Big Ben, Whalers, Maori and Beyond
By Kimberly J. Pace
Context of the Inquiry
PS 311 – COMPARATIVE POLITICS
Focus of the Inquiry
As part of the Ford Foundation Alaska Native Way of Teaching and Learning Faculty Intensive (held the Summer of 2009) I was introduced to a number of teaching and learning techniques to build communication and teamwork skills that have their foundation in Alaska Native traditions. I was encouraged to incorporate several of these methods into an existing course, I chose PS 311 – Comparative Politics a course that would be taught in the Fall of 2009.
My Hypothesis: By including the techniques I learned in the Intensive in this course I hoped that students would find that:
· Working in teams enhanced not only their understanding of the course material but also built relationships that helped to sustain them through the class.
· Slowing down the pace of the course would allow for deeper understanding of the material.
· Team presentations would give “ownership” of the material and foster a positive learning environment.
· Understanding diverse cultural backgrounds would strengthen their attitudes towards appreciating diversity both on campus and beyond.
Course Design and Implementation
· The original course design called for me to introduce theories and methodologies of studying comparative politics and then lecture on specific nation-states (Great Britain & Northern Ireland, France, Russia, China etc.) using a structural –functional approach. “France operates under a parliamentary system. It functions in this way…..” Using this design I would typically cover 15 different countries in a semester.
· The redesigned course still had me lecturing on 6 different countries just as I always had. The difference came when the students were divided up into Teams of 5-6 people each and each Team was assigned a different country. The countries that were chosen for the students included Bangladesh, New Zealand, Canada, Sudan, Hungary and Norway. These countries were chosen for two reasons, first because each country has an indigenous population and second because each country is struggling in its own way with the effects of climate change.
· The students were given two full class sessions to cover their assigned country. The first session was to cover the classic material (type of governmental system, branches of government, interest groups, political parties, etc.). The second session was to focus on culture (including but not limited to: art, dance, games, food, and education) and to make specific reference to how “their” country was affected by climate change and how the government and the population were dealing with the issue. Additionally in this second session comparisons were to be made between Alaskan Natives and the indigenous peoples in the assigned country.
· The students in previous classes had been asked to write a book review on a book relevant to the country of their choice. This term I asked all students to read and write a critical book review on The Whale and the Supercomputer, by Charles Wohlforth.
· Students took both a pre-class survey and a post-class survey asking among other items, if the implementation of Alaskan Native ways of learning in the course made for better understanding of the course materials.
· IDEA survey.
· Anecdotally students expressed enthusiasm over their own presentations and those of others. I observed great joy on the “cultural days” of the course.
· Results of the pre and post survey were mixed but all in all most students recognized the value of working in groups and building relationships to build community in the classroom. Additionally, most saw the value of at least being introduced to some of the Alaska Natives ways of learning methods. Specifically, “slowing down the pace” was very appealing to a majority of the students. This is not to say content was left out but rather it was simply introduced in a more inclusive way.
I found this to be a most rewarding experience. I have taught this course over six times and I will never go back to the way that I taught it in the past. I will forever be changed as a teacher by this experience and my participation in the Faculty Intensive. It made me a better teacher and perhaps even more significant a better experience for my students. I am profoundly grateful for my students in this class for helping me to see that there are different and exciting ways to present this course. Thank you PS 311 students from the Fall of 2009!
Professor Kimberly J. Pace
Department of Political Science
3211 Providence Dr.
University of Alaska, Anchorage