Magicicada, Brood XIV

Alexis Turner


General resources for students


Beginning: Tools

All disciplines and subjects, whether art, history, math, sports, or cars, have their own language, norms, questions, and practices. If I mention metaphysics, I'm probably discussing philosophy. If I'm arguing with you about whether gesso or shellac makes a better ground, we're likely painters. Likewise, being a student — and a political theorist in particular — comes with certain ways of doing things. When beginning, it is crucial to take a crash course in some of the tools and language you'll be using. Once you are familiar with them, you can move on to practicing how to use them. But first you have to know the difference between a spark plug and a bibliography.

Occasionally, students get huffy when I suggest that they ought to visit the library and ask the librarians for a tour, as though somehow I am implying they are stupid. I hope that the observations above will make it clear that this is not the case. Even advanced scholars often ask for a tour the first time they visit a new library! Each institution has different books and tools for searching, each catalog is a little different, some have maps, some don't even let you touch the books. You will be relying on these tools and the ones below very heavily for the next few years. If professional football players are dedicated enough to learn ballet so they can run better, then there's certainly no shame in asking to see how the library works, looking up a new word in the dictionary, or visiting the writing center to improve your prose.

So. Step one. Learn your tools. And revisit them every so often.

Political Theory: WTF

  • The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


  • Booth, Wayne. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
    If you read only one thing on this list, make it this.
  • Turabian, Kate. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  • Indiana University Library
    Please explore the library website to find out what services are available — you can do more than just check out books, including setting up an appointment with a librarian, using databases to find articles from newspapers and magazines going back hundreds of years, ordering books from other libraries, and getting suggestions on research projects.
  • History of Science Research Guide
    Political theory and history and philosophy of science are closely linked disciplines. The materials provided in this resource are stellar for theorists; however, many of the links on this site will not work outside of Harvard. You can use this site to identify the name of a resource you are interested in and then you will need to search for it on your own library website.


Intermediate: Practice

Once you've started to get a handle on some of the language and tools you'll be using, it's time to get good at them. The following exercises are meant to help refine your skills. None of these are "necessary," but many of them are fun and will actually help make your work better.


First and foremost: read. The best writers have a natural fluency with language that cannot be taught strictly through grammar exercises (although these can be helpful at the beginning). This is because the tone, style, and ordering of words can impart different subtle messages to the reader — people who read a lot get a good sense for not just what their words say, but also for what they don't say. For the way they make the reader feel, and for the nuanced suggestions they impart. Have you ever read something so boring you wanted to stab out your eyes? What about something beautiful? Exciting? Reading more can help you figure out HOW to make that happen in your own work. Reading widely also permits you to start to see how different people understand things and this in turn helps you read works more generously. Finally, the more you read, the more you come across good ideas that you might never have thought of, and the more you know what people are studying and discovering elsewhere. This broadens your own knowledge and helps inject creative ideas from unexpected places. To this end, the links below are good places to start, but you should begin to build your own list of news sources, books, and articles that you find valuable.


  • The book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a good source for getting unstuck. Just a warning — much of the book consists of New Age meditations and reflections on Goldberg's Buddhist practices, which some people enjoy but others can't stand. Regardless of your opinion on that part, check out the writing excercises, which are extremely useful.
  • If you come across a book that will be important to you in your work, decide what the most important thing you need to know about it is and write a short (~7 pages) paper for yourself identifying the author's position on that one point.
  • Keep notes for yourself on the things you read. Write miniature essays on what you think about them, questions they bring up in your mind, or ways they remind you of other work. No one has to see these, so they do not need to be formal.
  • Choose an author and try to write something that sounds like them (just as an excercise, not all the time and not on assignments). Try this with different people or types of writing, like newpaper articles, academic writing, technical reports, etc.


  • Fischer, David. Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper — Row, 1979.
  • Walton, Douglas. Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argumentation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Learn about the many kinds of cognitive biases.
  • Do not get obsessively hung up on the form of logic in the references suggested above. It is useful and powerful to have these skills at your command, but if you adhere to them slavishly then you have failed to do what they are meant to help you do — namely, think.
  • Keep a journal of ideas. No. Really.
  • Observe other people and ask yourself why they do the things they do. Politics is about people, after all.
  • Observe yourself and ask the same thing.
  • Ever notice how you get great ideas in the shower? Make some time for yourself every day to simply be quiet. No radio. No television. No piped music in the coffeeshop. No dicking around on your phone. Or this computer. Simply sit or take a walk — without distractions — and let your mind wander.
  • Form a study group with people you like and who challenge you. Study groups and friendships are extremely valuable.*
    * This does not mean finding the smartest person in the class and riding their coattails. If it comes to my attention that you have done this in group study, you will receive a failing grade for participation. If it comes to my attention that you have copied their assignments, you will receive a failing grade for that entire assignment and be brought up on charges of plagiarism. The point here is to learn more than you would by yourself and to help other people do the same. It is not to copy other people or let them do your work for you. I'm not allowed to use the word for people who do that in front of you, my students, but it starts with d and rhymes with whoosh. Don't be a whoosh.
  • Be critical. Use the tools and practices you've learned to ask whether what someone is saying is correct or not.
  • Be generous. Use the tools and practices you've learned to identify what an author or speaker's underlying assumptions are, and ask whether their argument makes sense given those assumptions. Ask yourself whether you disagree with their conclusions, their assumptions, and/or their methods. This will make a difference when deciding how you wish to respond, and whether the thing you were initially critical of is actually as "wrong" as you originally thought. It will also help you realize whether you have more or less in common than it seemed at first glance.
  • Do not be afraid of being wrong. If you are, it will stand in the way of you seeking out new knowledge, asking for help, or recognizing when something you believe needs to be adjusted. If you knew everything today, then what would be the point of thinking? Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), no one knows everything. So there will always be something that needs to be learned. Do not run away. The only way you can conquer your ignorance is to confront it.

Advanced: Problems

1. If it is not possible to know something that is not the case, then how can I know it is not the case that I can know something that is not the case?

2. Describe the link between authority, actions, and judgment.

3. Consider the following Sanskrit term, "anta," which is the root for the English word "end," as well as the sample sentence below:

अन्त (anta)
end, limit, boundary
pause, certainty
death, destruction, end of life
condition, nature
nearness, handsome, agreeable

Example, with all usages:
Defining the boundary provided an agreeable certainty concerning the nature of the thing, and we decisively laid to rest all disagreement on the subject, putting such nonsense well outside the realm of possibility.

Same as:
Defining the anta provided an anta anta concerning the anta, and we decisively anta-ed all non-anta on the subject, putting such non-anta well outside the anta.

Describe the political implications of the idea of "end" considered in this way.