Teaching Philosophy

The discipline that I practice significantly influences my approach to teaching.  Some of the same virtues of politics as an enterprise translate into an effective pedagogy:

Politics is constitutive.   Politics not only takes place within a community; it defines a community.  It reflects the history and values of a people.  As a result, the responsibility of citizenship is fundamental, and I view the obligation of learning in the same way.  I do not provide syllabi for my classes; I utilize class contracts, which lay out my expectations of the student as well as what they can expect from me in return.  Both the student and I sign each class contract, and we each agree to the same language.

Politics is evaluative.  Most forms of politics include democratic accountability, which requires citizens to evaluate the performance of public officials.  My teaching emphasizes the development of good critical thinking skills.  I ask my students to analyze the performance of current political processes and constitutional arrangements.  My assignments and exams are often essays and papers because these media can best highlight the analytical skills I emphasize in my teaching.   Politics can be very specialized, but I try to ensure my students never lose sight of the bigger picture.   The ability to synthesize and analyze are both important for any student of politics to possess. 

Politics is interactive.  In order to develop critical thinking skills, I often utilize a soft form of the Socratic Method.  By letting an answer form the basis for the next question, students learn that there are more questions than answers in politics, especially in constitutional law.  The interactive nature of the Socratic Method allows me to gauge how well the class is grasping threshold concepts.   The Socratic Method also allows students to teach each other by expressing thoughts in terms that they can understand more easily.

Far from being a means of intimidation, the Socratic Method becomes an affirming experience when a teacher expresses interest in a student’s idea.  Students are often used to being treated as intellectual amateurs, rather than as the well-educated young women and men that they are becoming.  After all, the verb to educate is derived from the Latin phrase to lead out.  My role as a teacher is to assist students in drawing forth their innate thinking capabilities and help them discover their own potential.   As an interlocutor, rather than lecturer, my role in the classroom transforms into one of primus inter pares.

By tailoring questions to specific students, I hope to create a learning environment in which all students feel as though they can contribute to a class discussion.  When students respond to my queries, I will often rephrase their answers before continuing the discussion.  This technique helps to clarify arguments and increase the confidence level of students who might doubt their own sophistication.  Extemporaneous speaking is also a valuable life-skill that is not included enough in university curricula.   At the same time, I understand that students learn in a variety of styles, and, therefore, the Socratic Method is one learning tool among many a teacher needs to employ in a class to maximize learning. 

Politics is interdisciplinary.  All social sciences (and the humanities) are tasked with finding new, systematic insights into the true nature of human nature.  Constitutional law, in particular, stands at the junction of many different academic fields: jurisprudence, politics, history, economics, sociology, philosophy, and religion.  My teaching of public law incorporates these other perspectives so students will have a richer understanding of the context in which judges make decisions.

Politics is relevant.  Many undergraduate students are bitterly pessimistic about politics and its potential for fostering real progress on issues that matter to them.  My goal is to inspire students to become better citizens of whatever nation to which they belong.  This enterprise begins with imparting knowledge about the structure and operation of politics.  More importantly, I aim to demonstrate how politics affects their lives because these connections will encourage students to want to learn more both in and out of the classroom.  In turn, I hope that the interactive nature of my classes will provide me the opportunity to learn from my students – not just in terms of pedagogy, but how I analyze politics.

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