Thursday, December 16, 2004

Ruminations on Political Science: Teaching, Learning, and Writing

What do professional political scientists do? We teach. (Sure, there's THAT aspect, darn that Woody Allen).

I tried to think broadly about the forms of teaching that we do. There are four kinds of teaching, very different from each other.

1. Teaching students, who may have little background

2. Training graduate students, who will themselves teach students

3. Teaching ourselves, through research activities create new knowledge about things that are true, or correct old conceptions about truth that turn out to be false. In this case, we are the student, and the world of politics is the teacher. But we are a particular kind of student, one conditioned by what we believe, or what we have been taught, is an "interesting question." Presumably, not all unknown things are equally worth learning, but how would we tell the difference?

4. Teaching our colleagues, and future generations, through publication of research that may influence all of the other aspects of teaching.

Notice the difference between #3 and #4: It trips up most young people, and makes them fail as professors. One way to fail is to study something until you understand it, but then drift to something else without writing it up. This happens all the time: a scholar teaches him/herself until some learning (type #3) has actually taken place, but the "write it and publish it" (type #4) never happens.

The other way to fail is less excruciating to watch, but more painful to read. Since we put so much emphasis on publishing, lots of young people start writing about a subject before they have learned much about it. Learning #3 MUST precede #4. But I often get papers to review for journals where it is clear that the author needs to go think about the subject for a few months, and learn the stuff himself.

About a month ago, I drew a death's head on referee report. Helpful? Constructive? No, but the paper was an insult. Who will teach the teachers?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Apropos #2, isn't it a bit optimistic to assume that the majority of graduate students are going to wind up teaching undergraduates?

I clued to the vibe early - right at the beginning of my graduate career I aimed to wind up to get a job working for the Man - which now I have. The Man pays pretty good.

--Ben Keen