Some Reflections on a 1st Full Year of Teaching (College-level Politics)

Not quite done with the semester yet, but feeling close enough to begin reflecting on what went right, what went wrong, and what if anything can be done about it for next year.  My mind is at a place where I’m thinking about how there are a few big choices to make in approaching class.  One choice is how formal, serious, professional, and dedicated you are going to be.  Another is how much you are going to try to get the students involved, and (especially in larger classes) which students to focus on.  But these are sort of uninteresting questions and our answers for them I think are more driven by how much we care about the job and how much energy we have to expend during class time.  To a certain extent, you are who are you are.  But maybe the other biggest choice you have to make, and which is more interesting as far as these choices go, is whether you want to teach details or big picture ideas.

It is so difficult to make the right decision on this last one.  Even now I find myself unsure of where I come down.  The details, it is easier to argue, are definitely important, and for a variety of reasons.  One is they are the dots that we use to connect in order to understand the bigger ideas.  So you need details, like historical events, to understand things on a deep level, even though details themselves can be incredibly dull and shallow.  In terms of impressing people (i.e. potential employers), familiarity with details I’m sure is better during most job interviews than having penetrating insights about this or that, or mastery of the ins-and-outs of complex theoretical or interpretational questions.  If you have facts and details, no one can dismiss that form of intelligence, whereas these days everybody has their own weird personal theories about things.  Having the facts right quickly distinguishes you from the harebrained, whereas having big-picture ideas associates you with them, especially to those who are weak on thinking about the big picture (or have their own precious harebrained ideas to protect).

The problem with stopping at details is that memorization of facts is no substitute for judgment.  And if you don’t have the big picture ideas right, you won’t be able to accomplish much even with a Jeopardy!-contestant level stock of information.  Big picture ideas give you the tools to build a useful framework in which to organize and interpret the facts that you are laudably familiar with.  But though this sounds nice in theory, there are several barriers to teaching big picture ideas in the classroom.

I’ll just name a couple of these barriers, still being unsure myself of what the final conclusion on this should be.  One barrier is that students can fake it more easily with understanding big picture ideas.  If you get a fact wrong, then it’s simply wrong and you lose the points.  Students know this and take getting facts right (relatively) seriously.  Their efforts in thinking about things on a deeper level, though, are tougher to gauge.  For example, you might want them to think about some causal relationship or some ethical argument.  Does a separation of government powers do more for securing individual rights in society than does a unification of government powers?  To what extent should property rights be respected in society?  Tough questions like these promise incredibly intellectual growth if they are engaged with properly, guided by an instructor, and with a great deal of effort over an extended period of time.  They can also be quickly answered off the top of the head, and it can be very difficult to determine whether students did the former or the latter.

Another barrier is students’ prior experience with a detail-focused instructor or a big picture-focused instructor.  If going beyond details is entirely new, then it is going to be an uphill climb which certainly won’t be completed in any obviously satisfying way within the time constraints of a single semester.  Lastly, big picture ideas and ideological world views can appear very similar.  So going theoretical without triggering ideological defense mechanisms among the students can be a real challenge.  Indeed, students will want you to send ideological cues so that can decide whether to “go along with you” as you structure a conversation on a theoretical question.

Where I am at now is with a desire to increase both details and the big picture ideas at the same time in the years ahead.  Some of my difficulties this year, I am happy to admit, are just my own limitations in both of these categories.  Perhaps these things work themselves out as you gain experience and are occasionally reflective of what needs to be worked on.  At this point, I’m still thinking “all of the above.”

Political Theory vs. Political Science?

For my doctoral dissertation, I am attempting to mix political theory with empirical hypothesis testing.  I do this by first outlining 3 different theories, or 3 different accounts of how the desire for immortality is related to healthy political attitudes.  Of course, I have to explain in my project what exactly I mean by “the desire for immortality,” and what I mean by “healthy political attitudes.”  More on these concepts another time.

The 3 theories I look at are all very interesting, but I also wanted to empirically test them side-by-side.  I decided to set up a survey experiment.  Setting this project up was not an easy thing to do, and I have had to carefully defend the validity of my research design each step of the way.  The successes and set-backs have been thrilling throughout.

This approach to political research questions — going from a fairly in-depth textual analysis of political philosophy to the generation and testing of empirical hypotheses — is not common.  Yet it really seems to be the future of political science, and I predict that research approaches like my own should only be increasingly common as time goes on.

The inherent institutional drags on this progress are familiar.  On one side, empiricists will sometimes agree that hypothesis testing should be “theory-driven,” but then they don’t want to hand the keys over to the theorists — at least not to that kind of theorist, not to an abstract philosopher.  On the other side, theorists will sometimes agree that empirical truth matters — that incorrect or incomplete assumptions of human nature (for instance) threaten to undercut what might otherwise be truly profound political theorizing.  But then they will mistakenly assume that the current state of quantitative methods is, unfortunately, inadequate.

Fortunately, there is much more middle ground than many suspect.  Theorists (and philosophers!) are invaluable as hypothesis generators, and empiricists are both inventing and developing more dynamic types of research methods every day.  This is being recognized more and more, and promises to ultimately transform the entire discipline.

Why not get in early?