The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses

by on 2013-01-07 in Duck- 18 Comments

LATE UPDATE: PTJ blogs about undergrad education from a very different starting point.

A few months back, we had a lively debate about what to teach undergraduates in political science. As I prepare to motivate 20 undergraduates to learn elementary statistical analysis tools AND basic R skills, I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot. I think that we both should aim to teach political science to undergraduates–that is, the skills and methodologies that are necessary for understanding research published in, say, the APSR of the 1980s—and also that we should think hard about what employable skills our students should leave with.

I submit that, up to a point, research methodologies and employable skills are pretty well the same thing.

Here’s some crass, utterly unscientific, and in-your-face data to support this point.

This figure (slightly easier to view PDF version here) draws on data from Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute and reflects my impression of plausible alternative careers for the students I’ll be teaching. (This ranges from the ministry to math/computer science–extremes that, at least at Georgetown, carry a vow of chastity.) Across this range, political science does fairly well on both percent employed full time and median wage. What I find striking, though, is that the more “mathy” a subject is, the better its graduates tend to score on both measures.

For students in my seminar, this will become my warrant to expect them to become pretty good at certain types of skills. (In conversations with folks at other institutions, I’ve been assured that undergrads are more eager and willing these skills on average than Ph.D. students, which sounds about right.) For the broader discipline, I think this sort of evidence can be used to justify including more analytical training in our major programs.

I fully agree with the commenters who say that writing and rhetorical skills are important, but frankly I don’t think teachers in the discipline have much room to improve on those scores. (For our best students, are we going to require two honors theses?) But we do, I think, have a lot of room to increase the statistical fluency and computer-assisted analytical skills of our graduates. Doing so will not only allow them to understand what, exactly, (most of) us do all day in our mysterious “research” but also to find some fairly stable employment after they leave. (Ph.D. students in political science may have a vocation, but it’s not fair to assume the same of B.A. students.)

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  • ninjabreadman

    Two useful resources you might consider to quickly get folks comfortable in R:
    * A quick, step-by-step (very excellent, interactive) primer:
    * A massive, open online course (MOOC) on Computing for Data Analytics from Roger Peng at John Hopkins:

  • PTJ

    I don’t think that it is our job as university faculty to increase students’ future earning potential. Nor do I think that it is our job in teaching PoliSci undergrads to make sure that they can read APSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Our job is to teach students to think critically about politics, and while I am perfectly fine with the suggestion that some statistical literacy can be useful to that end, I am not prepared to give that higher pride of place than things like reading closely, writing cogently, and disagreeing with one another civilly.

  • DuckPM

    Awww, PTJ, you’re taking the fun out of this ;) I wanted to get to this sensible compromise position AFTER 40 or 50 comments.

    I do slightly disagree about earnings potential. I think that if we don’t consider this to be part–not the largest part!–of our mission that we are being deeply irresponsible toward our students, especially those students who do not know how class and social structures constrain their opportunities. We should never be in a position of saying explicitly or implicitly that it doesn’t matter what you study in college, you’ll turn out about the same. Quite the opposite: If you have a passing interest but not a consuming vocation for the religious/theological world (to use the lowest economic potential occupation on this chart), you really shouldn’t major in that field.

  • DuckPM

    (I don’t mean to trivialize the initial post or your response. I think there is a real discussion here about what we think “political science” should consist of, what undergrad training in that discipline should entail, and what our responsibilities to undergrads are. But I did think there would be a round or so of skirmishes before we got to the schwerpunkt. )

  • John

    Since when did most of us do statistical analysis?

  • MAS

    While I generally agree with PTJ, I have absolutely no problem teaching undergrads statistics, especially up to about regression, as part of the PoliSci major for the reasons that you mention.

    However, obviously this depends upon what it costs you to do so. Do students need two full courses? Do they need three? At what point does teaching them statistics begin to pull away from teaching them writing and rhetorical skills, from teaching them different types of critical thinking skills? I would probably want to stop at one required course.

    My university has stats as the gateway course to the major, which I hate on all sorts of levels, including a fear that they are more likely to forget their training by the time they are seniors. This I would completely disagree with and I think would begin to take away form the competitive advantage of being a major in the social sciences, thinking critically in that nexus between empirics and ethics.

    Finally (sorry for the schizophrenic post), I would say that of course you don’t come out the same as a religion or theology major, but that is kind of the point. I wouldn’t be surprised if those people make less money and care less if they make as much money. Getting a student ready for a fulfilling life is much different than getting them the best chances of working for a major financial institution.

  • DuckPM

    I agree on the final point and I hope my meaning was clear even if poorly expressed.

    I agree completely that having stats as a GATEWAY course is bad institutional design.

    I think one course as a required/strong recommend is good. A second, much smaller course would do well for students who want to go on in the field. And pretty much for the reasons you mention.

  • MAS

    I think this shows that sometimes such ‘debates’ are really just people coming from different starting points so the direction of their recommendations will be different…

  • DuckPM

    Let us not forget the value of recycling lecture prep into blog posts.

  • doctorquien

    As a political science undergrad, I would hope my professors cared if I earned well later on in life ;_; Of course, let’s not let them teach for the purpose of putting us in jobs instead of for the purpose of us learning new skills, but ideally it would be in such a way that we are taught how to apply those skills. We can learn to write well (or better than we did at the start of our undergrad career), we can even learn some level/degree of statistics, and above all we can learn to think critically, but what use is that if we aren’t shown, taught, advised, on how to best apply those skills?

  • LFC

    Thank you for the link to PTJ’s post in your ‘late update’. Following your link however gets a 404 error because you have a quotation mark at the end of the URL. Take out the quotation mark and it works fine.

  • DuckPM


  • PTJ

    One can care about how one’s students do later on in life while not believing that it is one’s job to help those students earn higher salaries, though.

  • doctorquien

    Of course. It gets to a point where much of it rests on the students. But the job of a professor should consist of giving his/her students enough of the proper tools or skill sets to have the potential to succeed (and in this case we define that as a good salary) what the student does with that goes out of the hands of the professor.

    Basically, don’t just stand and talk and half-ass your job.

  • MAS

    Not sure that is quite what he is saying. Living a good life (whatever this means) does not necessarily equal earning highest salary. Being ‘productive’ (whatever this means) for society does not necessarily equal earning the highest salary. Finding a vocation does not equal earning the highest salary. Nor do these things necessarily equal getting to the top of a profession. One could (though I am not saying that PTJ is) say that it may even be a prof’s job to teach students that they should be simply looking for the highest salary.

    None of this is ‘half-assing’ a job nor is it ‘up to the student’ to earn the high salary once he/she has the skills.

  • TheNetizen

    Very interesting piece. Certainly I’m sure that most courses could fit in a couple of dozen hours in to just sit down and teach elementary statistics and logic. After the thorough lack of understanding of numbers shown in the US presidential election I would say it is a vital skill – to avoid humiliating failure later in life.

  • isomorphisms

    Here is an interesting line from the American FactFinder which the Georgetown What’s it worth? report cites as its source.

    Bachelor’s degree or higher
    Overall 3.9% ± 0.1
    Male 3.5% ± 0.1
    Female 4.3% ± 0.1

    I’m really looking for data on 18-to-28-year-old incomes based on college major. The lifetime wealth data draws significantly from a time of lower supply of college graduates.

  • isomorphisms

    Trying also to resolve this one:

    According to this report, people who majored in engineering had the
    highest earnings of any bachelor’s degree field, at $92,000 per year in
    2011. At the other end of the continuum were fields such as visual and performing arts, communications, education and psychology, with median annual earnings of $55,000 or less.

    Since individual income for US bachelors degree holders medians at $43,000 ( how can the lower parts be $55,000?

    Tell a 19-year-old that they “Might have to struggle a bit to get by, or at least likely won’t be filthy rich, if they make this choice—but feel free to pursue your passion” and then attaching the number “$55,000 or less” is disingenuous at best. $30/hr is a great deal to live on. (the modal wage in the US is closer to $12/hr.) Did those who make student loans finance finance this way of putting it?