- 2016 Kingdon Award (for teaching excellence in University of Michigan Department of Political Science)
- 2016 Rackham Graduate School Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award
My goal for student learning is deceptively simple. Most fundamentally, I want students to understand substantive course material—vital facts, theories, and concepts from political science—at the deepest level possible. I expect a great deal from students: I assign readings from difficult primary sources, and I expect each student to participate often in class. I frequently use quizzes to hold them accountable to the reading and ensure a higher quality of discussion. In written assignments, I challenge students to move beyond basic application of a concept or theory and delve more deeply into its details. Yet reaching this level of seriousness in students’ engagement requires me, ironically, to adopt a classroom presence far less “serious” than my assignments might indicate.
When I first began teaching, I conducted an informal survey of my peers, asking them how they believed I might “come across” to undergraduates. One of the common themes was that, given my gender, race, manner of speaking, and general appearance, I could potentially come across as “stiff.” So, I thought critically about how that appearance may impact my efforts in the classroom, and how I might address that. Eventually, I developed the following approach: strategically use humor, colorful in-class examples, and informal small-talk, in order to build up my approachability as an instructor.
A typical class will unfold as follows. First, I purposely come to class early, in order engage in small-talk: “how’s your week going?” “did you see the game/concert last weekend?” etc. Students assume that I am simply being friendly (and I am!), but my aim is to build trust. Psychological research shows that we trust those we like, so I naturally want the students to like me, even as they view me as an authority figure. Second, as I begin to introduce the subject material, I try to find a way to make a light-hearted, funny comment or two about the material or authors (if I know them). This not only catches students’ attention, but it also offsets some of the intimidation that young students experience with difficult course material.
In addition to instilling important knowledge about politics to students, I also strive to demonstrate how political science offers practical skills to students. Indeed, if taught properly, political science ought to enable students to recognize, analyze, and improve the power dynamics underlying a wide variety of institutions and relationships. In order to help students internalize these analytical tools, I employ a basic instructional strategy that makes use of colorful examples of those tools in action. For example, to explain the public goods problem, I have asked the class silly questions like, “why does the bathroom in a house full of college students often grow incredibly dirty, even though no one in the house prefers a dirty bathroom?” While perhaps a bit off-color, the example seems to development interest and engagement with the concept, before transitioning to explicitly political application.
In my experience, this tough-but-friendly approach has been especially beneficial in reaching out to diverse student populations. In particular, my small talk is designed to develop some commonality with each and every student. I work hard to develop and maintain at least one such connection with each student, such that I can build upon it if I need to provide additional encouragement to them outside of class. Ultimately, then, my teaching philosophy is straightforward. As an instructor, I should deliver well-prepared, useful course material, with professionalism, passion, and empathy. Insofar as I succeed at embodying those things in my work, my students gain both the substantive and practical knowledge they need to succeed in their careers.