Jon Stewart, Oral Exams and More

Political scientists consider how they can shake up their teaching techniques, and report success with some unconventional approaches.
August 31, 2007

When newly minted Ph.D.'s get their first chance not only to teach sections of intro political science (as they did in grad school), but to pick the books, they are quickly confronted with a reality about their students: "They don't read the textbook, ever," said Ryan Lee Teten, assistant professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University.

At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association Thursday in Chicago, Teten talked about his frustration over this, to nods of agreement in the audience. When he read the textbook (he didn't name it, but said it was one of the standards for intro courses), he wasn't much surprised by the students' reactions. "If I'm falling asleep reading this...." he said.

At a session on innovative teaching techniques, Teten described how he has replaced the textbook with Jon Stewart's America the Book, while other panelists described the use of oral exams in undergraduate courses, and a variety of strategies to encourage students to become more involved in their own education.

Student involvement is certainly a major goal of Teten's. He noted that students today are cynical about government and don't trust traditional news sources -- but as evidenced by the popularity of Stewart's "The Daily Show" and other Comedy Central offerings, they do have an interest in the news.

When Teten received a copy of America the Book as a Christmas present, he started thinking about whether it could be a substitute for the textbooks. On one criterion for making the switch -- would students read the book? -- Teten said the choice was easy. But he stressed that he also wanted to consider whether the book would provide a good introduction to the key topics an intro course should cover, and whether it would encourage critical thinking.

On these questions too, he said Stewart's book scores well. If you compare the table of contents of America the Book with those of traditional texts, Teten noted that they cover much of the same ground, with chapters on the presidency, Congress, the courts, the media, the world outside the United States, and so forth. To be fair, Teten noted that traditional texts don't have chapters like "Congress: Quagmire of Democracy" or "The Rest of the World: International House of Horrors," but the content covered is similar. Teten also cited research finding that "The Daily Show" is as substantive these days as the traditional news shows that a traditional political science professor might encourage his students to watch.

Of course there is that little issue of factual accuracy. But Teten has given that investigation and thought, too. First, he said that a review he did of America the Book convinced him that it was 90 percent true, with the rest satire. He assigns his students to write short essays on each chapter identifying what is and isn't true (it's not always obvious, he said), so he's drawing attention to places where things aren't quite complete, and teaching them to question what they read.

After abandoning textbooks, he said, he's also been adding more primary source material, so students are reading the Federalist Papers, the speeches of Martin Luther King and so forth. And in addition to reading America, they are watching Stewart at night. The point, he said, is to use Stewart's book "to open up the discussion."

Since he started using this approach, he said, he has noticed that the most knowledge gains are coming from the group of students who were previously earning D's and F's. Teten said that he considered it important both to excite some students enough about political science to become majors, but he also wanted to reach other students, to teach them how to think about what's going on in the world and not to be intimidated by the news.

One political scientist in the audience asked him if those without tenure might be at risk in using a book with some vulgarity. "You mean like the naked Supreme Court justices?" Teten responded. He said that he was comfortable in part because Stewart is "equal opportunity" in his targets for mockery: "Republicans, Democrats, animals, Canadians," Teten ticked off a list. But he also said that he tells students about his approach on the first day of class, and notes that there are many other sections in which traditional texts are used. He said the only times he has had resistance have been with some older, non-traditional students. However, he said that enrollments in his sections are up, as are his teaching evaluations.

One audience member noted another advantage to this approach -- the traditional text he uses costs his students $70 -- more than three times the cost of America.

A few in the audience -- generally those with more than a few years of experience -- said that they were worried about the approach. One professor said he had considered such a switch, but was bothered because so many of his students have the idea that "the government sucks" and he fears that Stewart's book reinforces that idea. Another professor in the audience said that students are too attracted to vulgarity, which Stewart encourages. This professor said he wasn't opposed to satire, but felt that Stewart wasn't in the league of Mort Sahl or other political humorists of previous generations, who he said offered "more sophisticated" takes on issues than Stewart does.

Teten held his ground, and said that today's students should be not be presumed to be less sophisticated. "They have a different kind of understanding," he said. "They are differently sophisticated."

Oral Exams, Question Time and Peer Review

Other ideas presented Thursday also differ from norms in most undergraduate courses.

Laura U. Schneider and Melissa J. Buehler, graduate students at Purdue University, gave a presentation on how they have replaced some essay exams with oral exams in undergraduate courses. Students must answer four or five questions over a 15-minute period. Each student receives different questions (so there is no cheating), the instructors get the chance to ask follow-up or clarifying questions, and students learn to think about how to present arguments orally. The oral exams are taped so grading takes place later when the instructor can replay the exam. Even with the time for the exams and listening to the recordings, Schneider and Buehler said that the time involved was comparable to what is needed to grade essay exams.

For most students, this is an entirely new experience and some get "freaked out" about it, Schneider said. Although students are told about the requirement early in the course, and offered practice questions, the instructors end up seeing some students who twitch, go silent, or have attacks of massive sweating. But when it's over, the students almost always say that it has been a positive experience -- with many reporting the experience to have been one of the more memorable of their college careers. The only students who fail tend to be those who have also done poorly in written parts of the course.

Eric H. Hines is having his students ask him questions. Hines, an adjunct at the University of Montana, said that he was bothered, when teaching a course on European politics, that students weren't asking questions in his lectures. So he decided to use a British tradition -- Prime Minister's Questions, where once a week any member of Parliament can ask questions of the head of the government. Hines decided to give his students more power to dictate what he would be talking about in his lectures. Every few weeks, he declares that there will be a "questions day" and students must all go to the course Web page on Blackboard and list a question related to the course that they would like Hines to discuss in detail. The students then vote on which questions they want covered, and Hines takes the top few and works up a lecture.

After he worked out the idea, Hines said he found that there is a pedagogical name for it -- "responsive lecturing." What Hines has found is that it works for him. Not only do the students enjoy coming up with his lecture topics on these days, but he finds that they are asking many more questions every day in class -- which is the behavior he wanted to encourage.

Zahra Ahmed, a graduate student at the University of California at Irvine, spoke about how she is teaching a course now in "critical pedagogy," in which she wants students to explore ideas about how knowledge comes to be declared knowledge and in which she wants students to challenge traditional authority. So Ahmed is having students play a more active role by, for example, critiquing first drafts of fellow students' papers each week, or organizing some class discussions. The traditional "competitive model" of instruction (one student against another) doesn't work or promote the kind of learning she wants to see, Ahmed said.

Michelle D. Deardorff, associate professor of political science at Jackson State University, was the respondent for the panel. She noted the way several of the ideas involve instructors giving up some control over the course -- and she said that could be a very good thing. "Teaching without a net is what gets my adrenaline going," she said.


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