Excellence in teaching political science is essential to the discipline. This interview series highlights campus teaching award winners who have been recognized by APSA for their achievements. If you or a colleague has won a campus teaching award in the 2018-19 academic year, please let us know! Submissions are due by June 21, 2019. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.
2017-2018 Campus Teaching Award Winner: Christina Bambrick
Christina Bambrick is a Doctoral Candidate in the Government Department at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies constitutional theory and development, American and comparative constitutionalism, and the history of political thought. She is currently writing a dissertation on the application of rights obligations to non-state actors in comparative context. She has a Master’s degree in Government from the University of Texas, and a Bachelor’s in philosophy and legal studies from Scripps College in Claremont, CA. She will be joining the Clemson University Political Science Department as an Assistant Professor in Fall 2019.
What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
Since my undergraduate years at Scripps College, I have appreciated the power of good teaching. So, when I had the chance to teach my own class for the first time, I was both thrilled and duly hesitant. As a graduate student at the University of Texas, I have solo taught three courses. In the first class I designed and taught, called Introduction to Rights, my primary objective was to challenge students’ assumptions about the efficacy of rights in modern politics. Insofar as “rights talk” is ubiquitous in public discourse, it would serve students well, I thought, to gain some background on the historical origins of rights, their status in law, and how questions about rights remain unresolved in both theory and practice. Though I was probably over-ambitious in what I aimed to accomplish that semester, several students have since told me that the class forever changed the way they thought about rights—truly the best affirmation I could have hoped for as a beginning teacher!
How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
I guide my students to develop new frames of reference for understanding politics and political science. While I try never to assume prior knowledge in the classroom, I also do not hesitate to challenge students with the same questions that occupy scholars in the discipline. In both meeting students where they are with respect to prior instruction and making explicit the great stakes of the questions we consider in class, I consistently see my students rise to the occasion.
Regardless of the size or medium of instruction, I create opportunities for dialogue and civil discourse in the classroom.
Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
I enjoy when I can incorporate comparative perspectives in my teaching, even when teaching such courses as American constitutional law. The rationale for studying constitutions in comparative context is that we learn more when we put into dialogue diverse perspectives. The most important debates in constitutionalism recur across time and place, and so opportunities for comparison grow out of my course designs naturally. For example, before getting into the details of the ratification debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in my class on Constitutional Principles, I ask my students to look up the constitution of a country with which they are completely unfamiliar. They each choose a particular provision from a constitution and write an explanation of how that provision is (or is not) representative of the broader principles of constitutionalism we are studying. This exercise allows students to begin their study of constitutional politics with the knowledge that dozens of other countries have confronted similar questions and often come to different answers. In this way, students gain both knowledge of the country in which they live and a critical perspective.
What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
Regardless of the size or medium of instruction, I create opportunities for dialogue and civil discourse in the classroom. Moderating such discussions is easy enough in small seminars. Even in larger classes of 90, however, I build provocative questions into lectures, asking students to discuss with their neighbor or write down some thoughts before reconvening to take up these questions as a class. In some ways, this method is even more effective for some students than is a typical seminar style, as it gives everyone an opportunity to be heard without the pressure that comes with addressing the whole class. Regardless of the size of the class, students consistently identify these debates as their favorite activities in evaluations.
Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
Attending a small liberal arts college was a formative experience for me. The ability to engage with my peers and professors stretched me intellectually, and my learning was further facilitated by the context of our tightknit campus community. In short, I learned so much because I felt connected. Each semester I make it my goal to connect my own students with resources around campus to help them build the personal and professional networks essential to success in college. Early on, I ask each student about his or her academic and professional goals in order to bring opportunities to their attention as they arise over the semester. What may be obvious or common knowledge to a person accustomed to a university environment will often be entirely new to a freshman or first-generation student. These extra steps to support students in extracurricular projects sometimes surprise them but always seem appreciated.