Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Fault in ourselves and not the stars?

Prompted by the Wisconsin Lutheran story, PTJ at The Duck of Minerva objects to the current state of scholarship in political science:

Once people are hired, they also have to figure out what to assign to their students; for that purpose, they need books and articles. Naturally, people want to assign the current, contemporary research in their field if they can, but not only does that not say much about civic engagement or the future of the political landscape, but it doesn’t even say what it does say in a way that is particularly accessible to undergraduate students. “The Role of Parties’ Past Behavior in Coalition Formation,” to pick just one of the articles from the most recent issue of the American Political Science Review, doesn’t exactly sound like a page-turner. And yes, I know full well that other disciplines also have a dichotomy between their contemporary research and the kinds of things that one assigns to undergraduates, but the gulf is particularly pronounced in contemporary Political Science. (At least Anthropology and Sociology have classics that can be profitably read by undergraduates; once one gets outside of the social sciences, the humanities have works of art and literature, and the natural sciences have textbooks and laboratories.) I remember serving as a TA for an American politics class while in grad school; the professor told a lot of stories about how actual politics worked, but the reading material talked about such scintillating topics as fire-alarms versus trip-wires in governmental oversight regimes. So the students, not surprisingly, ignored the reading and listened to the stories.

I think the students were on the right track. If one wants to actually do much serious thinking about civic life and one’s individual responsibility within it, one would be well-advised to stay as far away from the last several decades of Political Science scholarship as possible. Undergraduate education in politics shouldn’t be about learning how to solve extensive-form games; it should be about learning how government works. But contemporary Political Science isn’t much help to that task. This implies that if we want students to come to articulate their own sense of civic engagement, we ought not send them to the Political Science department, but could achieve the same effect by sending them elsewhere. And to make matters worse, people trained in Political Science probably aren’t likely to know how to facilitate this for undergraduates, which further undermines the need for a Political Science department in a liberal arts college.

Now, I’m not saying that every liberal arts college ought to go around eliminating its Political Science department. (In fact, Political Science departments at most liberal arts colleges I know are actually quite far removed from the mainstream of the discipline; I don’t think this is an accident.) But I am saying that the decision makes a certain amount of sense, since the discipline of Political Science is so far away from the goals of a liberal arts undergraduate education. And that’s too bad—bad for Political Science, not bad for the liberal arts.

Laura at 11D voices her concurrence to this line of thinking. And while it is tempting to agree, I think this is a symptom of a larger problem with political science as a discipline. Nobody, for example, would suggest that a physicist studying muon decay in a particle collider should somehow make his or her research directly relevant to people building nuclear reactors, yet somehow we (or some of we) expect cutting edge political science research to be directly relevant to the average citizen, and if it isn’t then it’s the fault of the research agenda.

I think this results from fundamental confusion about the endeavor of political science: political science is not civics, just as psychology is not Dr. Phil. Yet in “Intro to Psychology” they don’t teach Dr. Phil—they explain the basic findings of psychological research. So why do we teach civics in our introductory courses rather than teaching political science? (And the answer isn’t just “the Texas legislature says we have to,” because in point of fact we could make up 6 hours of anything related to U.S. and Texas government to fulfill the Texas gen ed requirement, yet we all end up doing the same old civics-based crap for the most part.)

To the specific points made by PTJ: yes, there are accessible, “classic” works in political science that can be fruitfully used with undergraduates. I’ve used works such as Key’s Southern Politics, portions of The American Voter, and excerpts from other scholarship from the 1940s-1960s successfully in a number of undergraduate courses. Yes, undergraduates do like “stories” instead of theory… but they prefer that in virtually any discipline. Math students would much rather listen to stories about Newton fleeing Cambridge during a plague rather than learning the calculus he co-derived,* yet I don’t think any serious person would think that the students are right in that circumstance.

Moreover, animating the theory of fire alarms versus police patrols in congressional oversight is part of the responsibility of a professor, and could be easily be tied to real contemporary political concerns (think of the treatment of detainees in the War on Terror, where Congress reacted to dramatic media coverage much more readily than to, say, John Yoo’s memoranda on the topic), just as explicating the whole business going on with the cave is the job of a professor who’s trying to explain Plato. And I dare say the APSR‘s normative theory articles are no more penetrable to the average undergrad than the game-theoretic stuff, so this isn’t an issue of the “teched up” research agenda oft-lamented in the discipline. And, no, I don’t think undergraduates need to “solve extensive-form games” but I think it’s reasonable to expose them (at least at a very simple level) to theories like the median voter model or spatial models of realignment that do explain how “actual politics” works. And, no thanks to the rewards structure of our discipline, there are quite a few good books out there for students that do these things for students at the junior and senior levels.

On the broader question of whether political scientists should be inculcating a sense of civic engagement in students rather than publishing research, I am probably one of those odd ducks who doesn’t think it’s our job to push students to engage in political activity without some evidence that the student is actually interested in doing so. (I think it’s a perfectly legitimate position for a citizen in a liberal democratic republic to not want to have anything to do with politics.) But I realize I’m an outlier in this regard, and there is certainly no lack of research and writing by prominent scholars on youth participation and civic engagement (both Russ Dalton and Martin Wattenberg have books on the topic, and they’re both in the same R-1 department, to say nothing of the whole Putnam coterie) and other “practical politics” concerns, even if it’s not appearing in the contemporary APSR.

* Although modern calculus is more derived from Liebnitz’s approach that Newton’s; Newton’s notation is better reflected in differential equations.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.
[Permalink] 1. ProfPTJ wrote @ Wed, 11 Mar 2009, 12:25 pm CDT:

“Muon decay in a particle collider” might not be “directly relevant to people building nuclear reactors,” but the analogy breaks down here, since undergraduate students aren’t the engineering component of a discipline. The proper analogy might be making extensive-form games relevant to people running political campaigns; this is a tough task. And in any event, the situation of a teacher of undergraduates is IMHO different than this, inasmuch as the physics professor whose professional work deals with muon decay better damn well be able to tell his undergraduates why this matters, or he has no business being in the classroom to begin with. The best physics professors—who may or may not be the best physics researchers—can do this, and in some cases they hook bright undergrads who then decide to go into the field professionally.

My complaint about my/our discipline is that too many of us don’t care about this, and we aren’t even aware of the huge gap that exists between what professional polisci types do and what undergrads are interested in. This is not to say that we have to play to the crowd, but we do have to start where they start, and where they start is with a concern for politics and public affairs and questions about courses of action and other great debates. Whether the professional research is “impenetrable” is less important, I think, then the question of whether the professional research is actually connected to the teaching. In physics it is; in philosophy it is; in literature it is; in history it is. In political science, sad to say, I think it is not (with the exception, already noted in the comments on Duck, of political theory).

I actually don’t think it’s the job of the professor teaching Plato to explicate the whole business with the cave. The professor’s job is to create an environment in which the students can wrestle with the whole business of the cave. Ditto in mathematics, or in any other subject: professors create learning spaces and opportunities for students to encounter things. “Learning calculus” is not about memorizing stuff; it’s about working one’s way, with guidance, through the proofs, and what is done in higher math research is related to those basic things in a way that discussions about justice and the right course of political action are just not related to what most professional political science does, whether it uses math or not (but most of it does). It’s the disconnect, more or less complete, that bothers me.

VO Key is interesting to teach to undergrads, I agree. But he’s interesting because he tells theoretically-informed stories, not because he has theory rather than stories.

On civic engagement: I’m with you that we ought not necessarily be pushing students to get involved. I do think that we have to push students to think about questions of involvement, though; that’s part of our professional obligation as people who study politics.


I think you have an overly optimistic view of other disciplines and an overly pessimistic view of ours, in regard to “connecting research to the classroom.”

If your point is that political science majors aren’t really interested in the substance of political science (except possibly political philosophy/normative theory—although, to be honest, that’s the one part of political science that bored me to tears as an undergraduate), I’ll grant that, but I’m not sure other social sciences are any different. And I’m not sure that modern “theory” research is any more related to the average undergraduate’s concerns than modern research on, say, mass political behavior.

I’d also suggest that the APSR is not the best place to look for the vanguard of empirical political science research (in which “extensive form games” are virtually unrepresented; I’ll gladly concede formal theory has little relevance to the average undergrad these days, but very little empirical work in political science is grounded in formal theory); JOP and AJPS of late are notably much more representative of contemporary research in voting and public opinion, and there is plenty of contemporary work in these areas that is relevant to the interests and concerns of young people.

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