When art asks questions we can use to teach politics

Helene Dyrhauge |

Currently many university teachers are reviewing their modules, contemplating making changes or recycling last year’s curriculum or are faced with developing a whole new module … we have all been there. One of the modules I teach is a first year module “political science”, which is the introduction module for all social science students. Thus, the module has to include all the key concepts such as democracy, power, different political ideologies, globalisation etc. but how do I get 120 students to turn off their laptops and start engaging in a class discussion (the perpetual question any teacher wants the answer to)?

There is more to teaching politics than the standard textbook and PowerPoint slideshow. There are various simulation games – ranging from the typical UN security council to EU negotiations (I do the latter in a MA module) to unleashing zombies on campus – something three colleagues successfully did two years ago – and using Hollywood blockbusters to teach a module on the environment – there are quite a number of films about environmental disasters.  Thus, teaching politics or indeed studying politics does not have to be boring lectures!

Indeed during my holidays I came across an art exhibition in a wood, which made me think of my political science module – a module where I have just changed textbook and have changed some of the lectures themes before going on holiday. The art exhibition is called ‘grænseoverskridende’[i] which translate into “pushing boundaries/limits/crossing borders”. The Danish word ‘grænse’ can be used in different contexts from a political and territorial border to a personal limit of what a person find acceptable, and unfortunately the play with words – and more importantly the ambiguity – is lost in translation.

The art exhibition theme is how limits/borders/boundaries can be shifted and changed; these limits can be personal, political and historical and change over time. The explanatory texts accompanying each art work raised similar questions to those in my first year politics lectures. As I was walking around the wood looking at the art, I kept thinking “this is the globalisation lecture”, “this is the lecture on power and democracy” etc  … so why not incorporate the art into the lectures and hopefully get the students thinking!

One of the first lectures is on democracy and power, an important aspect in any fully functioning democracy is free speech. Here one of the art works was lots of faces and speech bobbles in trees to symbolise how words can ‘push limits’. The following statement accompanied the faces and speech bobbles in the trees:

“ ‘pushing limits’. Words can create borders, words can bring down borders and words can violate a boundary. Words can invite you into a community or keep you outside. Words can sting, hurt and go beyond your personal limit. Words can embrace and lead to love. It is just words … or it is?”[ii] Artist: C & CO

words and speech


The power of words and freedom of speech are important for a fully functioning democracy, it is one of the factors used to by Freedom House, World Value Survey and similar quantitative studies in measuring the levels of democracy in countries around the world.  In previous years the students have been asked to choose a country and look at its rating in Freedom house or World Value Survey together with other literature assess the level of democracy in the choosen country. Whilst there is still time for this exercise during the 3 hour long lecture, I think more time will be used to discuss how words and speech influence democracy … from speeches by political figures to individual citizens who are not able to speak up!

Another art work was lots of shopping baskets in a tree, which symbolises ‘across the border’ and the explanatory text raises the following questions:

“Historically borders have been traded and new borders have been created. Border trade is historically high and setting new records. Everything from disaster-relief equipment, women, war, and ammunition to chemical waste is traded. Where is the limit to what you would buy? What is the price for pushing your limits or moving your limits or make you push others’ limits?”[iii] Artist: C & CO


These questions are quite relevant for understanding globalisation, organised crime, international trade and international relations. Indeed the shopping baskets will now be part of my lecture on globalisation, and I wonder where the students’ limits go for what they will not put in their baskets, and under what circumstances will they go beyond their limits?

In addition to the usual video clips and group exercises, this year I am using a different textbook and now incorporating art. Moreover, the lecture room has been renovated and it is now a modern teaching room with tables and chairs that can be moved around to allow for group work and dialogue between the students. Hopefully the students will speak up and debate … ok maybe not all 120 students  but I remain optimist and energetic … Good luck with all your teaching this coming academic year, and I hope you’ll push the students to their limits and beyond!

PS I am also teaching a module on EU institutions and decision-making, if any of you know of any art work, films etc. which would be interesting to use here please feel free to send me an email.


[i] For more information (only in Danish) about the art project please see https://da-dk.facebook.com/Samlingstanken

[ii] (the translation is mine including any errors or omissions) The original Danish text: ‘Grænseoverskridende. Ord kan skabe grænser, ord kan bryde grænser og ord kan overskride grænser. Ord kan invitere indenfor i fællesskabet eller ord kan holde udenfor. Ord kan svine, svie og såre og gå over vores personlige grænse. Ord kan omfavne og skabe omsorg. Det er bare ord … eller er det?”

[iii] (the translation is mine including any errors or omissions) The original Danish text: ‘Lige over grænsen. Grænser er gennem historien blevet handle tog nye græner sat. Grænsehandlen er historisk høj og sætter nye grænser.  Der handles med alt fra katastrofeudstyr, kvinder, krige, krudt, kemisk affald … hvor går grænsen for hvad du vil handle med? Hvad er prisen for at rykke dine grænser, for at rykke over grænsen eller få dig til at rykke andres grænser?’