Teaching occupies an unusual place in political science. Our discipline is somewhat different from other fields in that regard: The laws of physics apply as fully to the quantum physicist who knows them by heart as they do to the infant just learning to crawl, while someone who never reads or studies a word of Shakespeare can nonetheless live a reasonably full life unaffected by this oversight. Political science, on the other hand, deals with the political system – a system that affects students' lives in areas both large (like health care or the war in Iraq) and small (like postal delivery or student loans), and which students themselves can in turn affect – if they understand how that system works. As we know too well, however, the world of politics remains an arcane and mysterious for a large portion of the public. Education holds the potential for helping students approach politics with greater levels of comfort and understanding and confidence. My long-term goal in teaching political science is to give students a greater understanding of how their government works, the theoretical underpinnings and implications of that system, and what that means for achieving whatever changes students might want to make in the world, now or later on in their lives. In other words, I view teaching political science as ultimately and deeply linked to citizenship.
This is what I keep in mind as I approach teaching political science, whether at the introductory or more advanced level. It's important to talk about the details of checks and balances or how party identification affects electoral behavior, but it's just as vital to ground these discussions with contemporary examples that are relevant to students' own lives. Sometimes these examples are weighty ones that involve difficult and complex issues, like terrorism or current campaigns and debates. At other times they may border on the absurd, such as when I use roommates' differing standards about what constitutes a clean bathroom to illustrate how executive agencies' implementation of legislation can lead to wide disparities between legislative intent and actual policy outcomes. Regardless of how serious or funny my examples are, they help make material that may seem distant from students' own lives more approachable and thus more understandable.
I also believe strongly in bringing students' existing base of knowledge into the classroom. I begin each semester with a blackboard exercise in which I ask the class what they think we'll be talking about for the next few months, based on the title of the course. There are no wrong answers: Anything any student says goes on the board. The full blackboard (which invariably includes most or all of the course topics after ten or fifteen minutes) becomes a springboard for discussing the coming semester, and this discussion is much livelier and interactive than it would have been without the warm-up. This brainstorming session serve several purposes. First, it shows students that they, as a group, already know something about what we're going to cover – which means the course will expand their understanding, rather than present them with wholly new and unfamiliar material. Second, it gets students talking. A student who has spoken once is more likely to do so again and less likely to spend the semester slunk down and hoping not to have to speak in class. Starting the semester with a low-stakes, low-impact exercise helps get students past that initial fear of saying something foolish or incorrect. And third, doing this on Day One sets a tone for the rest of the semester: A course that starts by asking students a question will be one where students should feel secure in asking questions of the instructor, the course material, and each other.
Each course is unique and has its own particular focus. Whatever the content of my courses, however, my hope is that students will come away from each one not just with a better understanding of American government or political psychology or campaigns and elections, but also with a sense of why these things matter to their lives and how the knowledge and understanding they gain during the course can help them become better, stronger, and more active citizens.