Embedding quantitative political science in a gender module

Maarja Lühiste, Newcastle University

 

When I was asked to introduce a module covering some aspect of gender and politics to the Politics degree programme in Newcastle, I had little prior knowledge, experience or intuition of how to best develop a brand new module. At the beginning, the only two things I was confident about were the need to embed some methods training into a substantive module and to stick to what I know, broadly speaking. In terms of substance, that meant focusing on women’s representation in politics and the media. With regard to methods, that logic should have made me focus on quantitative methods only. Yet, for some reason, I thought I had to offer a more balanced view of various research methods out there that could be used for understanding how gender influences campaign strategies, media coverage of these campaigns, and candidates’ subsequent chances for electoral success. As such, I promised to students that I would include both quantitative and qualitative research in the reading list as well as cover the main features of quantative and qualitative research design when answering the substantive questions asked in the module. That was how the Stage 3 undergraduate module, titled 'Gender, Campaigns and Media' came to be.

Approaching the problem

Rather than have students doing quantitative or qualitative research on the module, my aims were more modest. In short, I wished to reduce the anxieties students appeared to have of any type of research methods, let them be quantitative or qualitative. But more specifically, I thought I could perhaps show that numbers are no one’s scary enemy but they are just one way to find and present evidence (or the lack of it).  

The activities of embedding methods learning into my gender module included:

  • Lectures: Covering not only the main knowledge claims made in the literature but also spending quite some time explaining how different studies were conducted and how the chosen research design and data may influence the inferences made.
  • Seminar preparation: Asking students to prepare weekly handouts based on one of the primary readings, explicitly highlighting the (i) the central research question of the reading, (ii) why that question matters, (iii) how the question is answered in the article (evidence / data and method / approach), and (iv) the main findings presented in the article.
  • Seminars: Including exercises that involved explaining tables and graphs found in the readings, and devising research designs for hypothetical research questions.
  • Assessment: Changing the standard exam paper of two essay questions to one essay question and a set of questions asking students to come up with a research design. In that second part of the exam, I presented students with a research question. They were then asked to explain (i) which theoretical concepts should be used to answer the research question and why, (ii) what type of data (evidence) should be used to answer the research question, (iii) how should the data (evidence) be analysed to answer the research question; and (iv) what are the main strengths and weaknesses of the approach you proposed.

What went well?

Overall, most of the students appeared much less reluctant to (passively) engage with research methods than I first assumed. While the students expressed that the strong empirical focus and the inclusion of many quantitative research papers in the module was unusal for them, many of them mentioned in the feedback that they had aquired some new skills and that the module’s focus on research design had helped them with writing their dissertations. The modified assessment, worked out well, too. In particular, there was a strong positive correlation between seminar and lecture attendance and how well the students answered the research design component of the exam paper.  And I guess it is also fair to list in the positives that I myself really enjoyed teaching that module, it kept me up at night at the best possible ways.   

Lessons Learned

As I mentioned at the start, my initial aim was to include both quantitative and qualitative literature and research designs in the module. In practice, largely due to my own research interests, the module was skewed towards quantitative research and thus the students who hoped for perfect balance, were let down. Going forward, I am likely to change the module guide so that it is clear that this module focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on quantitative content. Taking into account that most of the optional politics module in my department are more likely to include qualitative than quantitative literature and methods in their core, I believe the degree programme as whole will offer sufficient opportunities for the students to engage with qualitative research, too.