Political Theory Paper


*This guide for writing a Political Theory Paper was written by a former Writing Center Consultant.  The first section describes the process that one student went through in completing their term paper for Modern Political Theory, taught by Dr. Bruce Nesmith.  The section section is the actual assignment that was handed out by Dr. Nesmith for the paper. 

Modern Political Theory, POL-445, Bruce Nesmith

Justin had three WC conferences: one to brainstorm, the second to look over a draft, and the third to look at the final draft and answer questions about the course.

A brief description of the assignment is "to compare the ideas two of the philosophers we study this semester on one of the following subjects: Government, State of Nature, The Social Contract, Democracy, Sovereignty, Property, Freedom, or some other topic."

Justin chose to write about sovereignty because the American Presidency class he is taking at the same time uses a lot of literature that would be good sources for this paper.

In the first conference, Justin had a good idea of what he wanted to do with his paper and he explained those idea to me. I think it helped him organize his thoughts, especially in the first two conferences. He told me that just telling me his plans helped him focus on the writing process.

I asked him if there was any insider knowledge he could give to other students talking this course in the future:

"Insider knowledge...It's all about organization and simplicity. Need to state your interests in the introduction: especially when you [are going to] talk about and when... restate this in your conclusion (I thought this was just a think we were taught in high school, but also no. They still like it when you so it here too... As a matter of fact, I now realize that the paper that I read for other students are much more comprehensive if they reiterate their purpose in the intro and the conclusion. Other that that, focus on the content and try not to be too formal in phrasing...more formal speaking voice is best, I think."

I asked him how consultants can best serve political theory writers: What do they need to do to be effective in conferencing you?

"Focus on the content. I'm not sure how much grammar counts in this paper (but the prof does check for it just to see if you have any writing knowledge, if there are a lot f mistakes it make a paper harder to read, obviously). Make sure the organization of the paper follows some set or pattern of thought, perhaps one that they discussed in class, or maybe something as simple as chronology. I found that it helped to set aside the different sections of a longer paper as such with subtitle headings (ex: Introduction, Right to Revolution, Current Ideas, Conclusion...). Not only does this help the writer, but it makes it easier for the reader to remember the flow of ht paper that was presented first in the introductory part. Also, if you make up talk of the actually theory behind your ideas and conclusions it might bring out something les that might be profitable and beneficial to include in our paper...more clarification of ideas."

Assignment Description for POL-445: Modern Political Theory

Term Paper Assignment

Length: 12-15 pages

During this semester we will be reading a variety of political philosophers. This paper will enable you to go more deeply into their writing, and to compare philosophies on the same topic.

You assignment is to compare the ideas of two of the philosophers we study this semesters on one of the following subjects. (Alternatively, you may analyze one of the philosophers we're not studying, such as John Calvin, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Mary Woolstonecraft, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jeremy Bentham or G.W.F. Hegel.)

For the main part of your paper, explain the writer's view's on one of the following issues:

  • GOVERNMENT. What government actions are in the public interest, and how much (minimarlist to extended)? How should government relate to other institutions (such as family, the church)?
  • STATE OF NATURE. What would human beings be like in a natural condition
  • THE SOCIAL CONTRACT. What is the social contract, how did it come about, and what did it do?
  • DEMOCRACY. How effective is "rule by the people" as a form of government?
  • SOVEREIGNTY. What is sovereignty, and who possesses it in society?
  • PROPERTY. What is the role of private property in society?
  • FREEDOM. What does it mean for an individual tobe free, and how can this best be attained?
  • SOME OTHER TOPIC (but check with me first)

In researching you paper you should use the texts themselves, books on the specific writer or text, and commentaries on the texts. Two valuable general commentaries are Sabine's History of Political Theory and Strauss and Crospey's History of Political Philosophy. Wootton includes suggestions for further readings in his introductory essays. Compare the interpretations of the commentators, highlighting one or more points of difference.

In conclusion, considering the different texts and interpretations you have examined, what difference does the issue make for contemporary politics?

The final version of your paper is due during the final exam period, at which time you will make a brief presentation to the class. However, given the importance of the paper to the final grade, you are will-advised to consult with me throughout the semester as you gather materials and begin writing, and to submit at least on complete draft in advance. To this end, I have set aside two days for paper conferences:

  • Tuesday, April 2 This will mainly be a progress report, in which we discuss your topic and sources. For 10 points, bring in a list of five sources, prepared by you, that you are considering for use in your paper. Be sure to include primary as well as secondary sources.
  • Thursday, May 2 By this time you should have a completed draft that you can exchange and discuss with a partner. For 10 points, submit TWO COPIES of a complete rough draft by the preceding class period; one copy will be exchanged with another student. Be very sure to:
  1. Include citations in correct form;
  2. Number each page;
  3. Be present in class.

The remaining 80 percent of the paper grade will be based on your ability to:

  • clearly discuss the political topic you are using to analyzing the philosopher(s);
  • identify one or more points of controversy in interpretation;
  • apply the topic, and the controversy, to contemporary politics

As always, research papers should be carefully documented. Be sure to cite sources for all your information, whether or not you quote them. Rather than foot- or end-notes, use in-text citations with only author and page number: ...try to avoid a Republican filibuster (Lewis A1).

In your bibliography, list sources alphabetically, in this format:

Bloom, Allan. The Republic of Plato. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

O'Donnell, James J. "Augustine: Christianity and Society." 1985. http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/twayne/aug3.html (10 Jan. 2001). [Note: The last item is the date of your access.]

Plato. Platonis Opera. Ed. John Burnet. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979-82.

Segal, Charles. "'The Myth was Saved': Reflections on Homer and the Mythology of Plato's Republic." Hermes 106 (1978): 315-336.

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