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. Submissions for 2019-20 awards will open in Spring 2020. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.
Lauren C. Bell is Professor of Political Science and Dean of Academic Affairs at Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia. Dr. Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the College of Wooster (Ohio) and Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at The University of Oklahoma. She is a former American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow (1997-98) on the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary and a former United States Supreme Court fellow (2006-07) at the United States Sentencing Commission in Washington, DC.
What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
My father taught middle and high school Latin while I was growing up; as a result, I was raised to value teachers and teaching. My first experience with teaching was as a college junior; my undergraduate institution, the College of Wooster, had a tradition of using upper-level students as teaching assistants, and during my junior year, I TA’d a first-year seminar course. I mostly just read new students’ journal assignments and checked off that they had completed them, but my role was also to serve as something of a peer mentor as well.Teaching allows for positive, a-ha! moments and the development of life-long mentoring relationships, which is what keeps me engaged in my work.
My earliest more substantive experiences in teaching came in my second year in graduate school at The Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. In the Fall term, I led a Friday afternoon discussion section for Introduction to American Government. In the Spring term, I taught my own standalone section of the Introduction to American Government class. I was 21 when I started graduate school, so when I started teaching, I was roughly the same age as my students. It was terrifying. But I learned many important lessons about teaching that stay with me even today.
Since coming to Randolph-Macon College in Fall 1999, I have taught a diverse range of courses, mostly in American politics, including Introduction to American Politics, Congress, The Presidency, Judicial Process and Behavior, State and Local Government, Parties and Voting Behavior, Constitutional Law, and political science research methods. Recently, I’ve reconnected with some of the comparative work I did back in graduate school, and have developed a comparative legislatures course that focuses on Japan and the U.S.
I currently serve in a full-time administrative role as Dean of Academic Affairs, so I don’t get to teach as much as I used to. I do try to teach as often as I can because as an administrator, too many interactions with students are negative or disciplinary in nature. That’s not why I went into higher ed. Teaching allows for positive, a-ha! moments and the development of life-long mentoring relationships, which is what keeps me engaged in my work.
How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
There are a few principles that guide my teaching.
- The first is something that I learned from some of my own teachers, which is that every classroom consists of a community of learners, and that even as the faculty member I can and should be learning from my students. This approach means that I try to avoid presenting myself as the expert, and instead, I try to present myself more as the “first-among-equals.” I think that this helps to ensure that the students treat me with respect, but also that they feel safe enough to take intellectual risks.
- On this point, I also think it’s very important to be respectful of my students and their time. So many students today are working multiple jobs on- and off-campus to pay for college, or have siblings, parents, grandparents, or their own children that they provide care for. Even those who don’t have these external pressures have other classes they’re taking and other types of obligations—varsity athletics, clubs, or other activities—that are important to them. So, I am careful with every class I teach to be sure that the syllabus students receive on the first day of class includes all reading and writing assignments for the entire semester. This allows the students to plan out their studying and coursework in advance, and of course it also helps keep me organized.
- Finally, I think it’s very important to believe the best about all students. No, they don’t all always make good decisions, or engage as fully as I might like, but I have found that nearly all students—even the ones who do not have high grades or strong educational backgrounds—will work to meet the expectations they are given, provided that those expectations are clearly articulated, justified by the course content, and connected to the learning objectives for the course.
Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
As I mentioned, I don’t get to teach as often as I used to, but there are just certain courses I won’t give up: The U.S. Congress, Constitutional Law, and Judicial Process and Behavior. I also try to teach Introduction to American Government at least once every few years, so that I can get to know the students who are just entering the major.
My courses on Congress and Constitutional Law are my favorite courses among the ones I currently teach. I use a semester-long simulation that I developed back in graduate school in my Congress course; the students “become” members of the House of Representatives for the semester, and all their assignments are things that members of Congress actually do. It’s a great active learning activity, but what I also love is that the students end up doing way more work than I actually assign; for example, I would never assign them opposition research on the students in the class who are in the other political party, but nearly every time I teach the course, the student party leaders assign their rank-and-file “colleagues” to do it. It cracks me up each time that the rank-and-file “members” actually do it!In all the classes I teach, I try to figure out what will spark students’ interest, and then use that to keep them engaged.
Constitutional Law is another terrifically fun class to teach, because every case that the Supreme Court decides is rooted in an actual conflict and the conflicts are sometimes just truly bizarre. For example, I love teaching U.S. v. Causby, which is a 1946 Takings Clause case involving chickens that flew themselves into walls and “died from fright” after the U.S. government set up an airstrip near the farm where they were being raised. In all the classes I teach, I try to figure out what will spark students’ interest, and then use that to keep them engaged.
What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
Connecting course material to what is happening in the moment has been one of the most effective ways I have found to engage students. I’ve never mastered the ability to incorporate daily newspaper reading or the like into my classroom very effectively so for me this means finding a way to teach important context and history through the lens of what is happening now.No one likes to be assigned to do what seems like busy work, so I always try to explain why I am asking them to read, or write, or do something. It respects their time and helps them understand what they are supposed to be getting out of the assigned work.
Students today live in the moment; even their social media use has gravitated to Snapchat from more static forms like Facebook and even Instagram. If something happened more than a few hours ago, they’ve often already moved on. Increasingly it seems like I have had to find new ways to teach the same material to this generation of students. A good example is Constitutional Law. I love that class, but students struggle with the historical cases. So a few years ago, I redesigned that class from being a traditional con law class organized by topic or area of the law, into a series of two-week modules, using a recent major case as the lead case in each module. I then have the students read the precedents that allow them to make better sense of the main case. So now, to teach the presidential powers cases, I might use something like National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning as the lead case, which then still allows me to have the students read a whole range of other presidential and congressional powers cases to help them understand the Noel Canning decision. Because I start with a fairly current case, it is easier to get the students engaged in the material—as compared with how I might have traditionally taught presidential powers, which would have started with something like the pre-Civil War The Prize Cases. We still cover The Prize Cases, but because the students have already been introduced to the concept of presidential overreach in Noel Canning, they are more open to and interested in the context provided by the historical cases when we get to them.
Relatedly, I think it becomes much easier to engage students when they know why we’re covering something, or why I’ve asked them to do a particular assignment. No one likes to be assigned to do what seems like busy work, so I always try to explain why I am asking them to read, or write, or do something. It respects their time and helps them understand what they are supposed to be getting out of the assigned work. It also typically leads to better quality work, which makes the grading process less time-consuming and frustrating for me.
Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
I think all my experiences as a student—both positive and less so—influence my teaching. My high school government teacher used a year-long simulation of local government called Community Land Use Game, or CLUG, to get us learning both inside and outside of class. Picture a bunch of “too cool for school” high school seniors plotting against each other for local government domination in the hallways between classes and after school: it was the first time I really understood how even a hint of power could change the way people view themselves and others.In my teaching now, I constantly think about what it would have taken for me to learn the material, and then I try to teach it in a way that would have helped the undergraduate me to have done well.
As an undergraduate at the College of Wooster, political scientists Mark Weaver, Karen Beckwith, and Eric Moskowitz really inspired me. Mark showed me the value of treating students with respect and of meeting them where they are. Karen showed by example how to create an inclusive classroom, and I learned how to conduct a robust and meaningful seminar-style class from Eric’s Constitutional Law classes. I also learned what not to do from teachers who kept their students at an arm’s length, or who lectured with their back to the room for hour upon hour of class. In my teaching now, I constantly think about what it would have taken for me to learn the material, and then I try to teach it in a way that would have helped the undergraduate me to have done well.