Teaching political science well is both incredibly important and incredibly challenging. Political scientists seek to discover underlying, unchanging principles that can describe, explain, and predict empirical realities of the political world. Yet, most students enroll in political science classes because they want to understand the current events unfolding each day and to participatein the political process themselves. Teaching political science at the undergraduate level involves connecting political science theories and findings with the political news of the day, giving students some perspective on how to understand and interpret these events in a broader context, as well as how to situate themselves as potential political actors.
In order to achieve this first imperative – connecting political science theories and findings with the political news of the day – I both include timely empirical examples in my planned course activities as well as leave room in the schedule to address political news as it unfolds. In Spring 2018, for example, the U.S. announced new tariffs that sparked targeted retaliation by its trade partners. We discussed these events extensively in my International Political Economy class as they exemplified the lessons students were learning about the economic benefits of free trade and the political costs that stem from its distributional effects. I supplemented the course syllabus with short news readings, and the students used their new political economy knowledge to interpret what was happening and make predictions about the future.
In order to achieve this second imperative – helping students situate themselves as potential political actors – I make institutions, power, and individual agency central themes within my courses. Like most political scientists, I believe that institutions (in the broadest sense) are incredibly important in explaining political outcomes. From social norms to electoral rules, institutions shape the choices available to political actors and the incentive structures they face. I also focus on identifying relevant political actors, their interests, and the resources available to them. Combining these two elements, I guide students in examining how political actors and institutions interact, and the resulting power that political actors have to achieve their goals. This creates a baseline for thinking about, and discussing, how students can engage as political actors themselves, and how they can leverage institutional structures and incentives to mobilize around the political issues important to them.
My goal as an instructor is to provide students with the tools needed to understand the political world and participate effectively long after my courses end. When my students leave my courses, I expect that they will have gained both substantive knowledge about the course topics as well as a chance to hone their reading, writing, speaking, and analytical and critical thinking skills. My teaching philosophy revolves around the idea that the classroom should be a learning community, where each member of the community is valued, respected, and expected to contribute. As the instructor, I am both a member of this community and one of many resources for students in their individual learning. I design my classes so that students are exposed to a variety of materials and viewpoints (books, articles, lectures, and films) and provided with different tools to engage with these materials. Through various class activities (discussions, written briefs, quizzes, exams, papers, and simulations) students practice using these tools so that they can sort through the vast amounts of information with which they are confronted, make meaningful connections between concepts, and develop their own ideas about our subject.
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