter account, and online discussion counts towards their participation grade. And if students find a certain topic particularly engaging—a favorite tends to be distributive justice with Rawls, Nozick, and Sandel—they’re not limited by the class sessions.
Nor is Kohen limited to just Twitter in his use of social media in the classroom. The professor also ran a human rights course in which students used Tumblr blogs, and he holds a Google+ Hangout as part of his office hours for this semester’s contemporary political theory course.
The first class session was held at the University of Nebraska on Aug. 23 and the #pols386 discussion is already underway.
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.