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. If you or a colleague has won a campus teaching award in the 2015-16 academic year, please let us know! At the 2016 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, every meeting attendee who has won a campus teaching award will be recognized at a reception honoring teaching. Learn more about the campus teaching award recognition program here.
Tatishe M. Nteta is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. His research is situated within the subfield of American politics and examines the impact that the sociopolitical incorporation of the nation’s minority population has on public opinion, political behavior, and political campaigns. His work has appeared in Political Psychology, Political Communication, American Politics Research, Politics and Religion, Social Science History, Politics, Groups, and Identities, Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, and Social Science Quarterly. Drawing on his research, Nteta teaches classes on Race and Politics, African American Politics, Political Psychology, and Introduction to American Politics. Nteta received the Pi Sigma Alpha Outstanding Professor of the Year award in the academic years 2012-13, 2013-14, and 2014-15.
What’s your teaching background? What was your first teaching experience like?
Nteta: Currently, I teach undergraduate and graduate courses on Race and Politics, African American Politics, Political Psychology, and Introduction to American Politics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. At Berkeley, I was a graduate student instructor for Introduction to American Politics, Political Psychology, Introduction to Comparative Politics, Terrorism, and Race and Politics in California. Before attending graduate school, I volunteered with Americorps and was a teaching assistant at John Gill Elementary School in Redwood City, California working with at risk children in the third, fourth, and fifth grades. My first teaching experience was stressful, exciting, and rewarding all at the same time.
I began teaching at UMASS in 2007, and my course on Race and Politics was a late addition to my department’s course offerings so I only had a handful of students. Although my research focused on the politics of race and ethnicity in the United States, I had never taught my own course on the subject and as such had to create a new syllabus and lesson plans on the fly all the while trying to acclimate to my new colleagues, students, and environment. It was hard work, and I made some mistakes but my students were happy with the course and I’m still in touch with many of the students from this course. I’ve gone on to teach the course regularly in the nine years I’ve been at UMASS and still use many of the lectures that I developed in my first year.
How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
Nteta: My primary objective in teaching is to provide my students with a strong understanding of the key concepts, debates, methods, and evidence that undergird the discipline of political science. At the same time, I also seek to foster in my students the necessary critical thinking, writing, and speaking skills that will equip them with the ability to participate in the political world as informed citizens. For many students, politics is peripheral to their lives and academic studies, thus I strive not only to make the course material more exciting and interesting but also to connect what they learn in the classroom with their everyday lives. Finally, I want to ensure that my students’ interest in political science and politics in general, does not end with the culmination of the course. Thus, my overarching goal is that my students continue to develop a lifelong affiliation with politics, whether that is through taking additional political science courses, future involvement in political campaigns, or simply reading the daily newspaper.
My key pedagogical approach in accomplishing these objectives is to structure my lectures around a clear outline that emphasizes the key concepts, debates and evidence derived from the assigned readings. My lectures articulate core concepts in the literature and subsequently connect these concepts with concrete examples from history, current events, popular culture, and even my own personal experiences. I believe that providing students with a roadmap of my lecture coupled with the use of varied and meaningful examples better organizes the wealth of complex information that is communicated to students. In tandem with lectures, I employ a “call and response” method of teaching, questioning students, taking questions from students, and eliciting classroom discussions during lecture in order to uncover their opinions on issues as well as providing a more interactive environment in which students are participatory members in the process of learning.
Do you have favorite materials or courses to teach?
Nteta: My favorite course to teach is my undergraduate seminar on political psychology. The course starts with a simple question; what explains individual political behavior and thought? In answering this question, the course focuses attention on a range of psychological explanations of individual political attitudes and actions that include: self interest, personality, affect, learning, and group influence. We then apply these behavioral theories to attempt to explain why individuals engage in the most harmful political activities such as: terrorism, genocide, and racial prejudice. It is my hope that my students leave the course with the tools to understand why these political acts occur, the resources to provide solutions to these political problems, and the knowledge to ensure that they will never personally engage in these destructive political activities.
What has been your most effective tool for engaging students in the classroom?
Nteta: In attempting to engage with my own students, I have tried to incorporate the successful strategies and advice from effective teachers at all levels. One such example is advice provided by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick in a recent interview who when discussing the challenges of connecting with younger players said, “the thing I’ve learned is that other people didn’t learn the way that I learned” and went on to speak to the challenges of incorporating new teaching methods saying, “I’m not comfortable with some of the technology, but they (the players) are and they can learn better with the newer technology than I can because I’m not used to it. But it’s their method of learning. They’ve been using it all their lives. So, we’ve converted as coaching staff and as an organization to, I’d say in a lot of cases, what’s better for the students than what’s better for the teachers. As teachers, we’ve had to adjust, we’ve had to learn, which has been good for us too.”
When I started teaching in 2007 I initially outlined my lectures on the chalk board in order to provide my students with a roadmap of the key topics that we would be discussing. This was the manner in which I was taught in my undergraduate courses at the University of Maryland and how many of the professors at Berkeley taught their undergraduate students. However, the past decade has seen a sea change in the manner in which technology is now incorporated in student learning, and I have changed my style with the times. Today, I exclusively use power point to structure my lectures and provide these slides to students. Correspondingly, I also incorporate online video clips from the Daily Show, Frontline, and the Chappelle Show to highlight and complement key themes from my courses.
Finally, in furthering my goal of providing students with the real world implications of what they learn in class, I have invited a number of guest speakers to provide students a greater understanding of how politics operate at the local, state, and federal levels. For instance, in 2012 former Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial candidate (and now governor of Massachusetts), Charles Baker, gave a talk to my Introduction to American Politics course about his experiences running for statewide office that expanded our discussion of how electoral campaigns operate and the strategies and tactics candidates use to get out the vote on election day. These real world examples help connect what we learn in the classroom with politics on the ground in ways that my lectures cannot.
Did you have any classroom experiences as a student that influenced how you teach now?
Nteta: In my freshman year at the University of Maryland, I took an Introduction to African American Studies course in which the teaching assistant structured her discussion sections by providing an easily accessible review and outline of the professor’s lectures and the course readings for the week. I have used this technique since I began teaching and students have consistently lauded the “roadmap” that I provide them of my lecture and the readings. At the University of California, Berkeley a graduate course taught by the late Judy Gruber not only provided me the template for organizing an engaging and encompassing seminar, but also provided a reserved graduate student (me) a conducive and accepting environment to communicate his thoughts and opinions on the course material.
Read more about Tatishe Nteta’s work here.