Graduate Student Postdoc Spotlight with William O’Brochta from Political Science

The Graduate Student Postdoc Spotlight features interviews with graduate students and postdocs doing innovative teaching work at WashU. Look out for future installments of this monthly column on our website.

“Getting students involved early and showing them what we do in political science creates equity in the classroom and a more collaborative environment for learning,” said William O’Brochta, a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. William was an assistant in instruction for many courses at WashU including “Political Protest and Violence” “Immigration, Identity and the Internet,” and “Introduction to Comparative Politics.”

Last semester, William worked with the Teaching Center to implement a project as part of the Introduction to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) seminar. His project focused on improving research article writing skills in students in an introductory political science course. William implemented his project while teaching an Introduction to Comparative Politics course at WashU over the summer. He recently blogged about his experience on the Teaching Center’s website.

William has B.A. in Politics and Mathematics from Hendrix College. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science where he studies how ethnic representation impacts perceptions of tolerance among both citizens and political leaders in developing democracies.

In an interview with the Teaching Center, William discussed the importance of evaluating student success throughout a course. He also emphasized how using active learning techniques can improve outcomes and help students become more engaged in class.

How did you become interested in political science, and what does your research focus on?

When I was maybe seven or eight, I used to watch The McLaughlin Group on TV. They discuss political issues, and I thought it was interesting because I didn’t know anything about these issues. I lived near D.C. so I thought about going into government and doing policy work. In college, a number of influential professors showed me that teaching was a good career path, so I combined my interests in policy and education by applying to a PhD program. An experience living abroad when I was younger led me to become interested in comparative politics.

In eighth grade I lived in Hungary for six months with my family. I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and traveled around the region helping Roma people get access to government services. I went back to study abroad in college. I was struck by the complexity of the relationships between people from different ethnic groups, and this spurred my interest in political science and comparative politics.

What are your goals in the classroom?

My main goal as a teacher is to help students understand that they’re part of a learning community. This covers inclusion, or having students share diverse perspectives and backgrounds, but it also involves thinking about students as colleagues who can produce similar caliber of work to scholars who have been in the field for many years. I have this philosophy because in many political science classes I’ve taken and observed, there are gaps between what we teach students and what we do as political scientists, which is collecting facts and analyzing data to answer research questions. The discipline has only started to involve students in the research process in the last few decades, and opportunities to get involves tend to be focused on senior capstone experiences.

Getting students involved in producing their own research early and showing them what we do in political science creates equity in the classroom and a more collaborative environment for learning. My philosophy is, if students are learn about and conduct research early in their careers of undergraduates, you improve the quality of disciplinary majors, and you reach students who may not be majors but who will acquire skills to analyze politics in a methodical way.

What are some of the challenges of teaching, and how do you address them?

One of the main challenges I’ve found is communicating to students the exact purpose of activities and why you’re teaching or structuring a course in a certain way. If you don’t spend a lot of time at the beginning of a class explaining the purpose of an activity, students aren’t as invested in completing it or understanding its benefit.

For example, I assign reading journals for every class in every course I teach. Students read a published political science article, write a summary, answer or ask a question, and prepare for discussion. The first time I did this activity, I tried to communicate what we were going to do, and it worked okay in that most students understood the purpose of the assignment and how it prepared them for discussion. The problem was, they had to do the journals every day, so they started seeing them as repetitive. The second time I taught the class, I created journals myself for the first few classes and put them on the Canvas site, so students could see different ways to analyze, reflect, and summarize material. That approach seemed to give students inspiration to approach journals in myriad. Students felt empowered to write their journals, more than the first time when I just asked them to complete the journals without showing them the ways in which they could use journals to maximize their learning. It helped them buy into the value of the assignment.

If you don’t explain to students why you’re doing what you’re doing, and then check in to make sure they’re achieving your goals, they’re divorced from learning. It helps to take those opportunities to stop and make sure the assignment is producing the benefits you think it will. It also helps students not classify assignments or activities as a waste of time or busy work.

What is one of your most important takeaways from working as an assistant instructor in the classroom?

One of the things I think is most important for being an AI is establishing a collaborative relationship with the faculty member you’re assigned to work for. It’s important to be on the same page and to have a similar philosophy for class. In a broader sense, it’s important in teaching to establish a relationship with someone else in the department whom you share a teaching philosophy with. The initial relationship you have with a faculty member can show you how to talk to peers about teaching. If you’re interested in teaching, take the initiative to work with the faculty member to make your position meaningful for you. You can try out teaching techniques and get their feedback.

How have Teaching Center programs or events enriched your teaching?

Halfway through my first year of graduate school, I started taking workshops at the Teaching Center because I thought it would be a good way to get involved. From there, I learned about the Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC) and joined that my second year, and met Dr. Meg Gregory and Dr. Julia Johnson. Both of them have helped me brainstorm ideas and get to know people who are interested in teaching in different disciplines. I took the Course Design Institute and the Introduction to SoTL course, and I participated in the Jump-Start program. Julia and Meg were critical in introducing me to SoTL and showing me how my teaching philosophy related to SoTL research.

Previously, I only thought about teaching in political science, and there’s a very small community that is interested in teaching and does research on it. What I’ve learned is, teaching is a more universal discipline. I can communicate the same types of ideas and strategies to students in other disciplines working on teaching-related projects. That’s been a good aspect of working with the Teaching Center.

You completed a SoTL Project at the Teaching Center. Tell me about the project and how it has impacted your teaching.

The project was designed to see whether and how well students in an introductory political science course could write a research article despite no previous experience. I re-designed an Introduction to Comparative Politics course to teach undergraduate students research article writing skills. I did a pre- and post-test to see if students’ confidence and ability increased as a result of the course. I found that students made significant gains in both areas.

Working on the project showed me that every outcome for student learning can be measured. Instructors shouldn’t worry about not having the best measure or sample size, because any attempt to measure student learning outcomes is productive. You can engage in SoTL research at any level. It’s made me think about different techniques I use to evaluate student success. It can be something as simple as a ticket in or ticket out of class, or asking informal questions. It’s important to be intentional about how you evaluate different activities you are doing in class and how you structure your teaching. You can use that information to make adjustments during or soon after class. The scope with which you can assess different teaching techniques and evaluate them critically is the most important thing SoTL research has taught me.

What advice do you have for graduate students or postdocs who are teaching or considering teaching?

If you’re interested in teaching, get involved with the Teaching Center and take a couple of workshops. From just one workshop, you can get ideas and skills that you can use to implement small activities and make small changes to your teaching. See where you can use the skills you’ve learned and try them out. Work with a faculty member or try to get an AI assignment where you can use these skills, because once you graduate and you’re in a different position, you won’t have as much time to experiment with a diversity of techniques. This is also a good opportunity to collaborate with people from different disciplines and the Teaching Center, and to implement strategies or explore techniques you like to get a more concrete idea of your teaching philosophy. It gives you a starting point for your first position as an instructor.

What are you future teaching aspirations, and how do you plan to achieve them?

I’m hoping to teach another course next summer that I created during the Course Design Institute at the Teaching Center. It brings together community engagement and research article writing. Beyond that, I’m trying to think of ways to blend ideas of comparative politics with topics that are more easily tangible to students. Political science courses that are community engaged tend to be focused on American politics. In order for comparative politics to remain relevant, we need to translate our theories and ideas to settings that are more accessible for students. We can’t always take students on trips to other countries, so we need to find a different way to think about these theories in the context students are living in right now.

What was one of your most influential classes?

I took a class on environmental management in undergrad taught by Dr. Peter Gess that featured the most engaged activities I’d ever seen in a course. Dr. Gess invited state senators to come to the class and act like they were on a legislative panel listening to arguments about a pending hog farm regulation. We portrayed different people involved in the regulation being proposed. My role was to be the guy who ran the hog farm. I had to research not only the individual I portrayed, but also others’ perspectives to see what they were going to say in order to have a response ready, and the policy implications to see how legislators would react. We had a bunch of activities like this, simulations and policy memos. At the time, I thought these were interesting activities, and now I know more about the philosophy behind them. In this case, the idea of researching and portraying someone else to a critical audience is important in student learning. Dr. Gess used these activities as a way to help us master learning outcomes in a new and exciting way.

I’ve done two policy simulations now in different classes I’ve taught. These simulations make students see that policy change is a difficult process. Students get a lot out of these activities. They see that the one policy idea that they developed as a result of their research article gets completely changed at the end of negotiations. Really going through the whole research process and seeing tangible results is empowering for students.

Who are some of your favorite teachers, and why?

I had a trumpet professor in college, Dr. Carole Herrick, who created an academic advising and mentoring program for undergrad students. She taught me that you can create productive relationships between students and professors that make students feel like a part of a discipline. I just stumbled into taking lessons with Dr. Herrick, and even in the lessons, she conveyed that idea of partnership.

I was also involved in conservation for the Boy Scouts, and Dr. Bill Shiner was a retired professor of natural resources with whom I worked. His philosophy was similar to my trumpet professor, in that he was interested in listening to my ideas and working together at an equal level. That’s informed how I teach. I try to foster that kind of relationship with students.

Interview has been condensed and edited.