Teaching should be current, both in terms of the extant scholarly work and, especially in political science, in terms of timeliness of the material being covered. The best approaches integrate the scholarly with the contemporary. For example, political scientists should be using contemporary social movements such as the Tea Party Movement and Occupy Wall Street to illustrate points made in scholarship. Keeping current in the discipline and the news is crucial to providing the resources one needs in the classroom to ensure that students understand the key concepts and to engage them in a discussion of those concepts. Naturally, traditional academic research is a component, but so is simple reading of relevant material from journal articles to current books to newspaper and magazine articles. Here too, the experience is not a one-way street. One’s own scholarly pursuits can be invigorated or altered from class discussion. A paper I presented at the New York State Political Science Association Annual Meeting in April of 2011 is the result of a question raised by my preparation and honed by discussion in my Women in US Politics course.
Teaching should also be personal. Naturally, this can be accomplished in a number of ways. I, for one, make use of my personal experiences over the course of more than 40 years in politics to make it real for students. Talking about the process by which we select presidential candidates, for example, may be too remote for students, but if I can relate stories of my experiences gathering signatures, doing visibility events, or attending a national convention it brings the reading material much closer to the students. Teaching should be fun, or at least joyful work. Sure, like any profession, there are tasks none of us really relishes, but being in that classroom and sharing the learning experience should be an experience to which one looks forward.
Without crossing any boundaries, it is also important to get to know something about one’s students. Knowing some of their strengths and weaknesses, their interests, or their point of view allows me to ask questions, to probe comments in greater depth. Obviously, with smaller student populations, we do get to know our students better than our colleagues at larger institutions. The advantage we have, especially if we take advantage of it in order to tailor our teaching, is that we do get to give many students a more individualized education.
Part of that joy should come not just from one’s own pleasure at performing in front of an audience, but from the shared energy and sense of accomplishment. It does the process of education little good if it is only the teacher who feels a sense of joy and accomplishment the students must as well. To that end, I do whatever I can to engage the students making use of PowerPoint presentations to speed the note-taking process, make use of online and offline video, and employ humor to make the classroom a comfortable environment in which students may learn. Similarly, I also try find texts and reading materials that can engage the students. In selecting appropriate materials I look to see if the readings (or texts) will adequately address the topic or issue, is appropriately priced, and if the writing style is easily accessible for the typical undergraduate.