Teaching Political Psychology
by Sanne Rijkhoff, Washington State University
At the annual meeting last summer in Herzliya, Israel, the Junior Scholars Committee (JSC) hosted two roundtables that were well-attended and greatly appreciated by those in attendance. The theme to one of this year’s roundtables was Teaching Political Psychology. Specific to the discussion were challenges in teaching political psychology to undergraduate and graduate students. Four invited speakers engaged the audience in a conversation about experiences, pedagogies, and strategies for emerging scholars interested in teaching political psychology classes. Richard R. Lau (Rutgers University), Christ’l De Landtsheer (University of Antwerp), Richard Herrmann (The Ohio State University) and Linda Tropp (University of Massachusetts Amherst) generously shared their experiences and advice.
The goal of the roundtable was to generate awareness about resources, textbooks, and syllabi that do exist, as well as to brainstorm for solutions to unmet needs of political psychology pedagogy. Also focused on was how to integrate political psychology into the existing curriculum and how to recruit students for these courses. The following is a short summary of this JSC roundtable.
Political psychology is still a fairly new field of study and as the panel pointed out, for many scholars this means that they are the only one teaching these type of courses. In the United States it is a little bit easier to transition into since the field is more established than elsewhere in the world. Such a transition usually works better for professors when there are more courses offered within political psychology so that all topics can be covered. Additionally, our speakers see increased interest from other disciplines besides political science and psychology. For example, interest comes from business schools, economics and public health. This in turn allows for more versatility and transition options. Thus, strong support for interdisciplinary outreach is encouraged by the panel. One particular tip to make political psychology truly interdisciplinary is to co-teach courses or invite guest lecturers. In order to increase enrollment for these classes cross listing courses was suggested especially when the courses are new for a department and professors.
Some of the more useful and practical tips came from the discussion on successful exercises, assignments, or pedagogical tools that our speakers have used. Most of our speakers agreed on the importance to apply theories to every day political life. For instance, De Landtsheer emphasized that it is especially important for undergraduate students to make connections to the real world. To demonstrate this connection she focuses on political rhetoric and metaphor and political personality. Similarly, Lau induces practical yet critical thought by introducing controversial topics to his students to start debates such as, do genes influence political attitudes and behaviors? Is the internet and social media good for democracy? Lau then assigns the students to a specific side of the debate and requires they defend it based on academic research learned in the course.
Herrmann emphasized another approach in using clickers, electronic answering devices held by each student. Clickers allow students to remain anonymous when making decisions on such controversial topics while still giving responses. He also runs a simulation in class with smaller groups of four or five students. These simulations give students experience with decision making processes and make them work with real world themes. Tropp also incorporates current and relevant topics to make the material easier to understand and more interesting for students. However, she finds that undergraduate students generally apply their own experiences to the course material and they find it hard to views things from a different perspective. To combat this, she employs role playing examples and simulations that can bridge this gap by allowing students to keep their own political views concealed while they are still exposed to various other perspectives. Herrmann reverberated Tropp’s difficulties with students limited understanding of perspective. He wants students to leave the course with a different appreciation about decisions and different perspectives. His example involved having students examine world views from China versus that of the US, or from an African-American perspective rather than from a White-American perspective.
Another discussed shortcoming that political psychology professors must face is related to methodology. The speakers noted that students are often rather weak in understanding critical method. Lau points out that students need to learn about methodology because political psychology is an interdisciplinary field, and it subsequently has a variety of methods such as experiments, surveys, historical analysis, and psycho-analysis of political leaders. Students need to understand how to consume knowledge in a responsible way. For Lau, one of the most valuable things that students can get from any class is to be critical and aware of biases in the information they receive.
Building on this fruitful discussion, the JSC would like to continue it by inviting you to engage as well. What are your ideas about teaching political psychology in undergraduate and graduate classes?
Thanks goes to the Professional Development Coordinators of the Junior Scholars Committee for organizing this roundtable and we especially like to thank the four guest speakers again.