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Changes in politics have influenced K-State's political science teaching methods

By Chloe Bos


Over the years, transformations in American and world politics have sparked changes in the political science teaching methods and courses taught at Kansas State University.

K-State's political science department is marking its 40th anniversary in 2005.

The 1960s delivered social change and unrest in America and the university became more diverse. The Vietnam War encouraged student activism on campus, said William Richter, K-State professor of political science.

"In the spring of 1969, I taught a class, revolution in the university, and the class was 'liberated' by students who just walked in, took over the class and started teaching and challenging ideas," Richter said.

Political science is a major that focuses on the function of government in a society. Topics studied range from public opinion, elections and interest groups to comparative government, international relations, political philosophy, constitutional law and public administration.

This major familiarizes students with the political aspects of society and encourages them to develop a critical and imaginative perspective on public issues. The K-State political science program provides a foundation for a liberal education, including the intellectual skills of critical analysis, writing and discussion. The major also emphasizes the importance of continuing involvement in political activity and public affairs.

In the 1970s, a student suggested that a practical politics course be created, Richter said. The practical political science course allows students to participate in campaigns outside the classroom. The course teaches strategies and techniques of running for office, mobilizing community resources, direct action lobbying and other related practical aspects of local level citizen politics. The practical element in political science helps students learn today, Richter said.

"The emphasis today is more on learning than on teaching; it is what the student gets out of it that counts," he said. "It has been very beneficial to move toward experiential learning."

Today's courses examine the theory and science of politics and deliver skills to students to help them apply knowledge toward their future career choices. Political science majors are required to complete introductory courses in political thought, U.S. politics, world politics and comparative politics. Students also must complete method courses, such as political inquiry and analysis, which teaches students underlying principles and techniques in the conduct of political science research. Advanced courses include American government and politics, international relations, current political issues, public policy, political parties and campaigns and gender and politics, as well as many others.

Through the years, students have been able to gain more outside learning experiences and academic credit by studying abroad, serving an internship or participating in K-State's community service program. Study abroad opportunities are available for summer, one semester or a full year. Students can serve internships in city, county, state, national or international governments and organizations. Many political science students pursue internships in Topeka and Washington, D.C., Richter said.

Recent changes in the election process in American politics have created changes at K-State, Richter said. "In the past few years, American politics, especially in election years, have become nastier. One reason for this change can be attributed to the simple fact that nastiness works. However, it produces harmful effects on the system," he said.

Another reason for the incivility is that some prominent issues are less subject to compromise, Richter said. Changes in the media and the growth and diversity of the media no longer obligate reporters to present balanced views, he said.

One of the changes at K-State was the creation of the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy. This is an interdisciplinary institute with faculty from different departments, including political science. The institute directly addresses issues raised by incivility and attempts to reduce the level of incivility in both American and world discourse, Richter said.

The political science department also has developed and approved new programs and certificates to adapt to the changes in world politics through the years.

A master of public administration program was developed in the 1970s to offer professional training for government careers in public service. Recently, this program has expanded to include not-for-profit work. An international service certificate was offered to students in the master of arts program beginning in the 1990s. This certificate prepares students for a career in a wide variety of fields of international service.

Today, the political science department continues to expand its offerings. A joint political science and history securities studies program is being approved that explores the issues of terrorism, which are prevalent in today's world. Richter believes this program will draw heavily on the strengths of the department.

Richter said K-State benefits from very positive, interdisciplinary communication and cooperation of common interests and programs between different departments on campus.

The political science department benefits in a number of interdisciplinary curricula and activities.

"The cross fertilization of ideas is highly valuable to faculty research and especially beneficial to students," Richter said.

In most cases, the requirements for interdisciplinary programs or secondary majors also fulfill college or political science department requirements, which make it possible for students to complete a major and secondary major within the required 124 hours for graduation. Interdisciplinary options include international studies, women's studies, American ethnic studies and gerontology.

Political science majors are equipped with educational experiences that prepare students for a variety of careers in fields including public service, business, teaching, research, journalism, public relations and administration, Richter said.


Winter 2005