My overarching goal in teaching is to catch my students off-guard and to challenge them to look at politics and government with a fresh perspective. When I teach, I bring my genuine interest for teaching and for American politics to the classroom, emphasizing the normative importance of being informed and engaged with politics and government. I also try to challenge them to think outside of their past experiences and beliefs to consider the needs and opinions of others. In such a highly partisan political time, it is important for students of all ideologies and identities to respect the opinions of those with whom they may disagree.
My role as a professor is not to persuade them to think like me; instead, I encourage students to encounter opposing viewpoints, to consider the role of data and evidence in making an assertion, and how public policy affects others. I also believe in integrating research and teaching by including students in all aspects of the research process and welcome them to participate in my own current research projects when possible. For example, a team of students helped me to conduct a field experiment and exit poll and to analyze the data once collected; several of these students went on to design their own field experiments and surveys for their senior thesis projects. This active approach encourages application of concepts, not merely memorization, and students gain valuable insight into research design, data collection and analysis, and academic writing. In my experience, this hands-on approach significantly adds to their overall scholastic education and helps them to cultivate their own interests.
While at Northwestern, I won the Weinberg College Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award, recognizing me as the top teaching assistant in all of the social sciences at Northwestern University. I was also selected by students as one of five Wesleyan faculty members to give an address at the end of the school year. The speech encouraged Wesleyan students to think broadly and across traditional disciplines, focusing on the importance and meaning of tolerance and how the lack of it creates both explicit and implicit inequalities on college campuses. Students have often told me that my enthusiasm for politics is infectious and that my level of interest in the discipline rubs off on them. In one evaluation of my teaching, a student writes, “The passion [Professor Harrison] has for American Politics is tangible and he tries his best to infuse the same love for the subject into his students. I have found that I now think about government in a whole new way, which is exciting and provides me with new insight into the political process.” Another student writes, “Professor Harrison’s class is a true example of why I chose a liberal arts college: I had thought provoking conversations that will stay with me long after the class has ended with a small but amazing group of individuals.” Finally, another student comments, “What distinguishes [Professor Harrison] from being merely good to being outstanding is his commitment to teaching his students more than just the names, dates, and concepts covered in the readings and lectures: by the end of the quarter, he expects his students to have refined their critical thinking skills, and has developed innovative strategies in pursuit of his goal.”
My course design and implementation focus on three central goals: consuming political events as an everyday habit; communicating clearly and effectively through a variety of media; and thinking broadly and critically about political events and actors. First, I encourage students to incorporate knowledge and consumption of current political events into their everyday life. By discussing theory through the lens of current politics, participants in my classes critically evaluate current political events and actors and apply course concepts to accessible examples. Second, I challenge students to communicate their thoughts about political and social behavior through a variety of media. Given the importance of written and verbal communication regardless of career path after college, my students complete a variety of assignments to develop their written, verbal, and presentational skills. Finally, I encourage students to ask interesting and important theoretical questions and to consider the normative implications of those questions.
I constantly strive to surprise and to challenge my students by engaging them in unique, targeted collaborative activities, lectures, and small group assignments to further their understanding of key aspects of a course. While serving as a teaching assistant in a Parties and Elections course at Northwestern, I designed and implemented a mock election to give students the opportunity to apply the concepts from lecture and course readings. I assigned each of three discussion sections to one political party or movement (Democratic, Republican, or Tea Party), and each week, students were given a collaborative task that would ultimately help them run their “campaign.” Among other tasks, students nominated a party chairperson and a Presidential candidate, a communications director, and a research director. Throughout the quarter, students worked in small groups in discussion section, integrating new concepts into their campaign strategy, and I structured discussion section in a way to ensure that they were relying on course readings as well as contemporary politics to develop their platforms.
Over the course of the quarter, the candidates and parties designed their respective strategies to fit within the ideology of their given party/movement but also to appeal to the most students in the 50-student course. I then moderated a Presidential candidate debate, and each party chairperson gave a presentation outlining the party platform. Due to a clever, well-targeted approach, the Tea Party candidate came three votes from winning despite the strong Democratic/liberal leanings of the students. The campus newspaper covered the event, and one student noted, “It’s thinking about how [the issues] can be related in a totally successful way to the electorate, which in this case is the class… The challenge is how to frame those issues to appeal to a relatively liberal group of students” (Daily Northwestern, November 15, 2010). This is just one example of how I have engaged students in a genuine, novel way so they not only retain information but also apply the key concepts in the course.
I have actively sought to broaden my repertoire of teaching techniques. I have attended the APSA Conference on Teaching and Learning and presented a paper on diversity and inclusion. While at Northwestern, I was accepted into the Graduate Teaching Certificate Program through the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence. In the program, I have attended intensive teaching seminars on writing course objectives and designing courses, developing assessment methods, encouraging critical thinking, and developing writing skills. I will continue to grow as a teacher by contributing to the scholarship of teaching and learning; by soliciting and integrating student feedback; and by finding new ways to make political and social science relevant to student learning and life goals. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have had my own positive learning experiences that have inspired me to be a professor who is an enthusiastic teacher, advisor, and scholar. I am devoted to strengthening undergraduate education by creating and implementing clear course objectives and by focusing on creating a new generation of critical thinkers, savvy communicators, and active citizens.