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What Are the Formal Learning Goals of the Politics Major?

Aristotle wrote that politics is both the most comprehensive and most ennobling of disciplines. It is the most comprehensive because it contemplates with the basic questions of power, conflict, and structure that underlie all human experience; it is the most ennobling because it points us toward the highest ends of human life, including equality, freedom and justice.

In practice, politics is the art and the rough-and tumble of diverse persons attempting to live together in civil society. In a world characterized by uncertainty, scarcity, conflict and power relationships, politics enables us to make collective choices by debate and negotiation rather than brute force. As an academic discipline, politics is equally challenging and provocative. It demands that we grapple with fundamental questions: How are we to act as citizens? How do our public institutions, and those in other countries, actually function? What values inform, or should inform, public policies? What forces motivate or impede change

At Pomona, the Politics Department is organized around four subfields:

Political Theory, American Politics, Comparative Politics, and International Relations. We encourage our students to take a pluralistic approach to their studies, to take courses in each subfield, and to look at politics from a variety of angles, methods, and perspectives. In addition, we strongly encourage in-depth exploration in at least one area of the field of politics.

Upon graduating from the department our students should have attained: a college-level understanding of the rudiments of American government; a respectable understanding of the politics of at least one country/region outside the United States; a working familiarity with various social science methodologies common to the field of political science, including political theory and some quantitative methods; writing and speaking skills worthy of graduates of a premier liberal arts college.

These goals have been defined by the department as a whole, through past practice and through specific department retreats where we have considered our curriculum in its entirety and complementarities, the latest of which took place in the spring of 2008, thanks to a generous curriculum development grant from the College.

Formally, these learning goals are embodied in the requirements of the degree. These are:

  • Eight general courses, including one course from each of the four subfields and no more than four introductory courses;
  • A senior seminar in "Contemporary Politics and Theory" or in "Comparative and International Politics;"
  • A senior oral examination, based on a list of books supplied by the student and covering three topics chosen by the student, taken in the senior year (on which more below).

In addition, students desiring greater depth in a particular area of politics may elect to take a Subfield Specialization, which is a coherent collection of five courses, comprising three of the nine required courses and two additional ones, in one of the four subfields. Students are also eligible to write a two-semester senior thesis.

These requirements guarantee that students obtain exposure in all four subfields. By requiring a certain number of introductory classes, the department highlights the need for foundational knowledge in order for majors to more fully benefit from more advanced classes. While many advanced classes do not require the intro classes as prerequisites, Politics majors will have taken them and will develop a fuller, more coherent and vertically integrated knowledge of political systems and theory.

How Are Learning Goals Communicated to Politics Majors?

While some Politics faculty might explicitly write on their syllabi the learning goals of their courses, this is not a universal practice in the Department, and the Department does not impose any such requirement to its faculty. To a large extent, we do not typically write narrowly-defined learning goals because the material may not lend itself to it or it is so obvious as to not be necessary or so broad as to be impractical. For example, in a class on the "Politics of Latin America," students can expect to learn about the government, politics, parties, institutions, foreign policy and social movements of Latin American countries. For such a class (as many other ones in the Department), listing detailed learning goals, country by country, would add very little insight for the students while significantly distracting the instructor from the actual task of instructing. In most cases, a cursory look at the syllabus will fully reveal to the student the scope and objectives of the course. In other instances, the questions dealt with by the discipline are so broad and complex, and human knowledge so limited, that mere humility requires us not to present the students with unreasonable learning goals. In the course on "Political Economy of Development," for example, students are warned against unreasonable expectations:

Why are some countries rich and some poor? The short answer is: we do not know. ... in this class, ...we focus on the political, social and institutional determinants of development, addressing mostly recent theories and empirical work, and reviewing older theories to the extent that they inform current knowledge. We still do not end up answering the question of what explains the distribution of wealth and poverty around the world, but I think we get closer.

Similarly, in the course "US Foreign Policy," the syllabus announces that "This course will focus mainly on the U.S. attempt to define its global role and interests in the post Cold War era, and the Bush 43 administration's stated intention of redefining the scope and direction of the American role in a changing world."

In other cases, some very course objectives will be defined more as modes of thought than skills or objectives per se, such as "thinking politically, thinking holistically, thinking developmentally," etc. The broad and humanly central questions addressed by politics-and thus, in a more pedestrian way, the "learning objectives" of the discipline-are explained to out students on the Politics web site, which partially reads:

As one of the ancient disciplines, politics is about how people grapple with fundamental questions of freedom, order, and equality, about the nature of justice, and about legitimacy, community, individualism. Politics asks such questions as: How are we to act as citizens? How do our public institutions, and those in other countries, function? What is the nature and practice of citizenship? What values inform, or should inform, public policies? How does political change occur? Since the study of politics is characterized by disciplinary fragmentation, political scientists employ a variety of perspectives and methods in their work. Much of this disciplinary variety is available at Pomona College, where politics may be addressed through the study of values, institutions, processes, or behavior, and where literary and historical methods coexist with quantitative approaches

The web site and catalogs then inform the students of the formal requirements of the degree. Numerous Department meetings and consultations over the years, often in conjunction with new recruitments or department retreats, have ensured that the class offerings of the department contribute to exposing the students to the above-mentioned variety of the field and the complexity of the questions it asks. Because Politics is not a professional or vocations field, students cannot be informed of any more specific learning goals.

Nevertheless, advisement and a required meeting with the Department chair upon declaring the major guarantees that the students understand the nature of the major and the education they can gain from it. In addition, no later than at the beginning of their senior year (when it is required-it is optional before that), students are notified of the procedures of the senior oral examination, the major's capstone exercise. Despite all this, it must be stressed that students can have diverse learning goals upon entering the major. Politics, the quintessential liberal arts major, can accommodate a wide variety of educational goals.

How Does the Politics Department Assess whether its Learning Goals Have Been Achieved?

What are the instruments the Politics Department uses to measure that our learning goals have been achieved? To a large extent, grading of student performance in classes is a well established and robust measure of learning outcomes. We would not allocate so much time assigning (and grading!) term papers, homework, mid-term and final exams, if we did not think they allowed us to measure the extent of learning taking place in our classes. In this respect,

  1. Exposure in all four subfields is assessed by reviewing students' transcripts to confirm that they have taken the necessary classes. Students are in constant dialogue with their advisors in the Department and are thus encouraged to expose themselves to the four subfields early on.
  2. Similarly, exposure to more advanced mid-level and upper-division courses in the major, as well as the required comparative politics and international relations courses, is measured by performance in the appropriate courses.

In addition to course-specific knowledge, the Politics Department has an original assessment tool of the student's progress and learning as a Politics major over the four-year. The Politics Department requires majors to pass a senior oral examination. The exam is based on a list of twelve books of the student's choice. Students divide the books into three groups, each of which corresponds to its own theme, but there should be some overarching rationale behind the entire list. For each book, the student writes a one-page summary. The whole list is preceded by a one-page statement explaining the integrity and purpose of the list. Under each topic, the student lists four books (or significant articles, historical documents, or legal cases). The topics demonstrate depth and breadth and must be approved and signed by a department faculty member before being submitted. Such approval follows discussions and intellectual exchange between faculty and the students, which provide both an additional opportunity for intellectual growth for the students and a tool of assessment of the student's maturity as a Politics major for the faculty. The exam is a chance for the student to show what she has thought about and learned as a Politics major. Each exam lasts between 45 minutes and one hour and is conducted by two members of the Politics faculty. At the close of the exam, the examiners will have a short conference in which they assess the quality of the student's performance (more on which below) and decide to award one of four marks: High Pass, Pass, Low Pass, or No Pass.

What is the faculty assessment of the orals based on? There is no single answer. Since every book list is unique, the student in effect sets the terms of the discussion, and thus the dynamics of every exam are different. But here are a few things faculty members ask themselves in evaluating an examination:

  1. How challenging - broad-ranging, integrative, rigorous, and detailed - are the books on the list? Do the texts represent a variety of perspectives on an issue or are they all selected because they conform with the student's view?
  2. How engaged is the student with the issues and texts on the list? Is the student in command of the texts and the issues they raise? Can he/she move beyond a set of "book reports" to some more general view of the topic?
  3. Can the student show a thorough understanding of the texts and present his/her own interpretation or critique? Is the student thoughtful about these texts? Can he/she create a conversation among them?
  4. Can the student respond to questions and think on his/her feet? Is the student able to respond to counterarguments to his/her positions?

Our orals requirement forces students to take individual ownership of a particular area of politics, and the requirements and the formal advising system for that exercise (advising clinics, sponsor discussions, list submissions, written overview, sign-off signature) hold students accountable to this end.

Our means of assessment are (1) the discussion between the examiners at the conclusion of the exam, (2) the subsequent discussion with the student, and (3) the subsequent discussion in the department to take stock of the exercise as a whole and make adjustments. We should also note that the exam is an exit interview, since we ask students at the end how the major worked for them.

Methods are also an important part of the Politics curriculum. Yet, as diverse as the discipline is in terms of focus, it also embodies a wide variety of research methods which largely contribute to its intellectual wealth. The college General Education requirements mandate that students take a course in statistical methods. As a result, the Politics department does not require Politics 90 (Statistics for Politics and International Relations) of its majors. About half of our graduates take that course to fulfill that requirement, however. But, in general, many, if not most of our courses embed quantitative and other methods as part and parcel of their course materials. As a result, our students are not only exposed to content but also to the multiple methodologies of the social sciences. Knowledge in methods is assessed by performance in the quantitative class of the student's choice, as well as through reading, correcting and editing of their papers and theses. Moreover, our senior seminar requirement, coupled with our mandatory senior orals exercise, ensures that our students will receive ample formal opportunities for developing their speaking skills. In short, our requirements tightly reflect and reinforce our goals-so the success rate among graduating seniors with passing grades in all classes has to be 100%. Any and every graduate must fulfill all of the basic requirements. We now have in place formal options for more concentrated and rigorous subfield exploration, and we will try to track future changes in the overall major as those changes are grandfathered into our curriculum.

Academic Dean