Putting APSA ideas into practice

One of the APSA panels I attended was the “Unique Approaches to Teaching Political Science” panel and there were some neat ideas there I wanted to share.

Patrick McGovern of Buffalo State College presented his department’s approach to teaching introduction to political science in “Teaching Res Publica and Individual Rights in the First-Year Political Science Course,” coauthored by Laurie Ann Buonanno.  (As an aside, why is it that we never have catchy names for our pedagogy papers?). The standout details on this course were that it was an intro for majors only and is grounded in 3 texts: Joseph Ellis’ American Creation; Anthony Lewis’ Gideon’s Trumpet; and Larry Diamond’s Spirit of Democracy.  The premise of the class is the push and pull between individual and community.  I liked this idea–my own intro to politics course is an elective aimed at non-majors and focuses on the need for and role of government but uses film and fiction to explore the ideas– and it made me wonder how many departments have a core ‘intro to politics’ class for their majors, and whether this is a desirable thing.  Recently I found myself explaining to students about the sub-fields of polisci, and faced a number of blank looks when I explained why American politics is its own field and considered the gateway to the major.

McGovern did give a shout out to IdeaLog, which has a good quiz to help students see where they stand ideologically. I prefer the OK Cupid Politics Test, but that’s because students are alternatively amused and horrified when they find out they share their politics with Darth Vader or Stalin.

The other two papers–“Engaging Students in the Classroom: How Can I Know What I Think Until I See What I Draw” from John Hogan and Paul Donnelly at the Dublin Institute of Technology and “Engaging Student’s Creativity on Exams: Writing Political Science Poetry” by Natalie Jackson of the University of Oklahoma and Elizabeth Wheat of Western Michigan University–dealt with using creative arts to engage students.  Hogan and Donnelly start off their first class of the semester with asking students to first draw the answer to the question ‘what is Irish politics?” and afterward, explain their drawing, first in writing, then in groups, and then in wider discussion.  The stated goal is to help students master critical self-reflection and create space to examine their existing knowledge and assumptions.  The Jackson and Wheat presentation discussed using poetry as an extra credit device on exams, which seems like a neat idea but ultimately I don’t really see the pedagogical value in it.  I decided to try it out immediately on a quiz in my US politics class last night and while the entries were amusing, I remain unconvinced that this adds to my student’s learning in any way.  If we want to achieve the sociologist goal of ‘diversity of voice’, then it should be in the form of a more extensive project than a simple extra credit assignment.

 

Floods and Famines

The march of Hurricane Irene up the East Coast reminded me of how difficult it is to get students to connect recent events with abstract concepts, especially when students lack direct experience. In students’ thinking, fate explains all. Floods, famines, and wars “just happen.” Somalia is desperately poor and violent because it’s Somalia. Students will donate money or time to a charity because they think it’s a good thing to do, but they don’t examine the role of economic or political institutions (or the lack thereof) in creating human suffering. So for lack of a better term, here is what I call the Hurricane Game:

Tell students to write down, in the form of a list, everything that they do in a typical day. Then say that a hurricane has blown through the night before while they were asleep. Select a student to begin reciting his or her list. The first item will probably be something like “wake up.” Ask the student “do you usually wake up because of an alarm clock?” If the answer is yes, respond with “there’s no electricity, you’re alarm clock didn’t ring, you’re awake, but you don’t know what time it is. What do you do next?” Go through a few more items in the student’s list in a similar fashion — you can remove heat, piped water, refrigerated food, and electronic financial transactions as needed. Students will rapidly find themselves at a loss for what to do, and at point they can form small groups to strategize if they wish. You may even wish to inject a highly contagious disease or zombies into the equation.

Getting students to realize how much of their lives are on autopilot can lead to discussions of everything from social contract theory to markets to public administration. For example, why are there emergency exits and who mandates them? What happens if this doesn’t happen? Why do some people know how to grow food but others don’t? Why do we assume food we haven’t grown ourselves is safe to eat? Why does that food go from a farm to our kitchen table? What happens if someone tries to take that food and there is no enforceable body of law prohibiting theft?

A good book that gives a real-world example of some of these questions is Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.