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The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses


January 7, 2013

LATE UPDATE: PTJ blogs about undergrad education from a very different starting point.

A few months back, we had a lively debate about what to teach undergraduates in political science. As I prepare to motivate 20 undergraduates to learn elementary statistical analysis tools AND basic R skills, I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot. I think that we both should aim to teach political science to undergraduates–that is, the skills and methodologies that are necessary for understanding research published in, say, the APSR of the 1980s—and also that we should think hard about what employable skills our students should leave with.

I submit that, up to a point, research methodologies and employable skills are pretty well the same thing.

Here’s some crass, utterly unscientific, and in-your-face data to support this point.

This figure (slightly easier to view PDF version here) draws on data from Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute and reflects my impression of plausible alternative careers for the students I’ll be teaching. (This ranges from the ministry to math/computer science–extremes that, at least at Georgetown, carry a vow of chastity.) Across this range, political science does fairly well on both percent employed full time and median wage. What I find striking, though, is that the more “mathy” a subject is, the better its graduates tend to score on both measures.

For students in my seminar, this will become my warrant to expect them to become pretty good at certain types of skills. (In conversations with folks at other institutions, I’ve been assured that undergrads are more eager and willing these skills on average than Ph.D. students, which sounds about right.) For the broader discipline, I think this sort of evidence can be used to justify including more analytical training in our major programs.

I fully agree with the commenters who say that writing and rhetorical skills are important, but frankly I don’t think teachers in the discipline have much room to improve on those scores. (For our best students, are we going to require two honors theses?) But we do, I think, have a lot of room to increase the statistical fluency and computer-assisted analytical skills of our graduates. Doing so will not only allow them to understand what, exactly, (most of) us do all day in our mysterious “research” but also to find some fairly stable employment after they leave. (Ph.D. students in political science may have a vocation, but it’s not fair to assume the same of B.A. students.)

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