Each year, the Rackham Graduate School recognizes who graduate students who “combine innovative scholarship and research with superb teaching and mentoring” and who “recognize the humanity of their students as they maintain rigorous intellectual standards and model professional integrity.” Jessica Steinberg, a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department, is one of the few individuals to receive the esteemed Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award this year. Each department is allowed only two nominations, and approximately twenty students from the entire Graduate School are given this accolade annually.
Jessica has been a graduate student instructor for a variety of courses, which include Introduction to Comparative Politics, Introduction to World Politics, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Politics of Energy in Developing Countries, and Modeling Political Processes. For Jessica, “teaching in political science requires the transmission and discussion of facts, concepts, relationships, and theories. Furthermore, it requires establishing the linkages among these, as well as providing current and historical examples of their relevance.” Jessica accomplishes her instructional goals with a variety of effective methods. For example, she introduces difficult concepts by writing an outline of them on the board while offering students an opportunity to voice their understanding of the concept and ask questions. She then attempts to provide students with many opportunities to both absorb and communicate their understanding of the material, which include free form discussion, simulations and games, and worksheets that require factual knowledge, conceptual understanding, and application. Jessica also finds that metaphor and even fiction can be a useful tool in teaching introductory level courses, where she often shares a fairy tale she wrote about the formation of the modern state that incorporates the theories of Mancur Olson, Charles Tilly, and Max Weber.
Furthermore, Jessica developed an activity she calls “Building an Argument” to encourage and assess the students' capacity for critical analysis. In this activity, she poses an open-ended discussion question to the class, and each student is required to spend several minutes writing a three or four sentence argument in response to the question. Upon completion, students share their argument with a partner, defending what they wrote and discussing the strengths of each of their written pieces. They then jointly come up with an argument that they believe is a strong analytical claim in response to the question. Then each pair turns to a neighboring pair and performs the same activity, eventually arriving at a single statement of their analytic claim. This aggregation continues until two groups have emerged, each with a written answer to the original question that has combined the strengths of all students involved.
Jessica adds, “Beyond these specific activities, my pedagogical approach is conversational, casual, and even personal at times. I have found that being honest when I am uncertain, or if I have made a statement that does not turn out to be accurate can elevate the level of discussion, leading to a conversation about the sources of uncertainty or inaccuracy, obstacles to inference, source legitimacy, and evidentiary support.” Jessica has also been fortunate to have had many international experiences related to research and aid work, and they help provide anecdotal context for much of the material and remind students to try to see the ideas of political science at work in the real world. In general, Jessica’s approach to teaching not only effectively engages the cognitive and intellectual capacities of her students but also allows her to facilitate a more comfortable environment for learning, and has in some instances, led her to undertake unconventional methods for mitigating conflict in the classroom. Thus, it is no surprise that the Rackham School recognized Jessica for her impressive contributions to the pedagogical environment at Michigan.
Jessica Steinberg is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she focuses on natural resource extraction, subnational politics, ungoverned spaces, and the way non-state actors are reconfiguring the state citizen relationship.