Teaching “Introduction to American Government and Politics” in Turbulent Times

Short Course, Annual Conference of the American Political Science Association 2019.
We live in a tumultuous period for American politics, one that presents great challenges–and perhaps also, vast opportunities–to instructors of the introductory course on the topic. For decades, instructors nationwide have adopted a standard approach to teaching the course, typically offering a “soup to nuts” survey that encompasses topics from the Constitution through Congress, and public opinion through public policy. Yet various developments present challenges to instructors today, both in terms of appropriate course content and meaningful instructional approaches. Rising partisan polarization, soaring inequality, and an unorthodox presidency raise fundamental questions about longstanding theories about the political system operates. While textbooks routinely treat the United States as a democracy, scholars of comparative politics observe that the nation’s present politics resembles those of nations around the world in which democracy has suffered deterioration. Instructors also face a transformed student body, given partisan polarization and the rise of social media, for example, and these developments influence the possibilities for class discussions and which pedagogies may prove most effective for student learning.

We convened several scholars of American politics who teach the introductory course and who grapple with how to do so in the context of these developments.  The half-day short course addressed: overarching questions about how to structure the course, and whether and how to part ways with established approaches to doing so; how to illuminate inequalities of power that pervade contemporary American politics, including those related to race, ethnicity, gender, and income/wealth; and how to teach about partisan polarization and in polarized times.  The aim was to help instructors of the discipline’s major service course take advantage of an era of high student interest and teach the course in a manner that fosters critical thinking and civic engagement.

Course leaders included:
Michelle Deardorff, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga
Robert Lieberman, Johns Hopkins University
Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University
Robert Mickey, University of Michigan
Paul Pierson, University of California-Berkeley
Ken Roberts, Cornell University
David Brian Robertson, University of Missouri-St. Louis
Chloe Thurston, Northwestern University.