It’s About Power but Also Norms: A Pedagogical Approach to Teaching About the American Presidency

It’s About Power but Also Norms: A Pedagogical Approach to Teaching About the American Presidency

By M. Brielle Harbin, United States Naval Academy

Introductory undergraduate courses in American politics often center the Constitution and focus on fundamental principles, structures, and processes. Unfortunately, this focus allows less space to discuss the role that norms play in supporting formal rules and institutions in the American political system. As a political science professor teaching an introductory course on American politics in 2019 and 2020, I became acutely aware of the limitations of this course design. This context showcased the ways in which many of these norms are taken for granted by many, including American politics scholars. Moreover, it sparked conversations among my colleagues about whether we should adapt to the moment and update our instruction to place greater emphasis on norms to contextualize the present political moment for our students. My answer was yes. However, doing so requires instructors to be attentive to issues of objectivity, authority, and partisanship. This article shares strategies that I plan to implement when I teach this course again. In particular, I discuss three guiding pedagogical principles when teaching about presidential norms. I then provide discussion questions that instructors can use to spark conversations about the relationship between adherence to presidential norms and the stability of American political institutions.

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