Senior Seminar in Political Science
Taught by: Molly Shanley
What is your Senior Seminar in Political Science about?The topics of the seminar vary from year to year, they deal with the intersection of feminist theory and public policy issues. In recent years we have explored changing social and legal norms dealing with families. I want students to think about the ways in which law and public policy influence the complex relationships both between adults and among parents and children, and to think about what normative principles should guide public policies dealing with family formation and the conduct of family life.
How does this particular software tool enhance your teaching goals?
I used Blackboard as a tool to facilitate both individual reflection and interaction among members of the class. The discussion board feature of Blackboard enables me to engage students in the week's materials prior to class, and to demand a heightened level of engagement and responsibility for the conduct of the class; this seems an important pedagogic feature of a senior seminar.
I require students to post a reaction to the week's readings, and to read one another's postings prior to coming to class. Postings must be done by noon the day before the seminar meets. Each week three students read through the response paragraphs posted by their classmates and meet together to formulate discussion questions that synthesize and extend the concerns raised in the response paragraphs. They circulate these discussion questions the night before the seminar, so that all members of the class read them prior to class.
I have found that requiring students to put their responses to the week's readings on paper (or on the computer screen) at least 24 hours prior to class largely eliminates last-minute skimming of the reading, and leads to more reflective and more interesting contributions in class. The fact that students read one anothers' responses also deepens their engagement with (and sometimes understanding of) the readings. They see other perspectives, identify areas of disagreement, and are forced to think more deeply about their own reactions. Having students take responsibility for formulating discussion questions gives them some insight into what is involved in effective pedagogy, and gives them experience in organizing and presenting complex material.
The Student Response
How have your students responded to your use of technology?
Student response to this use of the Discussion Board has been very positive. After the second or third week they begin responding to one another's postings as well as posting their own reactions. (The "threads" feature therefore is very useful.) As seniors, they like taking more responsibility for what happens in the classroom, and by-and-large they rise to the occasion when asked to take a leadership role. I also judge this use of Blackboard to be effective: the class sessions themselves are intellectually more sophisticated and the postings and the discussion questions circulated by the students become much better as the semester progresses.
What are the challenges you face teaching this class?
Students do not immediately know what makes a good response to the reading, and we need to spend some time talking about how to identify major issues and questions. Students have even more trouble formulating discussion questions at the beginning of the semester. They often begin by making a list of questions on the order of "what did the author say about X?" As the semester progresses, however, they learn to see how to formulate questions that will promote discussion of major themes without abandoning attention to factual detail.
Are there any new directions you would like to explore next Spring, other new things you would like to try out?
The technique I describe here works extremely well in a seminar setting; it forces students to engage the work in a sustained and serious manner, and it creates a "learning community" more effectively than once a week face to face seminar meetings can do. I am less certain how to use Blackboard to good effect in larger classes; I tend to use it to communicate with students (group emails; posting or circulating study questions prior to class), not to have students communicate with one another.