By Andre P. Audette
These are precarious times in academe. Budgets are being slashed. Fewer undergraduates are projected to be attending college in coming years. And in my discipline of political science, some departments are even on the chopping block.
Of course those trends affect every institution and discipline differently (the hardest hit are likely to be those with fewer resources to begin with). Filling seats and building programs requires a steady stream of interested students. Whether the projected outlook on your campus is stable or ominous, you cannot be blamed for worrying about where your next group of majors will come from.
Fortunately, at my small liberal-arts college, we’ve had good success bringing new majors in to our department. In my own introductory American-politics course, I regularly have several students who, by semester’s end, are declared political-science majors.
While I like to think that is the result of my effort to discover their untapped interest in politics, my brilliant and effective teaching, and/or my stunning good looks, I credit it to a not-so-secret formula for attracting students to our department: Ask them, motivate them, and believe in them.
Step No. 1: Ask them. Asking is the key to getting people involved in any collective effort, as both political-science scholars and political-campaign organizers know. Most people never think to work on a campaign or run for office. Some have other career plans, some face self-doubt about such high-profile work, and some simply can’t imagine themselves in the political world. Others lack the connection or opportunity to get involved.
Those factors also apply to (at least some of) our undergraduates. They may not have imagined themselves as political-science majors. Some don’t even know that the major exists. They may have entered college planning to major in business, biochemistry, or botany, or they may be undecided entirely. And some are waiting for a good opportunity to pop up and make the path ahead clear.
That’s where a simple ask is important.
Roughly a third of the way into the semester, after the first exam, I approach certain students and ask them to think about majoring in political science. Students who are engaged in class, who seem to show a genuine interest in the subject matter, or who performed well on the test (and who have time left in their college careers) receive a short note on the back of their exam: "Have you considered a political-science major or minor? If so, let’s chat!"
Sometimes I follow up that initial question with an in-person conversation the next time I meet with the student. Or I make "the ask" later in the semester. On occasion, I make a general invitation to the class to check out what our major has to offer. (I promise I’m not desperate … just a political-science nerd.)
Sarah Rose Cavanagh makes the essential point that emotions matter when working with students. In their seemingly hierarchical world — one in which the professor professes and doles out grades while students are mere novices — they like to be noticed, appreciated, and wanted. Those emotions matter and reasonably should count for something when they are choosing a field of study.
Whether you are a political-campaign worker, a fund raiser, or a professor, asking for participation is often the first step toward achieving engagement. Do students decline my invitation to major in poli sci? Frequently. But a simple ask is a low-stakes step toward connecting with students in a meaningful and affirming way.
Step No. 2: Motivate them. Like many educators, I am not a fan of the consumer model of education, in which students are customers and faculty members just service providers. But at the end of the day, students do have a choice to make about which department becomes their academic home. And for all of its faults, administrators and state lawmakers will continue to operate using this model. One small positive element of this model, however, is that it allows you to consider how consumers make other choices and how businesses market their goods and services.
The reality is, students will not respond to "the ask" if you do not follow up with a motivating reason for them to join your department.
Over time, I’ve crafted a short sales pitch that I can adapt to students’ various interests. For example, if a student wants to double major, I mention how well my department works with other majors. Or if a student is interested in the corporate world, I note that many political-science majors go on to business careers. I also keep fliers about the major handy and am able to discuss jobs, courses, or extracurricular opportunities, as well as offer to introduce a student to my colleagues.
None of that would matter if I did not believe in the academic major I am "selling."
One of my favorite books on teaching and learning, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, makes the point that students are motivated by supportive learning environments, by authentic and engaging instruction, and by teachers who show enthusiasm and passion for their discipline.
You demonstrate all of that by asking a student to be a part of your department. But the reality of life inside the major must meet those standards, too. Of course your program will not be perfect. (That’s OK — I’ve responded "yes" to many imperfect groups and endeavors.) However, in building your major, a little preparation and authenticity goes a long way. We must be asking students to join a department and field of study worthwhile of their time and resources.
Step No. 3: Believe in them. I am not out to convert our college into a factory of political scientists. To be perfectly frank, our major is not a good fit for every student. The students I do approach, I firmly believe, are capable of doing great things with our major.
When any of those students commit to our major, I make sure to express how happy we are (or, if they’re just asking for more information, how happy we would be) to have them in our department and remind them that they are a valuable part of the program. I also try to bring up, once more, my reason for asking them in the first place.
The not-so-secret part of this formula is that bringing new majors into your department ultimately comes down to connecting with students and explicitly recognizing something in them that you believe in.
If you’re lucky, your department doesn’t have to do much to attract majors: The students come to you. But the meaningful challenge of building a program — and working with students in general — is to meet undergraduates where they are at and to invite them to be a part of a collective effort. Opening doors for positive interactions with students continuously reminds me of why I became an educator in the first place.
This simple formula — ask, motivate, believe — hasn’t just boosted the number of political-science majors, it’s also had residual benefits in my classroom. It’s motivated the students who choose to become involved and invest in the political-science department as well as those who don’t, yet appreciate being noticed. Every student benefits from a supportive environment.
And it costs nothing more than a few meetings with students. Much like in the world of political campaigns, I’ve spoken to plenty of young people who have never been asked to participate — in this case, in a major. And I’ve spoken with faculty members who have never thought to outright ask an undergraduate to join the department’s program.
I am not naïve enough to think that this strategy alone will fill our classes or prevent budget cuts. But for those of us with this challenge on our minds — and we may all face it more and more — this is a great first step that any faculty member can take.
Andre P. Audette is an assistant professor of political science at Monmouth College in Illinois