Campus Teaching Award Winner: Amy Atchison

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. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.

Dr. Amy Atchison (BA Jacksonville State University, MA Florida State University, PhD University of Tennessee) is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Valparaiso University; she is a member of the APSA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. She was awarded the Valparaiso University Alumni Association Distinguished Teaching Award in 2017. Amy’s research interests include women’s substantive representation in cabinets, as well as gender mainstreaming in the political science classroom and the status of women in political science. Amy’s work has been published in PS: Political Science & Politics, Politics & Gender, the Journal of Women, Politics, & Policy, the Journal of Political Science Education, Politics, Groups, & Identities, and Poverty & Public Policy.

What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
Much of my teaching style and most of my classroom management skills were developed during my pre-academia days as a corporate trainer.  In my first job, I instructed telemarketers.  Telemarketing firms often have difficulty recruiting, thus they regularly hire people who have no previous work experience, as well as people who are on parole/have criminal records.  This makes for a very challenging learning environment. In the first class I taught, I worked very hard to treat both the widowed Christian homemaker and the convicted murderer with courtesy and respect. By treating them as equals, I was able to build rapport with inexperienced workers and former inmates. This taught me that the keys to successfully managing a classroom full of radically different backgrounds are fairness and respect; it is a lesson that I carry with me in every class. (People usually want to know: the murderer was out of prison due to a technicality and was returned to prison a few months later.)

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
This is a seriously boring answer, but consistency and preparation are really important to my teaching style. Most people learn best if they know what to expect, so I try to make assignments consistent (and transparent!). Each exam follows the same format. Homework is always due the same day of the week. It seems basic, but it avoids a ton of headaches for the students (and for me). Preparation helps me to be enthusiastic and engaging. If I walk in and am on my game, then the students tend to buy in to what we’re talking about, and they tend to respond favorably when I trot out experimental activities or simulations to try out on them.

Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
I love teaching our Intro to Political Science class. It’s a general education class, so about 95% of the students are not political science majors. I start every semester with students who readily admit that they don’t want to be there and are only taking the class because it fulfills a general education social science requirement/fits their schedule. It’s a class that could be miserable for everyone, but my approach has been to make it fun for me to teach…since I’m having fun, the students typically get on board. By the end of the semester, I can see in their final exam essays and in their comments on the evaluations that many of them have gotten to the point that they are glad they took this general education class.

What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
I am a fan of hands-on activities and simulations. For example, for Intro to Poli-Sci, I developed a fictional country (Myappia, named after my dog – with her picture on the flag, which cracks the students up) and gave it a backstory that includes a genocidal civil war and three distinct ethno-religious groups; the country is now in a post-war rebuilding phase. The students are tasked with helping Myappia to build democratic institutions. Over the course of five weeks, I give short lectures on each of the concepts/institutions.  The students then split into groups to decide which institution they would select for Myappia; they must justify why they selected an institution and must defend their choice to their classmates.  By the end of the five weeks, each group has selected the institutions that it has determined will be the best for building and maintaining democracy in post-conflict Myappia. (Shameless self-promotion: if anyone wants to use those materials, check out the supplemental materials to my 2016 piece in PS)

Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
I had some fantastic professors, like HP Davis at Jacksonville State and David J. Houston at Tennessee–I see their influences every day in how I interact with students. I would say, though, that a really awful undergrad Bio professor (he who shall not be named) probably most influenced what I don’t do. For example, he made everyone buy the super-expensive textbook but his lectures never matched up with it…and we never knew where the test questions were coming from (book, lecture, oddball combo of the two). So, if I make students buy the book, we use the book–and I never put a left-field/surprise question on an exam.

View more work from Dr. Amy Atchinson: