News about ISIS, the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, or child migrants in the U.S. is instantly accessible. Often, we see pundits analyzing these events in opinionated but uninformed ways. These ‘entertainment’ shows try to influence how society thinks about politics. This, in my view, is a problem because in order for democracy to work well, citizens need to be able to develop informed opinions through their own analysis. This is what drives my interest in researching and teaching about Latin American security, policing, immigration, and civil-military relations in my courses. Concomitantly, I think it is imperative to provide students with understanding of democracy, democratic development, and the tools to think critically through these topics so they can engage with these phenomenon on a serious level. My goal as a political science educators is to fulfill this purpose by doing three things: 1) teaching theories and concepts, 2) showing students how to use the scientific method, and 3) ask student to communicate their own political ideas through writing.
I begin every lecture with big questions and big theories. For example, I started my armed forces and politics course by asking; ‘What is the state?’, ‘Where did it come from?’, and ‘What is it good for?’ This is how I introduced Weber’s theory of the state, Tilly’s theory of state development and Hobbe’s social contract theory. This further allows me to teach about concepts such as monopoly of violence, rule of law, legitimacy, taxation, the military, bureaucracy, security dilemmas and the state of nature. Every lecture begins with theoretical underpinnings, and then moves on to empirical cases that help flesh out the theories.
Using cases to flesh out theories and concepts should be complemented with methodology. Therefore, I introduce methods throughout my courses in three ways. First, I discuss case study methods on the first day of every course. Second, I use class discussions to apply methods to cases. For instance, in my lecture on Mexican party authoritarianism, I begin by reminding the class the method of most-different systems. I lecture on Mexico and China and ask the students to compare the Revolutionary Institutional Party of Mexico and the Chinese Communist Party in a class discussion. I then pose the question ‘How can we use Mexico to predict the future of China?’ The discussion that ensues helps them understand how to develop their own own ideas or hypotheses. The third way I introduce methods is through assigning bi-weekly articles from The Economist and ask students to write a two-page paper where they apply a theory to interpret those articles. For instance, I pair articles about Somalia with Herbst’s theory of state development in Africa. This helps students practice critical thinking, writing, and case study analysis.
Finally, to get students to develop their own arguments. I employ a capstone writing assignment. The paper itself is a ten pages long and asks them to a) choose a theory we discussed in the course, b) test the theory using the methods we discussed, and c) select a case or set of cases to test their hypotheses. For instance, one student wrote a paper that uses Michael Taylor’s work on anarchism to challenge Hobbes, and used the Zapatista indigenous movement in Chiapas, Mexico to show that order can exist without a Leviathan.
Student feedback on evaluations has confirmed that the teaching philosophy I employ in the classroom helps all students. This helps student learn the substantive knowledge I present, and carry those skills into other courses. This is why I place theory, methods, and analysis as the foundation in my courses on Latin America, security, democracy, and police violence.
My approach to teaching is to provide a well-organized course that methodically builds a narrative of politics over time. I thus ensure that the individuals in my classroom understand the story of our constitution, the story of political development in Mexico, or the evolution of crime and punishment. It is with this contextual focus that I think allows students to retain better the information I provide. I have a very challenging mid-term and final, with a final paper, that makes sure the students review the course material again that reinforces their learning. Outside of the classroom, I also provide additional educational support. For instance, I have worked with Dr. James Meernik to develop a UNT study abroad program in Colombia. I have also served as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates advisor for two students. I also served as a capstone thesis adviser last year, and am doing so again this year. I am currently a member of a graduate student’s dissertation committee.