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Teaching the Intro Course
Approaching one of the most challenging teaching experiences
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, I’m talking about the other part of my job: teaching. In particular, how I approach teaching the introductory course.
Teaching the Intro Course
One of the privileges and challenges of my job is that I teach two separate intro courses. Those are the big (200+ people), lecture-heavy, TA-involved classes that are supposed to mark students’ introduction to a field.
There’s a tension between the institutional needs of an intro course and the format. Consider the structure. There’s a sound functional reason to have the first course in a sequence be the biggest, least personalized one: you’re covering the basics, and everyone more or less needs to know the same things. They can specialize later!
Yet this is at odds with the argument that an intro course should be precisely the one where you have the most personalized attention, both because the basics need to be solid to build a superstructure on and because students will be more likely to enroll as majors if they get inspiring, high-touch instruction from a faculty member.
The content carries other tensions. For instance, covering the basics means that a survey course is, well, a survey course: you’re not going to spend much time on any one issue. Yet faculty professionalization and research demands means that we are all hyper-specialists these days.
And there’s a big tension between pedagogical best-practices and students’ expectations. Best practices means active learning, experimentation and failure, and flexibility to adjust the course on the fly. Students’ expectations means … well, often a big, boring version of a bad high school course: some multiple-choice tests, maybe a short paper, and basically all the passive, lean-back learning possible while delivering no surprises. As for flexibility, forget it—unless it’s about making deadlines softer or canceling classes before break.
The institutional logic for resolving these tensions often, quietly, turns on budgetary and curricular logics beyond a faculty member’s control. Intro courses tend to be required, or soft requirements, so they need to be big (and thus part of the cross-subsidy that allows smaller courses later). That in turn implies a certain tilt toward a lower common denominator, since a big part of the audience is now there somewhat unwillingly. And with a big course there’s a nearly overwhelming reason to go for standardized assignments, because mass customization is difficult even with TAs.
For all that, I mostly love teaching intro courses. Partly, that’s because I’ve been teaching them for a decade now, since summer in graduate school; that’s allowed me to try every mistake you can and hit on ways to recover from most of them. Partly, that’s because there’s a real sense that you can make a contribution in a course like that: you have a chance to actually introduce folks to your discipline and maybe entrance them into liking it.
Mostly, that’s because I’ve decided that teaching an intro social science course in the United States is a blessing. Social science just doesn’t get much of a hearing in grade school (in my case, we had one semester of “economics” that really wasn’t much about economics). Compared to the degree of private and state attention lavished on STEM, or even history and art, there’s a real deficit of introductions to thinking like any form of a social scientist.
That means that I get to teach the hits to people who have never heard them. (Well, probably not.) Prisoner’s Dilemma? Collective action dilemmas? Structure vs agency? Basic negotiating theory? The relationship between identity claims and reception? So much to cover! And who wouldn’t want to get a chance to learn and re-learn the basics? It means you get really sharp on things that, it turns out, specialists can get really wrong.
Over the past few years, it’s also been a chance for me to explore parts of my discipline that I never paid attention to or even outright dismissed. From migration to monetary economics in World Politics, and from covert action to congressional affairs in US Foreign Policy, I get to spend time poking around and learning the hits of my colleagues’ works and intellectual lives. That’s a broadening of my intellectual base, and even if the payoff is less direct than keeping a hyper-specialized syllabus on my research agenda up to date when there is a research payoff it tends to be especially high value.
Finally, developing the assignments is a real challenge. You can get it wrong; god knows I have. But when you get it right the payoff is, again, really big—because you’ve gotten it right for hundreds of students (well, about 175 on average turn on any given assignment). Working out how to develop skills and impart knowledge means that you can have an influence on an entire major (and the upper limit of my personal influence is about 7 percent of the undergraduate body, which is very much a “no-pressure” moment).
Why talk about all of this? Partly, because this is what’s on my mind right now, and I wanted to share it with you all. But partly because now that I’ve done all this damn learning I’m gonna share it with you. So look forward to a few newsletters this term that incorporate some of the vignettes, concepts, and theories that I’ve learned doing lecture prep for a decade!