“Everything is politics.” This statement, which was presented to me over a decade ago in my very first Political Science class, continues to have a profound impact on me. It means that whatever we do in our lives will have consequences on us, our friends, our community, society, and the state - on a national and an international level. Thus, we all need to be aware of our actions, the thoughts and motivations behind them, and how they are received. This is especially true in a world with never-ending news cycles and the knowledge of centuries at our fingertips. Therefore, my aim for students is to become critical reflectors. I want to enable them to critically assess not just their beliefs and knowledge but also those of others. This will allow them to better understand what is driving this society and how to promote it. While this process of reflection is an ongoing one, it is the teacher that sets the foundation for it. Consequently, enabling my students to reflect critically not only on their beliefs, ideas, and knowledge but on those presented to them by others as well is what gives teaching meaning to me.
However, critical reflection can only be achieved when we are open to new and different information, concepts, and worldviews. That is why I implement an international and multicultural perspective in my classes whenever possible by using examples and perspectives from different countries, some of which are based on my personal and professional experience as a European and German in the United States and guest speakers. Growing up and receiving most of my pre-graduate education outside of the U.S. allows me to bring to the table a different perspective on what students perceive as normal. Additionally, it helps me tackle sensitive issues in class better because students perceive me as more neutral on certain topics. Moreover, it opens an entirely different set of issues, examples, and materials that I can use in the classroom.
Although students need to know about their home state and country, they will benefit from material and instructor-provided explanations and illustrations that are based on other nations and cultures. As an instructor for intro-level classes, I must provide a substantial part of this new information so that all students can get to the same level of understanding. While some of this will happen by means of a lecture based on a textbook with a high degree of student involvement, there will also be room for in-class discussions, critical reaction papers, and group projects and presentations. That way, students learn to compare their established views and experiences with new information and critically reflect on the validity and consequences of both. Furthermore, mid-term exams with essay portions and a final paper will help the students hone their academic writing skills.
For higher-level courses, I rely mostly on scholarly articles and monographs with a flipped classroom design. Each session features a student discussant who provides a short presentation featuring the five main takeaways of the assigned reading. Afterward, they will guide class discussion based on their own and previously submitted questions from everyone. My responsibility lies in keeping the debates on track, summarizing the points we made, and putting them into the larger order of things at the end of class.
Some of the tools that allow me to verify whether my students have achieved my goal of critically reflecting are bi-weekly memos, “Region Reports”, essays, and reaction papers. Bi-weekly memos have students assigned to a specific country of their choosing. Students are to keep up to date with news that is specific to their selected countries and provide a written memo every other week. The regular updates ensure that students deepen their understanding of other countries and also learn that the topics and theories we discuss in class are not unique to just one state or region. “Region Reports” are based on groups of students and a global region they pick beforehand. The members of the groups will coordinate with each other to capture current news and trends in their region and present them every class period in a short but succinct manner (less than one minute). Moreover, essays, in the form of a midterm and final exam, enable the students to deeper reflect and analyze the core concepts presented in my class. By having the students write out their thoughts, I can assess each of them individually and in great detail. Furthermore, my upper-level classes feature a main research project component. It is broken down into several parts (i.e., research topic suggestions, annotated bibliography, presentation, and research paper), which allow me to track student progress and help them navigate difficulties while also allowing them to conduct their own research.
To help me determine whether my teaching achieves my set goals, I rely on indirect feedback in the form of memos and essays, more direct input in the form of classroom discussions, and “1-Minute-Feedback-Papers”. Discussions are the quickest and most natural way of gauging whether students critically reflect on class content. They are either based on the theme of the current lecture, newspaper and research articles, survey results, or online content. In the past, I had good experiences with statistics, articles, and videos on how the United States is viewed abroad. Realizing that not everyone outside of the United States perceives the country the same way as its citizens do always left students wondering why this was the case. The resulting discussions set out to make sense of these differences and tried to grasp the implications for foreign policy. Additionally, having students watch short videos on legislative etiquette in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Kosovo, showed them the political behaviors they have been taking for granted are quite different from the rest of the world. Discussions then ensued on what that meant for the U.S. and for other countries. Likewise, a comparison of American and German Civil-Military Relations based on survey results (e.g., trust in institutions) and recruitment campaigns (e.g., videos) left everyone surprised at how different institutions and the military can be perceived in other countries. Lastly, letting students use my translations to access the “Wahl-o-Mat 2017”, a voting-advice app for the German Federal Elections in 2017 that matches users with German parties based on their responses to political statements, always led to surprised faces. These reactions sometimes turned to shock and lengthy debates when “proud conservatives or liberals” suddenly found themselves matched with a party on the other side of the German political spectrum. “1-Minute-Feedback-Papers” is an ungraded approach in which students anonymously answer two to three questions at the end of each major topic on a piece of scrap paper. I will collect these answers and evaluate whether they understood what I was trying to teach them. Furthermore, a summative assessment of my teaching abilities will be delivered in the form of end-of-the-year evaluations. Scoring well on those tests puts me in the situation of providing good learning experiences for my students.
Lastly, critical reflection skills can only thrive if there is a steady input of new information. That is why I regularly attend workshops on teaching and learning, both at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Tulane University. The reasons are simple: only when the instructor knows how to reflect critically can s/he be an instigator of critical reflection for the students.