“How to spark curiosity”

Hi everyone, my name is Jennifer Ostojski. I am a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at Colgate University. In August 2022, I defended my dissertation on European identity. I recently joined the ALPS team, handling some of the day-to-day stuff, contributing weekly (on Fridays) my thoughts on teaching, and also soliciting guest posts to present new and exciting teaching tools. Looking forward to our time together!

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What is it that we do in Political Science? That’s a question a faculty member prompted us to think about in a department meeting I recently attended. The Geology department “produces” geologists”. The Physics department “produces” physicists. But what do we mean by “producing” political scientists? I could give you the old spiel of pre-law tracks and policy-oriented folks. They have clearer expectations of what happens in the great beyond when they leave their undergraduate institutions. But what about my students, who focus on International Relations or Comparative Politics, who have internships in consulting firms, architectural firms, or even on the stock market? I don’t know about you, but I am not producing consulters, architects, and stock market experts in class.

Reflecting on this question, I realized that the “what I do” in class is to try just genuinely spark curiosity and excitement for everything that politics is (see Chad’s three-part series on the Death of Curiosity here, here, and here). I find that when students come to class, their perception of politics is much more limited to distant actors, processes, and things they think they have no power over. Missing from their radar is the consciousness that ultimately everything they do, engage with, and consume is and can be tied to politics. And more importantly, they are not passive observants but actors in the political world. This realization does not happen organically, but when achieved it can create a curious mind about the world around them – maybe not in perpetuity but at least for the length of the semester.

Over time this transformation and realization can take place when prompted by the instructor (you and me!). Over the last couple semesters, I have put more emphasis on creating activities and classroom designs to elicit this realization in my students and involve them and their ideas more strongly in our classroom environment. Below, I outline some of examples that I am currently doing in my two courses.

1. Participation now makes up 20% of my students’ grade. It is a lot – I think – compared to other courses, but ultimately I decided that I need to motivate my students to speak up in any capacity, share their ideas, and allow themselves to play around with concepts without necessarily feeling the need to say the “right” or “correct” thing.

  • Caveat: I have seen an uptick in participation. But the hurdle of “saying the right thing” is ever present. I had a student recently apologize to me after class for not knowing the answer.

Assuring and reminding my students about the opportunity the classroom provides to freely exchange ideas has worked so far only in parts for me. 

2. I begin every class session with a 5-minute news recap session. It wakes up the students (especially those pesky early Monday morning sessions), and it allows students to share news stories that peaked their interests about domestic or international issues.

  • Caveat: If students don’t read, and I come across that a bunch (maybe you too?), it can become an exercise in cricket sounds. I counter that by keeping in my metaphorical back pocket a couple of stories when students are not sharing anything on their own. They can then at least respond to that and communicate their thoughts.
    • The cynic in me is a bit baffled when I encounter folks who just don’t read anything. But that is beside the point here.

3. A core assignment in my class, which I have done now for a couple of semesters, is a short in-person presentation, in which each student picks their own topic in relation to the class theme (this semester it is broadly “International Relations”). For me, it is Important that they are free to choose the topic and put their own mark on our class. Often, they contribute fresh new case studies that enrich our understanding of core concepts. Also, if they choose on their own, they are more likely to genuinely like the topic, which can be felt in the way they approach the presentation research itself. Students in the past have talked about Princess Diana as an international diplomat, the efforts of the NBA to start an African basketball league, the emerging norm of returning stolen artifacts to former colonized states, and the rise and fall of the Adani Group.

  • Caveat: I have found that when first confronted with the assignment, some students “get it”, while other students are a bit overwhelmed. Two reasons stand out: (1) the freedom of choice is almost too much, but providing examples helps quite a lot for students to be able to narrow down; and (2) a lack of interest in seemingly a lot of things, which then transpires into not knowing where to start and how to proceed. In the case of the second option, I have found that it takes a lot of probing and pulling to define half-heartedly some “interesting” topic.

These three are by no means perfect, but they have created a warmer and more engaged back-and-forth that I appreciate and prefer over my monologues. I try and improve upon that regularly. No empirical evidence exists on the effects of my efforts (yet), but I see it as my responsibility of “what I do” to instill – especially in introductory courses – a sense of curiosity and ownership by our students over politics. Maybe in twenty years one of them will reach out about their international political efforts in architectural design.

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