What can the American antebellum debates about abolition teach us about the contemporary debate over undocumented citizens and immigration?  How can the writings of Thomas Paine illuminate current struggles for freedom like the Arab Spring? Students have the opportunity to explore such engaging questions in political theory classes taught by Jennet Kirkpatrick, who recently won the Tronstein Award, given by the Political Science Department, for pedagogic excellence.  

In a decision to give Dr. Kirkpatrick the Tronstein Award, the Undergraduate Affairs committee noted the prevalence of two themes that stood out in the student nominations of Dr. Kirkpatrick: her innovation and her exciting, vibrant classroom environment. In terms of innovation, Dr. Kirkpatrick changed the overall structure of her courses to incorporate more choices for students.  For example, she adopted an option-based grading scheme, which makes the quality and level of assignments for a certain grade transparent and gives students the opportunity to strive for a target grade.

After discussing learning objectives with others in political theory, Dr.  Kirkpatrick altered the structure and assignments in her upper-level courses so that they build on lower-level courses. These changes added to the consistency in the political theory courses taught at the University. One example of a new assignment is the opportunity for students to post entries to a course blog called Blog Rolling: Swapping Ideas in American Political Thought. Students loved the blog as did others outside the class, based on the thousands of hits it received. Dr. Kirkpatrick said that the blog entries function not only as stimulating conversations between students, but also as an excellent feedback mechanism for her course design and preparation. She is able to understand what the students find provocative and intriguing about the material and incorporate this information into lectures.

Furthermore, students discuss and debate  political theory with much enthusiasm and passion.  She has a way of engaging students in her fascination with  the texts  and at the same time tuning in to what students gain from the material.  Her classes are characterized by an ongoing conversation between the professor and students.  

Dr. Kirkpatrick said that she was “tremendously honored by the nomination and the award. Teaching is part art, part science, and part plain old hard work.” She is grateful to those who have helped her create a dynamic, vibrant environment of learning.  She credits her innovative techniques to mentoring she received from Professors Mika Lavaque-Manty and  Lisa Disch, both political theorists recognized for their own teaching.  Furthermore, she praises the “awesome” undergraduate students at Michigan who contributed to her stimulating pedagogical experience.  The students are “bright and energetic” and she likes the diversity, which significantly enhances education in the classroom.

Dr. Kirkpatrick has been with the Department since 2002. In addition to teaching, she is actively engaged in research.  Her scholarly work focuses on American political thought, with an emphasis on social movements, law, and social change.  Her book, Uncivil Disobedience: Studies in Violence and Democratic Politics, examines the role that violence and terrorism have played in the exercise of democratic ideals in America.  She is currently working on a project that explores exits from politics, such as Chinese dissidents who flee to America, public officials who resign from office on principle, and citizens who leave the Republican Party for the Tea Party.  Dr. Kirkpatrick notes that while there has been a great deal of intriguing scholarship on exits, the concept has not been fully explored and therefore the crucial dimensions of exit as a form of political action are not well understood. Her current scholarship addresses this gap by examining standard works of political theory on exit and by exploring noteworthy historical and contemporary examples of exit.