Learning to Teach — Aaron Mannes

I never really thought I wanted to teach. I wanted to do brilliant research, write important things and be famous. As I drift (tumble) into middle-age, I have done some research and written some things. It is safe to say that I have not set the world on fire and am unlikely to do so. I’ve had a few modest brushes with fame, it is fun, but it also isn’t going to happen. (Unless a video of me hurting myself in an embarrassing way goes viral.)

Unrealistic goals, and frankly shallow ones — note I didn’t say anything about the substance of my research: what burning questions I hoped to answer for the good of humanity. It is more important to do good, although this too can be challenging in our world. At least I haven’t done much harm.

As I’ve been coming to terms with these realities (and reading Arthur Brooks) I started to think that maybe I would like to teach. Retirement is not so distant, if that’s what I want (if my work is satisfying, of course I’ll keep at it.) Maybe, when freed of the burdens of full-time employment teaching a course or two a semester would be fun.

Then, out of the sky, my doctoral alma mater, the University of Maryland School of Public Policy invited me to teach the course I took with my PhD advisor (the legendary Mac Destler) — American Foreign Policy Making Process. This was the topic of my dissertation and, in an extremely modest way, I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of this process over the past several years.

My wife thinks I lead a charmed life where good things just fall into my lap. I agree — I get to be married to her!

So, about a decade early, I started teaching and I’ll share my mastery of the craft based on my 1.75 semesters of teaching experience.

It’s Fun

I really like it. I’m trying to run a seminar over Zoom, which can be awkward. So much communication is lost, getting the class to engage with one another and not just me is tough. These are graduate students, so they are generally prepared and engaged. But still, there are awkward silences and the class actually asked me to lecture more.

My whole life people have been telling me to stop talking — and now they want me to talk more?

None of this sounds promising, so what is it that I like? Shaping young minds? Maybe, a little.

I’m watching the many professors I follow on social media complain about teaching via Zoom and I think, I like it so much now, I can’t wait to get into a classroom and do it in person. Then I can see if they’re really laughing at my jokes or find my impromptu mini-lectures and riffs interesting.

I’m an extrovert and all of this engagement charges me up, in a previous life I took a stab at being a performer and this has a similar feel. (This semester my class is 7–930pm and it is really messing with my sleep since I’m really fired up when it’s done.) I like that I have this interesting event — a show — to put on every week. In an evaluation, one of my students wrote: The professor’s enthusiasm for the topic is infectious.

I love that energy. When I riff, I get new ideas and then the students bounce it around with me and new stuff comes up. I’ve already co-authored a paper with a student who gave me an idea!

The Topic

American Foreign Policy Process is an interesting class to teach, because it is very wide-ranging. At the most formal level, I am teaching the students about the decision-making models and formal institutions. That’s important, but it’s also a history class. It provides an overview of the major events in U.S. foreign policy over the past 60 years. Most of my students were born in the late 1990s, Bill Clinton is practically ancient history — to say nothing of seminal events like the Cuban Missile Crisis. In some ways, it is almost a literature class, thinking about people and how they wrestle with impossible decisions and conflict.

Finally, this is a school of public policy, so I they are in effect training to work in public policy. I want to equip them for bureaucratic politics. That’s not teaching them to be devious. In fact, the importance of trust is a central theme of the class. What I am hoping to imbue in the students is the combination of personal and organizational factors that shape the worldviews and actions of those they will be dealing with when they interact with the government. I’ve tried — with modest success — to include issues of identity, intersectionality — into this equation.

The point is, studying American Foreign Policy Process is a rich vein to mine, I feel like it is easy to have fun. If a particular reading isn’t interesting, there’s something else good to replace it. If a particular topic doesn’t lend itself to a lively discussion, move on — there’s plenty of other stuff to talk about. Now I know why professors assign so much reading — because we are so excited to talk about the material with the students.

Grading

This is the bane of teaching. There’s the time (I don’t love spending my Sundays grading papers.) But I hate the psychic cost of making the distinctions and constant decisions. I could just give everyone As. But that doesn’t feel right or honest. Students deserve honest feedback.

But I also see how inherently arbitrary the process is. Unless I give multiple choice or single answer exams (which hardly seems appropriate for graduate school) a lot comes down to my judgment. I try to be fair and consistent.

I am tough on writing. Really tough. Most of the writing for my class is policy memos and an A means I think it would fly in a professional setting. Full disclosure, I’m not sure 24-year-old me could write to the standard I’m demanding. I was ten years older than my students are now when I took the class and had already written a book.

Many of my students haven’t encountered this level of rigor before. Some have, frankly, not been prepared for it. This is not a knock on them. I really, really, like every single one of the students I’ve had. I am not a writing teacher, and I don’t want them to suffer because the education system did not adequately serve them. At the same time, they need to know if their writing is up professional grade. But it is hard not to take a critique of your writing personally — I know this (all too well.)

I compensate for this with engaging extra credit.

The flipside of this is how much interest I take in the evaluations. That’s me seeking the same type of approval my students seek from me. Of course, they take the class once and move on. I plan on teaching it forever, so I can really use their feedback. Since I didn’t care much about grades as a student, my investment in the evaluations is a useful and eye-opening perspective about how my students perceive the grades they receive.

The Bottom Line

I calculated that each time a student logs into my class, they are spending about $200. For that, they could get tickets to Hamilton. My class is about as long. I’m not paid anything like the people behind a great musical, but still, I have a compelling drive to ensure they get some value. I can never quite forget that. I hope that one day they’ll feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.

I’m enjoying teaching. I’m enjoying the feeling of getting better at it. Each class seems like a good experience for the students. But for me, right now, it is like running — or writing, for that matter. It is enough to keep doing it. I want to reach the level where I’m thinking about it holistically: what insights should students gain, what is the flow across classes, where does the class take them.

Originally published at https://aaronmannes.com.

AAAS Policy Fellow, formerly @UMIACS (specializing in international security), did a PhD on vice presidents, interested in a lot of stuff