Teaching Political Science to First-Year University Students: Challenging 'Taxi-Rank Analysis'

By Niven, Penelope | Perspectives in Education, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Teaching Political Science to First-Year University Students: Challenging 'Taxi-Rank Analysis'


Niven, Penelope, Perspectives in Education


Introduction

Students entering universities for the first time encounter the phenomenon of disciplinarity in a much stronger form than they have experienced at school. While they may have been aware of the varying literacy expectations of different school 'subjects' these were probably neither articulated nor understood as significant. Yet the values and practices of different disciplines in universities are widely divergent and many beginner students need help in making sense of these variations. In Humanities faculties, students meet 'new' disciplines (such as Psychology, Philosophy or Political Science) for which they often have only the most reductionist or populist notions. Little in their school experiences can have prepared them for the specialised ways of knowing, thinking or practising that they encounter in disciplines such as these. This paper addresses this issue in relation to Political Science.

I will argue that many novice students' predilection for 'taxi rank analysis' can set up both opportunities and constraints in the induction phases of this particular discipline: it is not an entirely negative student attribute. This paper uses this term metaphorically to represent the kinds of emotive language based in everyday experience that students in the social sciences tend to bring to the study of newly encountered disciplines. The term was coined by one of the Political Science lecturers in this study, and he used it to refer to entrenched, unsubstantiated views about current political issues or events often passionately shared in casual community contexts, such as when travelling in a taxi or waiting at taxi ranks. In South Africa the taxi is the major means of public transport for many working-class people but every social group has its own version of such discourses based, for example, around the pub, the gym, the village pump or the Sunday 'braai'.

As a researcher in the field of Academic Development, I am an 'outsider' in the discipline of Politics but with a professional interest in what happens on the 'inside' of the teaching and learning of various Humanities disciplines (Jacobs, 2005). For some years I was the coordinator of an Extended Studies programme which facilitated novice students' access to various disciplines in the Humanities. This role generated a series of small-scale, action research-based projects of which this paper is the most recent. These research papers have now been incorporated into a PhD study which explores the meta-theoretical orientations of those, like me, who conduct close-up research into the teaching, learning and assessment (TLA) of beginner students and how such orientations have influenced the nature and impact of the knowledge claims that we can make.

The data for this study were mostly collected during 2009 for a study that was to explore the conflict of epistemological values between students and their lecturers in a first-level Political Science module. In practice, however, I soon discovered that I could not do justice to both communities in a single paper and therefore focused my attention on the students alone and wrote 'Intersecting epistemologies: First-year students' knowledge discourses in a Political Science module' (Niven, 2011). This earlier paper identified elements in a group of students' social epistemologies and argued that it is in the intersection of social and disciplinary ways of knowing that student access to academic discourses can be lost or gained. I turn now to the data that concern the teaching and teachers of Political Science in an attempt to understand how lecturers conceptualise the epistemology of their discipline, whether they share common values or approaches to TLA, how they view the learning resources of new students, and how these ideas, often unconsciously held, play out in particular kinds of curricular decisions and pedagogies.

Using another concept from anthropology, in this paper I understand myself as 'studying up' (Nader, 1972). …

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