Rethinking Poli-Sci

After seeing its majors drop, Stanford's political science department overhauls the undergraduate major, focusing less on specialization and more on issues students care about. Could other departments be next?

May 29, 2015
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What are the root causes of inequality? Why does war break out? What stories can data tell about politics? These are some of the big questions many undergraduates hope to tackle in introductory level political science, only to find that departments on the vast majority of campuses ask them to choose specialized subfields -- heavy on theory and modeling -- early on.

Disappointed, some students abandon the discipline before they ever get to those issues. Political scientists at Stanford University want to change that. They’re overhauling the undergraduate major to make it less like the graduate curriculum and more immediately relevant to students’ lives and interests, adding a new introductory course that isn't based on any one subfield and an additional concentration track for data science enthusiasts. Whether the changes will stem the steep drop in numbers of majors in the department remains to be seen. But they’re already notable for how they align with ongoing internal criticism of the discipline’s approach to undergraduate education. Will other departments follow suit?

“Part of the problem is that political science doesn’t maybe have the coherence [of other disciplines] -- we’re doing very different things, so trying to put all these disparate fields together may not seem obvious or possible in one introductory course,” said Justin Grimmer, an associate professor of political science at Stanford overseeing the changes. “And this has been a little bit of an organizational challenge and an intellectual challenge -- I’m learning a lot about fields that I didn’t know a lot about before.”

Up until last year, Stanford’s undergraduate political science major was like most others across the country, which emphasize concentrations, or subfields. Rather than taking Poli-Sci 101 or the equivalent, students had to narrow their focus almost immediately in choosing an introductory course in one of the following, which in most cases became their concentration through subsequent course work: international relations, American government and politics, justice and comparative politics. (Stanford also required a secondary concentration.)

The model has long been subject to criticism from within and without the discipline, namely that it’s too specialized too early and that it doesn’t pay enough attention to diversity and non-American politics. But for a long time it worked for Stanford, at least as far as majors were concerned. The department traditionally graduated about 100 students annually. But then the numbers began to slip: 66 majors in 2009, 74 in 2011, 58 in 2013, 47 this year.

Other political science departments have reported declines in numbers of majors since the recession, and there was a 4.5 percent drop in political science and government degrees conferred between 2008 and 2013, according to data from the Education Department's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System provided by the American Political Science Association. But Stanford’s numbers seemed extreme. So faculty members staged an intervention, working for over a year to design a new introductory course to whet students’ appetites and rethinking their pathways to the major to retain them.

Grimmer said the new introductory course is based on four modules that represent “big, pressing political problems and how political scientists study those problems”: war, poverty and inequality, the environment, and collective decision making.

After that course, students may follow new tracks to a major. Four are roughly similar to the old concentrations: justice and law; international affairs; elections, representation and governance; and political economy and development. An entirely new track is based on data science. That’s mostly in response to student demand, Grimmer said, adding it’s been disappointing to tell computer science-minded students in the past that there are no good courses for them in the undergraduate major. Stanford’s most popular major is computer science, and its engineering heart has influenced other departments. Last year, for example, the English department launched a joint computer science degree.

Grimmer said students have been enthusiastic about the changes, which take full effect in the fall (although the new introductory course is being offered for the first time this summer). Beyond attracting more majors, he said, the overhaul aims to “present” the department more accurately to undergraduates than the old curriculum suggested.

“We are actually a very cohesive department,” he said. “We wanted to create opportunities to get people [with different specialties] together.”

Judith Goldstein, the department chair, said via email that the decline in majors “caused us to look more critically at what we were offering our students, both as pedagogy but also in response to their own views (and that of their parents) that they see a job at the end of their education.”

Continuing to organize the undergraduate study “as we do for our Ph.D. students seemed outdated -- what does ‘comparative politics’ mean to an 18-year-old?” Goldstein added. “The result was a set of tracks that are oriented toward issues that students understand and a new track on data science that prepares students for a very large range of technology jobs.”

The new course will be co-taught. Faculty members involved in rethinking the major got release time and other support from the university.

Stephen Haber, the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the A. A. and Jeanne Welch Milligan Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford, is also a professor of political science who helped make the changes. Haber said he thought there was “tremendous support” within the department for the new approach, which in part reflects a “huge transformation in the analytic tools of the discipline, especially among younger scholars.”

Terri Givens, associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and soon-to-be provost at Menlo College, co-authored a 2011 report for the political science association saying the discipline was slow to embrace change and failed to engage issues of race and inequality. She said in an interview that on its face the new Stanford major design seemed to be responding to some of those concerns. In particular, Givens said she appreciated the new introductory course’s apparent attention to more global issues than are traditionally covered in lower-level political science courses.

“It’s important to get away from an American-centric view, since students are coming from a broad variety of backgrounds, and there are more foreign students, and, generally, politics is a broader phenomenon,” she said.

Robert Hero, Haas Chair in Diversity and Democracy and professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, and president of the disciplinary association, said he didn’t think Stanford’s decline in political science majors was representative of what was happening across the country. He said many attribute the slight decline in majors on some campuses to the poor job market for law school graduates, since political science has long been a popular route to law school.

Hero said he isn’t an expert in undergraduate curricular trends, but he thinks what attracts majors seems to “ebb and flow over time.” In general, the association does not comment on individual departments' curricula.

Haber said he couldn’t predict whether political science departments at other institutions would follow Stanford’s lead. But he said he thinks that the “best departments might,” given how the tools of the discipline have changed over time. New analytics should be reflected in the undergraduate curriculum, he said, as they “equip students to go on to a broad range of careers, including data science.”


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