2017-2018 Campus Teaching Award Winner: Gisela Sin

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.

Gisela Sin is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A Fulbright scholar who received her PhD in political science from the University of Michigan, she studies political institutions, emphasizing the strategic elements of separation of powers. She is the author of Separation of Powers and Legislative Organization: the President, the Senate, and Political Parties in the Making of House Rules, published by Cambridge University Press and winner of the Alan Rosenthal Prize from the APSA Legislative Studies Section. She is co-author of a book on Argentinean institutions, Congreso, Presidencia, y Justicia en Argentina. She has published numerous articles on American and Comparative politics and is currently examining the strategic use of vetoes in the US States and Latin America.

What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?

“I feel it is critical for my students to develop their leadership and communication skills”.

I teach about the separation of powers system, Congress, the Presidency, the bureaucracy and political parties, I believe it is my responsibility not only to foster student’s intellect but also to ignite their passion and ability to think critically about the political world around them. My classes focus on how institutions and rules change both the behavior of citizens and elected representatives as well as the policy outcomes that result from that behavior. I believe that teaching and research are inextricably connected, and I strive to make the classroom a site of intellectual inquiry. Students acquire a knowledge of how citizens, elected representatives, and administrators approach the decisions they are called upon to make as well as a better understanding of the way public affairs are conducted. Ultimately, I want students to leave my classes with the ability to think carefully about these issues, with a deep-rooted understanding of the strategic nature of political interaction, and with the skills to succeed in their academic and occupational lives

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?

I feel it is critical for my students to develop their leadership and communication skills. I achieve these objectives by designing classes that are student centered, that stimulate ownership and responsibility in learning, and that recognize and address the different learning styles of students. I also believe that teaching does not end after students leave my classroom.  Instead, an effective teacher nurtures a love for learning in students that can be applied in various circumstances. I want my students to empower themselves by actively engaging the material and feeling confident in applying and communicating what they have learned in their daily lives. One of the ways I help students to achieve this is by providing them opportunities to develop and practice leadership skills in a supportive environment. In all my classes I teach students to take an active leadership role. For example, in the class about Latin America and Argentina, each week two students are assigned to be discussion leaders and are responsible for summarizing the main points of the articles and leading the class dialogue. To organize this exercise, I meet with students beforehand to discuss the main points of the readings as well as the questions submitted by their classmates. Being discussion leaders not only provides students with the opportunity to enhance their critical thinking skills, but also their communication and organizational skills as they develop themes for the discussion.

“Students in my classes will often struggle with ideas and beliefs that may be quite different from their own and it is important that they learn to approach these discussions in a non-threatening and respectful manner (…)”.

In another of my upper level undergraduate courses, Bureaucratic Politics, I also provide opportunities for students to learn and practice their communication inside and outside the classroom. The class is divided into groups of three or four students, and each group assumes the role of an individual who has just been nominated by the President to join the cabinet. The groups are tasked with preparing themselves for Senate confirmation hearings. This project lasts an entire semester and ends with simulated hearings that are conducted by the students themselves. To make this a successful learning experience, I work with each group throughout the semester to help them understand the information, develop their arguments and to provide constructive feedback. I believe that this experience improves students’ skills in negotiating conflicts that may develop within the group while also giving them the opportunity to practice both time management and public speaking.

Students in my classes will often struggle with ideas and beliefs that may be quite different from their own and it is important that they learn to approach these discussions in a non-threatening and respectful manner, so that eventually they can become more open to new or different perspectives on political issues. One technique that I use to create an accepting climate is to have students read two academic articles with opposing views on the very same political problem. I use the same technique in my lectures, always juxtaposing arguments (with supporting data) that advocate for different views of the same political problem or policies. This is important because it shows my students that it is okay to have diverging views from each other on any given political subject, and that they can feel comfortable expressing their opinions to the group, even if they seem quite different from those of others. More crucially, this approach instills in them the need to support their own opinions with facts.

Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?

The Congress simulation platform LegSim developed by John Wilkerson. It really fulfills my student-centered learning objective. That is, my US Congress class uses this platform as a semester long simulation in which students play the role of House members. To prepare for their roles, they conduct in-depth research on a topic and write a major piece of legislation that they introduce in Congress.  Students must critically examine how the rules of the House can be put to use to achieve their objectives. Most of the learning is team-based, and students learn early on that if they want to pass bills, they need to bargain, compromise, and cooperate. Along the way, I coach them in the skills they need to do these activities effectively.  The whole class provides an active learning experience where students solve open-ended problems requiring critical and creative thinking that cannot be acquired by reading a text about “how Congress works.”

What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?  

In two words: experiential learning. Like my class on Congress, my class on Latin American politics helps students appreciate the links among teaching, research, and political action. I focus on the politics, society, and culture of one country, Argentina. The class finishes with a hands-on experience in which students visit Argentina for two weeks. They experience the life of a big city (Buenos Aires), two mid-size cities (Posadas and Iguazu) and a very small town (Alvear). Students also learn through the experience of visiting important sites and organizations. For example, in one class we discuss the problematic of human rights and the action of “Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo”; in Argentina we visit the organization and can talk and ask questions to these grandmothers who lost their sons and daughters during the dictatorship and are actively looking for their grandkids. We also visit the actual facility where activists were tortured and the most severe human right abuses were committed.