Campus Teaching Award Winner: Michael Lamb

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 2016-17 academic year, please let us know! Submissions are due by June 20. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.

Michael Lamb is University Scholar in Residence and Fellow in Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University and the McDonald-Templeton Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford. He holds a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University, a B.A. from Rhodes College, and a second B.A. from the University of Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. A political theorist with experience in practical politics, his research focuses on the ethics of citizenship, the relationship between religion and politics, and the role of virtue in public life. He helped to launch The Oxford Character Project and is currently exploring programs in leadership and character at Wake Forest. He was awarded the George Kateb Teaching Award for Best Preceptor in Politics from Princeton in 2014 and a Teaching Excellence Award from Oxford’s Humanities Division in 2016.

What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
My first teaching experience involved co-teaching two political theory courses with one of my former professors at Rhodes College, which was an invaluable experience. Co-teaching provided an opportunity to learn from an experienced mentor who is excellent at explaining core concepts and making ideas relevant and who offered constructive feedback as I experimented with different pedagogical methods and developed my style as a teacher. Engaging students in meaningful conversations about big ideas was exhilarating, and the interdisciplinary scope of the seminar, along with its emphasis on dialogue and discussion, reinforced how much I value a liberal arts education. That experience affirmed my sense that teaching is an essential part of my vocation.

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
I have a student-centered approach to teaching that empowers students to take ownership of their learning and find creative ways to connect how they learn with how they live. I seek to introduce students to diverse perspectives on complex issues and encourage them to think critically and interpret charitably. By modeling open and respectful engagement, I try to foster a supportive learning environment where students can ask difficult questions, share their personal perspectives, and take intellectual risks. Because I see writing as a way to think and grading as a way to teach, I also spend a significant amount of time crafting essay questions, teaching students how to make reasoned arguments, and offering extensive feedback on written work. One of the most meaningful aspects of teaching is seeing how much progress students make over the course of a semester.

Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
My favorite courses are those that challenge students to grapple with questions about how we ought to live, both as individuals and communities. As a political theorist with interests in democratic theory and the history of political thought, I especially enjoy teaching courses that integrate ancient, medieval, and modern texts to inform and enliven contemporary democratic theory and practice. This coming fall, I am teaching an undergraduate course entitled “How to Keep a Republic,” which draws on the tradition of Roman republicanism to examine core questions about what it means to be citizens of the American republic: How do we preserve liberty and justice for all against threats of domination? How can citizens hold their leaders accountable? What role should checks and balances and the rule of law play in a political system? Which virtues are required for both leaders and citizens? By discussing ancient and modern thinkers, along with contemporary political philosophers, I hope to help students consider how ancient insights on liberty, law, and virtue might inform the practice of democratic citizenship in our own time.

What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
In my courses, I use a variety of methods – from close reading and Socratic questioning to structured dialogue and small group discussion – to engage students with diverse learning styles and foster a sense of community in the classroom. One of my most effective pedagogical tools has been the classroom debate. When I taught “Ethics and Public Policy,” I often divided the class into teams to argue for distinctive positions on a controversial issue, sometimes asking them to pretend they were in the Situation Room briefing the President. With chalk in hand, I served as classroom conductor, synthesizing arguments on the blackboard, highlighting points of connection, and raising questions that pushed students to consider their underlying assumptions. Because everyone was required to present an argument or ask a question, these debates increased participation and empowered students to teach each other course content, which, research shows, increases knowledge retention. For me, the debates had another benefit: hearing students analyze the readings revealed which concepts were causing the most difficulty and allowed me to correct misinterpretations or offer clarifications. The debates also gave students opportunities to practice discussing moral controversies respectfully and civilly. Because they were required to defend positions they did not necessarily avow, they learned to inhabit opposing positions and developed sensitivity to diverse perspectives. Ultimately, students described these debates as one of the most enjoyable and useful parts of the course. Some even said they had changed their views on specific issues after hearing arguments from the other side.

Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I was fortunate to have excellent professors who were also excellent mentors. As I grappled with difficult questions from class or larger questions about my values and vocation, I often sought their insight and advice. Rather than supplying easy answers, they patiently asked discerning questions and challenged me to formulate answers for myself. Some of the most transformative moments of my education occurred during these one-on-one conversations. As a result, I see mentoring as one of the great joys of university teaching and am grateful to be at a place like Wake Forest that makes faculty-student engagement a priority. Ultimately, I want to inspire and empower students to become better scholars and citizens in the ways that my professors inspired and empowered me.