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 2019-20 academic year, please let us know! Submissions are due by June 21, 2020. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.
Erika Franklin Fowler is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University where she directs the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), which tracks and analyzes political advertising in real-time during elections. At Wesleyan, Fowler teaches courses in American Politics, media and politics, campaigns, public opinion, and empirical methods. Her courses typically feature research modules in the classroom, and she received Wesleyan’s Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2019.
What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
As a child of two public school educators, I had frequent opportunities to observe preparation for and discussion of instruction from a different (non-student) perspective. So even though I had no formal teacher training when I stepped into the classroom on my first teaching assistant assignment at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (unless you count high school certification to be a swim instructor), I felt nervous but oddly at home. I enjoyed the challenge and opportunity every class brought to help illuminate and make the material relevant.
How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
Interactive. In everything I teach, I want to get students involved. They should learn the material but also build skills that transfer outside the classroom along the way. Sometimes that means providing motivation for why we should care about a topic in the first place, at other times, it means empowering them to dig into research, learning how to collect and analyze their own data whether from media, surveys or survey experiments. Hands on learning can prompt deeper thinking about the choices that are often made in research, which also gives them the ability to think more critically about evidence.“I’m a huge fan of mixing things up. Some days require more lecture, but as often as possible, I like to find different ways of prompting and promoting discussion, which often requires moving students around to interact with different classmates”
Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
This is hard to answer because I love so much of the material I teach, and each course has its own exciting component(s). In Media and Politics, I always enjoy starting with the classic Lippmann reading from 1922. Students are surprised by how much of the discussion is still pertinent today. In my research design courses, I love teaching about concepts and measurement. We delve into political concepts, but I often start with something that may be more tangible to them like college rankings. It can more easily prompt heated discussion to reinforce the point about why we should care about operationalization questions. In my upper level seminars, I love working with students to field campus wide surveys and survey experiments. There is nothing quite so exciting as opening brand new survey data with students, and I think those experiences stick with students in reinforcing how exciting research can be.
What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
I’m a huge fan of mixing things up. Some days require more lecture, but as often as possible, I like to find different ways of prompting and promoting discussion, which often requires moving students around to interact with different classmates. I also assign hands on tasks like asking small groups to design and execute a study of media coverage from different sources. Groups then report back to the larger class, and we compare and contrast findings.
Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
YES! I got an amazing undergraduate education in mathematics and political science at St. Olaf College that influences a lot of my approach to teaching now. My professors frequently told students to “go to the boards” to work out problems in small groups, brought in visual aids – like a football – to illustrate integration in multivariable calculus, engaged students through simulations, and offered practicums in which students worked with external partners on real-world problems. These experiences as an undergraduate really motivated me to give back and provide others with the kinds of memorable learning experiences that I had.