The Political Science Major: Mission Statement.
The mission of the Political Science major is to develop in our students the ability to apply informed, reflective, and sophisticated analysis and judgment to the major issues of contemporary political life. Our curriculum attempts to develop this ability in three related ways. First, it provides each student with basic substantive knowledge of politics through the study of the major fields of the discipline - political theory and philosophy, the American political system, the major political systems around the world, and international politics and institutions. Second, the major is designed to provide students with training in some of the major conceptual, theoretical, and methodological tools of the discipline, and in the application of these tools to the analysis of contemporary political life. Third, we stress the general abilities of clear and precise writing, and the development of persuasive empirical and normative arguments, throughout the curriculum.
Together, we believe that these three dimensions of our curriculum - which are combined in different ways in each of our courses - contribute to the development in our students of the ability to be informed and effective analysts of political life. As such, we believe that these skills and abilities are part of and contribute to the development of the capacities for critical thinking and judgment necessary for attaining the overall mission of the Westminster College curriculum.
The Political Science Major: Outcome Statements.
In order to effectively assess our progress in achieving our mission as we have presented it, the Political Science faculty has identified the following outcomes as skills or abilities all of our students should attain by the time of graduation:
Identify and analyze the central questions and problems that are common to all the “sub-fields” of political science.
Explain and evaluate the major theoretical approaches in the discipline today, and apply these approaches to the analysis of a major development in contemporary political life.
Apply one (or more) of the major methodological approaches in the discipline to the analysis of a pressing problem in contemporary politics.
Develop and defend a normative argument concerning the meaning and/or application of an important values involved in political choices.
Demonstrate an understanding of the relevance of the theories, concepts, or methods of (at least) one other discipline to the pursuit of knowledge about political life.
How the Outcomes Are Pursued in the PS Curriculum?
The Political Science curriculum is organized into three broad sections, each of which focuses on a particular set of outcomes, and/or pursues these outcomes in different levels of depth and detail.
1. The Core Introductory Courses:
Political Science Majors must take each of these courses:
Political Science 101 – Introduction to Political Science
Political Science 102 – American National Government
Political Science 103 – Introduction to Political Philosophy
Political Science 104 – International Politics
These courses aim to provide students with an introduction to the main areas or “sub-fields” of the discipline. After completing these courses, students should have a basic grasp of the subject matter and substantive concerns of Political Science, a familiarity with the major conceptual frameworks and theoretical approaches in each sub-field and in the discipline as a whole, and a sense of the variety of methodological approaches employed by Political Scientists to study politics.
As such, these courses focus on Outcomes 1, 2, and 3, with an emphasis on Outcome 1. The courses provide a basic introduction to the subject matter of Outcomes 2 and 3.
In order to secure these outcomes, we use a variety of teaching methods and assignments in the Core Courses. Lectures and presentations are employed to provide students with an orientation to the worlds of politics and Political Science, while in-class discussions, group work, and short assignments ask students to apply key concepts and theories to some of the pressing problems of contemporary political life. These assignments are supplemented by more traditional exams – which aim to provide an overall assessment of the student’s grasp of the essential concepts and subject matter of Political Science – and analytical and/or research papers, which try to assess the student’s ability to use the concepts and theoretical approaches of the discipline in more in depth study.
2. The Upper-Level and Elective Courses:
Political Science majors must take one course in each of the following categories, and three more electives from the entire group of courses.
PS 150: The Politics of Rock & Roll
PS 212: The Congress
PS 213: The Presidency
PS 214: The Courts
PS 311: Campaigns and Elections
PS 411: Political Psychology
Seminar in American Politics
Seminar in Political Behavior
Political Theory and Public Policy.
PS 221: American Political Thought
PS 222: Modern Democratic Ideologies
PS 241: Public Policy
PS 321: American Constitutional Law: Government Powers
PS 322: American Constitutional Law: Civil Rights & Liberties
PS 323: Modern Political Philosophy
PS 342: Politics & the Economy
Seminar in Political Theory
International and Comparative Politics.
PS 231: Comparative Communist Governments & Politics
PS 232: Comparative European Governments & Politics
PS 233: Governments & Politics of Third World Countries
PS 234: Irish Politics and Society
PS 331: Geopolitics
PS 332: U.S. Foreign Policy
PS 431: International Law and Organization
Seminar in International Politics
Seminar in Comparative Politics
These courses aim to engage students in more advanced study of Political Science. Here, we attempt to provide much more complex and sophisticated explorations of the major theoretical traditions in the discipline, focusing on the unique directions taken in the different sub-fields. In these courses, we aim to ensure that student’s are able to understand, critically appraise and evaluate, and thoughtfully use the best of Political Science scholarship. At this point, we move beyond the application of theories and concepts to the world of politics, and ask students to use their knowledge of political life to reflect upon the strengths and weaknesses of the discipline’s theoretical tools and frameworks.
As such, these courses focus on Outcomes 1, 2, 3 and 4. Outcomes 1 and 2 are explored in much more detail through the analysis of contemporary work in Political Science, as course projects engage students in much more depth in the application of the theory and methods of the discipline, the focus of Outcomes 3 and 4.
In order to secure these outcomes, our approach in these courses relies much more upon the active engagement of students in the critical evaluation of contemporary scholarship in the discipline. This approach includes the assignment of more intensive papers and projects involving contemporary research in disciplinary journals and monographs, exams that ask students to critically analyze current debates in the literature, and presentations in which students are asked to employ their knowledge of theory and practice to suggest and explore new problems and questions in each area of the discipline. In essence, these courses move in the direction of providing all students with sustained seminar-like experiences, which we believe best encourages the development of the skills of critical analysis.
It is important to note that our curriculum structure at this level, which still requires the distribution of courses across the major fields of the discipline, places special emphasis on the development of a broad sense of the direction of Political Science. (Outcome 1) As an undergraduate liberal arts major, we believe that our program should privilege the development of a sense of the common questions shared by all scholars in the discipline, as opposed to a specialization in one particular area. This is particularly important in Political Science, a discipline characterized by a wide diversity of subjects, traditions, and methods.
3. The Research and Capstone Experience.
Political Science majors must take each of the following three courses, which together make up the Capstone requirement:
PS 301: Research Design & Analysis (“Junior Seminar”)
SSC 252: Data Analysis
PS 601: Senior Capstone
PS 301 is taken in the Spring semester of the Junior year, and SSC 252 is taken in either the Fall or Spring of the Junior year. PS 601 is taken in the Fall semester of the Senior year. In any given year, PS 301 and 601 are united by a common theme and taught by the same faculty member. In PS 301, students review the main methodological approaches in Political Science and develop a Research Project, which is completed – along with further exploration of key theoretical disputes in the discipline – in PS 601.
As such, the Research and Capstone Courses focus on Outcomes 1, 2, 3, and 5, which a particular emphasis on Outcomes 2 and 3. (Student work may also emphasize Outcome 4, depending on the substantive nature of the Research Project.)
Together, these courses prepare the student to carry out a substantial research project on an important issue in contemporary politics or Political Science, and require each student to finish and present the results of that project in a format that matches a typical submission to a refereed journal in the discipline. These requirements aim to address key disciplinary outcomes. Drawing on the students’ previous work in the major, the Capstone courses demand that each student demonstrate an understanding of some of the central theoretical and methodological controversies at the cutting edge of the discipline, and the ways these controversies manifest themselves across of the sub-fields of Political Science. In order to assess this understanding, students are assigned critical essays on one or more of these controversies. (Outcomes 1 and 2) They also demand that each student demonstrate the ability to carry out independent political research that illustrates the ability to understand and apply the theoretical and conceptual tools of Political Science with facility and sophistication. We assess this outcome through the assignment and development of a substantial research project, in which students are carefully followed from the framing of the research question, to the development of an appropriate methodology, through the completion of a polished paper. (Outcomes 2 and 3) Finally, the PS 301 and SSC 252 courses introduce students to a broad range of social science methodologies (not just Political Science), while the substantive readings in PS 601 always examine the similarities and differences in the ways other social science disciplines approach a key problem in contemporary politics.
How Are Outcomes Assessed in Political Science?
In order to assess the degree to which our students are meeting the Outcomes of the Political Science major, the Political Science faculty pursue the following three strategies:
1. Course Assessments.
The majority of assessment of the Political Science major - concerning both the abilities of students and the effectiveness of our teaching - occurs in the context of the usual assignments connected with the curriculum - exams, research papers, normative essays, quantitative analyses, in class projects, etc. These assignments are designed to evaluate what the students are learning, how well they can demonstrate their learning, and the effectiveness of our teaching strategies. Each faculty member reviews the results of these assignments on a regular basis, using them to adjust courts content and teaching strategies. To be more specific, here is a sense of how each outcome is assessed in our courses:
Outcome 1 - Training in the ability to identify and analyze the questions and issues that animate the "sub-fields," and are common to them all, is built in to the structure of the major. Each student must pass an introductory course in the discipline as a whole, an introductory course in each of the sub-fields, and at least one upper-level course in each of the sub-fields. In the capstone, we return to an emphasis on the commonalities across the sub-fields - which we emphasize in the first introductory class - and require students to demonstrate an understanding of these through exams and a seminar-length research paper.
Outcome 2 - The requirement to demonstrate the ability to explain and analyze the major theoretical approaches in Political Science is built into all of the course work in the major, but is emphasized especially in the upper-level and capstone courses. Assessment of this ability comes mainly in form of exams and papers. The Capstone research project centers on the application of one or more theoretical approaches to a problem in contemporary politics.
Outcome 3 - Training in the methodological approaches in the discipline is specifically provided at three points, the Junior Seminar (PS 301), SSC 252, and the Senior Capstone (PS 601). SSC 252 focuses especially on the understanding and use of quantitative and methods to analyze political life. The Junior Seminar reviews the process of framing a research question, developing a project, and choosing the appropriate methods for that research. Each student has to complete an approved Capstone project proposal to pass the course, in which these skills are evaluated. The Senior Capstone emphasizes the completion of the Research project and discussion of its place within the discipline as a while. In this Project, students are expected to clearly choose a methodological approach, defend its use while acknowledging its limitations, and demonstrate the ability to apply it properly to the analysis of a given problem.
Outcome 4 - The ability to develop and defend a normative argument is the focus of training in the coursework in Political Theory and Public Policy. All of the courses in this area require students to demonstrate this ability in exams and papers. However, this kind of outcome is also often required in courses in other areas of the discipline, and may be the focus of a student's work in the capstone course as well.
Outcome 5 - The ability to understand the relevance of other disciplines to the understanding of politics is a focus of training throughout our courses. The introductory course situates Political Science in the context of other disciplines, and other courses ask students to explore the connections between their major and such disciplines as psychology, sociology, economics, and philosophy. In accordance with overall college policy, consideration of these issues is built into the Senior Capstone course as well.
It should be noted that our assessment strategy in these courses focuses on student work product, not on student course evaluations. While we read these for feedback on our work as teachers, we believe student evaluations to be of little systematic use in evaluating our efforts.
2. Collaborative Review.
The Political Science faculty are engaged in regular collaborative review of our work with students, in which we consider our successes and limits in achieving our Outcomes. This review takes three main forms:
Informal Discussion – Political Science faculty regularly discuss matters related to teaching in a variety of informal venues, such as chats over coffee, conversations regarding the work of specific students, and discussions of teaching strategies and methods. These happen throughout the course of the year, and provide some of the most valuable ways to assess our work.
Faculty Reviews – The process of the annual faculty reviews, mid-probationary and tenure reviews, and promotion reviews provides the Chair (and in some contexts all department faculty) an opportunity to provide feedback on the work of each faculty member. This feedback is based upon classroom observations, review of syllabi and course evaluations, and in depth individual conferences. In addition, Capstone faculty are able to assess the progress of individual students and identify strengths and weaknesses in specific areas of the discipline; this form of assessment is regularly shared with other department faculty.
Annual Retreat – Each summer the Political Science faculty convene a day-long retreat off campus to assess the work of the previous year, consider strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum and in co-curricular activities, and develop changes in our programs to address identified deficiencies. This provides for the broadest programmatic assessment, while also allowing us to pull together what we have learned from the other two forms of review.
3. Alumni Contact.
The Political Science faculty stays in regular contact with alumni in a variety of areas. We do this in a variety of ways – informal discussions, having alumni back to campus to speak about their experiences, mailing the annual Department newsletter, sponsoring a regular Fall semester alumni panel regarding careers in Political Science, etc. One goal of these contacts and programs is to solicit alumni input into the strengths and weaknesses of the Political Science curriculum as they have had the chance to reflect upon in it in their careers.
Together, we believe that these assessment strategies provide us with excellent feedback regarding the strengths and weaknesses of our curriculum, and provide a solid basis on which to base our work in continually updating the curriculum to better meet our program outcomes.
Political Science Assessment in Action: Closing the Circle for the Political Science Capstone.
The Political Science program assessment strategy has been in place for a number of years, and has generated a number of (we believe) useful adjustments to curriculum and teaching strategies. Many of these are minor and ongoing, but the most important example has been the recent changes in our Capstone Research Experience. This provides the best possible illustration of what we have been doing, and will continue to do, in Political Science.
Background: Beginning in the 2001-02 academic year, the Capstone Research program for Political Science majors required all students to pass the SSC 251 (Research Design and Analysis) and SSC 252 (Data Analysis) courses, which are jointly offered by Political Science and Sociology faculty, and taken by majors in both fields. The goal was to complete these courses in the junior year. Then, Political Science majors were required to take PS 601 – Senior Capstone, which was organized as a classic seminar, in which students would review and discuss advanced readings in the discipline and complete a substantial research paper related to the course theme (which varied by year). The goal was to have students use the tools, skills, and knowledge accumulated in their other coursework to produce a polished piece of research in the Capstone paper.
Assessment. Increasingly, however, the Political Science faculty became dissatisfied with the level of work demonstrated in the Capstone paper. In particular, we came to the conclusion that most student Capstone work failed to live up to the standards we had set for Outcomes 2 and 3 (and to some degree Outcome 1) for the major. Students were not effectively setting out and evaluating theoretical debates in the discipline, nor were they using discipline-based methodological approaches in sophisticated ways. The failure to satisfy these outcomes, we concluded, represented significant problems in the structure of the Capstone experience. Students entering the Capstone had not had the opportunity to apply what they had learned in the SSC 251 and 252 classes to specifically discipline-related problems, and had little effective training in developing and executing substantial discipline-related research projects. In order to improve the quality of student work in the Capstone and thus satisfy crucial discipline outcome goals, we concluded, we would have to make a change in the structure of the Capstone Research Experience.
We began this process of assessment and change in our Summer, 2009 Department Retreat, continued work formally and informally over the 2009-10 academic year, and settled on a new structure for the Capstone Research Experience during the Summer, 2010 Department Retreat. The new structure was formally adopted during the 2010-11 academic year, and will be binding on all majors matriculating at the College beginning in the Fall of 2011. The new Capstone structure, which was outlined earlier, is based on the following key approaches:
1. In order to ensure that Political Science majors learn about research design and strategies in a discipline-focused way, and ensure that they begin to apply this knowledge to actual research goals, we replaced the SSC 251 requirement with a requirement that all juniors take a revised PS 301 – Junior Seminar in the Spring of the junior year. This course will be taught be Political Science faculty and focus explicitly on the discipline.
2. In order to ensure that Political Science majors enter the Senior Capstone ready to complete a substantial research project, all students will be required to develop an approved Senior Capstone project as a condition for passing PS 301 and taking PS 601.
3. In order to ensure consistency throughout the Capstone research process, in each given year the same faculty member will teach PS 301 and PS 601.
4. Finally, the substance of PS 601 will be altered slightly, providing more focus on the completion of the Capstone research project and emphasizing models of research – especially refereed journal articles – that students can model their final project after.
Assessing the Change: We are very hopeful that these changes will lead to more satisfactory results regarding the ability of students to demonstrate mastery of the Political Science program outcomes. We will gradually introduce modifications to PS 601 over the coming years. Once the complete program goes into effect, we will continue to meet regularly to evaluate its effectiveness in light of our program goals.
In sum, the Political Science faculty believe that the example of our assessment and reform of our Capstone Research Experience indicates that our general strategy of assessment is vital and effective, and provides us with a good basis from which to continue our efforts at program development and implementation.
During the 2011 Political Science Summer Retreat, we will consider adding two additional assessment strategies to our program:
- The use of a national standardized exam to evaluate the knowledge of our seniors, to be administered in the Senior Capstone course.
- Development of a regular survey of alumni to get a more formal understanding of alumni perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of our program.
We believe that both strategies may help us develop an even better understanding of how well we are meeting our Outcome goals, and provide useful suggestions for further improvements in the major.