Ask the Political Scientist: How do I survive my Poli-Sci class?

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

By BaseballChica03

Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

18 replies on “Ask the Political Scientist: How do I survive my Poli-Sci class?”

I am days behind on this, but I wanted to add a couple of things I wish my students knew and I wish I had known when I took my first political science course long, long ago. On the whole, I think these are largely about understanding the approach of your professor and TAs and the ways THEY understand the contours of the discipline (and this understanding will really make your life a lot easier — trust):

1. Check your partisanship at the door. Many people who are interested in political science are interested in contemporary politics … but interested as partisans, i.e. they want to fight over the content of health care legislation as Republicans or Democrats or libertarians or what have you. Political science is analytical and critical, and political scientists are interested in how and why we see the health care policy outcomes that we do by understanding voter behavior and elections, Congress as an institution, Congressional voting behavior, etc. etc. You’re not in class to talk about why Republicans are stupid; you are in class to talk about why and how Republicans – in the electorate and as elected officials – do what they do.

2. Relatedly, political science is about the mechanics of politics rather than the content of politics. Political science is a discipline built on constructing theories about the hows and whys of politics. If you’re taking a class on, for example, Canadian politics, you’re going to be learning centrally about parliamentary democracy and not so much about Canadian political history (except incidentally). In political science, all content – all specifics – is evidence or example of bigger descriptive theories, analyses, and concepts. The point is always to move beyond the specifics of one time and place and to generalize – even if you are just generalizing to, say, all natural-resource-rich non-democratic regimes with high Gini coefficients.

3. As a political theorist, I cannot drive this home enough: be mindful of the distinction between descriptive theory and normative theory. Descriptive theory does exactly as advertised: it is theory that describes/explains how the world works. It can be quite general (“all democracies do X”) to quite specific (“under these conditions Y, the US Congress does X”). Most of political science is THIS. Normative political theory, on the other hand, is theory that offers a vision of the way the world ought to be. It is theory that provides a template, rather than a description or explanation. It always has descriptive claims embedded into it, but is centrally about a political vision that has probably not obtained but is “good” and a worthy social goal for any number of theorist-specific reasons. Mixing up the descriptive and normative is a recipe for a good deal of misunderstanding.

4. Realize you’re going to get contradictory explanations for all manner of political phenomena. There are, for example, dozens of explanations out there of why segments of the American electorate vote the way they do. Some of these explanations are longstanding, and are accepted as fairly close to “fact” by Americanists; however, they are always up for revision or rejection. In a political science class, you’re going to have to contend with competing explanations for which there is ample evidence (if your instructor isn’t putting garbage on the syllabus). One explanation is not necessarily more “right” than the other, although one may have longer history and more evidence to back it up … but that makes it “better,” not necessarily “correct.” For students used to straightforward answers, this can be extremely confusing.

Oh my gosh, I am so flattered by the shout-out! I’m afraid my American poli sci knowledge is fairly weak though compared to all of yours, though if you’re interested in European parliaments I am your girl!
I totally agree with everything you’ve suggested here. I’m also with @lostinmybox: don’t be afraid of jargon, because much of it only explains concepts you’ll already have encountered before in other guises.
Theory, I think, is the part that often throws people off poli sci. They get into poli sci thinking it’ll be all about Republicans versus Democrats, and then they’re whacked over the head with Hobbes. I’ve always been someone who runs terrified from theory, but after many years I’ve finally realised that it doesn’t have to be scary. It’s just a way of explaining your basic assumptions about how the world works. Do you think people are ultimately rational, and that they try to make choices that provide the best possible outcome for themselves (and sometimes others)? Or do you think that kind of rationality is impossible, since people can only see the world through their own particular lenses? These seem like obvious questions with obvious answers, but the more you study, the more complex these issues become.
The fun thing about political theory is that it can make you see even unrelated life issues in a totally different light. How do you make decisions? Do you think you should act on the basis of a set of absolute principles, or is context important to you? How do you behave in group situations? How do groups in your life – cliques, rival dance troupes, whatever – interact with one another? At its heart, poli sci is the study of all of us, not just of the political class; it’s the study of how people interact with other people in society, which is a lot more interesting and challenging than a talking head debate on cable news!

Oh, despite my job in US politics, my concentration area was comparative. :) (My BA is actually a joint degree, political science and European studies, and my thesis was on political protest and civic engagement of ethnic minorities in former Soviet republics!)

Love the comments about theory. That was definitely one of my weak areas.

Oooh, that thesis must have been so much fun to write! Which former SSRs, if you don’t mind my asking? I work a little bit on the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood policies, the region’s kind of a side interest of mine.
Yeah, I’m still a little bit afraid of theory, but I’ve been slaving away re-writing my theory and methods chapter for a few weeks so it’s on my mind. It’s taken me years to get over my hangups, and the pervasive fear that I’m just too stupid to get it! Now I like to see theories as toolkits, really, for solving empirical problems; just like you wouldn’t use a hammer to screw in a nail, you can’t use some theories to solve some problems, and anyone who tries to propound a universal theory is probably delusional!

Hey! This is my question! Woohoo!
(and yes, I do have a math degree! How ever did you guess?) :)

This is all REALLY helpful. I have never taken a poli-sci course before and had no idea what it really covered. I have to take 101 and 102 to finish my accounting degree (it’s a core requirement for our school of business) and I don’t want to take it until the very end of my program but I KNOW I will have questions. So, y’all need to stick around for me to bombard you with questions and freak-out moments. (Math is a very safe and comforting place for me – this new course is not…)

And yes I am FULL of unicorns and at this very moment peanut butter filled chocolate bunnies! Y’all are so lucky. :)

That is awesome that polisci is a business school requirement at your university! It’s not everywhere, but I can see how it would be really useful for business students to at least understand how the system works.

I can’t speak for the others, but I’m glad to help out whenever! Use us. That’s what the internet is for. :)

Fellow political scientist. Americanist though, which I am guessing you are not. (Parliamentary collapse, democracy, Harold Lasswell, ha!) This is cool. Thanks. I might start using parts of this in the intro-level classes I teach. To be honest, it never occurred to me that students might have any level of trepidation about our classes.

In an unrelated matter, I think I might be the only political scientist who hates the “poli-sci” designation. I have no idea why, but I do. I am a jerk.

I hate it too, with a fiery passion, but that’s because I’m a nutjob social constructivist and I totally reject the positivist connotations of the ‘science’ designation. This, however, is why I am also unemployable in North America!

I did study a comparative major track, but now I work in American politics, so I’m a bit on both sides of things. I taught a couple of sections of intro to American when I was in grad school, but I’ve done more teaching of intro to comparative. And I find that American students tend to be better at grasping American politics, at least it’s more familiar to them. Studying unfamiliar systems is usually more of an adjustment.

Before the question, I also didn’t really think people had much trepidation about political science, either. (Well, I knew people feared me because I’m “too hard for an intro class” and “geez, this isn’t calculus or something” but I guess I didn’t think about it as a discipline-wide thing!)

Ah, it makes so much more sense that students would be afraid of the unfamiliar in the comparative/ir classes. I completely failed to put the question in a context other than my own!

Also, I love that not only did students fear you, but that you knew it! This was my first (and hopefully last for while) go at an intro class and I failed in any attempt at being hard/difficult.

Another political scientist here! Though now I’m in the nonprofit field and really miss academia. I think you hit the nail on the head, poli sci is so great because you can see it happening all around you. Earlier this week with the whole Bin Laden business my first thought was how I was so bummed I was that didn’t have class to go to anymore to discuss and analyze the situation.

As for advice for first timers? Don’t be nervous by all the jargon thrown at you. Often times their concepts you’ve probably encountered before but just didn’t know there was a term for it. That being said, there is a lot of political science vocabulary so ask questions if you don’t understand! Also, I know there are know-it-alls in every department, but something about poli sci know-it-alls really irks me. Don’t be that kid who constantly accuses people of being philosopher kings.

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