Campus Teaching Award Winner: Darren Walhof

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 2015-16 academic year, please let us know. At the 2016 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, every meeting attendee who has won a campus teaching award will be recognized at a reception honoring teaching. Learn more about the APSA Campus Teaching Award Recognition Program here.

Darren Walhof is a Professor of Political Science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, where he teaches political theory and constitutional law. He has won multiple teaching awards, including, most recently, the 2015 University Outstanding Teacher Award. Walhof received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota, and his research interests include democratic theory, philosophical hermeneutics, and religion and politics. His articles have appeared in Political Theory, History of Political Thought, Philosophy & Social Criticism, and Contemporary Political Theory, among other places. He is currently finishing a book on the democratic theory of Hans-Georg Gadamer.


We can only learn these things by doing them, so my teaching methods themselves are also based in dialogue. In class I use a lot of structured, small-group exercises, discussions, and short simulations so that all students are required to be engaged.”
– Darren Walhof, Professor or Political Science, Grand Valley State University 


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

Walhof: I’ve been teaching full-time at the undergraduate level for 16 years, the last 13 at Grand Valley. Early in my career, I taught a whole variety of courses, including ones in political theory, law, comparative politics, and American politics. More recently, I’ve been able to narrow that to a few political theory courses and a constitutional law course.

My first experience as the sole instructor for a course was at the University of Minnesota while writing my dissertation. I had worked as a teaching assistant for a couple of years prior to this, so I had been able to watch and learn from some very good teachers. But that doesn’t really prepare you for doing it all on your own, and we didn’t receive much in the way of direct training in teaching. I was so nervous before every class, I would get sick to my stomach. I over-prepared, and I lectured far too much. Since I’m an introvert, I found it completely draining, and it made me question whether this would be a sustainable career for me. But it was also exciting and meaningful, especially when I saw students wrestling with the ideas and making connections for themselves. So I kept at it and obviously it got easier with more experience.

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?

Walhof: I describe my teaching style as dialogical, in both its objectives and its methods. I think about my political theory courses in terms of welcoming students to, and equipping them for, an ongoing conversation about the most important normative questions of politics and law: What is justice? What is freedom? What do we owe each other as fellow citizens and fellow humans? What are the best means of collective self-governance?  Joining this centuries-old conversation requires the skills of argument and dialogue: listening to other voices (the voice of the text, the voices of scholars who have interpreted the text, my voice as the expert in the room, and the voices of fellow students); critical thinking (evaluating the claims that these voices are making); and responding to these claims (in written or spoken form).

We can only learn these things by doing them, so my teaching methods themselves are also based in dialogue. In class I use a lot of structured, small-group exercises, discussions, and short simulations so that all students are required to be engaged. I do lecture for short periods, but these also tend to involve a lot of back and forth. When you get students used to speaking and being active in class, they don’t just let you lecture. They interrupt with questions and comments, which I really enjoy. I also use a lot of writing, both short daily assignments and longer papers. Our classes tend to be pretty manageable in size, even though Grand Valley is big (25,000 students), so that makes it possible to work with them on their writing.

Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?

Walhof: In the past few years I have been teaching a one-semester constitutional law course for students who plan to be K-12 teachers. It’s really fun because the students aren’t necessarily convinced coming into the class that this is something they need to know, so I enjoy winning them over to how important, interesting, and complicated constitutional interpretation and legal reasoning are. I love reading and discussing court opinions with them.

I also love teaching Modern Political Thought, especially Hobbes and Rousseau. The texts and ideas are so challenging and unfamiliar to the students that it is just great fun to help them figure out what the texts mean and see why the questions and ideas in them are important and still relevant.

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

Walhof: In my view, engagement in the classroom grows out of students being prepared to learn when they walk into the classroom. I can design all the in-class activities that I want or write the best lectures, but if the students are not working outside of class and haven’t read and thought about things ahead of time, little learning will take place. Plus I have little tolerance for ill-informed discussions or debates that just involve the students repeating partisan talking points. So I use short writing assignments that are due every class period, or at least weekly, to get them to read and think prior to coming to class. I will often then use these as the basis for some kind of small-group exercises or discussions in class. It’s an iterative process of reading, writing, and then talking about the ideas and theories.

Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?

Walhof: The graduate seminars I took at Minnesota were transformative because they were small and everyone was expected to participate in the discussion. My undergraduate education had been primarily lecture-based, which was comfortable for me since I’m reserved by nature and prefer not to speak in groups. I was very intimidated at first in grad school since the other students seemed far more adept at arguing than I was, but over time I became more comfortable and came to appreciate how much more I learned by having to articulate my thoughts in the back-and-forth of a seminar discussion, rather than merely listening and taking notes. This helped shape my commitment to building in ways for all students, even the reserved ones, to speak in my classes as a way to deepen their understanding of the things we are reading and to help them develop their thinking and speaking skills.