2017-2018 Campus Teaching Award Winner: Lauren Elliott-Dorans

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 2018-19 academic year, please let us know! Submissions are due by June 21, 2019. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.

Dr. Lauren Elliott-Dorans is an Assistant Professor of Instruction in Political Science at Ohio University. She earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from The Ohio State University, where she specialized in American politics and political psychology. Her dissertation investigates the role of core values in shaping political attitudes on a variety of political issues, including the death penalty, same-sex rights, and nuclear energy policy.

Dr. Elliott-Dorans’ teaching and research interests focus upon public opinion and political participation in the United States. Specifically, her research investigates topics such as: the relationship between values and political attitudes, religion in American politics, and political sophistication in the mass public. Dr. Elliott-Dorans also conducts research in the area of teaching in political science and instructional design.

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

“There are three key tenets to my teaching philosophy: Make it rigorous, make it relevant, and make it engaging.”

My first teaching experience was with Teach for America, where I served from 2009 to 2011 on the West Side of Chicago. Overall, the experience was rewarding, chaotic, and exciting all at the same time. One thing I learned quickly is that when you teach second-graders, there’s never a boring day on the job (including my second day, when a student lost a tooth. That tooth – along with the bloody tissue containing it – wound up becoming airborne and landing on my arm from across the room). With Teach for America, I completed a rigorous six-week training program that emphasized key tenets of effective instruction, including scaffolding assignments (building in structured supports that gradually release students to perform the skill on their own), and backwards-planning (identifying key goals, and then designing assessments, assignments, and instruction to help students meet those goals). Teach for America also gave me first-hand experience of working with students facing a variety of challenges, from food insecurity to homelessness, that unfortunately, many of our college students still face. In a variety of ways, many elements of the college classroom are quite similar to those of my days teaching elementary school in Chicago – though, admittedly, with fewer projectile teeth.

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?

There are three key tenets to my teaching philosophy: Make it rigorous, make it relevant, and make it engaging. I use Bloom’s Taxonomy to set course objectives and assessments that appropriately increase in rigor to help students transition from lower-order cognitive processes such as memorization and recall, to higher-order processes like evaluation and assessment. For example, students have daily reading quizzes to encourage recall of the material, and then we move into application activities during class discussions and on written assignments. I also try to draw upon content that’s relevant for today’s college students in order to invest them in the learning process. One example of this is asking students to complete a Student Interest Survey at the beginning of the semester so I can learn more about their interests, career plans, and what they hope to get out of the course. Then, I tailor the content to their responses over the course of the semester.

I also regularly integrate pop culture to highlight how the course materials relate to things with which students are already familiar. For example, we apply what we’ve learned about rights of the criminally accused to a clip from MTV’s Teen Mom in which one of the stars meets with her attorney regarding a recent criminal conviction, and is deciding between parole, or serving jail time (although that jail time conflicts with attending a Kesha concert). We also have a course Spotify playlist, where students can submit song requests, along with a brief explanation of why it’s relevant to American politics. It’s my hope that with these techniques, students – especially those in my Introduction to US Politics class – can see that politics is embedded in everything. Finally, I encourage engagement by using a variety of techniques to encourage students to reflect on the material. We do this both through the use of clickers, and through old-fashioned face-to-face conversations with one another in class. Overall, I strive to create a class that’s rigorous, but not tricky, and relatable to my students.

Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?

I haven’t encountered a class that I haven’t liked to teach, but one of my favorites is Introduction to US Politics. This is a large, lecture-based class of about 125 students. Most of the students in this class are non-majors, who are taking it as part of a college requirement. This presents a really exciting challenge: how can I make politics relatable to a group of people who are otherwise not terribly interested in it? I also see teaching this course as a great responsibility. If students have a bad experience in their first (and often only) political science course, they may simply take a negative view of politics as a whole and disengage from the political world altogether. Therefore, I really see it as my job to help students realize that politics is accessible and relevant, no matter what their interests or career goals are.

My favorite course material to use in this class is NBC’s sitcom Parks and Recreation. Over the course of the semester, I assign the first six and a half seasons, and we use it as a lens to examine a variety of key topics in the class, from political participation, to gender dynamics in politics, to civil rights and liberties. The show helps mitigate a few of the challenges with teaching an introductory politics course: first, students generally aren’t inherently interested in the material. Secondly, baseline familiarity with political issues and actors can vary widely, which makes creating those higher-order application activities fairly difficult. Not only does the show effectively engage students who otherwise might not be interested in politics, but it gives us a common cast of characters and scenarios to draw upon for our in-class discussions, activities, and even some of our writing assignments.

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

When it comes to effective tools, it’s hard to choose between pop culture and clickers. Clickers can play a really useful role in a politics class, where students may be especially intimidated to share their opinions. They are particularly valuable in a large lecture course, where it can be easy to tune out in the anonymity of a 140-seat lecture hall. Regular clicker questions force students to consider and respond to a question, and give them the opportunity to see where their opinions fit in with the rest of their peers. This strategy also puts their opinions at center-stage, which is important to engagement. It also lets me check for understanding in real-time, to see whether students understand the material before we move on.

That being said, I think the use of pop culture makes the material more fun. So often, students associate politics with vitriol and contempt. Again, this can be problematic if we’re trying to foster long-term engagement. Therefore, I try to infuse humor where I can to highlight that while politics is serious, we can also have fun with it. Parks and Rec does a great job of this, by portraying a variety of otherwise serious issues in American politics in a humorous way. I also use clips from everything from The Simpsons to The Daily Show in order to demonstrate that while students may not initially think they are interested in politics, they are interested in things that are very much related.

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

I had a variety of experiences in the classroom – both good and bad – that have shaped how I teach now. For example, I remember some of my large lecture classes as a first-year student. On a couple of occasions, I had professors who would announce on the first day that they weren’t going to learn our names because there were too many of us. I remember feeling dehumanized from day one, and as a result, didn’t invest as much as I probably should have in the class. Thankfully, these types of professors were the exception. Most of my professors were really amazing, and are a big reason why I decided to become one myself. Not only did they ask questions (and were genuinely interested in what we had to say), but they also worked to actively bring in real-world examples to make the content relevant. Even just projecting a photo of a local landmark that exemplified the concept about which they were talking helped me retain the material (and I can still remember these examples many years later). Even though I went to a big state school, my professors, by and large, were committed to getting to know me as an individual, and that really went a long way. That’s something that I strive to continue doing, even when I’m teaching really big classes.

“I think the use of pop culture makes the material more fun. So often, students associate politics with vitriol and contempt. Again, this can be problematic if we’re trying to foster long-term engagement. Therefore, I try to infuse humor where I can to highlight that while politics is serious, we can also have fun with it”.

I was also really fortunate during graduate school with my teaching assistant assignment. While earning my PhD at Ohio State University, I was a TA for Dr. Vladimir Kogan, who regularly used a variety of innovative techniques to engage his students. From assigning HBO’s The Wire in his City Politics class, to being an early adopter of clickers, and inviting guest speakers into the classroom, I saw first-hand how to implement a wide array of methods to effectively engage students. His classes very much served as a template for the way I still conduct mine today, and I’m very grateful for the example he set there.