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Fresh take

Political scientists combine traditional supervision with group interaction

Teaching and Learning

By Janet Harron

Writing a thesis or a research project is a tangible expression of intellectual curiosity, a product of time and dedication, and hard work.

And for both undergraduate and graduate students, it’s a process they are often confused and intimidated by.

To help their students navigate the process, members of Memorial’s Department of Political Science, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, are combining traditional supervision with group interaction, allowing students to help each other figure out how to conduct research, ask questions, and give each other advice and feedback.

“Students often think, ‘I’m a fraud’ or are the only person who can’t come up with a research question,” said Dr. Isabelle Côté, an assistant professor in the department.

“Realizing that everyone else around that table is facing the same problem helps students breathe. Students begin to understand that developing a research project is an iterative task and might take several attempts.”

‘Hidden curriculum’

As part of this fresh take to supervision, Dr. Côté, along with Drs. Amanda Bittner and Sarah Martin, are also encouraging students to explore opportunities such as co-authoring articles and papers, presenting and acting as chairs at conferences, applying for grants and scholarships — activities that students might not think about doing on their own.

“Think of it as a hidden curriculum,” said Dr. Martin, an assistant professor in the department. “It’s a way of showing students the unseen labour behind research. For example, they often don’t know that an article can take four to five years to write and get published.”

Dr. Martin believes it is empowering to have these difficult conversations in a group setting, where students can grapple with the challenges together, rather than repeating the information in multiple one-on-one situations.

“I have a lot of Kleenex in my office for my students. A lot of my male colleagues don’t need it.” — Dr. Amanda Bittner

The group convened by Dr. Martin, coined interdisciplinary political economy group, or IPEG, includes undergraduate and graduate students from political science as well as faculty members from the departments of anthropology and geography. Students benefit by receiving supervision from faculty in different disciplines and by seeing how faculty interact and critique each other.

Check-ins are a fundamental part of how the groups operate.

“We discuss the challenges that both faculty and students have,” Dr. Martin said. “This could include anything from the challenges of course work to what do to about a sick kid at home. Exploring all of these different aspects creates personal connections that are remarkably important.”

‘Culture of care’

All three professors agree that these methods help to push back against the isolation many students feel. This “culture of care” helps students with the multiple challenges they face at university, they say.

Of course, that raises questions about care work and the different ways faculty members deal with that particular aspect of their professional obligations while focusing on academic work.

“I have a lot of Kleenex in my office for my students. A lot of my male colleagues don’t need it,” said Dr. Bittner, an associate professor in the department.

“Just brought in two new boxes,” Dr. Martin added with a smile.

Political science faculty members Drs. Sarah Martin, Amanda Bittner and Isabelle Côté have stocked up on Kleenex for their students’ at times emotional journey.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Experienced and supportive

Dr. Bittner imported a model from the world of science for her group, she says.

“Scientists do these things – they work together and hang out in labs. But our folks in political science don’t have the physical space to do that, so we book classrooms.”

One of the things Dr. Bittner makes a point of doing is to share her early Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant applications with students to help them from making the same mistakes she did early in her academic career.

“When I was an undergrad at the University of Toronto, I didn’t have many friends in political science. It was a very competitive environment, which I don’t think was healthy, as folks were hiding library books on one another and generally working at odds [with each other],” she said, adding that her own students support and help each other accomplish their goals.

“It has shown me that everyone, regardless of where they are in their academic career, experiences struggles and successes along the way.” — Brooke Steinhauer

Student Brooke Steinhauer, who is in her final year of an honours political science undergraduate degree, agrees.

“Through the gender and politics lab, my fellow members and I can discuss our individual research and collaborate on different group projects. All of the members, as well as Dr. Bittner, are incredibly supportive and are willing to help however, and whenever, they can,” Ms. Steinhauer said.

“Not only has being a member of the lab helped me develop my research skills, it has also shown me that everyone, regardless of where they are in their academic career, experiences struggles and successes along the way, which has helped me as I have progressed in my studies.”

In addition to modelling academic work, the faculty members also show students what collegiality and collaboration look like, giving them a point of reference for their own future professional lives, whether inside or outside academia.

“I tell colleagues who are interested in importing the social science lab model into their own institutions that that this isn’t going to reduce your workload, but you’re doing happier and more meaningful work on a deeper level,” said Dr. Bittner. “My lab has only been in existence for a year-and-a-half, but it’s already so clear to me how well it works.”

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