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Discovering political possibilites

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- A fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in politics, Susan McWilliams says that her key goal as a teacher is to make her students “good citizens, to help them love and appreciate politics.”

McWilliams is quick to point out the challenges in teaching political theory to students who have both high hopes that politics can make a difference, and frustration with the reality of contemporary political dialogue. “Unable to break away from clichés about ‘rights’ and ‘morality’ and ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ and so on, they are sick of repetitive political debates that offer no wisdom or revelation,” she said. “At the same time, they sense that public life matters to them.”

Politics graduate student Susan McWilliams (right) meets with junior Daniella Gitlin to discuss the course “American Political Thought.”

Yet it is precisely through teaching political theory that McWilliams thinks that students can discover their own political possibilities. “I hope to show them that their own lives are not isolated and unparalleled, that in fact they owe their world to political struggles and conversations thousands of years in the making,” she said.

Over the past three years, McWilliams has served as a preceptor for seven sections of three courses: “American Political Thought” in politics, and “Political Obligations” and “Ethics and Public Policy” in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Well aware that students often find studying political thought daunting — with what McWilliams calls its “old books by dead authors and long sentences of high abstraction” — she makes every effort to connect what they read to issues of contemporary life, including popular culture.

In one class, she asked students to compare the 19th-century thinker de Tocqueville’s analysis of democratic militaries with newspaper articles on U.S. defense policy. In another, she said she “drew on one student’s favorite book, ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ and another student’s favorite lyricist, Tupac Shakur, to help them understand what individualism is and why it has concerned various political theorists.”

McWilliams even has brought her own knowledge to the arena of popular culture — in December she appeared on television’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and won $50,000 after correctly answering seven questions.

To strengthen her teaching, McWilliams says she learns from and emulates great teachers. “I have often relied on the examples of my favorite professors at Princeton,” she said, referring to historian Daniel Rodgers, English professor William Howarth, religion professors Eddie Glaude Jr. and Cornel West, and politics professors Patrick Deneen and George Kateb.

Deneen noted that when McWilliams precepted for his course “American Political Thought,” she showed “the unique ability to connect with students simultaneously at multiple levels — as a fellow student, someone immersed equally in popular and high culture, an intellectual with ranging knowledge, and a teacher and mentor.” According to Deneen, McWilliams’ connection with students was particularly evident on the occasion when she gave a guest lecture, which galvanized the students into responding with an “ovation that bordered on pandemonium.”

McWilliams also finds ways to enrich the learning experience for politics students even when they are not in her own classes. For three years, she taught the politics department workshop series on how to write the junior paper. Last spring, she worked with University Writing Center tutors to help them understand how to assist politics students. Also last year, she served as the politics department representative to the Graduate Student Liaison program at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and in that role conducted surveys about precepting in her department.

McWilliams also extends her teaching beyond her academic field. From 2002-03 she worked with the Scholars in Schools program and visited high schools across New Jersey to teach a workshop on writing college admission essays. She also ran a training session for other graduate students at Princeton interested in participating in the program.

Since 2001 McWilliams has been on the faculty of the Governor’s School of Public Issues, which is a state-funded summer program in New Jersey for academically talented students entering their senior year of high school — a program she herself attended when in high school. McWilliams says her experience with the program has greatly benefited her teaching.

From her hometown of Flemington, N.J., McWilliams is spending this year completing her dissertation, which she says “investigates the role that travel stories have played in the history of Western political thought.” She also is looking forward to embarking on her own career as a professor. “I love this stuff, and can’t imagine being consumed by any- thing else,” she said.