Dr. Lawrence C. Dodd
UF Department of Political Science
2006-2007 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Mentoring doctoral students is one of the great challenges in higher education. From kindergarten to doctoral prelims the educational system asks students to learn a prescribed body of knowledge and rewards those who do so. Then at the dissertation stage the experience shifts towards the creation of knowledge. Within political science, my realm of doctoral instruction, this shift requires that students address an empirical puzzle that no one has yet solved — and thus for which there is no prescribed “right” answer. Moreover, such puzzle-solving is made particularly difficult for the students by the lack of a disciplinary “paradigm” that identifies the puzzles, theories and methods appropriate for inquiry. Rather, political scientists resist embracing a common paradigm.
While virtually all political scientists would agree that our discipline “seeks to clarify and explain the ways that humans engage in effective governance,” there is great hesitation in embracing one particular definition of effective governance. Doing so, it is feared, could impose an ideological agenda on scholars that would blind us from seeing broader possibilities for governance. Similarly, there is resistance to embracing one specific set of theories or methods lest they serve a narrow and distorting vision of politics.
The result, as a one scholar recently suggested, is that “every political scientist must be his own Aristotle.” Stated differently, when a political scientist goes forward into the world of empirical inquiry, he or she must be prepared both to address the logic and reliability of the research findings, as in normal science, and to address the work’s normative perspective, as in the humanities. This research orientation allows for a vibrant discipline that fosters critical normative dialogue supported by rigorous empirical observation. Yet it is also a discipline in which the scholar must be prepared to pursue knowledge “naked-to-the-world,” without the ready protection of a disciplinary canon which specifies the correct normative vision and puzzle-solving strategies to pursue.
Inducting young political scientists into dissertation research is thus truly a challenge — and a challenge no one scholar can undertake alone. Good mentoring must be collective in nature, with collective mentoring fostered by a well-designed graduate program that prepares students to adapt to the paradigmatic openness of our discipline and by a faculty committed to working together across scholarly divides in the nurturance and counseling of students. The personal contribution various ones of us make to dissertation mentoring in political science builds on strong departmental foundations of collective mentoring.
Supported by the structures of collective mentoring, I have sought to introduce students to the study of American political institutions, particularly the Congress, and to mentor them through to dissertation completion. The critical issue I face is how best to do so within a discipline and subfield that lacks a common paradigm to guide inquiry.
The most honest thing to say, in characterizing my approach, is that I trust to the students’ deep curiosity and to the distinctive truth about politics that their curiosity can uncover when it is allowed to flourish. The Congress is such a vital governing institution that almost any puzzle about politics that fascinates students can find resonance in developments on Capitol Hill. The task is to foster this resonance student-by-student.
The power of such resonance is seen in the experience of a student who was preoccupied with religion and politics. One day she suddenly asked: “How does Congress make policies on issues that involve conflicting moral judgments about right and wrong?” — thereby encapsulating her core concerns. To aid the student in “finding her dissertation puzzle” — one never before addressed so forthrightly in research — I engaged with her across years of coursework and conversation, listening closely and mirroring back her maturing research interests, silencing my agenda and respecting her search for her own.
The second thing to say is that, in guiding students toward empirical work on their puzzles, I urge them to challenge their preconceptions through rigorous theorizing and close empirical observation. While deep personal curiosity may drive their puzzles, and generate original and path-breaking questions, their (often ideologically driven) personal approaches to these puzzles must be subject to reason and empirical examination.
Thus in the example above, a task for the student was to understand how legislators opposed to her moral position on abortion could in fact be acting in good faith in their own policy efforts. The solution was twofold: first, spending the summer working for a Congressman who opposed her views (and gaining interviews with like-minded members through his assistance); and second, framing the study of these and other members (with whom she agreed) in terms of social science theory rather than ideology. The result was a dissertation (and book) marked by considerable empathy and breadth of perspective.
The final thing I would say is that the true sign of success in mentoring, for me, is whether or not students find a clear and resonant voice. Finding their voice generally comes as students see the ways in which their empirical studies build on and inform our normative discourse about politics and governance. To aid in this regard, I urge prospectus committees to encourage students to address such linkages and urge students to include faculty on committees who are attuned to normative concerns.
In the example given above, “finding her voice” came as the student confronted the limited capacity of Congress to resolve moral conflicts within society through policy mandates. In response, beginning at the prospectus defense, she came to reassess the normative standards by which to judge the Congress. She concluded that Congress is not only a policy-making body, but a deliberative forum in which issues can be raised to public consciousness and societal debate. Congress may succeed as social mediator by fostering public debate and moral awareness, whereas it may fail if it seeks to impose a moral order. For a student committed to moral activism, this broadening of her normative perspective on Congress released enormous energy during her dissertation research.
The ultimate role of the mentor in political science thus lies, in my experience, in supporting the student as she seeks to become “her own Aristotle.” Armed with an understanding of the linkage between empirical investigation and the abiding normative debates about governance, the novice political scientist can venture forth into the scholarly fray with confidence. She can do so sustained not by adherence to a disciplinary paradigm but by a growing belief in her capacities to address meaningful puzzles about governance through the interplay of empirical investigation and normative discourse.