15 Valuing Vocation | Kate Knutson

Sitting in a seminar on incorporating vocation into the classroom sponsored by the Center for Vocational Reflection this summer, I was faced with a number of questions: What is vocation?  How do I discern my vocation?  Am I living out my vocation?  Does everyone have a vocation? Is it possible to integrate questions of vocation into the courses I teach?  I have pondered these questions in the weeks since the conclusion of this seminar.  I do have a sense that I am living out my vocation in my role as a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College.  Much of this happens within the walls of the classroom, but what makes the job particularly satisfying to me is that the role extends well beyond those boundaries as I advise students on academic and personal matters, pursue my research interests, serve on faculty committees, and engage in intentional community in the residence halls.  I believe that everyone has a vocation and I am grateful for the opportunity to live and work in a place where the community values space for reflection about vocation.

My primary goal in teaching is to create a learning environment in which students feel comfortable exploring unfamiliar ideas, engaging in controversial debates, and developing original arguments.   These three components shape my pedagogical approach to all of my classes from the detailed selection of readings and construction of syllabi to the carefully crafted in-class exercises and evaluation methods.

The courses I teach are in the subfield of American politics, but cover a range of diverse subjects within this subfield.  U.S. Government and Politics is the introduction to the subfield and is required for majors, minors, and some education majors.  Another required course for majors, Analyzing Politics, was taught by Chris Gilbert for many years.  I have recently begun to teach this course on a rotating basis.  At the 200-level, I have one regularly scheduled course, Public Policy, which I offer each spring.  I teach two 300-level political institutions courses: U.S. Congress and The American Presidency and also offer a senior seminar, Interest Groups in American Politics.  In addition to these regularly offered courses, I have taught a First Term Seminar (Fast Food and Society), a special topics course on Politics and Media, and two January term courses (The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage and Inauguration Politics).  In all, this totals ten separate courses, nine of which were new for me upon my arrival at Gustavus.  Additionally, I significantly revise almost all of my classes each semester based on feedback from the students, my experiences teaching the class, and new pedagogical research learned from academic journals or workshops (such as “First Term Seminar Training,”  “Writing and Oral Communication for Today’s Student,” or “Educating for Civic Engagement: Making Democracy an American Reality”).  Thus, my syllabi for most of my classes look substantially different each time I teach them.

My approach to preparing for a course begins by identifying specific learning objectives for the course.  I want students to have mastery of the important dimensions of the topic and to be exposed to the important theorists and researchers writing on the topic.  In addition, I also develop supplemental learning objectives.  For example, in U.S. Government and Politics, one of my objectives is for students to learn how to have a deliberative and rational discussion of controversial political issues.  Angry, exaggeration-prone pundits who thrive on conflict and rumor inundate mass media.  I hope that my students will learn that there is an alternative to this type of public discourse.  To accomplish this goal, I devote considerable attention to teaching discussion skills such as active listening, playing the role of Devil’s advocate, summarizing arguments, and providing supporting evidence.  For some small group discussions, I assign each student a discussion role to play (facilitator, question asker, example giver, etc.), which allows them to discover new ways of participating in political discussions.  In another exercise, which I call the feeling thermometer, I provide students with an opinion statement on a topic of civil liberties or civil rights and ask students to align themselves along an invisible spectrum running the length of the room.  We then have a discussion on the issue and students are encouraged to physically move as their views change.  I like this exercise because it reminds students that there is a range of opinions within our class and it reinforces the idea that it is acceptable to change your viewpoint in response to new information and logical arguments.

A supplemental learning objective I strive for in Analyzing Politics and in my senior seminar on interest groups is to develop skills in collecting and analyzing original data.  To accomplish this goal, I devote a substantial portion of class time to discussing the research process and learning about various resources through visits to the library.  In Analyzing Politics, I worked with librarian Julie Gilbert to create a “library laboratory” class specifically connected to my syllabus.  Students learn research techniques by actually doing research such as conducting interviews, designing surveys, or engaging in participant observation.  Julie has also helped to develop a series of five hour-long class sessions for my interest group seminar, which help expose students to academic research.  Students in this class have drawn upon a variety of methodological approaches in producing their senior theses.  One student, Amanda Cappelle, used her internships with two advocacy groups as a basis for her thesis.  This paper won our department writing award in 2009.  Another student, Mikka McCracken, interviewed leaders at Bread for the World and the Washington Office of the ELCA.  Her research helped her obtain a position working for the ELCA’s Justice for Women advocacy program after graduation.

In Public Policy, one supplemental learning objective is to increase the students’ sense of political efficacy.  Our class helps to plan the annual Day at the Capitol advocacy event by conducting background research on the Minnesota State Grant Program and key legislators as well as by developing a continuing advocacy program to coincide with Day at the Capitol.  As a key part of this service-learning project, the class attends Day at the Capitol and has the opportunity to interact directly with elected officials.  Two years ago, students in my class submitted a petition in support of the State Grant program to every member of the Minnesota legislature.  While a petition might not be the most effective means of influencing political decisions, this effort allowed them to get involved in the political process directly.

These three supplemental objectives—deliberative discussion skills, research skills, and political efficacy—are only a handful of the various goals I have in mind as I craft each syllabus.  Often I will specify those goals in the syllabi, assignment guidelines, or in my comments on the first day of class.

Once I identify specific learning objectives, I focus on developing assignments and in-class exercises that will maximize those goals.  The result is a wide array of class activities and types of assignments.  Many students appreciate the ways in which my classes reach those with non-traditional learning styles.  Because I use non-traditional teaching methods, I sometimes receive criticism about this on student evaluations.  I do consider this feedback when I redesign each class, but I also realize (and evaluations confirm) these types of interactive learning opportunities are what make the course material come alive to many students.  My impression is that much of the opposition to non-traditional activities and assignments comes from the fact that they often require more time and effort.  For example, students are particularly disinclined to group work; however, I continue to assign group projects because I believe that it is imperative that students learn how to work effectively in groups.  Thus, while some students express distaste for some of these activities and assignments, I design them with particular outcomes in mind.  Students often tell me informally that, though they were frustrated by the assignment at the time, in retrospect, it was a powerful learning experience for them.

Three common denominators exist in each of my courses.  All courses that I offer emphasize writing, discussion, and experiential learning.  I emphasize writing skills in all of my classes, regardless of size, because it is a foundational skill.  I believe that students who can clearly communicate ideas on paper will have a skill necessary to succeed in almost any workplace or graduate school environment.  Writing takes multiple forms in my courses, both formal and informal.  I often ask students to write responses to discussion questions to prepare for class.  Usually I read these questions but grade them based on whether they completed the assignment rather than on the content.  Sometimes my writing assignments are very structured, such as in U.S. Government and Politics, where I provide a very specific framework for the paper.  I do this to help students learn three important writing skills: summary, analysis, and argument justification.  Another type of writing assignment I use is to provide students with exposure to more technical writing.  Students in U.S. Congress write bills and committee reports. In Public Policy, I create firm limits on the length of some writing assignments.  I explain to the students that learning to write succinctly is an important skill that they need to learn if they want to work in the field of politics.  Students often complain about this constraint, but just this summer I received an email from a former student (and recent graduate) who thanked me for forcing her to learn how to summarize.  Her new boss, she said, will not read anything over two pages.  Finally, I also use longer writing assignments in several courses, such as Interest Groups, Politics and Media, and The American Presidency.  These types of longer writing assignments (i.e. 15-30 pages) allow students to explore a topic in great depth.  I usually assign these larger papers in sections and students complete multiple drafts of such assignments with feedback from me and/or peer evaluators.

In terms of discussion, I believe it is critical that students studying political science engage in discussions based on both the readings and current events as they apply to the readings.  Many of my courses have an explicit emphasis on discussion and may even require students to lead discussions.  Interest Groups, Public Policy, and Politics and Media feature several student-led discussions during the semester.  I believe the responsibility for leading discussions drives students to a deeper reading of the texts and a fuller understanding of the questions and problems raised by those texts.  In other courses, I use a variety of discussion methods, such as the discussion role exercise I mentioned previously, throughout the semester.

The final common feature in my courses is experiential learning.  I strive to create opportunities in classes for students to have a more hands-on learning experience.  In some classes (like Politics and Media, Public Policy, and the Politics of Same Sex Marriage), this means arranging for guest speakers or field trips to provide students with greater exposure to practitioners and experts.  For example, for the past two years, I have coordinated a panel of Gustavus graduates who work in state government to speak to students attending Day at the Capitol.  Evaluations of the day suggest that this panel is one of the highlights for a large number of the participants.  In U.S. Congress, I was able to arrange for U.S. Representative Tim Walz to speak to the class.  This was a phenomenal opportunity for my students to interact with a sitting Member of Congress in an intimate setting.  During my January Term trip to Washington, D.C., I arranged for the class to spend a morning at the State Department with the help of several Gustavus graduates.  We got a behind-the-scenes tour, which was a very exciting experience for the students (and for me!).  I also arranged for the class to have front row seats at the Supreme Court during oral arguments of a case.  In other classes, experiential learning takes the form of role-playing or simulations.  My U.S. Congress course features an extended simulation using the web-based program LEGSIM.  Students assume an identity as a member of Congress and spend the semester writing, debating, and voting on bills.  Other forms of experiential learning I have used include service learning projects (such as Day at the Capitol in Public Policy and campaign volunteering in U.S. Government), having students conduct interviews, having students conduct original research, and allowing students to develop their own proposals for a final project.  I used this last method in Politics and Media in the spring and was pleased with the results.  The assignment allowed the students a great deal of latitude in terms of selecting a final project.  Students could write a traditional research paper, they could conduct original research and write a paper, they could participate in a service-learning project, or they could propose a topic of their choosing.  While many of the students opted for the traditional research paper, several completed original research based on surveys of Gustavus students or interviews with media professionals, and one created an impressive original documentary on media coverage (and distortion) of the recent health care reform debate.

In order for these types of discussion-based and experiential in-class activities to be successful, it is imperative that I create a positive environment in each class.  I devote considerable time each semester to developing rapport with the students and to helping students build community among themselves.  In U.S. Government and Politics, this means taking extra time in the beginning of the semester for introductions so that I am able to identify each student by name within the first weeks of the semester.  In upper-level courses, it is a bit easier to foster a sense of community because most of the students are majors or minors; however, I still play an important role in setting the tone for the interactions in the classroom.  I have had my share of failures in my attempts to develop rapport within the classroom.  In one class, U.S. Congress, a negative tone developed early in the semester from a single student who would verbally provoke and attack other students.  Though I effectively dealt with that student, I could sense that the tone of the class was very negative.  One day I stopped our discussion early and asked students to write about their feelings regarding the tone of the class and to make suggestions for improving the tone if they sensed something was not right.  The students responded with thoughtful comments, which I discussed with them the following period.  Simply being open and honest about our concerns for the tone was enough to turn the class around.  In another class, Analyzing Politics, the frustrations began after the first exam, when several students did not perform as well as they had hoped.  These students were angry over what they perceived to be an unfair exam.  Again, I approached this challenge with an open discussion of the problem.  Though the students were still unhappy about the results, they appreciated my willingness to speak frankly about their concerns.  One the second exam, they were much better prepared and performed significantly better even though the difficulty of the exam did not change. These, however, were isolated incidents and the student evaluations from these semesters reflect a general satisfaction with the course and my teaching of it.

I am fascinated by the questions and problems of concern to political scientists.  Since taking my first U.S. Government course in my first semester of college, I have been interested in exploring the ways in which governmental power is exercised in this country.  I love how the same old questions reemerge in new forms as new political problems and leaders emerge.  While this is sometimes frustrating (are we still talking about health care?!?), it also provides me with an endless supply of examples and case studies for my classes.  Friends and family often ask if it gets old teaching the same course semester after semester and my honest answer is, no.  The framework might be the same, but the issues and the players are constantly changing such that there is always a fresh spin to put on the material.  It keeps me on the search for new ways of integrating the changing political landscape into my courses, which means that the material never gets stale.

In addition to engaging students in the classroom, part of my role is helping to guide them through the academic program.  I take my role as an adviser seriously and carve out significant amounts of time to meet with my advisees.  My conversations with advisees focus not only on the courses they ought to register for in the next semester but also on their larger vocational and life goals.  I encourage students to pursue opportunities such as off-campus study and internships.  I also help them to think about how their extracurricular activities might fit into their larger professional goals.


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