Intellectual Engagement During a Summer with Fewer Options Than Normal

August 07, 2020

In mid-March 2020, when the majority of Grinnell students went home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 140 of them were allowed to remain on campus. For health and safety reasons, these students were separated from one another.

“I was very worried about the students who were left on campus,” says Johanna Meehan, McCay-Casady Professor of Humanities and professor of philosophy. “I wanted to do something to help people. I can’t make masks because I have no sewing skills. I can’t deliver packages.” But teaching? “This I can do.”

She offered Political Theory II, which studies the work of political theorists since Machiavelli.

Between the politics of the pandemic and racial politics during the spring and summer of 2020, Meehan says, “I don’t know that there’s ever been a better time to teach political theory. It’s a course that I think really speaks to people’s deep-seated interests and concerns that are so festering in the United States right now and around the world.”

Meehan met with her five students every day over the computer for two hours. All of them are in the United States and three are in Grinnell, so the synchronous meetings worked for everyone.

Taking a 4-credit class in 6 weeks, especially a heavy reading course like this one, can be intense. The texts can be somewhat long, and for students to prepare every day for the next day was a huge amount of work.

One student told her, “It doesn’t leave any time for pondering.” Meehan worried about giving students too much work. In a normal, 14-week, face-to-face class, she’d assign 8 two-page papers — reflections on their reading and how something connects to the political situation — as well as a 15-page research paper at the end.

For the summer class, she cut the short reflections back to 4 two-page papers. For the final assignment, she was aware that students may have difficulty accessing materials. Instead of a research paper, students wrote 2 final essays to put theorists in conversation with each other, which they also presented as oral arguments.

She also asked students midstream what was working in the class and what wasn’t. “This is a joint effort,” she says. “We have to do this with each other.” Her students suggested that they give some of the presentations on central ideas and help lead discussions.

“Intellectual work becomes very rewarding when your life is stripped down,” Meehan says. “I love watching students open up to ideas and use them for their own purposes. It’s an exciting process to open up other minds.”


This story is part of a series about Grinnell's summer classes in 2020:


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