Writing Political Theory
Fall 2008
Friday 1:30-3:20, Library 202


Writing Political Theory

f/k/a Plan Writing Seminar

Friday 1:30-3:20

Meg Mott Library 202

course guidelines
course calendar
political theory
Notes on Writing Political Theory
Fear of Self
Lerman CRF
course description readings

course description:

Writing a plan can seem like a lonely process. Left alone with one's mind, the prospect of filling seventy to one hundred pages with lucid prose can be daunting. It's easy to feel that you're not up to the task. Conversations with your peers about how many pages they produced in the last all-nighter will only increase your sense of isolation. This plan seminar aims to reduce your stress by bringing a constructive social element back into the process of writing.

In fact, writing is a highly social activity. First, there is the writer; then, there are the authors under consideration; then there is life and its evidence; then, there are the critics, the secondary sources; then there are the plan sponsors; and finally, there is the Outside Examiner. And you thought the only other person in your office was your officemate!

Every week we'll hone our skills, crafting strong arguments, exploring counter-arguments, and all and all being more precise with our language. We'll also spend time preparing for the orals.

One of the key things I've learned from the oral examinations is that the writing pretty much runs the show. If you've written honestly and passionately, then the Outside Examiner (OE) will be overjoyed. If you think of your plan as a way to prove to the OE that you've read copious amounts of difficult material, think again. I can guarantee that the OE will not be impressed.

But if you write precisely about a topic that matters to you, and you write about it in such a way that the reader begins to care as well, then you will have succeeded at this thing called plan. But here's the trick, you can't be so concerned about the reader that you forget about the subject matter. Here is some advice from Virginia Woolf:

I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves. (A Room of One's Own, Harcourt, 115.)

In other words, be precise about your subject matter. Show us what the thing is, don't tell us how to think about it. Spend more time on descriptions than explanations. Your logic will be more convincing if we see what concerns you.

A word of caution: A plan sponsor is just that, a paid professional who supports (sponsors) your research. Most of the time, the plan sponsor is not an expert in your topic. For instance, I may be able to give you so-called expert advice if you are looking at Hobbes's rhetoric in the Leviathan but that doesn't mean I'll have much to offer on using Hobbes to explain the crisis in Lebanon. You will need to become the authority on Hezbollah and Lebanese politics by writing accurately using multiple sources. Too often, plan students assume the plan sponsor already knows what needs to be said. In fact, we're counting on you to teach us.

A word of reassurance: One needn't know everything about the case study in order to engage in political theory. To theorize about a public matter is "to express various meanings on complex things with a scanty vocabulary of fastened senses" (Walter Bagehot, cited in Wolin, 3). We don't have to know everything about Hobbes nor about Hezbollah to address thorny political problems. We just need to be honest about the endeavor and willing to take on the complexities of the project.


Frank Cioffi, The Imaginative Argument (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision (Princeton: NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960, 2004).
Audre Lorde, Sister/Outsider


Nothing will make you more crazy than postponing writing until you know everything you need to know. Don't wait for epiphanies before making a date with the keyboard. Consider creating a work deadline.

Jeremy Holch is an invaluable asset. He has deadline sheets and strategies for time management. If you're having difficulty plotting out your work over the semester, go see him!

grading criteria:

Here is the criteria we agreed on in terms of seminar participation in the spring of 2006:

  • no unexcused absences except in the case of an emergency;
  • notify group prior to any necessary absences;
  • in the event of an emergency, send feedback to presenters in a timely fashion;
  • work presented to the group should be no longer than fifteen pages;
  • send writing prior to Tuesday at noon;
  • don't use "irregardless," irregardless of the situation.

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