Scholars are Practitioners…in the classroom.

In many academic spaces, but particularly in the politic and professional military education worlds, there is a noted divide between ‘scholar’ and ‘practitioner’. Scholars have terminal degrees, or are in the progress of getting them, and rely on their academic background and research to provide them with their expertise. Practitioners may lack that formal academic background, but bring a wealth of experience from their professional experience in the military, policy world, or activist space. The divide between the two can be tense, with academics accused of living inside the Ivory Tower with no practical experience, and practitioners being told they over-rely on their own personal experience to the expense of a more representative or multi-perspective view.

To say ‘both have value’ is obvious, but not the point I want to make. Instead, I offer this: when it comes to the classroom, most of us scholars are actually practitioners.

Consider: how many of us have substantial, formal academic training in how to teach? Very few. According to John Ishiyama, Tom Miles, and Christine Balarezo (2010), only 41 of 122 PhD-granting political science departments offer a course in teaching to their graduate students; of those, only 28 institutions require their students take that course. That’s a single course, not a degree, so even in those cases, hardly enough to qualify someone on scholarly grounds. There are graduate degree programs available in this field, and a rich literature on evidence-based practices for teaching in the college environment. Such a degree is not required to enter the classroom, and I’m not aware of many political scientists that have one. I run a teaching center and write regularly on teaching and learning, and yet have no formal background in education, being almost entirely self-taught. Most us lack any kind of significant training in the knowledge and skills needed in the classroom.

Despite this lack of academic credentials, most of us teach, in many cases starting soon after we pass our comprehensive exams in graduate school. Our subject matter expertise is deemed sufficient credential to enter the classroom, practicing a set of skills we have little training in. Instead, our first efforts at teaching typically rely on our experience as students and teaching assistants, supplemented by materials and ideas provided by peers, networks, and online resources. Over time, we might rely on our academic skills to find and use the existing literature, and even to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning. But most of us, dare I say it, start out (and sometimes remain) as practitioners in the classroom, relying on experience to do the hard work of pursuing student learning.

Recognizing our practitioner status has a few implications. First, it should calm some of the tension in the scholar-practitioner divide. Accusations that experience is not enough to merit a claim of expertise would equate to acknowledging that scholars have no business in the classroom. Most of us would have a visceral reaction to this, ready to argue that our lack of formal knowledge has not inhibited success in the classroom. True! Exactly the point: practitioner experience matters, has tremendous value, and should not be dismissed as a source of expertise. Applying this perspective to our actual subject matter areas should help scholars appreciate what practitioners bring to the table.

A second implication is to recognize that there is value in seeking out the scholarship of teaching and learning, to provide the scholarly perspective that will complement practitioner experience. Whether you are thinking through course design, creating assignments, grading and feedback, interactive lecturing, simulations, managing classroom environments, creating inclusive environments, or minimizing burnout, there is a wealth of academic writing available to you. There are the journals that publish this within our field, such as Journal of Political Science Education, International Studies Perspectives, and PS: Political Science & Politics, as well as a ton of books and journals in the general teaching field. Seek out these resources, and you will find that your task may become much easier.

It is a common belief that maintaining currency in our subject matter requires remaining an active researcher. If that is your belief, then I encourage you to apply it to your teaching domain as well. By engaging in education research, you can expand your knowledge and abilities in the classrooms, and for those that care about such things, be able to claim you are as much a scholar of the classroom as you are of your individual field. I have certainly found my work in the scholarship of teaching and learning to be the most valuable contributions I have made, both from a scholarly and classroom practitioner perspective.