Teaching Political Science and Sometimes During an Election

By Marcel Nelson

There are a lot of misconceptions about the field of political science. As a student I was often asked whether I wanted to become a politician whenever I mentioned that I was studying political science. I always tried to explain patiently, of course, that just as not all English literature students want to be authors, not all political science students want to become politicians. Okay, to be fair, I am sure that a lot of political science students secretly want to be politicians in the same way, perhaps, that English literature students secretly or even openly want to be authors. English professors, am I wrong here?

Getting back to the topic at hand: political science, put simply, is more about analyzing the structures or systems of politics than the everyday practice of politics. For example, one spends more time reading about and discussing the pros and cons of federal versus unitary states than the latest political scandal clogging up the newsfeeds of social media. Everyday politics consistently showed up in the political science courses I took, but often merely as useful examples to illustrate abstract concepts. I often found that the latest salacious political scandal was best discussed as part of a heated partisan debate after class at the local campus coffee shop or pub.

Photo: Creative Commons

Photo: Creative Commons

As a politics professor, I nonetheless understand that part of the reason that students decide to take my courses, beyond the vagaries of timetable requirements, is that they want a greater understanding of everyday politics. In order to achieve that end, I believe it is important to step back from everyday politics and introduce them to the behind the scenes mechanics of our political system(s). My goal as a politics professor is to get students used to the idea that the world around them is not made up of random events, but of underlying structures that pattern everyday life. I have learned, however, that students best understand an abstract concept via metaphors that can be applied to their own lives. For example, when teaching the concept of a constitutional convention, I often have students think of the different conventions that shape their everyday lives. Similarly, the politics that make up the headlines each day can be used as palpable examples to illustrate a difficult concept. As all FHASS professors understand, even the most abstract concept can be taught if it can be broken down into its most basic and relatable elements. I think this is what we do best as FHASS professors: We help to enchant the worlds of our students by making them more understandable.

Now, over the years, I have often heard the comment that it must be interesting to teach politics during an election campaign. It certainly is, but perhaps not in the way I imagine some people might expect it to be. Yes, student interest in politics is certainly heightened during election campaigns, and yes, there are more fresh empirical examples to draw on to illustrate concepts. Nevertheless, it is important to persist in teaching concepts at one remove from the headlines and polls released on a daily basis, as I believe they are of more lasting value for students. A criticism often levelled at the media’s coverage of elections is that it frames them as ‘horse races’ between parties and leaders at the expense of discussing broader political and societal issues. Therefore, I try to do the latter as much as possible in my classes. That being said, it is a lot easier to teach students about the importance of the King-Byng Affair in a Canadian Politics course during a campaign where the likely outcome is a hung parliament than it is during the second year of a majority government’s mandate.

Lastly, I will let you all in on a little secret. I kind of like discussing politics and election campaigns with my students. It provides me with insight on what is going on out there in the world beyond the debates we political scientists get into. Yes, one can learn a lot of things from one’s students. But that is between you all and me.