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.