Alumni Q&A: Kevin Elliott

Volume 5, Issue 2, Summer 2015

Ph.D. ’15, Political Science

Kevin Elliott recently deposited his dissertation in political science. He honed his teaching craft by taking advantage of various professional development opportunities at Columbia, including the Lead Teaching Fellow, Summer Teaching Scholar, and Core Preceptor programs.

Your dissertation is titled “Designing Attentive Democracy: Political Interest and Electoral Institutions.” What is its main idea?

In recent years, a lot of efforts to create a more flourishing democracy have focused on small-scale “deliberative” institutions—situations where ordinary citizens can engage in face-to-face discussions, such as town halls, participatory budgeting, and citizen juries. But this raises concerns that democracy for the masses is not really being reformed. My dissertation makes an argument that reaching everyone, even in small ways, is a better path to creating a more robust and flourishing democracy. I especially focus on electoral institutions and mandatory voting.

Your curriculum vitae shows a strong interest in teaching. What do you enjoy about it?

It’s a challenge that I love. You’re steering your class to an understanding of some new and unfamiliar idea—and when it happens, it’s wonderful. But you need to go in with a lot of thought and preparation.

How did this passion for teaching come about?

It started with thinking about the difference that political theory can make in the world. I realized that educating students can make that impact—if I can help them gain a more critical perspective as they go out and shape the world, that is how a political scientist can make a difference. Plus, I’ve always liked to instruct people—my mother called me “Mr. Know It All.”

In the 2014-2015 academic year, GSAS started a pilot program called the “Lead Teaching Fellows” (LTFs). You were one of two LTFs appointed in the Political Science department. Tell me about your experience as part of this inaugural cohort.

The main thing we do is organize events in our departments that focus on teaching. It allows me to share the pedagogical insights that I’ve had, specifically in designing successful courses, writing good syllabi, and incorporating assessment. I had talked about these topics before with my peers, but not in any formal context. Also as an LTF, I attended events at the GSAS Teaching Center, which helped improve my performance as an educator of educators. In the end, it’s this type of training that aspiring university professors will need to train future Ph.D. students.

Did you take advantage of any other resources at the GSAS Teaching Center?

I attended a “Presentation Skills for Educators” workshop that was run by an improvisation artist [Jen Oleniczak]. The workshop helped me find my verbal tics. I discovered that I often speak too quickly, and that I need to slow down. She put an emphasis on the physicality of presentation. She corrected people’s posture (which aids in the volume of one’s voice), and she prevented people from wandering or rocking back and forth as they spoke. It was helpful to be made aware of how people present themselves physically. I also attended a “Collaborative Learning” workshop, which focused on successful strategies for structuring group work and the rules to give. The Core class that I teach was doing group work at the time, so I was looking for tips and strategies.

As a Summer Teaching Scholar in 2013 and 2014, you had the opportunity to teach courses of your own design. How was that experience?

It was very rewarding. I had a number of non-traditional and international students in the summer who brought a variety of life experiences, extraordinary insight, and different perspectives to our political theory discussions. Teaching courses that I designed myself is a good way of testing how I understand the topics. By seeing how my students respond, I can gauge if my understanding is a natural way of thinking about the issues. You only know by trying. It closes the gap between scholar and teacher, research and pedagogy.

When one of your advisers, Melissa Schwartzberg, received a Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award in 2013, she credited you for persuading her to be more creative in her pedagogy. What is the story behind that?

Being a TF in her class was a collaborative experience. She wanted my input in designing assignments and crafting the substance of the syllabus. It was the model of how a professor can mentor and train young scholars to be educators—she was the lead, and I was the junior member of a teaching team. It was a great team experience.

How would you describe your time at Columbia overall?

It’s become like home. The support of the University community that I’ve found has been wonderful. I have a four-year-old daughter, and I commend the school for benefits like the child-care subsidy for student-parents. There’s still a long way to go, especially for mothers, but it’s still good support. I’ve influenced my peers in showing them that it’s possible to be successful in graduate school and have a child. Especially in academia, your schedule is flexible enough to be a parent. I think that the school and the University are taking steps forward in this respect.

— Interview conducted by Andrew Ng