Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crafting a Friendly Political Science

So, my contract for the next school year came through for me to sign this week. My promotion is official: associate professor. Time to get some new name cards, and to update the signature on my e-mails.

It's nice to get some additional evidence that I should be able to plan on being here for a while...though whether my major, or even just my need as a teacher, may not be, or at least so one might think by checking out some blogs by political scientists this week. Laura, Patrick at Duck of Minerva, and others have been talking about the fate of political science--and specifically its long-assumed position as one of those "core" subjects that every liberal arts education ought to include--in these days of budget cuts and bottom lines. This specific debate was prompted by the news this week of one liberal arts college simply eliminating political science from its curriculum entirely, but really, it's haunting all the humanities these days, as Tim Burke will tell you.

I suppose I should be worried about my position as Friends University's only political scientist (though I hate that term: my training is in political theory and philosophy, my interests have always run towards political ideas and ideologies, and even as I've learned how to and learned to enjoy teaching American government, comparative politics, constitutional law and all the rest, I still reject "political science" as a label: just plain "politics" or "government" makes much more sense to me). And I am, a little bit. We're a small school--a good one, and one that still has a pretty solid (though hardly luxuriant) financial foundation, but nonetheless one that is ultimately tuition-driven, and that means that the position of political science here, like everything else, is dependent at least in part on student interest. I've been involved over the past nine months with a general education revision process here at Friends, and as one might expect, as our recommendations have taken firmer shape, the process has become ever more contentious. The mandate we have--or at least, the one we think we have; departures and arrivals in academic administration have made the position of our committee somewhat murky at times--is to make general education less a la carte, more coherent, and more explicit in addressing the particular skills that prospective students and potential employers ought to be able to expect from coming here for, or receiving from Friends, an undergraduate education. The results, thus far anyway, are some ideas I'm mostly pleased with, though like some of my colleagues (particularly those in history, religion and philosophy, and English) I worry that, when it comes down to the essential matter--allowing the different divisions to craft their own general education "templates" as part of their degree requirements, which is probably our biggest and least understood innovation--the faculty will protect their own turf, to the exclusion of those traditional liberal arts classes (like American government or world civilizations) which happen to sustain a good portion of my and my colleagues' work load.

When I'm wearing my political theorist hat, and I take a look at some of the stuff I write about here and what I research and write about professionally (the latest news: a co-authored book on a contemporary political theorist, someone who has been a huge influence on me, is in the works), I can't disagree with Laura's description of what we do as "fighting over minutia [that is] miles away from the needs and concerns of average citizens." However, since I'm at a teaching college that celebrates research but doesn't make it in any sense particularly essential to one's academic career--much less promotions!--I don't worry too much about the disconnect there; I would agree that "spend[ing] half your life writing articles and reading research that have absolutely no application in an undergraduate classroom" really would be a pain in the ass, but for me, who doesn't have to spend even a quarter of his professional life doing such work, this institution provides about the right balance. My more general concerns are following up on some of the other comments which Laura and her readers make. I want to keep both our students and my fellow faculty members aware of and appreciative of the relevance of politics to being a citizen, to being an educated human beings. And that means making sure that my classes stay relevant, and relevant in such a way as to enable me to demonstrate their relevance to outside observers and reviewers (to say nothing of bean-counters that are ever-concerned with cutting costs.)

We're going to be caving into demand, and creating a pre-law track, or pre-law minor, to go along with political science; after resisting it for years, I think we've come up with a way to do it that will actually be meaningful, if only in some small way (most stuff that travels under the label "pre-law" is, from what I've been able to tell, mostly irrelevant to those who handle law school applications). We may do the same for international relations; even here in Wichita, every potential employer wants a pool of applicants with some know-how in international affairs, to say nothing of large number of international students at local community colleges that are looking for majors that fit their career plans. And as for the major itself, I'd like to think I've been able to streamline it a little, eliminating requirements which have become outdated and focusing more on some of the basics that I'd like to think would have more general appeal. But still, we're lacking--which means I'm lacking--when it comes to courses that can help students in truly local engagements with the government; we're lacking in internships, and we're lacking in basic economic requirements that everyone who studies political science ought to have (though we're getting closer on that one). Sure, sure, I can tell myself, there's only so much one professor can do--especially one who has only been here for three years. And in the meantime, I don't worry too much about my field disappearing; I think enough people here are still convinced enough of the old Quaker emphasis on service and justice to recognize that some sort of politics has to stay on the curriculum. But I can't afford to get complacent. When people start rethinking their whole conception of what higher education is for and why it's necessary--a rethinking I endorse!--then no teacher can afford to be.


The Modesto Kid said...

associate professor


Matt said...

Congratulations on the promotion, Russell- it's well deserved. It's too bad you couldn't fight off the "pre-law" major. I suppose that things differ a lot in different law schools, but my impression is that at least at better law schools such a major is actually looked down on- they'd rather have people with more serious training in a particular discipline- pretty much any discipline. And, a lot of different types of classes are useful background for law school, but there's no good reason, I think, to think they form a coherent major in any way. I can understand why the kids want it, I just think that they are wrong.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks very much, Modesto and Matt. And Matt, thankfully it's not a pre-law major; just a minor you can pick up along your way to earning a major in political science. For years I told all the freshman who came to me asking about studying "pre-law" that the whole idea was a canard, a distraction: law schools care about your LSATs, your grades, your essay and your recommendations, and that's it. I'd never want to steer anyone away from political science, and at the sort of state law schools that most of our students are likely to find within their reach, training in political science is a good way to prepare for a legal education...but all that being said, if you are aiming high, then you need to distinguish yourself from the pack, and political science, and especially "pre-law," isn't they way to do that.

And yet, they still came, with their parents in tow, asking about studying pre-law. I suppose the recruitment and admissions people were to blame, but in the end I figured I just would have to come up with something to satisfy them. Looking at the end result, I'm not displeased with political science majors taking a pre-law track or picking up a minor; I hope no law schools in the real world will hold it against them.

Primerica said...

Congrats on the promotion. Nice seeing you advance!

Take care, Lorne

Matt said...

That sounds perfectly reasonable as to the "pre-law" stuff, Russell. I'm glad to hear it's just a minor as well. One thing that might actually be useful for students wanting to get in to law school is taking logic, especially some formal logic, since that type of reasoning is important on the LSAT, and as you say, that's extremely important for getting into law school.

harry b said...

Just wanted to add my congratulations -- very well deserved. They're lucky to have you. I hope you're lucky to have them

Baden Fox said...

Congratulations Russ. That's amazing that you guys have already been there three years.