Poli Sci Reformation?

September 4, 2009

TORONTO -- Consider this story: A political science department has a senior thesis program and has attracted a group of engaged undergraduates to pursue research projects that excite them. Then the department's professors have a fight and traditionalists take over supervision of the senior thesis program and "turn it into a statistical methods course." Many students, because the projects that drew them to the program had been wiped out, dropped out. The professor who told the story didn't name his college, but judging from the reaction here at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, the story rang true as something that could have taken place at many colleges and universities.

The anecdote came after a presentation Thursday by a special task force of the association, appointed to consider how the discipline should reshape itself -- in just about everything, including the undergraduate curriculum, the evaluation of faculty members and the subjects considered for research. The panel is about halfway through a two-year process to create a report on "political science in the 21st century," and used the association's annual meeting to share some of the ideas it is considering. The ideas include changing the way introductory courses are generally taught, shifting how graduate students are trained so they aren't being prepared only for research university jobs that are hard to come by, and making relevance (in courses and research) a key issue.

“Research should be problem driven rather than methodologically driven," said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a member of the task force who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.

Calls to make political science more relevant and less methodological are not new. In 2000, an anonymous e-mail calling the association and its leading journals out of touch and dominated by methodology set off a "perestroika" movement within the discipline (so called because of the pen name of the author of the e-mail and his not-so-subtle comparison of the discipline to the end days of the Soviet Union). The rallying cry of that movement was "methodological diversity."

That appears to be a major part of the way the new task force views political science. But the new reform effort is also very much about diversity in American society and colleges' student bodies -- which is notably not matched by the profession -- and how political science should change to reflect that diversity. And the vision of those on the task force is as much about teaching as it is about research.

Manuel Avalos of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington said that introductory courses typically try to cover bits of all of the "subfields" of political science -- an approach that may make sense for a traditional undergraduate at an elite college, who wants to go to graduate school and earn a doctorate. "But that is not how an undergraduate who is not going to graduate school views the world," he said. "How are we making this relevant to them?"

Another notable difference between this movement and the one that started the decade is that this one has backing from association leaders. The task force was created by Dianne Pinderhughes, the past president and a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. The perestroika movement was very much from outsiders trying to have some influence (many say that they did, although many also say not enough).

Here are some of the issues raised Thursday -- not as final or even draft recommendations, but as concepts that the committee is exploring:

  • The real world. A theme of several of the panel members was that students sign up for political science courses because they want to understand what's going on around them, not because they want theory. "We have to emphasize the connections between the real world and the discipline," said Sherri Wallace of the University of Louisville. Several also noted that by failing to offer such material, political science risks losing students. Terri Givens, co-chair of the panel and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin (who does work on comparative political systems), said she is worried about "the rise of international studies and international relations" (operating outside of political science). "Students are looking for what they think is international relations and they often don't find it in political science," she said.
  • A true commitment to teaching. Members of the task force said that the discipline is dominated by an ethos that research is the most important thing and that research universities represent the key model for careers. "We are a bit elitist," said Wallace. Even if political scientists believe that research careers are the ultimate goal, several panelists noted that there are not nearly as many jobs at such institutions as there are at regional state universities or community colleges, and they suggested graduate programs should change to prepare people for jobs that they may actually get. "Most people do not get jobs at Research I institutions. They can't," said Juan Carlos Huerta of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. The contrast between the association's annual meeting and its annual conference on teaching, they noted, isn't just in the subject matter, but who attends. At this week's gathering in Toronto, the big names are from research universities and many teaching oriented professors don't bother to attend.
  • A broader research agenda. At a time when the student body is increasingly diverse, and issues of global inequities are front and center, several said that a much more diverse research agenda is needed -- with more attention to pressing social and political problems. Bedolla of Berkeley said that the discipline's focus on the state and state institutions has led the discipline to study those in power, at the expense of looking at those without power. Further, Givens said it was important for political scientists to be more willing to embrace other disciplines. She mentioned as an example an area she follows in European politics. German politicians, having studied the Internet techniques used by Barack Obama in his campaign, are now being surprised that they aren't as effective in Germany. Givens said that to understand why, political scientists need not just their own ideas, but knowledge about social networks and new media.
  • Understanding the tradeoffs of reform ideas. Luis R. Fraga of the University of Washington, co-chair of the task force, stressed that solutions to these issues are not simple. For example, he said that one idea about reforming graduate education might be to have doctoral programs create specific programs for those interested in teaching careers. But if that were take place, Fraga said, "I wonder which of our graduate students would be quickly tracked into teaching and teaching institutions, and whether that would exacerbate issues associated with access and inclusion," leaving a white male cohort to focus on research.

Behind all these and other questions, Fraga said, is a desire by the task force to promote a more rigorous analysis of many of the assumptions that go into how political scientists operate. Fraga said that the traditional ways of operating aren't necessarily wrong, but that adhering to them without evidence is. The profession, he said, "needs to be more self-reflective."

"We think it is important to ask more of those of us in the profession about whether we are doing the best job we can," he said. "To often, we just follow elements of whatever the dominant thinking has been."

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