Teaching is hard.
When I first started teaching political science, this fact took me by surprise. I had always found learning to be relatively easy, and it hadn’t occurred to me that teaching would require an “approach,” or a “philosophy.” But, over time, I realized that I needed to focus on specific ways that I can help students connect with and digest the key facts, concepts, and controversies in law and politics.
I want my students to learn how to think about law and politics critically and scientifically. Often, the first step is getting students to think about law and politics at all. While some students arrive with a passion for at least some dimension of the subject matter, others have a hard time getting past the idea that politics is just a bunch of crooked old guys in Washington. I take this perspective seriously, and I accept as part of my duty the challenge of making the case for learning and thinking deeply about law and politics. This is one of the main sources of value that I try to provide for my students. I maintain blogs for each of my law and politics courses, and I use these to provide current, real-world examples of the abstract principles we’re covering in class. I use small groups to get students to use what they know about the topic to devise solutions to real-world problems. I assign research papers with a choice of relatively narrow topics so that students get a chance to really dig into the material.
Once the students are convinced that the subject matter is important, my next task is to help them to approach the topic critically and systematically. I believe that my job as a professor is to present a body of knowledge to students, and to give them the tools to learn how to use it and how to add to it responsibly. To do this, I focus on modeling objective scholarly curiosity. The opinions that people hold about politics are often very deeply rooted; even those students who don’t consider themselves to be “political” often find that they feel quite strongly about any number of topics that I cover in my courses. In fact, many students do not consciously know why they believe what they do, or how they came to believe it. I encourage students to examine the roots of their political beliefs and subject them to empirical evidence and alternative perspectives. I work hard to create for students a safe but intellectually stimulating environment where they can re-evaluate their own understanding of the political world.
Often, even scholarly research is based on implicit assumptions about the way the world works, or how it ought to work. A big part of my job, as I see it, is to help students to recognize these assumptions and evaluate them. This is not easy, nor is it comfortable. One thing it involves is giving the other side an honest and fair hearing. This is especially true when it concerns highly controversial topics like abortion. Students find it very easy to write a paper in which they tear down a straw man argument (e.g., pro-choice activists are selfish baby killers). It is much more difficult for a pro-life student to ask herself honestly, “What would I need to believe about how the world works in order to agree that access to abortion is an important way to foster equality for women?” I don’t expect that students will change their minds on these big issues, although some certainly will. What I do expect is that students will learn how to force themselves to consider and evaluate the normative judgments that underlie some of these most closely-held views. I work hard in the classroom, in my research, and in my personal life to model this kind of approach.
What should my undergraduate students be able to do when they complete my courses? There are a lot of different answers to this question:
- Be like lawyers and argue/brief a case.
- Be like judges and write a well-reasoned legal opinion.
- Be like philosophers and assess the justice/fairness of the outcomes of the legal process.
- Be like politicians or lobbyists and develop new or revised laws and rules.
- Be like historians and assess why and how the law became what it is.
- Be like political scientists and figure out why the outcomes are what they are?
- Be like a sociologist or an economist and assess the impact of court outcomes?
For my purposes at least, several of these are appropriate. This gets easier, of course, when I think of “doing” constitutional law in terms of the big questions first. Most of the big questions–at least those that my students will be drawn to–are essentially policy questions that have been addressed through the legal process. Most of my students enter my courses ascribing to the paradigm that holds the legal system as something relatively apolitical and separate from the “political” branches of government. My goal is to challenge that paradigm by showing students how the facially apolitical methods of the judicial decision-making process are actually used (by necessity, in my view) in a very political way.
Assessing student performance is a critical component to any teaching strategy. It is important in its own right, but I also try to approach the assessment process as an opportunity for students to learn. I assign research papers in all of my upper division courses, and each of these paper assignments provides students with feedback at multiple stages of the process. I also build in a mechanism for peer review. I find that this experience is quite useful for students; often, students do not really recognize the deficiencies in their own research papers until they notice those deficiencies in the papers written by their peers.
In some of my classes, my undergraduate students write their own exam questions. They work in small groups to identify the key concepts from the course, and then the groups devise essay questions that capture these concepts. They have an opportunity to see and comment on the work of the other groups, and then a chance to revise the questions based on student feedback. I always reserve the right to edit the questions, of course. But I find that students make significant gains in the ability to synthesize information when confronted with the task of writing exam questions. This process also encourages students to work together toward a common goal. In several of my courses, I have experimented with other ways of increasing the sense of shared responsibility among my students. In some classes, I assign supplemental readings to individual students in small groups. This gives each student the responsibility to contribute specific and unique information to the group. I have also implemented clickers in many of my undergraduate courses. I embed questions from the assigned readings into the appropriate place in my lecture. This replaces online reading quizzes and traditional paper-and-pencil quizzes. It allows me to keep the students’ attention, and it encourages them to read for broad concepts and ideas before each class period.
Over time, I have developed a number of specific teaching strategies that have been very effective. But they have not all been homeruns. I make changes each semester; sometimes these are minor tweaks and other times more substantial adjustments. For each class I teach, I keep a journal to reflect upon what seems to be working and what I’d like to adjust the next time I teach the course. I use this as the starting point for each new semester. At the end of the day, though, I try to focus on finding ways to feed my own excitement about my course material. This enthusiasm is the strongest and most reliable pedagogical tool I’ve found so far.
by Rebecca D. Gill
Posted on 1/8/2014