I reflected recently on my first solo teaching gig: a mid-level course (with 170+ students) I offered as a grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003, now 15 years ago. The course was called “American Politics and Government,” and it was basically an Intro to American Government class for upperclassmen, mostly non-majors. The syllabus is here. I was plucky enough to avoid using a textbook, though I now use one whenever I teach Intro.
The course was fun to teach. But I also learned a valuable lesson in the intersection of real world politics and campus activism. I was quoted in the Washington Post in March 2003 in an article about campus protests around the start of the Iraq War. The quote was:
Those who missed Michael Franz’s political science class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison were told they would fail a scheduled midterm. As many as 2,000 people — including hundreds of high school students — attended the antiwar rally there. Provost Peter Spear said it was the largest rally since the Vietnam War. But Franz said failing the test was a lesson for those who skipped. “I think I was doing them a favor, because I gave them consequences for their actions,” he said. “I said I absolutely would respect their decision to miss class, but I didn’t think it was my place to comment about the issue in a class on American politics.”
Uggh. Two problems:
“I think I was doing them a favor.” Nope, I don’t think that. What I meant was that students were faced with an important life lesson around trade-0ffs. Some students asked that I move the midterm. But the anti-war protest was a billed as a walkout of class. So if students really want to stage a walkout, they should consider the consequences of missing a class. In my case, the exam was scheduled for that day, and so missing the class means missing the exam. I’m not doing them any favors in taking that stand. But I am making the choice consequential.
“I didn’t think it was my place to comment about the issue in a class on American politics.” Umm, just replace “comment about” with “take a stand on,” and I think it’s more appropriate. I don’t think it’s right for me to be anti-war or pro-war in class. I do think it’s important to comment on the issue.
I’ve learned a lot about thinking before speaking, and this was a crash course for sure. All told, it was a fun semester, certainly a lively one given the start of the war. It was also the kick-off to my career as a teacher!!