At a Delta College faculty meeting during the fall of 1999, Dr. Richard Fenton spoke to new faculty members about teaching goals in Delta College. Dr. Fenton told the group that the amount of information in the world doubled between the Middle Ages and 1900; it doubled again between 1900 and 1950, and again between 1950 and 1965. Since then, it has doubled every three to four years.
At the start of this century, a college student was expected to learn philosophy, classics, history, and mathematics. At the end of the century, many, perhaps most, college graduates have never taken a college course in several of these fields.
Even in my own discipline, political science and international studies, we now have at least five subfields. No professor in my Department claims to be an expert in more than two of these subfields. Until recently, the Department of Political Science and International Studies requires its students to take courses in only three of these five subfields.
I realize that some information is more important to pass on to students than other information is. Nevertheless, given the vast knowledge available to mankind, it is increasingly difficult to expect to teach a “core” body of information to students. Indeed, I am certain there is widespread disagreement among scholars as to what such a core would contain.
What this suggests to me is that my goal as a professor is no longer to teach students what to learn, but rather, how to learn. Once students acquire the skills necessary to take on a body of knowledge on their own, they can choose for themselves which disciplines to master. Before students can become active participants in their own education, however, they must learn how to apply critical thinking skills to all kinds of intellectual tasks. In addition, they must learn to communicate in both the written and verbal form in order to ensure that they can present their findings to others.
This approach does not mean that students need not learn certain information. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how a student could learn to exercise the power of logic or critical thinking without first acquiring certain facts. If, for instance, students seek to think critically about political economics, it will be necessary to first learn about Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes’ market theories. Failure to acquire this information first would result in students having to reinvent the field of political economics each time one of them sought to learn about the discipline. The same is true of any school of thought. By acquiring facts, students amass the kind of knowledge that serves as a base for reasoning.
With these observations in mind, I have concluded that the first two years of a college student’s career I should focus primarily on imparting factual information to students. This approach is evident in my teaching style. In 100-200 level courses, I tend to evaluate students on their acquisition of factual information. Exams often consist of multiple choice and short answer questions. At this level, I derive 75% of the student’s grade from this kind of exercise.
Even in introductory classes, however, I tend to assign a short paper. This kind of assignment has several purposes. Chief among my goals is to begin to familiarize students with logic and reasoning exercises. Forcing students to begin to think analytically about an argument as they attempt to analyze an author’s work accomplish this. In addition, short research assignments introduce students to the research process. The research is seldom extensive; (I generally require a critique of a single journal article), but it does introduce them to research. They have to go to the library or track the article down on-line. Finally, in reviewing their work I focus on issues like grammar and syntax as much as on substantive analysis. Students are frequently very weak in this area, and I believe it is the responsibility of every department to help students develop writing skills.
In upper division courses, I shift the focus toward developing critical thinking skills. Teaching students to think in logical or critical terms, or to reason their way through an argument is, of course, even more difficult than teaching them facts. While a body of discrete facts can be taught in any course, the more complex skills like reasoning take years to develop. Honing these skills requires repeated attempts at writing papers or making presentations in class. Papers or presentations at this level require synthesis of several (eight to ten) sources. Students are required to compare and contrast the thoughts of scholars with differing views. The goal is to have them critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the various authors as well as to offer a cogent statement of their own views.
Ultimately, the goal is to prepare students to either advance the discipline or apply the discipline’s accumulated knowledge to the world beyond academia. In either case, the student will have to be prepared to analyze an ever-increasing body of knowledge. The same critical thinking lessons learned in political science classes will be equally valuable to the future lawyer, administrator, businessperson or scholar. What will be different is that I will not be around to direct the student. Therefore, my philosophy of teaching dictates that I must prepare students to proceed on their own.
PhD Political Science 1996 University at Buffalo
JD Columbia University School of Law 1986
B.A. Political Science University at Buffalo summa cum laude
At SUNY Brockport:
PLS 111 International Relations
PLS 113 American Political Systems
PLS 311 Parties and Elections
PLS 314 Issues in American Politics
PLS 320 Law & Legal Process
PLS 324 Constitutional Politics I
PLS 326 Constitutional Law II
PLS 380 Congressional Politics
PLS 401 Local Government Internship
PLS 402 Legal Internship
PLS 492 Albany Internship
PLS 499 Independent Study
DCC 215 Society and Culture I
DCC 315 Society and Culture II
DCC 210 Human Heritage I
DCC 310 Human Heritage II
DCC 345 Integrative Learning Seminar II
Psc 301 State and Local Government
At SUNY Buffalo:
Psc 303 Constitutional Law
Psc 305 Judicial Politics
Psc 304 Legislative Politics Fall 1993
Psc 325 American Foreign Policy Problems
Psc 335 American Foreign Policy
Politics and Religion
First Amendment Establishment/Free Exercise Clause