Dr. Bethany Blackstone

Our March Teaching Excellence Spotlight awardee is Dr. Bethany Blackstone, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science. Dr. Blackstone’s teaching practice is focused on helping students learn to evaluate information, formulate evidence-based arguments, and use research to answer questions and communicate ideas. She is committed to supporting students both in and out of the classroom and has served as Faculty in Residence at Rawlins Hall for the past five semesters.

Dr. Bethany Blackstone

"I benefit greatly from the community of teacher-scholars at UNT and in the discipline of political science. Being active in these communities keeps me in conversation with other instructors about pedagogical innovations and the creative things other instructors are doing in their classes."

 

How long have you been teaching?

I taught my first class as a graduate student in 2008. I’ve been teaching at UNT since the fall 2009 semester.

What classes have you taught/do you teach at UNT?

I teach courses related to American politics, including the department’s introductory courses—PSCI 2305 (U.S. Political Behavior and Policy) and PSCI 2306 (U.S. and Texas Constitutions and Institutions). I also teach undergraduate courses on the Legislative Process (PSCI 3110), the American Legal System (PSCI 3200), the U.S. Supreme Court (PSCI 3210), and constitutional law (PSCI 4200). For graduate students, I teach seminars on American politics and judicial politics.

How have you worked on developing your teaching skills?

I develop my teaching skills by reflecting on what works in my classes both from my perspective as the instructor and from students’ perspectives. I consider each of my courses—even those I have taught dozens of times—a work in progress, and I’m constantly looking for ways to make the course better in the next iteration. I benefit greatly from the community of teacher-scholars at UNT and in the discipline of political science. Being active in these communities keeps me in conversation with other instructors about pedagogical innovations and the creative things other instructors are doing in their classes. I read a lot about teaching and learning and seek opportunities to learn more about pedagogy. I also regularly attend conferences and workshops related to teaching.

Did you ever take formal classes or trainings on teaching in graduate school? What about later on in your teaching? 

My graduate training included a formal teacher-training program. All graduate students participated in a short summer teaching conference-type program. Throughout the next academic year, faculty members in my department would lead small-group discussions about different aspects of teaching. At UNT, I have participated in workshops offered by CLEAR on the use of student-response systems and team-based learning. Last summer, I participated in CLEAR’s Course Design Institute.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced teaching, and how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges I face is fostering student engagement in my introductory courses. Many students enter these classes with little interest in American politics; some resent that they have to take the course. Last year, I attended a CLEAR workshop on team-based learning and decided to adopt this approach in my introductory courses. Team-based learning emphasizes the application of concepts and problem-solving in the context of small-group work. Students’ first exposure to material occurs prior to class (rather than through lecture) freeing significant amounts of class time for activities that require deeper engagement with course content. I adopted TBL for the first time last summer and am using it for both the courses I am teaching this semester—Introductory U.S. Political Behavior and Policy and the U.S. Supreme Court. My experiences with TBL have been very positive. Well-designed team activities ensure that students engage meaningfully with important concepts. Most students have indicated they prefer this approach to one that is lecture-based.

How would you describe your approach to teaching?

I want to share my passion for American politics with my students and serve as a guide as they learn to think and write like political scientists. Students can look up basic facts about American political institutions without my help. My job in the classroom is to help them learn to evaluate information, to formulate evidence-based arguments, to use the tools of social scientific research to answer questions about the role of American political institutions in shaping policy outcomes, and to communicate their ideas effectively.

I love the classroom but recognize that the university is a place for personal development as well as academic development. Accordingly, I also look for ways to support students out of the classroom. For the past 5 semesters, I have lived on campus and served as Faculty in Residence at Rawlins Hall. This position has allowed me to meet students where they are—literally—and to develop a deeper appreciation of the contributions students make to the university and the challenges they face as they pursue their academic and personal goals.

What resources do you find most helpful to your teaching practice?

Students and colleagues willing to engage in reflection about teaching and learning are the most helpful resources for my teaching practice. I encourage students to tell me in their anonymous end-of-term feedback how I can improve my courses. The ones who provide constructive feedback help me identify what areas of my practice need improvement. My colleagues are incredibly generous with their time, feedback, and materials.  My teaching is better because I am embedded in a community committed to excellence in teaching.