UC Berkeley News


Politics from the bottom up

| 31 March 2005

To teach Introduction to American Politics (PS 1AC) next fall, Taeku Lee will include “the perspectives of ordinary people” rather than focus exclusively on the top government decision-makers who determine policy. The assistant professor of political science was “jazzed” by the opportunity to teach an introductory course in U.S. politics because, he says, his own immigrant experience has shown him that, as a newcomer to this country, “knowledge of how American government and politics works can affect your life chances.”

Taeku Lee (Wendy Edelstein photo)
Since coming to Berkeley from Harvard in 2002, Lee has twice taught PS 1 using “the conventional script of how you teach a course in American politics”: examining the institutions of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government as well as the framework of constitutional democracy and federalism. In that version of PS 1, issues affecting diverse racial and ethnic communities are relegated to a week on civil rights and civil liberties rather than woven into the fabric of the course.

Lee, who dislikes the “one-way conversation” endemic to most large lecture classes, participated in the Mellon Faculty Institute for Undergraduate Research last summer in order to “be forced to think about how to redesign a course with the dual aims of making it research-based and bringing in an American Cultures focus.” Faculty excel at “lingering over conceptual problems and are much less predisposed to tackle nuts-and bolts-challenges,” observes Lee, who says the Mellon fellowship spurred him to draft research-based assignments and reality-check the feasibility of specific tasks with librarians as part of the syllabus-development process.

His professional interests — in racial and ethnic politics and survey-based research — informed some of the exercises he mapped out for PS 1AC.

To investigate “how our Founding Fathers came to the negotiated document that is the U.S. Constitution,” Lee will assign students to research the different perspectives of the original delegates to see “whose viewpoints were taken fully into account, whose were completely absent, and how the negotiated result occurred. I think it’s impossible to go through that exercise without getting a good understanding of what the privileged ethnic categories were at the time and which ones were invisible.”

In another exercise, students will be asked to fill out a confidential survey that Lee will use over the course of the semester to “talk about what’s distinct about them as a population, in terms of how they think about politics as compared to the country as a whole.”

Lee designed these exercises to accustom students to the practice of taking multiple perspectives on a given issue. “I think there’s a real danger — especially at Berkeley with its history of progressive, left-wing politics — to have the kind of preaching to the choir that insulates our students from what’s going on in the rest of the country,” says Lee. “Keeping in mind the pedagogical imperative of diversity, this could leave our students at a comparative disadvantage once they venture beyond the safe haven of Sather Gate — even if in defense of progressive, left-wing political ideas.”