Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How to teach political science

Ezra Klein was kind enough to call me and chat about his recent blog post on the 2012 election. During our conversation, we discussed his visit to APSA this year and his experiences with political science education (he attended two University of California campuses as an undergrad). As he described it, undergraduate political science education comes across like a high school civics class on steroids, and probably only over-the-counter-strength steroids at that. He moved to DC after college because he wanted to really understand "politics," but after a few years there, he discovered that political scientists were the only ones who were actually studying politics systematically, and that we actually had some pretty good answers.

This actually mirrors my own experiences. I was certainly happy enough with my undergraduate education, but I was very rarely inspired by my poli sci classes. I went to graduate school in poli sci largely in spite of, rather than because of, my undergraduate experiences.

I'd like to think things have changed since I was an undergrad in the late Pleistocene, but I'm not sure they have that much. I think we can do a lot more to engage our students. Not just by using more active learning approaches (although that can surely help), but also by conveying the idea of discovery. Learning a series of facts is not nearly as compelling as learning how we learned those facts. Any student can write down "The President's party tends to lose House seats in midterm elections" and probably regurgitate that on a test. Show them a scatterplot, though, and the visual approach grabs them on a different level. Have them make the scatterplot from raw data, and you've got a budding scientist on your hands.

I'm starting my intro class off this year by having the students read Hans Noel's fabulous essay "Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don't," which conveys, more than just about any other undergraduate-appropriate article I've read, the idea that some things are knowable. We haven't figured out everything by a long shot, but we've figured out some things, and the areas we're still working on are really pretty fascinating mysteries. I'd love it if one of my undergraduates some day figures one of them out.


Steve Saideman said...

Only problem is that this is not Political Science but mostly a subfield of it--American mostly, a bit of Comparative, no IR.

Just call it what it is, says one mildly miffed Political Scientist who studies and teaches IR.

Seth said...

That's a fair point, Steve, and one I should have made more clear in the text above. It doesn't really apply to theory, either. But there's a lot of what we teach that can be more informed by political science and less by civics.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I'd be interested to see your thoughts on the disciplinary name "Political Science". Departments that study the same thing are also called "government" and "politics" departments, disavowing the "science" tag.

Marc said...

My BA is from a "politics" not poli sci department, where I learned....that if I wanted to learn anything, I should focus on the classes cross-listed with the Economics department. However, it should be taken into consideration that I went to a hippie school in the politically correct eighties, and was both a laaazy student and ass.

Seth said...

Andrew, I'm not crazy about the "Government" label, especially since I teach a lot of stuff about campaigns and parties and interest groups that really have very little to do with government. "Politics" is, to me, a vocation rather than a major. We're not necessarily training people to be politicians; we're training them to observe and understand politics, although there's obviously room for debate there. I kind of like the designation "political science," although I recognize that not everything we do is actually science and that not all aspects of politics can be studied scientifically.

Steve Greene said...

Actually, I feel like my undergraduate education at Duke was terrific at this. Mainly under the tutelage of Paul Gronke, John Brehm, and John Aldrich. My classes were nothing like civics on steroids, but genuine social science. That's why I decided I wanted to be a PS professor instead of a History professor. I'm sure I'm guilty of two much of the civics on steroids approach, but I certainly enjoy teaching the most when I feel I am actually helping my students to be junior social scientists.
On an unrelated note, any blog post that gets comments from both me and "Big" Steve Saideman is a quality post indeed.