Teaching political science in creative ways: An interview with award-winning instructor Brooke Allen

Dr. Brooke Thomas Allen

Connecting with the Community interview with Dr. Brooke Thomas Allen

The American Political Science Association (APSA) partners with CQ Press (an imprint of SAGE Publishing) each year to highlight a political science professor who’s using innovative or creative teaching methods in the classroom. The 2017 CQ Press Award for Teaching Recognition recipient, Dr. Brooke Thomas Allen, is a professor at Macomb Community College in Metro Detroit. Allen designed an assignment called “Gerrymandering as Art: A New Method for Teaching Redistricting,” which analyzes congressional districts through a combination of lectures, class discussions, and interactive activities. Students share what they’ve learned to the class through group presentations, and to the entire college campus through a public “Art” poster exhibit competition.

We had the chance to catch up with Allen to learn more about her teaching style, advice for teaching political science in creative ways, and the student outcomes from the “Gerrymandering as Art” assignment. Read on to learn more.

Q: Can you describe how you teach students about political processes using creative techniques? Do you have examples?

I am a big believer in active learning. Education is not a spectator sport, so I always try to get my students involved by using creative, hands-on projects. I frequently use games, simulations, and various class projects. In the past, I have conducted exit polling with my students, run Supreme Court simulations, and even required my students to create a YouTube video explaining a concept or court case that we covered in class.

Q: What inspired you to combine art with teaching politics?

This project was actually inspired by an episode of The Daily Show. In this episode, they interview a redistricting consultant who defends his work as being more than just “squiggly lines” and ultimately refers to himself as an artist. Building on this idea, the folks at the Daily Show staged a mock “art exhibit” so patrons could appreciate these bizarrely shaped districts as forms of abstract art. In addition to being entertaining, I saw real educational value in this idea.

Q: How do these types of assignments impact learning? What results have you seen among students?

The literature shows that active learning techniques can increase student engagement and learning outcomes. This is definitely in line with my personal experiences. Many of my students did not fully grasp the concepts of redistricting and gerrymandering after I lectured on these topics in class. However, throughout the project, students became very interested in this subject. By the end, they understood these concepts and were able to apply these ideas to a real-world case.

Q: For your assignments, students show their work in a public “Art” poster exhibit on campus. How does the campus community respond to the exhibit?

I was fortunate enough to receive a lot of support from our community. Our Student Life and Leadership office advertised the event and helped me set up the exhibit in our student union. Other professors volunteered to be judges. Our campus bookstore even donated gift cards to be used as prizes for the winning team. In all, we had over three hundred people walk through the exhibit and vote for their favorite project.

Q: What advice do you have for other professors who want to teach political science in unique ways?

Don’t be afraid to take risks! I’m always trying something new in the classroom—sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Given the nature of our discipline, our subject material is always changing and the way we teach it should too.

Q: Why is it important for students to find ways to become engaged in political science?

As a discipline, political science plays an important role in preparing students for civic engagement. All citizens should be educated about our governing institutions and current political environment. Political science courses also develop vital critical thinking skills that students need in order to be successful in their future careers.

Are you attending the 2017 APSA annual meeting or visiting San Francisco on September 1st? If so, you’re invited to join us for a free panel, drinks, and hors d’oeuvres. The panel, Who is paying that reporter? Perspectives from the news industry, will take place on September 1st at the PARC 55 Hotel-Sutro Room in San Francisco, starting at 7:30 pm.  RSVP.

The Connecting with the Community series is a collection of interviews with industry experts and forward-thinking minds on topics such as discoverability, research methods, librarianship, tips for writing and researching and the peer review process. Find out more about our Connecting with the Community series here and read past Connecting with the Community posts here.

 

     
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