3 March 2020


Read about Professor John Craig's experience at the American Political Science Association's Teaching and Learning Conference.


Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the American Political Science Association’s Teaching and Learning Conference (APSA TLC), which this year focused on the theme of ‘Teaching to Empower Students’. As ever, there was much to be learnt from engaging with political scientists from a system that, while sharing some common features with that of the UK, diverges in many others.

The conference kicked off with an excellent joint keynote from Lori Poloni-Staudinger and J. Cherie Strachan titled ‘Democracy is More Important than a P-Value’. As suggested by the title, they challenged the discipline to re-think its priorities at a time when democratic values are felt to be under stress. In addition, it made the case for using an intersectional lens to frame our strategies for supporting student engagement and attainment.

As Lori and Cherrie argued, in a range of political contexts, our discipline has explored how different arrangements can results in participants being either included or excluded from deliberations, and this knowledge can be deployed when we structure learning activities in the courses we teach. There were certainly ideas here that could be fed into the discussions happening in many UK universities on creating more inclusive classrooms and closing attainments gaps.

For those unfamiliar with the conference, APSA TLC is currently held on a biennial basis and typically attracts over two hundred participants. Unlike many conferences, it is organised on a track basis, in which participants spend most sessions with the same group of colleagues exploring a particular theme.

Among this year’s tracks, for example, where ‘Community Engagement and Experiential Learning’, ‘Simulations and games’, and ‘The Virtual and Technology Enhanced Classroom’. The various pros and cons of this are often debated by participants, but the great advantage is that it facilitates a depth of on-going conversation that is hard to achieve in more traditional formats. As such, the tracks almost become working groups, with a summary of their discussions usually published in the July issue of PS: Political Science & Politics.

This year I took part in the track on ‘Rethinking the Undergraduate Political Major’, which focused on questions on the appropriate structure and content of undergraduate teaching. Unlike in the UK, where the QAA Politics and International Relations Benchmark has been regularly updated since it was first drawn-up in 2000, the US has not had an authoritative report on the scope and content of the taught discipline since the Task Force on the Political Science Major (popularly known as the Wahlke Report) in 1991.

Much has changed over the last three decades, both in the areas that we study and in the higher education systems in which we operate. Within US colleges and universities, there are concerns with falling enrolments, a demographic dip, and increasing expectations that degree courses will prepare students for the labour market. While in the UK student demand for politics degrees remains strong, we are certainly familiar with the second and third of these challenges.

In addition to the panels, I attended workshops on ‘Teaching Political Science Research Methods’ and ‘The Present and Future of Teaching and Learning’, and the pre-conference short course which involved using the simulations and playing the role of an appellate court judge in a mock hearing on a recent case.

Many interesting points came in up in these sessions about how we can work with students to structure learning that builds upon the interests and skills that they bring to their studies, provide them with a education in political science that develops their critical and intellectual abilities, and prepares them to engage as active citizens and pursue successful careers.

As with any conference, outside the formal sessions, there are extensive opportunities to network and informally discuss a wide range of issues (which his year tended to involve exchanging perspectives on BREXIT and the state of the Royal Family for insights on the presidential primaries). It is a very friendly and welcoming conference, where participants are interested in learning from one another.

I would certainly recommend anyone who is interested in teaching and learning to give it a go, and while the next conference is not due until 2022, there will also be a mini-version at the APSA annual meeting in September.

Professor John Craig is co-Chair of the PSA Teaching and Learning Network. He is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at Leeds Beckett University.