Every faculty member must wrestle with the difficult question: how ought I teach? It comes with a host of related questions. How does one bring timeless principles to a changing world? What is the proper balance between free intellectual pursuit and ethically driven inquiry? None are easy questions. Answering them personally is difficult. I believe the answer is to focus on the big questions of political science. What puzzles should students – and we as faculty – be trying to solve?
To highlight the puzzles in political science I actively engage students with primary scholarship. It is the only way to equip students for higher order academic conversations. It is not enough to simply discuss important concepts. Even introductory courses need to include deep reading — which also necessitates deep writing. We cannot content ourselves to speak only of the American Constitution; we need to be fluent in the Federalist Papers and of the Federal Farmer. It is not enough to understand the definition of Social Contract Theory; we must know the language of Locke and be able to place The Second Treatise in historical context. I therefore assign deep reading in all of my classes and spend considerable class time having students engage it during class.
Each day in class I work to integrate a number of elements. One, I want students reading beyond the textbook. Two, I want cross conversations to take place about those readings: students engaging students, not just me attempting to talk to students. Three, I want students writing. Students can only have deep learning when they are forced to move beyond regurgitation. Analysis and synthesis require thoughtful writing. My goal is to get students writing, and therefore thinking, like political and social scientists in small ways every time the class meets.
But how do you cultivate in students a willingness to engage, to discuss, and, most difficultly, to write? I look to exploit those puzzles that fascinate me personally in political science. Maybe the Journal of Politics had a new article explaining incumbent behavior in Congress so we model that in class. Last semester we looked to the behavior of Senator Cruz to explain Senatorial procedures and filibustering (before that is was Senator Paul). Then we start writing. I dig in and write with my students. If it is a statistical issue I show them a dataset someone else, or I for my own research, have been building. This past semester in State and Local we analyzed my data on gubernatorial candidate spending per vote gained in Florida. In short, I show students I am sharing in the learning journey with them.
The best teaching is an outgrowth of good research based problems and, conversely, new avenues of research can come from the teaching environment. An example is my research in collaborative note taking. I have spent considerable energy examining the effects of social media on the presidency as a political scientist. It was the topic of my dissertation. As we learn about social scientific thinking I show students my own datasets and my own writing. I want to demonstrate that even experts in the field think, draft, revise, and fail. Students are willing to take risks when they realize their professor is doing likewise.
My thinking pedagogically has been heavily influenced by John Bean’s Engaging Ideas. The research shows that students who write, who write targeted for the discipline in question, and who write with, instead of to, their professors will preform better than their peers who do not. Such a suggestion has been born out in the political educational community as well. As early as 1997 Fox and Ronkowski had identified common learning styles of political science students and found writing to be a key element. More recently Pennock (2011) showed that getting students to write as policy makers in undergraduate courses increased learning. Reading primary sources and writing about those sources have been consistently shown as the key to a quality education.
Political science is a complex field. Embedded in the discipline are several methodological frameworks. We must struggle with understanding deep qualitative context and generalizable quantitative statistical modeling. From a teaching perspective this means making sure students have a basic understanding how to reason both mathematically and institutionally. Mayhew for instance explains Congressional behavior, but students are reluctant to accept his answers. They don’t like the simplicity of his model. Understanding his answer is one of my favorite activities. The problem is most students believe that Congress is dysfunctional. But is that empirically accurate? Mayhew argues they are behaving strategically. To uncover this possibility I run an experiment in every American Government section. I allow students to rewrite portions of their own syllabus using Congressional procedures. It seems simple enough: wouldn’t every student want to make it easier to get a higher grade? But then comes the issue of what we mean by easier. One student prefers extra-credit, but another student wants a take-home test, another something else. As both the House and Senate struggle to write a passable bill one of two things happens. Either nothing is passed during the allowed time or a moderate bill is passed in order to gain a large enough coalition to pass. The result? Students gain a deeper appreciation for what Congress actually does. It also helps them understand why their own preferred ideological outcome does not so easily win in real life political scenarios. It is, in my opinion, a great piece of active learning.
I also have students work together in small groups. But in many classrooms I encountered a learning issue: students were not effectively working together. I wanted to facilitate small groups. I realized that my own budding research offered a possibility: what if we used new media tools to put students into small groups? As a result I set about devising a strategy to have students take notes collectively in small groups using Google Drive (formerly Google Documents). Students in small groups could take notes at the same time together. It appeared to be an anecdotal success. Students can learn a great deal by seeing how others learn. But was it really achieving the desired results? I set out to build an experiment to find out. Starting the next semester and continuing for over a year I set up a larger population study and recruited other faculty both from Daytona State College and from other institutions. I also had two students who were interested on the topic join in the data collection process (one is now a graduate student at the University of Central Florida and the other is a graduate student at the University of Florida). My teaching resulted in experimentation, which led to an article now being published by the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Students can learn a great deal by experiencing how others learn. It is a source of skill building and allows a professor insight into student learning outside of test feedback. By weekly reviewing each group’s notes it is possible to assess what students took from lectures. It provides real-time data on successes and failures and allows courses to evolve organically before students take tests, instead of after grades are posted.
Great teaching is collaborative. Great classrooms are not confining. Great professors roll up their sleeves and tackle the difficult questions with their students. They model critical writing. They impart critical thinking through disciplinary research. In short, I believe the best teachers are those who never stop being excellent students. It is my goal as a faculty member and teacher to be that lifelong student.