Talk About Teaching and Learning
September 23, 2014, Volume 61, No. 06
Keeping it Personal
Nearly 30 years ago, as a young graduate student preparing to teach my first course, I turned for advice to the best university professor I knew: my dad. My father was a psychology professor at a large public university in Ohio, had won multiple teaching awards and was a well-loved presence on campus. When I confessed how nervous I was, his response was simple: “Good. Being nervous means you care...”
And then came the single best piece of teaching advice I have ever received. My father cautioned me against trying to devise “tricks” to cure nervousness. Instead, he said, simply take five minutes before every lecture to concentrate on how interesting the material is, and how much you want the students to understand how interesting it is. Doing so shifts your focus away from you as instructor and fixes it instead squarely on the material—which is of course where the focus should be.
The implications of my dad’s advice go far beyond identifying a strategy to calm teaching nerves. Rather, it spotlights teaching as personal—as a commitment to doing what we can to spark passion rather than just knowledge acquisition among our students. For that to happen, there must be moments where learners connect on a personal level with the subject matter, for them to both think and feel: “Yes, this matters.”
Sometimes, these learning moments are triggered simply by phrasing a question that puts the student at the center of the issue. For example, a well-known concept in international relations is the “democratic peace theory,” which proposes that democratic states tend not to go to war with each other. In my experience, laying out the theoretical proposition for class discussion yields a decent but unremarkable conversation. But consider making it personal. “Imagine you are a policy analyst at the State Department. Secretary Kerry wants a quick summary from you laying out what democratic peace theory is, how we know whether it’s right and how it’s relevant to US foreign policy. What would you say to him?” This question yields a much richer and more analytically sophisticated discussion than does the more abstract formulation.
A more poignant example: many students enter political science courses already knowing about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, already recognizing it as one of the great moral failings of the post-Cold War era. Yet when asked to put themselves in the place of Kofi Annan (head of UN Peacekeeping Operations at the time), and to make some of the concrete choices he faced in advance of the genocide, the conversation quickly becomes more complex. When they are handed the hypothetical responsibility for decisions that Kofi Annan faced, new questions emerge for them (about precedents that would be set, about lines of accountability within the United Nations, about the extent to which “doing right” justifies exceeding a peacekeeping mandate). By the end of class, the mood is inevitably subdued, as we return from discussing specific, somewhat technical questions to the broader reality of 800,000 people dead.
In supervising undergraduate research, the challenge of “keeping it personal” plays out somewhat differently. Here, my aim is to sustain the emotional stake that students have in their research, while at the same time mentoring them toward doing excellent analytical work. To do this, here are a few strategies I have found useful in the political science honors thesis seminar:
Distinguishing between motivating and analytical questions: Almost without fail, thesis students frame their initial question in predictive or prescriptive/policy terms. (“What will/should happen with regard to X?”) Simply telling them that these are not researchable questions does little to motivate them. Instead, I stress the difference between “motivating” questions and “analytical” questions, encouraging them to embrace the former as a key first step toward identifying the latter. We refer in class to the “3 a.m. question”—the predictive/prescriptive motivating questions that keep people awake at night and that feed their commitment to devote months or even years of their life in writing a book/article/thesis. In this way, the student can embrace the initial question and make it an integral starting point for the thesis, rather than feel pressure to let it go. And in fact, thesis-writers circle back repeatedly to this in their communications with me, drawing explicit linkages between their analytical research and their own “3 a.m.” question.
Looking for the passion in other people’s research: In seminar, we read portions of books that spotlight both motivating and analytical questions. For example, Peter Uvin’s introduction in Aiding Violence starts with the author’s personal involvement in development agencies working in Rwanda during the 1990s and his deep distress at the collective failure of those agencies to foresee the genocide, before moving on to ask the analytical question of whether there exists a link between development aid and structural violence. Examples like this help students distinguish between the motivating and analytical questions—while validating both—and give them a model by which they can set up their own thesis introductions/prefaces.
Anticipating and acknowledging frustration: The personal dimension of scholarship is of course not always rosy. Students can feel quite alone in thinking they are the only ones having difficulty finding appropriate sources, seeing their research question “fall apart,” getting lost in the complexity of their argument or falling prey to the imposter syndrome. It helps to warn them in advance, and repeatedly, that this will happen. Even better is to have them read other scholars’ accounts of research frustrations (a class favorite is the preface of Vivek Chibber’s Locked in Place, where he humorously describes his thwarted attempts to gain access to archival sources in India). Even having done all this, in early February, I send an email to the thesis students noting that this might be a tough time for them, as they are aware of upcoming deadlines but may be wondering whether their research will come together. Unfailingly, I get several “Wow—how did you know?” responses.
Thinking of academic discourse as a “kitchen conversation”: To emphasize the social nature of scholarship, I use the wonderful “kitchen conversation” metaphor developed by Graff & Birkenstein in their book They Say, I Say. Imagine wandering into a kitchen at a party, seeing several conversations in progress, choosing which to join. Figure out what’s being said, then decide how you can participate meaningfully. What I like best about this metaphor is that it evokes an image of lively interaction, not the solitude often associated with thesis writing. And because the metaphor relies on an experience they have all had, it helps mitigate their uneasiness about being “latecomers” to the conversation. Again, it’s fun to see how quickly they incorporate the metaphor into their communications with me and begin to refer to themselves as being part of broader conversations rather than as solo thesis writers.
In short, it’s hardly new for professional academics to hear that scholarship can be both passionate and personal. But for students, it can be eye- opening. The goal for me is to make the learning experience as personal as possible, in the hopes that students find a individual stake in what might otherwise seem to be more distant analytical debates. Recently, a student said to me, “International relations used to seem so far-removed from my life. It doesn’t any more...” And that’s exactly the point.
Eileen Doherty-Sil, is an adjunct associate professor in the political science department and associate director of the undergraduate program.
She is the 2014 recipient of the SAS Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by Affiliated Faculty and
the 2010 recipient of the LPS Distinguished Teaching Award for Affiliated Faculty.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.