Nature of Academia · Teaching Political Science

Taking a Stand: Dos and Don’ts for Political Science Professors in 2017

What are we??

Political Science Professors!

What do we want??

To take a stand against tyranny!

When do we want it??

Right after I finish this 3rd year review portfolio. And I have an R&R due. And a grad student is working on her prospectus. Also, I have to write my paper for MPSA and figure out how I can afford to stay at the Palmer House if the department won’t cover it… wait, sorry, what were we talking about?

Okay, so I can’t be the only one feeling this way.  I’ve protested! I’ve written my representatives!  What can I DO that will help me and help my country?

Some days I stare at my computer watching things like Trump’s executive orders, Trump’s violation of the Emoluments Clause, Trump appointing Steve Bannon to be in charge of security, Trump firing the acting Attorney General because she did what she said she would do in her confirmation hearing.

And after reading all that, I’m expected to walk into my political science class to teach about Central Bank Independence.

It feels like small potatoes compared to what’s happening every day in our political system.  And as political science professors, we are in an odd position.  I like to think we have, like the Fed perhaps, something of a dual mandate:  we are charged with teaching our undergraduate and graduate students what political science is (our typical job), but at the same time, we must connect what we’re teaching with why it matters, particularly in today’s climate, when some of us worry that the very foundations of American democracy are threatened.

But if you’re wondering what you can do, worry not.  Because what we’re doing every day in the classroom absolutely IS NOT small potatoes.  THIS is what you can do.  THIS is where the change happens.  You and your lectures make a difference for the future of this country, even when they’re about professionalization of legislatures.

This is our call to action, as well as a handy-dandy “Dos and Don’ts” list, for our follow political science professors, to help us take a stand for democracy and American values.

DOs and DON’Ts For Political Scientists in 2017

DO connect every. single. thing. you teach to what’s happening in the world today.  Is your lecture on democratic theory?  Guide your students to a discussion of how we would know if we’re no longer a democracy.  Are you teaching interpretation of regression coefficients? Find a regression table with corruption as one of the variables.  Do you teach International Political Economy? Explain what trade agreements are and what happens when a country ignores them.

DON’T connect it by bashing Donald Trump in every lecture. It’s counterproductive.  Now, we’re absolutely in favor of using what we know as political scientists to explain Trump’s actions, but if you constantly trash Trump, you’ll alienate some of your students, particularly if you’re at a conservative-leaning institution. So, don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade, but don’t do it with enough vitriol to alienate the very students you probably need to reach the most.

DO start thinking about where you could move if things go south.

DON’T pick a country without asking a Comparativist’s advice first.

DO teach your students how to get involved.  In every class we teach, there is an opportunity to teach students how to contact their representative, how to run for office, how to get involved in international organizations, how to join or start interest groups.  Encourage students to start student organizations, even (and maybe especially!) if they are Republican.  Intelligent and educated conservative voices are needed more than ever right now.  I can’t think of a class that couldn’t make time to talk about this, not even methods.

DON’T intentionally let yourself get put on the liberal professor watchlist. Yes, it’s hilarious, but it could also get really scary really fast.

DO adjust your syllabus, if needed. More readings written by women and people of color. Readings or in-class movies that show what could go wrong (1984! The Crucible!).  Make sure your syllabus sets an example and gets at the most important issues of the day.

DON’T show terrible dystopian movies (no Waterworld, please, even if it’s part of your unit on Climate Change).

DO teach how institutions are supposed to work, and why. What would a 20% tariff do? What happens if we don’t have an independent judiciary? What is the difference between a law and a norm?  Teach what our discipline has to say about all of these things, so that students can have a proper lens through which to view the world around them.

DON’T let alternative facts slide.  Our students need to be armed with real facts, not fake ones. They need to be able to identify real news and real science. They need to be able to distinguish between business-as-usual politics versus dangerous-for-democracy power grabs.  If you hear “alternative facts”, stop the discussion, teach students how to find credible sources, and challenge things that are blatantly inaccurate.  Students should be allowed and welcomed to have diversity of opinions in our classrooms, but lies and falsehoods should be stopped in their tracks.

Being a political science professor is a unique responsibility right now.  Go out and keep fighting the good fight. Even your most boring lecture matters!

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