Thursday, 19 July 2007

An implicit fairness doctrine for academia

This post by Richard Vedder about Elon University’s choice to assign the book version of the movie version of Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation An Inconvenient Truth makes what at first blush might be an eminently sensible point:

Universities who want to promote truth should select middle-of-the-road objective accounts (Steve names one or two). Or, if the goal is to invite debate on the issues, why not assign both Gore’s book and Chris Horner’s? Or some of Steve’s own work on the issue?

I think the answer here is twofold: first, Gore’s book (or at least the movie) is in the news, which creates an incentive to read it that would not exist for “middle-of-the-road objective accounts” even on the same topic—the dirty little secret of “summer reading assignments” is that I doubt 10% of students actually complete them outside the most elite institutions. And second, part of being a good student is developing critical thinking skills; the purpose of asking students to read the book is not to impose politically correct thinking on them, nor is it to have students uncritically accept the entire work. If Gore’s book is “weak on fact and objectivity,” surely college students can be expected to find those weaknesses and judge for themselves whether or not those faults undermine Gore’s argument. That is the core of what a liberal arts education is all about.

The standard “I have applied for jobs at Elon and might do so in the future” disclaimer applies.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

You too can be Elbridge Gerry

Via Prof. Shugart: play the Redistricting Game. I smell an Intro to Politics assignment for the fall…

Sunday, 27 May 2007

The core, requirements, and enrollments

Timothy Burke, in a post I’ve been meaning to link and comment on for over a week, makes an interesting point about curricula: just because something isn’t in the requirements for a degree or major doesn’t mean it won’t be de facto required because of other structural features of the curriculum. I think this is valid in relatively small departments/colleges, or where the offerings are otherwise constrained for odd reasons—both SLU and Duke offer a relative paucity of American politics courses, for vastly different reasons; the offerings in my field at SLU are probably in practice slimmer than they were at Millsaps!

That said, there are some issues to be confronted. I think much of the disappearance of required courses can be laid at the feet of faculty members; many of us—myself included—would rather not teach a gen ed or disciplinary survey like Introduction to American Politics, favoring either a “fun” course or something that coincides more closely with our research interests (or both). And I think it’s fair to say that our evaluations are better in non-mandatory classes, “fun” or not—the mean evals in my Congress course in the spring were probably a full point better than in my other two classes, despite Congress being a significantly harder course—which I think reflects student preferences for more focused and narrow classes on “sexy” topics and creates further incentives for faculty to dismiss the core. Unfortunately, the end result is that you can easily end up with seniors who are trying to wrestle with the big questions but don’t have the basics down—one infamous example was a political science major who, on a senior capstone exam, apparently had no conception of what the United Nations was.

And while I broadly agree that in a liberal arts curriculum (which is what undergraduate political science programs aspire to be part of, whether we’re at a community college, a state university, Berkeley, or Williams College) the mastery of skills is probably more important over the long run the mastery of knowledge, I think we’re shortchanging our students if they escape our curricula without understanding the basics concepts and debates in their major and minor fields.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Southern politics stuff

I’ve spent more time today than I meant reading through some books I checked out at the library and fiddling with (read: completely overhauling) my Southern Politics syllabus.

The primary challenge of the exercise is keeping the readings manageable after adding two recent books (Woodard’s The New Southern Politics and Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South) and adding readings from the new edition of Bullock and Rozell’s The New Politics of the Old South; I probably have 2000 pages on the syllabus, even after some chopping. I still need to add some stuff on the 1866 riot, 1874 White League coup attempt, and the 1900 Robert Charles Riots in New Orleans—and not get too bogged down in history while I’m at it.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Having students is nice

According to the Times-Picayune, Tulane is on-track to enroll 1400 freshmen in the fall, some of whom will doubtless fall into the clutches of my nefariously evil Introduction to Political Science seminar. The course is still very much on the drawing board, although I think it’s going to include big chunks on electoral systems and democratic competence*—and maybe not much else, since it’s apparently not supposed to be a field survey but more of a “wrestle with a few big questions while you write a bunch of stuff” course.

* This class will be a nice counter-balance to Politics of the American South; I get to teach one class that says “democracy sucks, and Ken Arrow proved it” and another that says “it's really important for everyone to have the right to vote, because that's what makes democracy work.” Woe betide anyone trying to take both classes at once; the cognitive dissonance would be painful. How I manage to survive simultaneously believing both of these things is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

The fun part of my semester

The best thing about teaching research methods is that I get to talk to students about all sorts of different research questions: everything from the relative effectiveness of economic and racial integration policies in public education to the incidence of split-ticket voting.

I’m almost looking forward to a semester (maybe even a year) of not teaching methods—if nothing else, it’d be good not to be pigeon-holed as the “methods guy” for a while. But I’ll miss the methods papers nonetheless.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Research-Intensive Courses

Timothy Burke advocates moving away from “writing-intensive” courses in favor of a requirement for courses that include assignments that emphasize the development of information literacy and library research skills. Now if we only included such a course in each major—perhaps one that also included instruction in, oh I don’t know, the appropriate methodologies for the given discipline—perhaps we might get somewhere in the academy.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Making big sections of intro suck less

From today’s Inside Higher Ed stories:

Intermediate algebra at the University of Alabama used to be your basic introductory class — lecture format, little interaction.

When Joe Benson, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, looked at the grade distribution in the Math 100 course in 1999, he was displeased. Fewer than 40 percent of the 1,500 students who enrolled during that academic year received a C- or higher, and many were unable to move onto the next course in the math sequence.

“It was a situation where students, particularly at that level, had a difficult time learning the math in that format,” Benson said. “Their engagement in the course wasn’t as high as we would have liked.”

By fall 2004, the grade distribution was markedly different. Seventy-five percent of students received either A, B or C grades in the course.

What gave?

Early in 2000, Alabama was selected to take part in a course redesign project set up through the National Center for Academic Transformation. The nonprofit organization consults with colleges across the country on how they can improve student academic performance while reducing costs. It advocates more use of technology in large-enrollment, introductory courses, and in some cases replaces lectures with lab time that allow for more individual interaction between professors and students.

With an $8.8 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the center provided grants to 30 two- and four-year institutions to take part in its program in course redesign from 1999 to 2004. NCAT reported that student learning, measured through tests before and after, improved at 25 of the institutions and remained equal at the other five. All colleges involved reported cost savings — money that goes back into a department’s general fund, according to the center.

Will it work in political science? n=1 thus far.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Off day decision-making calculus

I need to complete the following tasks today (now that I’ve recovered from my early morning Monday):

  1. Apply for four new jobs that just appeared on various and sundry job sites.
  2. Prepare for my Congress class Wednesday morning. (I can prepare for intro before class in the morning and methods between classes, since those are classes I taught last semester and not a lot has changed in either, but I haven’t taught Congress since July 2005, when I was using different books, so it’s essentially a new prep.)
  3. Prepare for a teaching demonstration in a methods course Friday at a university in Texas. (I have something canned for this, so it won’t be too much additional work.)
  4. Finish revisions to the strategic voting paper so I can send it out.

Now, if you had to guess, which one of those do you think won’t get done today?

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Meandering toward fun

This afternoon I taught the most enjoyable Intro to American Government class I think I’ve ever had; I don’t know yet whether to attribute it to my new practice of giving quizzes on the readings before class on WebCT (thereby ensuring I have students who have read), having less than 20 students (thereby allowing me to stare down the incommunicado students easily), or letting the first 45 minutes or so be more driven by the class rather than my outline.

Not that the other two classes weren’t fun either—well, to the extent that you can lecture on measuring concepts and make that “fun”—but the intro class really stood out for me today.

In other news, I was challenged by an intermediary to come up for an explanation why I don’t have a tenure-track job yet that isn’t “Duke offered me an obscene amount of money to be a sabbatical replacement, so I turned down some tenure-track interviews,” “the department’s faculty apparently didn’t think I’d move permanently to Wisconsin, unlike the guy they hired who was from there,” or “I didn’t feel like spending the rest of my professional career just teaching intro to American politics and research methods every semester.” Now there’s a toughie…

Monday, 27 February 2006

Living down to my reputation

My inner debate for the evening: spend another three or four hours grading midterms myself (I’m done with the Tuesday-Thursday section’s, but still need to do the Wednesday-Friday section’s), or live down to my newfound reputation as being “horrible at getting back assignments to students on time”?

Then again, once the methods kids see their midterm grades that reputation may be the least of my concerns…

Thursday, 8 December 2005

Don't need no education

I decided today to spend President’s Day weekend in Washington at the 3rd APSA Teaching and Learning Conference. Vita fodder, catch it!

Friday, 9 September 2005

Group work

I made my intro class do a group discussion exercise today; I had intended it as a debate over Beard’s “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” thesis, but I guess my questions were general enough to become a debate over non-economic self-interest too. The kids seemed to enjoy it—for the first time, they seemed as engaged as the methods kids—and it saved me from having to lecture as much.

The class also picked up one of our 50-or-so refugees from New Orleans today, a student from Tulane. I had planned to get the class to discuss the Katrina situation next week—we’re covering federalism and state/local government, so it seemed pretty apropos—but maybe that would be a bit insensitive. Thoughts?