David Johnston

Sep 2020

This is easily one of my favorite courses I've taken at Columbia. While Johnston goes off on tangents about his famous friends a lot (pretty amusing, tbh), I learned the basics of Mills, Rawls, and Kant while applying their ideas to real-life situations in the papers. There are no required discussion sections, but the TAs help enormously with the papers. Take this class!

Apr 2020

In general, not the best class, somewhat interesting but he makes some classes of 100 people just discussion and it's not always a fruitful or necessary debate. Beyond that, this professor is a hypocrite to the morality of justice. Attendance is only 5% of the grade in the syllabus and he threatened to FAIL ME for not attending all the zoom sessions during coronavirus. I have done all the work and got an A on the first essay, in no way would a 5% attendance would ever result in a fail! He likes to act as judge, jury, and executioner and has little respect for justice in an applicable setting. That is not the first time he threatened to fail me! While the class was still in the session he threatened to kick an entire back row (our seats were permanent for the semester and the back row was just folding chairs, no desks and we could not see over the row in front of us) for talking or using technology. Threatening to kick a student out of class, not once but twice, for circumstances that would not result in failing a class, is absurd and not under the guidelines of the syllabus. He has no respect for outside circumstances and thinks he is the sole voice of reason.

Nov 2019

I recommend this class to everyone. It's one of the best classes I've taken at Columbia. The reading load is not too heavy (you don't really have to understand any of the arguments in detail until the final) and the content is interesting. Topics range from the death penalty, to abortion, to privacy rights. Unlike other classes I've had at Columbia, Johnston presents not only one but both sides of each issue, and encourages you to think about legitimate arguments offered by the side you disagree with. This challenged my thinking and led me to develop stronger reasons and arguments for believing in the things I already did. While Johnston does tend to talk a lot about himself during class, as other reviews have mentioned, it's relatively harmless, and honestly some of his stories were quite interesting. Johnston is also the Undergraduate Department Chair of Political Science, so it's helpful to be able to take a class with/get to know him a little (if you're willing to go to office hours). Johnston doesn't expect you to have any prior knowledge of any of the theorists in the course. He's a clear lecturer, and happy to clarify anything that doesn't make sense. The TAs were knowledgeable and helpful. There are three or four optional discussion sections to go over the paper and prep for the final exam. While getting an A on the paper is a little tough, the TAs lay out the basic arguments you need to know in these sections, so go to them. Take this course, put in the work, and you won't regret it.

Jun 2017

This professor has a massive ego which can be rather annoying at times. That being said, I feel I learned a lot in this class and appreciated the organized and intellectually stimulating nature of his lectures. I would recommend this course for those considering going to law school and those interested in political theory. I really liked the assignments (argumentative essays) and felt they made me concretize everything I learned in lecture. Grading was done fairly and I appreciated the option to write an extra essay for a better grade. The final did well to put everything into perspective and I often find myself referring to the material I learned in this class in my other human rights and political philosophy courses.

Jan 2015

A great professor for CC, and I was lucky to have him for a term. He's very knowledgable about a lot of the books, and I especially loved our classes on Hobbes and Locke (he is less knowledgeable about Al Ghazali and the Qur'an). He is full of himself and he knows it, and he tells us the most interesting, sometimes hilarious stories about his life. My biggest complaint would be that sometimes he would follow a student's point on a tangent for a very long time and it frustrated me that it seemed like we'd gotten nowhere, really. But generally he was able to keep conversations interesting and focused on the stuff that he prepared. The essays are graded fairly. He likes for you to be succint and not include lots of fluff. Every sentence should have a purpose in the essay. It's great to learn to write like this. The essay prompts are short, just a couple of sentences each, all based on the texts. But they are not often straightforward, and for CC essays you really should think through your points before starting to write. They are on the short end (1200-1500 words). If you have him for your professor, I would definitely keep the class! I certainly had a great CC experience.

Jul 2014

I took Justice with Prof. Johnston in Spring 2014 and absolutely loved the class - Johnston is articulate, well organized, highly engaging, and offered excellent guidance as we navigated challenging readings and political theories. I highly, highly recommend this course to any student but especially ones considering a Political Science major or concentration - Johnston's class is what convinced me of a political science major. The class, especially the readings, are not easy - Johnston expects but does not require that students have some base knowledge of Locke, Hobbes, etc - and uses their theories as a basis for the classes' readings which include Mill, Kant, Nozick, Rawls, Nino, etc. The optional TA sessions, however, were incredibly productive in helping clear up the topic material and the frequently convoluted but engaging writings. My TA, who I HIGHLY recommend, was Rob Goodman, and he offered excellent insight into what the authors were actually saying and what topics it related to. Overall, the class focused on some fascinating and highly controversial themes in our legal system today - the right of international rescue, abortion, female surrogacy, torture, etc. The papers, while graded critically, often focused on these same problems - one absolutely excellent topic discussed whether prostitution, in theory, is ever actually just. If you like engaging with political theory and enjoy a highly articulate, organized and accomplished professor accompanied by helpful TAs, I highly recommend this course! Justice was the best class I've taken so far at Columbia.

Dec 2012

I'm slightly confused as to why Johnston doesn't have better reviews. For CC, he would definitely be one of the better professors to have considering that he knows his stuff. Especially for Machiavelli and Hobbes, he's written books on those guys. But for other areas like the Qur'an and Al-Gazhali, his knowledge could have been greater. But like what others have said perviously, Johnston is very particular about how he wants his students to write their papers. No fluff, no repeating yourself, and generally no bullshit. Though it is annoying at first, concise and precise writing is a good skill and something students who like to make themselves look smart rather than actually write something smart could pick up anyway.

May 2011

This was a fantastic class. I may still have some years to go at Columbia, but this is, and will definitely remain one of my favorite classes ever taken in college. I was attracted to this class mainly because of the interesting subject matter of the political theory of justice and I was not let down at all. For one thing, the readings were all very relevant and interesting (and for a Political Science class, thoroughly manageable), and were usually tied into the lectures and discussions. Professor Johnston was also a terrific lecturer - he was clear and concise in outlining the relevant material and arguments, bringing in external perspectives from the readings and elsewhere, while also giving us his own opinion, all without ever boring me in a single lecture. I really have to disagree with the negative CULPA reviews about his demeanor and manner of teaching, because he was always capable of engaging us intellectually in ways that never implied that his own opinions were the right ones, or only ones worth holding. He was also pleasant, kind and patient, and occasionally abruptly funny in ways that make you think, "wait, did he really just say that?", and also make you not regret coming to class that day. Luke, one of the TAs, was also really great - he was always swift in responding to emails and was generally adept in answering questions. I thought on the whole that the syllabus was well-structured, the readings interesting (though doing ALL the reading isn't really necessary), and the lectures were always fruitful. The 3 papers we had to do (4 assigned overall) were all very thought-provoking as well, inviting us to think more deeply about issues we had discussed, and to form our own personal opinions about issues in modern society pertaining to justice. Perhaps my greatest takeaway from this course is having the privilege of being introduced to John Rawls, whose theory of justice as fairness is now one of my favorite philosophical works. The module on domestic distributive justice was also the best one, in my opinion. I guess most people thinking about whether to take this course will want to know if it's easy, or if a good grade will come out of it. The answer is that it's sufficiently challenging that in order to get an A a fair bit of hard work will have to be put into it, but it's all worth it in the end. In general though, as long as you pay close attention in the lectures (really important for the final) and keep up somewhat consistently with the readings you'll do fine. As a testament to how great this class was, I will admit that I've never taken a political theory class before, and as a (potential) political science major I've never considered political theory as one of my subfields. This class has completely changed my mind about that, as political theory will definitely be a subfield of my major.

Jul 2005

His lectures were interesting. I appreciated his availability. However, all things considered, this is probably a good class for kiss-ups

Jul 2005

I agree with all the reviewers on Prof. Johnston, both positive and negative. He certainly is all that is said about him. I think that he is one of those professors that you either love or despise - you have to make up your own mind about him. I started off hating the class and the lectures and especially the arrogant and aloof TA's, who acted as if it was a bother everytime you asked them a question. I was particularly bothered by the fact that Professor Johnston had little patience for any ideas that could not be reconciled with his own, albeit well thought out theories of justice. As the year went along I must confess I grew increasingly fond of him. Despite the imperial demeanour, he is very gentle and accomodating to the concerns of his students. His comments on the papers can be biting, and you can either get annoyed with him, or swallow your pride as I did, and work much harder. He does have great passion for his subject which covers a multitude of flaws, at least in my mind. I will always be grateful to him for introducing me via his lectures to John Rawls, who has since become my favorite philosopher. Overall, if you take the notes, and attend his lectures you can do well in this class, and leave with a great appreciation for the idea of justice.

May 2005

His middle name is Chambliss. That basically says it all. Professor Johnston is one of the most pompous and arrogant professors I have ever encountered. Yes, the workload is small for this class, but the midterm and final are just ridiculous- I think I spent more time on his final exam than I did thinking about which college to attend. He regurgitates his lectures from notes which he randomly interjects his own theses into. His awkward mumbling and sparatic southern drawl don't help him out any either. Just avoid him, he makes even potentially interesting theories on political justice seem like death in an inescapable hour and fifteen mintues. The sad thing is he has potential to be a great teacher, not just someone published in his precious Norton (which he'll make sure to inform you of.) Good luck to you

Apr 2005

From the first day of class, I was put off by the fact that Professor Johnston was reading almost word-for-word from lecture notes. Unfortunately, this continued through almost the entire semester. Johnston has taught this class many times before, and therefore it is nothing new to him - his lectures suffer as a result. They come across as very scripted and dull, with several humorous and interesting stretches sprinkled in between. About papers: if you have a desire to be unique, or to challenge accepted concepts of justice or morality, then BEWARE - you will feel extremely stifled in this class. Professor Johnston has a cookie-cutter image of what papers should look like, and he does his best to make everyone conform to this (quite dull) image. He even passes out what I consider to be mediocre papers as examples after which he suggests everyone should model their own papers! I appreciate that the professors and T.F.'s expect clear, well-constructed arguments, no matter what one is arguing, but the fact that they had such SPECIFIC views of what make "good papers" was disappointing for those who like to challenge themselves. My T.F. marked down my grade because he thought my view was "wrong," in his own words. I was able to show him and the professor that my argument for what was in their opinion "wrong" was in fact quite clear and persuasive, and thereby was able to raise my grade on that paper, but the problem was endemic to most students' grades, from what I saw. This class is not the worst class at Columbia, but the professor's confusion of "writing a standard paper" with "writing an exceptional paper" is quite nauseating. I was able to get a good grade in this class only by suppressing any urge I had to become engaged with the topics and by forcing myself to regurgitate Johnston's own views. If you think you are the type of person that may get frustrated from being expected to write and think a certain way, then avoid this class. If you can handle being a cookie-cutter student for one semester (or letting your grade suffer), then take the class - the readings are quite interesting on their own.

Apr 2005

While the course is far from perfect, and Johnston certainly has a tendency to endlessly reiterate fairly simple points, no one can say that he is anything but clear. Although most of the readings are both informative and appropriate, there are certain issues which receive a fairly biased review, though as a whole the course is very reasonably balanced. Overall a good course, and very clear professor, though far from amazingly inspiring. Definitely recommended if youÂ’re interested in the topic.

Jun 2004

This was the most boring and definitely worst class I have taken at Columbia. Prof. Johnston is extremely knowledgable and nice, but his lectures will bore you to tears...also, he posts lecture notes on-line after each class which made me stop attending after the mid-term. The reading is interesting but I would say that I haven't learnt all that much in class-CC is doing a better job! Take the class if you don't want to do any work, don't want to attend lectures and still get an A/A-..

May 2004

Alright so a lot of these reviews say stuff like...this was an amazing class blah blah I learned so much blah blah... I fell asleep every day in class because the material only made me think one thing, DUH! Ok I'll give the class one thing, the readings were interesting. But overall I thought this class was a waste of time. But if you are going to take it...make sure you have a good TA.

May 2004

I really enjoyed this course - take it! The readings were not all neccesary, since he extrapolated the main points in lecture, but they're so interesting. Also, his teaching style is great --clear, effective, and always insightful. Another plus is that he posts lecture notes online which made studying for the final easy.

May 2004

One of the best classes I've taken at Columbia. Johnston not only clearly defines ideas and concepts in lecture, but posts the lecture notes (which are very extensive) online. The readings are interesting and original. You will learn a lot without doing a ridiculous amount of work. The reading list might look a little long, but everything is worth reading and valuable in almost any other class-- poli sci, philosophy, or sociology. HUGHLY recommened professor and class.

Nov 2003

This was one of the best classes I've taken at Columbia (I'm a senior now). I took the class in the Spring of my Sophomore year, so the theoretical readings on justice overlapped nicely with my CC reading. Johnston's lectures were amazingly organized and logical; each class was pretty much structured as a logical argument. If you paid attention in class, while just sitting there you pretty much learned the way to structure an argument and write a proper philosophy paper. The readings were extremely interesting since they dealt with current issues. The papers were on current issues as well, and were challenging yet fun to write, even though they weren't graded as easily as some people liked. If you paid attention in class you easily knew what he wanted in the papers (a logical argument in a similar structure to the way he teaches). The class taught me more about how to write than any Core class I've taken. As for grading, I got B+'s on the papers and then probably aced the surprisingly easy final exam and ended up with an A in the class (and I was a sophomore). I think my transcript says there were 30% A's overall, so don't believe the people who think the class was harshy harshy graded. I liked the class so much that if i have the time next semester I'm going to go to the lectures just to sit and hear him teach. It was a wonderful educational experience, and I recommend it to everyone.

Sep 2002

What a self-centered guy! This class should be called "Prof. Johnston Speaks His Mind" W3100y. His arrogance gets in the way of what would otherwise be an interesting class.

Sep 2002

Johnston was a perfectly fine professor. Although he certainly doesn't hesitate to integrate his theories on Justice into the course, I thought (while not agreeing with all of his theories) that he laid them out in a logical fashion and shouldn't be faulted for doing so. He was accessible after class ended and responsive to emails, although I never utilized his office hours. It utilizes some of the same readings as CC, however there is more of a contemporary emphasis on the readings, and considerably more contemporary readings are used. The final was not difficult, probably one of the easier ones that I have taken. The papers were graded harshly, and grades were largely based on the logic of the student's argument. Lecture notes were posted on the web and enabled you to determine what was important and made studying for the final considerably easier. Broad notes were also posted on the chalk board, although it was up to you to take more detailed notes during class. For these reasons, I would recommend this course, although not to someone who had not taken L & R.

May 2002

I cannot disagree more with the other reviews. This class was amazing. Professor Johnston loved teaching it (which is rare at our fine institution), and his lectures were thoroughly interesting. Of course Johnston made arguments, and of course he thought his arguments were right. He had absolutely no problem when people disagreed with him, but let's be honest, he's been studying this stuff for his whole life, and he is entitled to his views. In terms of the goals of the class, Johnston succeded in teaching us a ton about justice. The readings were interesting (though long), and the papers were tough (and graded harshly), but interesting to write. More than anything else, Johnston taught a new way of thinking and looking at the world. This was a fantastic class.

May 2002

I disagree with the reviews that cite David Johnston as a know-it-all, overbearing professor. On the contrary, he teaches one of the best poli sci lecture courses I've taken at Columbia. What makes his course interesting is that he doesn't just go over the material. He'll explain what he deems as necessary to the course, and the offer HIS insight. You can take it or leave it (as he says in the beginning of the course). But it's always interesting to see the opinion of someone who's been in the field so long and knows what he's talking about.

May 2002

Do not let the great syllabus and reading list tempt you to take this class. The material covered is incredibly interesting, but the professor will manage either to bore you to tears or anger you beyond all belief with his overly-deliberate, self-centered lectures. He warns you that he will discuss various approaches to each controversial issue studied then explain HIS view of what “justice requires.” (He thinks his view is very important.) Much of each class is consumed by “discussion,” which of course is a joke in a lecture class of 100+ people. The worst part of the class was the way he expects you to write papers. Remember that 5th grade style, in which you begin “In this paper I will show….”? Yeah, that one. If you have more patience than I do, perhaps you might enjoy the class for its great reading list, but beware.

Apr 2002

If you are interested in a professor who presents his opinion as fact and leaves room for idiotic comments from the same three people but not for genuine inquiries into his reasoning, then this is the class for you. Professor Johnston seems to think that his word is the word of God, and if you disagree with him he usually dismisses your comment outright. I thought this was going to be my favorite class from looking at the reading list, and it turned out to be awful.

Nov 2001

A thoroghly interesting class if the subject matter interests you. Begins with broad theories of morality, but the emphasis is on contemporary issues (e.g. abortion, death penalty, surrogate motherhood). Lectures follow the syllabus and are interesting and easy to follow. I highly recommend this class to anyone interested in how political theory and morality can actually be applied to modern issues.