Rousseau in the Gallowgate:

Using drama-based pedagogies with first-generational political theory students

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) recently co-hosted an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon), offers further reflections on using drama-based pedagogies to overcome barriers to the study of political theory facing first-generational students.

“Well, I would like to see Mr Rousseau come down and do a shift with me in the Gallowgate; soon see how long he holds on to those views.”

The Gallowgate is a street in Glasgow known both for its association with Celtic football club and for its reputation as one of the roughest streets in the city. It was where the student quoted worked as a barman when not studying for his politics degree. He was a mature student, older indeed than I was at time of teaching, and had disclosed over our seminars a hardened pessimism cultivated over many years serving pints in Glasgow’s roughest bars.

It was no surprise he had found Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s claim that ‘men are naturally good’ ridiculously absurd.

I nevertheless endeavoured to explain Rousseau’s optimism. I related his thought against the backdrop of the French Enlightenment; as reversal of the Christian tradition of original sin; as a seminal moment in revolutionary socialism. He was buying none of it. Whatever framework I placed it in, he insisted such philosophical optimism would collapse at the threshold of his Gallowgate bar.

In truth, the more I gave intellectual context the more I lost him, as the more ‘intellectual’ I made it the less relevant it appeared to him. I needed to change track: reconstructing the world of Rousseau would not help my argument, I needed instead to make it more relatable to the world of my student – I had to bring Rousseau into the Gallowgate.   

The Portal Between Worlds  

We can think of the interpretation of political thought as a portal: the historical world from which the thinker writes at one side, the contemporary reader at the other. The text is what connects them; interpretation taking ideas from one side and translating them into the other. 

The attention we pay to each side is, however, rarely equal. As academics, and teachers, we frequently prioritise the world of the thinker, with emphasis being put on reconstructing their historical context in order to gain accurate interpretation of their meaning.

This is in part the legacy of Quentin Skinner’s Cambridge School, hallmarked by a meticulous dedication to reconstruction of the political and linguistic context in which a past author wrote as to determine exactly what he or she could, and could not, have said.

Political Theory – and especially International Political Theory (IPT), in which my specialism lies – does have its issues with Skinner, especially on how such focus on history can be reductive, eclipsing consideration of contemporary relevance to the point of collapsing the portal between worlds.

Nonetheless, whilst IPT does aim to highlight the relevance of historical thought for the present, it still puts incredible emphasis on the need to reconstruct the historical context first before translation into the present can be attempted. Interpretatively, there is a soundness to this as it prevents us projecting ideas into the past and becoming guilty of anachronism.

Pedagogically, however, this can create a challenging environment for students as they are left with a forest of intellectual, historical, and linguistic context to navigate through before relatable ideas can be located.

The study of Thucydides, the embarking point for most IPT programs, gives clear illustration of this. Before we can even begin discussing ideas, students must quickly orientate themselves in a very strange and alien world: Corcyra and Corinth? Mytilene and Melos? And Lacedaemon, that’s Sparta? And that is before students even get to concepts rooted in the Classical Greek linguistic context, like Nomos and physis. Students’ very first encounter with IPT is thus being thrown into a dark wood of unfamiliar places, people, and words.

Importantly, not all students are thrown in with equal navigational tools. Typically, those who are ‘first-generational’ – those whose parents did not receive higher education; received State education; and/or are from low-income backgrounds – do not have the same background knowledge or tools to quickly reconstruct this historical linguistic context as, say, those who went to private schools with Greek on the curriculum. Nor do they have as much time to dedicate to this reconstruction, often having to work one, or even two, jobs to maintain their studies. They often instead feel alienated by theory classes, failing to see the relevance behind the thick phalanx of contextual tress, and abandon theory for something ‘more relevant’ to their world.

Providing the right machete that will allow the student to cut through these trees and uncover the core relevance needs to be an educator’s primary aim.

Finding Relevance   

Alcohol was the machete that came to mind for my Glasgow barman.

I asked him if alcohol made the behaviour of his clientele worse.

Worse of course, he conceded.

And did poverty and disadvantage turn many to drink?

Yes, indeed, it was intergenerational.

We were thus able to turn our conversation into a discussion about the ‘nature’ of his customers versus the structural factors that led them to behave this way (though admittedly I was borrowing a lot from T.H. Green here, inspired as he was by Rousseau, rather than explicitly the Genevan himself).  

Turning to J.S. Mill the next week, we centred the liberty principle on a debate over minimum pricing, not only as it was a current hot topic amongst my students at the time, but also as we could build on the entry point of alcohol and responsibility from the previous week.

For the following week on freedom of speech, I let the class identify and vote on a topic. They voted for the controversy over a planned Orange March in a neighbouring town. I created a role play for that week, where they simulated the local council deciding whether to let the march go ahead or not.

I found this approach resulted in greater participation amongst my students. The Glasgow barman notably had a lot to say on these subjects, but I also found students who had up to that time been largely silent get more involved; for, whilst they may have struggled to grasp aspects of the philosophy, they often had views on these local issues and, from these, I could introduce the main points of theory on more familiar and accessible ground.

The Most Simple Encounters

I have since then endeavoured to make my students’ first encounters with thinkers occur on more familiar ground. This often involves drama-based learning, where I reconstruct a relatable scenario in which they can first discover ideas.

This can of course be challenging and intensive work, as it requires changing classes according to students’ concerns and having some knowledge of these concerns. This arguably worked well with a largely homogenous Scottish audience, whose concerns I had a degree of familiarity with as a fellow Scot. This can be more difficult, if not impossible, in more heterogenous classrooms or with demographics more distant from the teacher – as I would learn when I left Scotland to teach in mainland China.

Nonetheless, one does not always need an elaborate pedagogy or classroom plan based on familiarity with students’ present concerns to learn from this. It simply requires one to be more sensitive to the situation in which the students are encountering these works. This can be achieved, I have found, by simply distilling a concept to its simplest and most relatable articulation for that audience – our machete to make first cuts into the forest of ideas.

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