When I was studying comparative politics of the Middle East for my PhD at Georgetown University, one of my professors suggested minoring in American politics because, he said, “Universities always need someone who can teach the intro American politics class.”
I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this advice! Teaching American politics has been a truly meaningful experience for me. I have learned so much about my own country by figuring out how to teach about it to my undergraduate students. And every year, by updating my syllabus with the latest political developments and academic research, I have been able to stay informed about US politics—helping me feel confident enough to appear on live international TV to talk about our electoral system!
One of my favorite classes to teach is indeed the intro American politics class, which I call “American Government and Politics,” or AGP. This undergraduate course is useful for all students, whether they are American or not, because US politics are frequently in the news and often matter a great deal for world politics as well. AGP gives my students the tools to understand the news by becoming familiar with US political culture and institutions of government, as well as how the process of politics works on both the state and national levels. By the end of the semester, I promise my students, their family and friends will come to them with questions, and they will be happy to answer them!
I have a trick to engage my students in American politics. It’s a trick that my eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Bristol, pulled on me, and it made me a political junkie for the rest of my life! I was 14 years old and taking Mr. Bristol’s social studies class in the fall of 1994. Our class was following the race for governor in our state of Maine. Mr. Bristol divided us into three groups because there were three major candidates, and my group’s candidate for governor was an Independent politician named Angus King. It was so exciting to me to follow a political race without knowing what was going to happen. It was my very first political reality show! Angus King ended up winning the race and becoming Governor of Maine (and now, he’s the US Senator), so this experience also gave me a taste of how sweet political victory is too. I still love Angus King—shhhh, don’t tell my husband—and I still love politics.
My students have the same experience in the classroom with me. I make sure to offer AGP on the fall electoral cycle. Together, our class learns about all the important aspects of US politics and government—our Constitution, Congress, political parties, the news media, campaigns, voting rights, and the politics of gender and race—but we learn these topics as we each follow a candidate running for the US Senate. In the second week of class, I assign each student to a competitive Senate race, to follow either the Democratic or Republican contender, and every week the students apply that week’s class materials to better understand their races and their particular candidates.
Nothing warms my political science heart more than seeing my students, who come from all over the world, get completely obsessed with the state politics of North Dakota or Georgia or Arizona or Florida! Following these races gets my students invested in US politics. It helps them learn that US politics is about more than just the president. My students get a better sense of the diversity of politics in the US by learning about their candidates’ states and the issues that are important to the people who live there. And it gives my students a reason to stay up all night on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to watch the election results coming in! And in the end, my students are able to explain—just like a political scientist—the major reasons why their candidates won or lost their races. (One student’s analysis—from Fall 2018 on the House race in California’s 50th district—was even published in the Northwestern Undergraduate Research Journal!)
I’m proud that I’ve published an article about teaching this course in the Journal of Political Science Education. This article was highlighted by the American Political Science Association in its “RAISE the Vote: How Political Scientists Teach Civic Engagement” initiative (under “Candidates and Campaigns”). In the article’s acknowledgments, I dedicate the article to my eighth-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Bristol, for immersing our class in the Maine gubernatorial elections and sparking my interest in politics. And I thank all of my American Politics students over the years for enjoying the electoral ride with me!