Campus Teaching Award Winner: Marc Weiner

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 during the 2016-2017 academic year, please let us know! Submissions are due by June 20. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.

Marc Weiner is Associate Research Professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. His academic career has focused largely on social science methodology. He is currently the Bloustein School’s Director of Program Assessment; previously, he was Associate Director of the Bloustein Center for Survey Research and, prior, Project Director for the Office of Population Research and Assistant Director for the Survey Research Center, both at Princeton University. In 2014, he won the Jerome Rose Excellence in Teaching Award from the Bloustein School and in 2016 he won the Graduate Teaching Excellence Award from the Graduate School-New Brunswick at Rutgers University.

What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
The most essential component of my teaching background is that for a long time I was a student; I’ve not forgotten what that was like. Students can tell when a teacher doesn’t want to be there; you can’t fake content and you can’t fake enthusiasm. So, in addition to actually having to be a master of the subject matter on which I claim sufficient expertise to teach a college-level course, I need to comport myself in the classroom authentically. Luckily, I have an innate affinity for teaching and, going back to my trial lawyer days, I’m comfortable presenting to or being in dialogue with strangers; so for me, at least, it all seems to just work out.

My first college-teaching experience was almost twenty years ago to this day, during the 1997 Rutgers University summer session. I was a newly minted graduate student and asked to teach an introductory-level course on American party politics. I planned to follow the basic instructional footprint of my mentor, Gerry Pomper, for whom I had just TA’d in that same course the immediately preceding semester. While it seemed sensible at the time to follow a good model, within about 14 minutes of the first class, it was obvious that I couldn’t channel anyone. Looking back—and with a very natural awareness of doing so—I simply started talking about the subject matter (which, luckily, I loved) in my own voice (that’s another thing about teaching: if you’re lucky, what you get to teach is what you love to teach).

That’s what I mean by authenticity in teaching: if you listen to your teaching and you sound like someone else, it’s not authentic teaching. Students will sense that and, in my experience, it will undermine their receptivity to the content. The bottom line is you really have to know your subject matter, and you really have to be comfortable being yourself, as the center of narrative attention, talking about the subject matter.

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
My first career was law; I earned my JD in 1986, clerked for a year for a New Jersey Superior Court trial court judge, and then practiced trial law until 1996; having enjoyed that, but wanting to do something different with more intellectual room to move, I earned a doctorate in political science from Rutgers-New Brunswick in May 2005. Throughout that nearly 20-year transition, I found the one fully transportable skill was teaching, which I define as the facility to convey—through narrative and conversation—understanding and familiarity of an idea and its companion texts and subtexts.

I never sat down and figured out a philosophy of teaching; rather, it just emerged organically and unsurprisingly it’s the same as my philosophy of research. The enterprise starts with a subject matter worthy enough for me to spend my time investigating and learning about. And if it’s worthy enough to investigate, then it’s usually worthy enough to tell someone about, which motivates both research and teaching. Typically, then, these early interests form the kernels of research projects and their trailing publications, as well as the subject matter for courses.

Once I’ve become familiar enough with the interest, the next step is to create an engaging narrative about that subject matter. To circle back, in law we create narratives by which to help a judge or jury agree, over the course of a trial, with our assessment of how the provable facts fit the legal theory of the case. In the academy, we also create narratives, except here the purpose is either research-related, i.e., to generate interest in and, usually, sustain funding for a research project, or teaching-related, where the purpose is to convey understanding and appreciation of a subject matter. In other words, when we teach, we create intellectually attractive and/or provocative narratives that our students receive, critique, and internalize, to the end that they are ultimately able to modify, extend, and improve the theory and its applications.

Teaching does not stand alone as some abstract skill or talent; if a teacher falls in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it, it might as well as not have happened. Teaching is the facilitation of learning; it’s not a performance, but rather a conversation. The classroom setting is not a stage, the students are not an audience; rather, the course participants constitute a gestalt, loosely translated as a whole different from the sum of its parts. In the classroom context, the gestalt is the shared intersubjective space between and among the students, individually and collectively, and me; structurally, we will be there together in common intellectual enterprise for 14 weeks, during which time we’ll create a “there” there. Then, after the last class is over and the last assignment handed in that “there” will never be there again. For about the last 10 years or so, I’ve started every course with that discussion; I find it’s a great conversation for a first day and tends to generate a heightened awareness in students about what, exactly, they’re doing in my class and why they should be fully engaged.

What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
I like the portfolio approach; it encourages student engagement with some self-selected exemplar of the course material and provides sequential assignments on which to assess student performance. The way I implement it, students follow an empirical slice of the subject matter throughout the entire semester. For example, in my 300-level undergraduate Social Movements course, I require students to select a social movement and then keep their project assignment focused on that particular social movement; then, over the course of the semester as I present (via mostly in-class Socratic dialogue) historical and theoretical perspectives, they work that material into their next portfolio component. Although it varies by course, for Social Movements the portfolio is comprised of a book review, an historical overview, an activist’s biography, and a profile of their social movement’s demography, resources, and impacts. Students then present their entire portfolio to the class in semester-end capstone presentations.

In my undergraduate 400-level Demography and Population Studies course, the format is similar, except students select a country and as we learn about fertility, morbidity and mortality, immigration, urbanicity, and other critical demographic dynamics, their assignments on those domains are completed with reference to their portfolio country. Then, as we shift from more traditional demographic considerations to more complex notions of population studies—things like demographic regime theory and the impact of neo-colonialism on the demographic policies of developing nations—they analyze a set of core questions with reference to their subject country.