Jill Locke: I’m a Gustie and This is How I Teach

Posted on October 5th, 2015 by

croppedJill Locke

Professor in Political Science and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies

What classes do you regularly teach?

POL 160: Political and Legal Thinking; POL/GWS 285: Sex, Power, and Politics; POL 275: The Promise of Political Freedom; POL 380: Feminist Political Thought; and POL 399: Senior Seminar, which I have most recently taught on the political theory of Hannah Arendt. This fall I am teaching a special topics course, POL 244:01 The Politics of Race and Racism in the US, which I have taught  before and hope to include in the department’s regular course offerings.

What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?

A few years ago my father-in-law, David Vrooman, who was an Economics professor at St. Lawrence University, passed away after a long struggle with Parkinson’s. One of his colleagues gave this beautiful eulogy in which he recounted the advice Dave had given him when he started teaching: “Listen to your students. Be organized.” Dave never gave me that particular advice but it crystallizes who he was as a person and teacher. I think about those two pieces of effective teaching all of the time.

Tell us about your favorite topic or course to teach.

I know everyone says this but I love teaching all of my courses. This is one of the greatest things about my job– getting to design my courses in ways that I find exciting, engaging, and fun.

Describe a favorite in-class activity or assignment.

A couple of things come to mind. Students in Sex, Power, and Politics participate in consciousness-raising (CR) groups throughout the semester. This is one of those activities that I am sometimes tempted to give up (because students often push back in the beginning, scheduling their meetings with each other can be a pain, and it makes for some additional work on my part), but once it takes off it really can be incredible. If students remember one thing from the course it’s typically their experience in the CR group. We begin the semester reading consciousness-raising group documents from second-wave feminist archives as well as secondary literature about what these feminist organizations struggled with, accomplished, and continue to represent as both practical and theoretical interventions in feminist politics and practice. CR groups were based upon the premise that “the personal is political” and that sharing stories with each other was a critical way to build a sense of women’s common experience. This common experience then becomes the ground for feminist action. That dream of a common experience–a common language–has been a powerful engine in feminist organizing and politics. The problem, as many of you surely know, was and continues to be that “women” don’t experience the world in a uniform way. Because the students in the CR group have to come up with a project for the campus–usually a guerrilla theater performance–based upon the “common” vision they have, the CR group works nicely to help to illuminate the limitations of politics rooted in common experience. At the same time, they get to experience the joy and empowerment that comes with moments of recognizing one’s own experience in others’ stories. At its best the CR group assignment is both a historical simulation and as an experience in the challenges of political action.

Another assignment that I really enjoy and has been adapted into our department’s methods course (POL 200) is what I call “bibliographic trace” or “chasing footnotes.” This assignment asks  students to begin with a text they are working with and find a footnote that refers to a source they would like to know more about. Then they track down that source and read or skim it, looking again for a footnote of interest. They then find that source and so on … going about 5 or 6 sources deep. I think this assignment emphasizes not only the importance of good citational practices but also the “conversation” aspect of scholarship. Ideally they see that when they cite a particular text they are entering into a genealogy of ideas that they can take in new directions.

What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?

That’s an excellent question. A colleague and I often joke that we don’t understand why what worked for us — “Read 200 pages of Hobbes, write a short paper, and come see me in a week! Wow, college is awesome!”–doesn’t always translate into a pedagogy that works for our students, the vast majority of whom will not pursue PhDs in our subject.  My learning style has changed over the years. As an undergraduate I was really interested in philosophical ideas and much less concerned about the context in which they emerged. Truthfully, I found the context totally overwhelming. It wanted to understand Plato’s Republic or Rousseau’s Social Contract on its own terms.  My eyes glazed over when the professor started putting dates on the board. I was also really focused on understanding the canon of political theory and less interested in the kinds of peripheral texts I now find so captivating.

What I think remains constant is that I need to engage works and ideas in a variety of ways. I probably learn best in the following order: Read, discuss and listen, write, revise.  I often write out my class preparation word for word only to abandon it once the class gets rolling. Writing is a way for me to clarify my thinking.

Tell us something that you’ve learned about yourself from teaching.

I am quite shy.

Three words that best describe your teaching style.

Conversational and interdisciplinary come to mind immediately. The third word is harder–I want to say something that captures that I really try to push my students to try as hard as they can. I’ll leave it to my students to come up with the appropriate term.

What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?

Assign interesting readings and the rest will follow.

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had.

Too many to name! Seriously, every day is potentially embarrassing. In my first class of this year I sat in a height-adjustable chair at the front of the desk to go over the roster. I have long legs and I set it pretty high. As the 26 students went around the room introducing themselves, talking about why they had enrolled in the class, etc., the chair kept lowering, and lowering, and lowering. At first I tried to re-adjust it subtly and again it started to lower again. I felt like I was in a Charlie Chaplin movie. Finally I let the class in on the joke and we just laughed about it. (As soon as we were done with the roster I stood up and spent the rest of the class far away from that chair!) Maybe that’s also something I have learned from teaching–how to laugh at myself more easily.

What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?

I was a mediocre student in high school and my college performance was very uneven. I didn’t really figure out how to be a student until grad school.

What are you currently reading for pleasure?

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, which was given to me by Kate Wittenstein and Greg Kaster. It’s perfect back-to-school reading.

Who would you like to fill out this survey next?

Yurie Hong, Carlos Mejia Suarez, Kjerstin Moody

The How I Teach series asks Gustavus faculty members to share their thoughts on assignments, course activities, and teaching in general. Most Tuesdays a new Gustavus faculty member will be featured. If you have someone you want to see featured, let us know. Also, we’d love it if you’d answer the questions yourself and send those along with a few pictures to howiteach@gustavus.edu.


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