Sometimes, I’m at a loss for what to write about for my politics post for the week that hasn’t already been said (and probably said better than I could do it). I’m always open for Ask the Political Scientist-type questions, though, and this week, I actually had a question show up in my box. So today, I’ll answer it for her and the rest of you.
Q: I am very afraid of the Poli-Sci course I need to take. Any advice on surviving it?
My first response to this question would be the same as for any other course in any other discipline. Go to class. Pay attention and participate. Do your reading. (If you come from a field like math, there will probably be more of it than you’re used to. If you instead came from a field like English, there would probably be less.) Turn in all of your assignments. On time. Go to office hours if you have questions. Don’t let the fact that it’s in a discipline outside your own scare you. Just do the things you would do to succeed in any other class.
Now, I suspect that’s not quite the answer you were looking for, so I’ll try to be more specific. If you’ve never taken a political science course before, you might be a little bit surprised at what you find it to be like. Having taught intro Poli-Sci courses at both a large public university and a small liberal arts college, I’ve found one constant: most non-majors who take an intro Poli-Sci class come in thinking, “Well, I like politics. I watch the news. This should be a piece of cake!” But political science is a little bit more than that. The American Political Science Association (our professional association) defines it like this:
Political science is the study of governments, public policies and political processes, systems, and political behavior. Political science subfields include political theory, political philosophy, political ideology, political economy, policy studies and analysis, comparative politics, international relations, and a host of related fields. (For a good cross section of the areas of study, see the list of APSA Organized Sections.) Political scientists use both humanistic and scientific perspectives and tools and a variety of methodological approaches to examine the process, systems, and political dynamics of all countries and regions of the world.
So it’s not just what’s going on in the world, but a scientific examination of how the governments of the world work, how people behave in those contexts, and how countries interact with each other. If the shorthand for politics is “who gets what, when, and how,” then political science is the study of how all of that is decided and what it means once that’s happened. Once you understand WHAT the field of political science is trying to do, I think it makes it more accessible.
Beyond all the basics, though, I think one of the greatest things about studying political science is that it is happening all around you, all the time, every day. Poli-Sci courses are often discussion-heavy because of this – at least, the good ones are. Participating in the discussion and listening to those around you – yes, even the idiots – is a great way to learn. Political science courses may be a lot more than just a class on current events, but the fact that these core concepts are embedded in current events is invaluable.
Sometimes we get very abstract when we discuss core concepts and definitions. Democracy is a classic example of something that political scientists love to define and discuss and make lists about on and on and on. But the best part, the very best part, is when you can see these things in action happening all around you. My favorite part of being a Poli-Sci professor is the last day of class when I ask people to share something they didn’t know before taking the course or something that will stick with them. Invariably, someone will say that they can watch the news and understand what’s going on. That they know what it means when a parliamentary government “collapses” (spoiler alert: it’s not government-less anarchy!) or why parties in coalition are fighting with each other or why it’s taken so long for coalitions to form in some countries. You can turn on CNN or BBC and actually watch the things that you talk about in class unfold around you.
But sometimes real life can be complicated, and the news just as hard to understand as your texbook. So my best piece of advice is to keep an eye out for core concepts in the pop culture you devour. When we cover the unit on non-democracy, I like to show my class parts of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (voluntarily giving up liberty in the hopes of security by granting Senator Palpatine emergency powers) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the Wizengamot trying to steamroll Harry; Umbridge systematically shutting down civil society at Hogwarts, questioning the loyalty of McGonagall, challenging the authority of Dumbledore). Political science is all around us. You don’t need to look far to find practical examples of tough concepts in the midst of things that are much easier to understand and take to heart.
And if all else fails, you can ask me for help. My special, one-time-only tutoring fee for Persephone members is the low, low price of Internet rainbows and sparkly unicorns. Act fast because this deal won’t last long. I should say, as a disclaimer, my suggestions to our questioner have been geared toward more of an intro course with the thought that it’s a non-major taking it. If you’re a political science major, considering a career in politics, or interested in going to grad school for political science, we need to have an entirely different conversation.
I know we have some other political scientists floating around these parts. (Rah29, SallySassyPants, anyone else?) What would you tell our friend here about political science classes?
Image courtesy of the Harry Potter Wiki