Teaching Philosophy

In political science terms I am an “Americanist,” an “Institutionalist,” a “public law scholar.”  I teach classes through these three lenses, including judicial process, constitutional law, civil liberties, and American government.  Generally, I am concerned with teaching my students about the process of American government, the constitutional foundations of our democracy, the inner workings of the American legal system, and about how institutional rules affect decisions made by judges, presidents, members of Congress, and other officials.

While teaching the substance of American government and law I also have another responsibility to the students – preparing them for their lives and careers after college.  As such, I am guided by a quote my undergraduate advisor taught me about teaching and learning:  “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”  Apart from Sir Francis Bacon’s gender specific language, his words ring true in every class I teach. 

My students certainly become full of knowledge from what they read in my classes.  Most of classes I teach do not lend themselves to typical textbooks, so my students mainly read primary sources – Supreme Court opinions.  Although the readings are arduous, we immerse ourselves in great cases, from Bush v. Gore to Roe v. Wade to Marbury v. Madison, and in the writings of great legal minds including John Marshall, Louis Brandeis, and Thurgood Marshall.  Additionally, we analyze the political, social, and economic context within which cases are decided.  And, for recent cases, students read primary archival documents to help them understand the process of decision-making in the Supreme Court.  These documents tell stories in ways textbooks cannot.  Indeed, copies of Justice Brennan’s conference notes or Justice Blackmun’s oral argument notes bring cases to life for students in ways that secondary sources cannot.

After reading these primary sources, class discussion (conference) is easy and enjoyable.  Watching my students defend a controversial Court decision is why I love coming to class.  Through debates about these cases students learn more about law and politics than they ever could from simply ingesting lectures and reading cases.  In short, I believe dialogue is critical for students’ development.  Indeed, engaging students in daily discussions forces them to think quickly on their feet and to defend or counter arguments set out by some of the greatest legal minds of our nation’s history.  The task difficult, and my standards are high, but I am rarely disappointed.

Writing is the final component of the teaching equation for Francis Bacon and for me.  I believe it is my duty to make my students the best writers they can be.  Even in my introductory American government course students write a series of thought papers after completing exercises involving various political phenomena.  In the constitutional law sequence students complete two writing assignments that put them in the position of Supreme Court justice.  Here, they must apply legal reasoning to “decide” hypothetical cases related to areas of law we discuss.  These assignments have no correct answers.  My only directions are that they must present cogent arguments and support these arguments with solid evidence.  I once had a student suggest that writing about something where no right answer exists does not make sense.  For me it makes perfect sense.  What I want the students to do is to think critically and to express their thoughts lucidly on paper.  If they can do so in my classroom they will be accomplished writers no matter what they do after college.

I love teaching law and politics and I relish nurturing students as they make the transition to full citizenship in our democratic society. It is my job to pass on to them wisdom and a love of learning.  I do so in the classroom and in other capacities as well.  As the former director of our department undergraduate studies honors programs I often have students ask me whether they should major in political science. Of course I want offer an emphatic yes but I usually restrain myself. What I say is that they should pick a major that will make them well read, that will help them communicate well orally, and that will teach them how to become an excellent writer. I give this advice because I believe it is what students need to have successful careers and to be active participants in our democracy. As my teaching philosophy (derived from Francis Bacon) suggests, I strive to practice what I preach.