Campus Teaching Award Winner: Mona Lyne

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.

Mona Lyne is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC).  She received her bachelor’s degree in engineering from UC Berkeley and her doctorate in political science from UC San Diego. Before joining the faculty at UMKC, she previously taught at the University of South Carolina. She teaches introductory through graduate-level comparative politics courses, and in 2015 was the recipient of the UMKC College of Arts & Sciences Alumni Outstanding Teaching Award. Her main research interests include the politics of economic development and democratization. She has done field research in Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile. Her current work examines how variation in political microfoundations drives variation in economic development policy and how collective dilemmas constrain institutional choice. She has two children, ages 17 and 14, and she enjoys yoga, travel, reading, and swimming.

What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
I had several interesting teaching experiences as a graduate student. My first class was a summer course that I team taught with another graduate student at my home institution, UCSD. That class went very well and I recommend team teaching for your first foray into your own class. From designing the syllabus to how we presented material in class, we complemented each other without much effort, and were able to give real-time feedback about what was working and what was not. My second class, that I taught solo at a local university, did not go so well. It was definitely a learning experience regarding the difference between what a recent PhD thinks is interesting and important, and what students will grasp and absorb. One of my evaluators said that she thought her parents had totally wasted their money and the others were not a whole lot better. Fortunately, I had a very supportive Department Chair who realized I was on a steep learning curve. He encouraged me and gave me another chance. The next year I completely reorganized the course and got very good reviews.

It is not as though it has been completely smooth sailing ever since, and each course and class has its own characteristics and quirks. I have now taught at a wide range of institutions, including a small liberal arts college, a couple of large state universities, and now at an urban campus that is part of a state university system. In all cases, the key is to be flexible, open to feedback, willing to experiment and make changes where needed, and to avoid getting discouraged, especially with possibly challenging early experiences. Teaching, like any other skill, takes time to develop.

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
I view teaching as a collaborative endeavor. I believe a very active dialogue and exchange between instructor and students, and among students, provides the most effective learning environment. I organize the course so that we interrogate the material together. As a class moves from introductory to upper division, the balance changes between my presentation and the students’ discussion. With the goal of imparting a language and a set of tools for analyzing recurring patterns of politics, there is necessarily more reliance on my role in lower division classes, and more responsibility for the students in more advanced courses.

Ultimately, one of my key goals is to pass Alice Wellington Rollins’ test when she said: “The test of a good teacher is not how many questions she can ask her pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions she inspires them to ask her which she finds it hard to answer.” For me, one of the most fulfilling moments as a teacher is when students’ engagement and skills reach the point that their questions and comments prompt me to refine, reflect on, or rethink issues I have been considering for decades.

Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
I love teaching any aspect of comparative politics, but my greatest interest is in the political economy of development, so my favorite class to teach is the politics of developing countries. In this course I have been able to incorporate a large amount of one of my favorite types of material: popular media. I use the depiction of drug trafficking in The Wire throughout the course to illustrate an organization operating under the constraint of no neutral third party enforcer, as is the case in most developing states. I also use popular Netflix series like The Tudors or Medici to show how the state has evolved over time, yet political leaders face a number of similar basic constraints. I use clips from NPR’s This American Life to illustrate leadership and citizen choices.

What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
In all my classes, I try to incorporate simulations as much as possible. I think the strategic aspect of politics is one of those critical features that is easily overlooked when simply examining and trying to explain patterns of politics in the typical undergraduate class. A simulation that has points attached to how well students achieve a given political goal gets students’ attention very quickly, and they often come away with a greater appreciation of the complexity and difficulty of what can appear to straightforward or obviously “right” choices.

These simulations have helped me model decision-making regarding state- and institution-building, war, and a range of different types of voting choices. I consider this knowledge of how the environment, or other players, influence what is possible in politics to be one of the most important aspects of what we teach as political scientists. If we can help create an informed citizenry that understands that political choices are subject to a wide range of often, not obvious, constraints, then we will have contributed to more effective civic engagement. If we can send our students into the world with this knowledge, perhaps the level of debate can rise by moving beyond facile analysis based on good and evil. And if that knowledge can also help combat the apathy we often hear expressed based on disillusionment because of lack of purity in a candidate or party, then we will have concretely fortified our democracy.

Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
I was always most impressed by professors or instructors who kept at least one eye on the big picture. Even when getting down into the nitty gritty of a given topic, it helped me maintain my interest when I could keep in mind how the material related to big questions or issues. I always try to structure my classes this way, so that students can always, at least loosely, trace whatever we are doing back to the big picture or the larger issues that usually motivate their interest in politics.