Opinion | Columns

The makings of a political science major

A major in political science should be a research-oriented degree that trains students to analyze complex political and social issues in a precise way. Sadly, the Department of Political Science rarely provides such an education. The recently announced distribution requirement in research methods is at best a band-aid solution.

Political Science could be the most stimulating program at Columbia College, unique in how it trains both the left and right brain and in providing tangible skills and experience, all the while continuing to expose students to the classic debates about what makes society, democracy, and the nation tick. While the department has a fantastic faculty, the structure of the major does a disservice to undergraduates.

Two issues weaken the program and make it easy to coast through: Students can avoid doing serious research until their required senior seminars and the department does a poor job of instructing in the science of political science.

The lack of research and skills training is the worst offense. Students shouldn’t be left on their own to construct a rigorous program. It doesn’t make sense that graduate students conduct research while undergraduates mostly read 25-page articles and repeat their arguments on a test. Since the discipline is research-based and often quantitative, the department must balance teaching undergraduates foundational arguments with developing analytical skills and research experience.

Requiring methods classes and more research in the middle-level courses can foster research skills and develop experience. The exposure to calculus and linear algebra essential to research—and applying to graduate school—should be developed at the undergraduate level. A one- or two-semester course in applied mathematics would provide the essential skills in a forum accessible to those potentially leery of math. This would in turn prepare students to take one to three semesters of linear regression statistics and game theory, key tools in modern political science. The quantitative courses should be supplemented with a qualitative research methods class where students would learn the basics of ethnography, elite-interviews, and case study selection.

What about students who aren’t interested in the quantitative skills? Students exclusively interested in political theory and in qualitative research would merely be confronting the discipline in its modern, more quantitative form. If a handful of quantitative classes tailored to “right brainers” seems unappealing, some students might be happier in other disciplines that examine politics in a purely qualitative way. Students eager for a yet more quantitative experience could get their foundational math and statistics exposure in those departments. Students who fall in the middle of the “quant” and “qual” spectrum—as most likely do—would only be required to take the handful of quantitative political science courses and would then be free to focus on qualitative work. In the very least, these middle ground students would be able to evaluate the quantitative scholarship that is unavoidable in political science.

Methods classes, while necessary, are no substitute for actually doing research. Too often in lectures and seminars, “research” involves responding to readings or piecing together scholars’ works. While both are useful, the collection and interpretation of data ought to be central to the major. Courses exposing students to the foundational literature are necessary, but applying the lessons of the literature to new research is the whole point of the discipline. Setting prerequisites for middle-level courses would ensure students’ exposure to the necessary literature, which would allow majors to engage in in-depth research of their own between their introductory courses and capstone seminars.

This lack of research training is compounded by the department’s broader failure to instill a scientific ethos in students. This issue touches a deeper debate and is one that the department should take a stand on: The social sciences must embrace a falsifiable empiricism and seek to employ the scientific method to messy, real world realities. While a focus on methods and research should be equivalent to the laboratory experiences of “hard science” programs, the department must also create a philosophy of political science course. This would require students to wrestle with what it means to try to establish “facts” about the political and social world, if this can even be done, and what the best ways are to do it.

Without these skills and research focus, the program is easy to coast through. If students aren’t developing the skills necessary to evaluate research methodology, they are merely memorizing scholars’ conclusions. It is well known that you can just read the paragraph-long abstracts of the assigned articles and get an A or B in most courses. Sometimes exam questions reach beyond the abstracts, but this is a hollow challenge and not why students come to Columbia.

Fixing these problems demands a total overhaul. Part of the problem is squeezing too much into only 29 credits; the major requires fewer credits than both the minors in sociology and economics. A far better program would be the current 29 credits, with more prerequisites for middle-level courses, plus a research core of one to two applied-math courses, one to three quantitative methods courses, one course in qualitative methods, and one course in the philosophy of political science. In turn, this would likely reduce the number of students in the major sufficiently to allow for real research to be assigned in middle-level courses.

These substantial changes would drive some students to other departments, but it would allow political science to be a program that enriches students with real skills, practical research experience, and a proper foundation in the discipline. As the undergraduate program stands now, it fails to push students’ minds, teach them the needed analytical skills, and train them to deeply engage with the problems of the contemporary political world.

Alex Merchant is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Hispanic studies. Atomized to the Core runs alternate Thursdays.

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Anonymous posted on

Wonderful column, Alex. As a current graduate student (and recent graduate of the CC undergrad curriculum), just about everything in here is spot on.

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Anonymous posted on

The program you're talking about exists--it's a joint program in Political Science and Statistics, which includes almost all of the same requirements as the Political Science major as well as a requirements in Computer Science (Intro to Java), Math (Calculus and Linear Algebra), Statistics (Intro, Probability, and Statistical Inference), and at least two quantitative Political Science courses (4910 and 4911, which are basically econometrics for the social sciences). It's stated purpose is to prepare students for graduate school. You can read about it here: http://statistics.columbia.edu... or on the Political Science Department's website.

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Alex Merchant posted on

Hello guest, thanks for commenting! I appreciate it. I think what you are saying actually isn't quite right. If you read the long comment I just left you will see what I mean.

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Anonymous posted on

This is not just restricted to political science but is a problem with pretty much all social science majors at Columbia. No major really prepares you for the type of research one would do in graduate school. Someone with a basic Columbia economics degree (maybe not econ-math or econ-stat) would be laughed out of any economics graduate program due to their lack of math background. All psychology students should be required to take at least one computer science course if they ever plan on doing actual research. The lack of prereqs in upper-level classes really diminishes the quality. I'm sure these improvements could be extended to other social sciences and maybe even all majors at Columbia

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Alex Merchant posted on

This being my first time around writing a column and wrestling with a pretty tight word limit, I now see how I could have been clearer. I posted this on my Facebook and a number of friends commented with questions and concerns. I’ll try to address those and the ones left in the comments here all in one fell swoop.

First and foremost, my big complaint is that the political science major isn’t stimulating. I think this results from the fact that students mostly just wind up doing a ton of reading and then regurgitating tiny pieces of that on an exam, in the worst case scenario on a multiple choice section. While some of this has to happen—because you have to learn the main debates and big theorists—spending 7/9 classes (essentially everything but the two-required senior seminars) doing so isn’t satisfying nor a good development of critical thinking skills.

I think this happens for two big reasons: large lectures and the fact that students don’t have the skills to evaluate the arguments on their methodological grounds. My proposed program seeks to fix these two issues by (1) teaching students to do research and (2) reducing the size of the program enough to actually allow more real research to happen in middle-level courses.

I think my proposed program does this by pointedly trying not to be the default place for pre-law students. Now, I am not saying I think everyone should be a political scientist. I am saying that the quantity of students in the program now probably forces the department to have big lectures and that this results in an intellectually disappointing program. The goal is to create a more stimulating program where students develop more critical thinking skills. Yes, some political science majors do this on their own by picking the right courses and taking extra seminars. But the quality of the education that the modal student receives is sub-par in my view. I think ditching this idea that we have to make room for the pre-law students will actually provide students interested in any field—including the law!—the opportunity to get a more interesting and helpful education. Finally, if pre-law students need a “home,” then the University should make them one of their own, that really teaches them the history, origins, and functioning of the law and U.S. legal system. The University of Chicago has a program just like this called Law, Letters, and Society (see: http://bit.ly/TrPX3n) that Columbia could wholly rip off.

So is my goal is to kick the pre-law kids out with math? No it isn’t. Also, some people brought up the major in political science-statistics. My proposed program is actually quite different than that (both in aim and coursework), although, yes, part of my suggestion is adding a quantitative element to the current political science major. First, the goal isn’t to “quant it up” for its own sake. Political science as a discipline uses a lot of statistics and other methods that require some math. To me, it doesn’t make sense that this part of the discipline isn’t taught. It is like the undergraduate major is stuck in the ’60s and ’70s, before quantitative political science became dominant. I think if the discipline is in part quantitative, then undergraduates should learn some math and quantitative methods. If they don’t want to, then they aren’t interested in political science (as it now exists). Plus, a little math isn’t the end of the world—most colleges require at least some math; Columbia College is near unique in not doing so.

However, I also recognize that most political science majors aren’t math people. That is how this program is different than the major in political science-statistics that already exists. In that program, you take Calc I, Calc II, and Linear Algebra in the Mathematics Department, four courses in the Statistics Department, a course in the Computer Science Department, AND 4910 and 4911 in the Political Science department. That is far too many quant classes full of math loving students for most political science majors. The goal of my “applied math classes” would be to create one to two math classes that focused on the calculus and linear algebra needed for later courses in quantitative methods within the department. The Political Science Department already has a course like this for graduate students that could be brought down to the undergraduate level and expanded. Ideally, a real teacher from the department would teach these—not a researcher who can’t relate to students who math doesn’t come to naturally. If someone in the department weren’t available to do a course like this, finding an adjunct that could do it wouldn’t be too challenging. The result would be that students would learn enough math to be able to succeeded in later methods classes and to be able to read research that used quantitative methods.

Also, I want to point out that methods aren’t just quantitative. While qualitative methods can be more easily picked up in classes that aren’t exclusively dedicated to teaching them, one course in qualitative methods should be a requirement as well. This is for the same reason the quantitative stuff should be a requirement: it is an important thing in the discipline. Thus you should learn it if you claim to have studied it.

Methods classes are good intellectual training unto themselves, but they also would make the rest of the program much richer. Students would arrive to their middle-level courses and seminars with a foundation that allowed them to really interrogate arguments and also do some substantive research themselves. Ditto about the philosophy of political science class: the debate about if you can even do “real” science in the social sciences is fascinating unto itself but one that is central to keep in mind when doing empirical work in the messy world of social phenomena and politics.

The result of my suggested changes would hopefully be that (1) more research and meaningful work would happen in middle-level classes, (2) students would have a good foundation in the discipline they claim to have studied, and (3) the overall quality of an education provided by a political science major would improve.

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disquo404 posted on

Some things to consider in this debate: 1) Why do all (including pre-law) students need research training? 2) Would they agree or would they leave the major? 3) Would we want them to leave - we being the department and the university? 4) Why don't we look at the costs of providing that training? 5) Why are political science / government faculty the right ones to provide that training?

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disquo404 posted on

After reading Alex's post right below, I can also add that the university will likely oppose a pre-law major, just as they oppose undergraduate business and finance -- the economics department took a long time to create the financial economics major, and there were fights over even offering the accounting and finance course. It's not clear whether the political science department can just "kick out" the pre-law kids, expecting the university to pick up the pieces with a new major.

I'm not saying this is a good or bad thing (that's a whole different debate) but just that the department's hands may be tied to some extent.

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Anonymous posted on

The political science major - while it has been an interesting, challenging, and worthwhile course of study for me personally - should have at least some of the reforms that Alex presented in this article. I know that I am not prepared to research and write a thesis in my senior year and that I am therefore even more handicapped to do post-graduate work in the field. I found that many of my TAs for political science classes were themselves unequipped to handle even softball questions about the field and their work in it. The major should provide a base for political study and for research. It's true that not everyone who is a political science major will be conducting studies for years in post-graduate programs - I'm certainly not. But having that research background is an important stepping stone regardless and should be an important aspect of our education. Political science should be treated more like a science and less like a general introduction into political and social systems.

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Anonymous posted on

As a political science major not currently planning to attend graduate school, I can still fully agree with Alex's proposal. A sharper, more analytical mind is both intellectually and practically sound, no matter the career one would wish to enter.

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Anonymous posted on

I entirely agree. You mention only in passing the fact that Columbia's faculty is teaching political science as it existed in the 60s (although you do bring this out explicitly in your comment below the article) and if anything I think that is the root problem here, as a number of my TAs have made similar points.

The lack of research emphasis is not just a problem of the political science department: in my own area of primary focus (History) the same deficiency persists. Looking at one or two primary sources reprinted in easily accessible volumes which require no more effort than a CLIO search simply isn't sufficiently developing research techniques which are so essential to the academic endeavour.

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Anonymous posted on

As someone not familiar with the specific program at Columbia, but quite familiar with other Political Science/ Politics/ Government programs in U.S. universities, I'd like to question the underlying assumption that providing quantitative skills above all else can provide students with critical thinking skills. While it can certainly be ONE of many methods that students engage, there is nothing about quantitative skills or approaches in themselves that would foster critical thinking.
Critical thinking can only be taught/ emerge through exposure to a variety of perspectives and approaches, through careful consideration of all alternatives, and constant reflection on one's own relationship to them (and examination of one's reasons for reacting in one or another way - one's politics!).
As such, IF THE AIM IS TO TEACH/ LEARN CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS, it is my contention that what is wrong with the program at Columbia is its over-reliance on lectures (and introductory ones at that, looking at the requirements above). This would support what you say in your comment below "that the quantity of students in the program now probably forces the
department to have big lectures and that this results in an
intellectually disappointing program," but lead to a different conclusion: demand smaller classes where dialogue and student research are the norm.

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