Political Science Now

Campus Teaching Award Winner: Robin Kolodny

Excellence in teaching political science is essential to the discipline. This interview series highlights campus teaching award winners who have been recognized by APSA for their achievements. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.

Robin Kolodny received her B.A. in Political Science from Florida International University in 1985 and her Ph.D. in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University in 1992. She has taught Political Science at Temple University since 1991 and is currently Chair of the department. Kolodny was an American Political Science Association (APSA) Congressional Fellow in 1995. In 1999, she received the Emerging Scholar Award from the Political Organizations and Parties Section of the APSA. During academic year 2008-09, Kolodny was named a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar to the United Kingdom, affiliated with the Department of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and the Sussex European Institute (SEI). Kolodny is also the author of Pursuing Majorities:  Congressional Campaign Committees in American Politics (University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
This is my 27th year at Temple University. I’ve also taught at the University of Sussex (in the United Kingdom) and at my graduate alma mater, Johns Hopkins. My first few classes were dreadful. I tried to tell them everything I knew. That didn’t work. I often say that I’d like to call my students from my first three or four classes and apologize to them. Given that I teach American politics, I can say that I have changed, the students have changed, and the content of what I teach has certainly changed!

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
Over time, my teaching has become more interactive. I would not call it discussion-based per se, but as I am introducing new information, I stop and frequently ask my students to apply the information to real-life or even hypothetical situations. This way, I can figure out as I go when they are with me and when they are not. I used to present a huge amount of material and then wonder why exams and papers showed no real knowledge of what I had presented. I also attended a Teaching Academy sponsored by my Provost’s office that introduced me to a literature on how people learned. That led me to move toward a more student-centered rather than content-centered approach in my teaching.

Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
I always have fun with this question because I tell people I teach students, I don’t teach political science. So, I must say that I really enjoy every level of class that I teach and every topic. That’s because I see that each level has a different set of challenges, and my task is to bring them along as much as I can. For freshmen, that means developing an interest, a solid groundwork of conceptual understanding, and enough understanding of the relevance of politics to them so that they’ll keep taking classes with us. For seniors, the challenge is to get them to critique their own work and that of others to build a keen analytic sense.

What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
Honestly, the more I break the “fourth wall” of academia and get the students to see me as a person, the better success I’ve had engaging them. Yes, I have a Ph.D. and I know a lot of stuff, but I got both through a lot of hard work. I can also get a lousy parking space, be confused by social media references, and follow events on campus and in the city just like they do. A few years ago, I began to offer two extra-credit points to any person in any of my classes who came to my office hours within the first five weeks of the semester. Several of them said “I’m just here for the points” and those encounters allowed me to get to know them as individuals. I asked them what they hoped to do when they were finished at the university, where they were from, what worried them, and so on. The result?  Better attendance, active discussions, more emails, and improved quality of student work.

Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
Indirectly. First, I owe everyone at Florida International University (where I was an undergraduate) my eternal thanks. I enjoyed all my classes there, but the tool that best increased my learning was the couch in the Political Science Department (in DM) where faculty and graduate students congregated between classes just to chat. That was very important to me. It showed me that real learning engages you all of the time. Second, I am indebted to Kristin Bumiller of Amherst College. I was her Teaching Assistant for Introduction to American Politics when she was at Johns Hopkins University. She put together an innovative syllabus that used five monographs instead of a traditional textbook. It was the best approach I could have imagined and to this day, I model all of my introductory courses after hers.