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Strategies for Bringing Material to Life in PA Instruction 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jose G. Alcaine
July 21, 2023

As we cycle through the many semesters within the college teaching practice, I am always thinking about my next class and how I can be a more a effective instructor of public administration, public policy, public affairs and other related topics. It goes without saying that we care about the teaching and learning of our students, however I am always thinking about how to make the material in class come to life. I sometimes fear not getting across how important the material is and how impactful some of the topics can be on students’ daily lives. This can be a challenge, of course, when students are asked to read lengthy chapters in a required textbook. As I prepare to teach a large introductory public affairs class next semester, I am already thinking about how I can make the material more relevant to them. There are many strategies for doing this of course, but below I share some specific strategies I plan to use. Some of these strategies I have used in the past and plan to use much more during my next class. 

Guest Speakers 

If you have access to them, notable guest speakers can add a “been there, done that” quality to your class material. There is a certain power that can be transmitted to the students in your class when the guest speaker was part of a historic event, promoted the passage of marquee legislation, took part in a social movement or held a particular public office. Of course, this could be you as the instructor with the lived experience, but there is another level of learning that happens when an invited person gives their testimonial. Reading in a textbook about Hurricane Katrina is much different than hearing from a guest speaker who lived through Hurricane Katrina from a policy and citizen perspective. The text becomes real life when a person tells their own story to the class. Hearing from a guest speaker about their experience as a high-ranking public official and how they were involved in crafting impactful legislation after days/hours of committee meetings and negotiations is much different than just reading about the legislative process in the class textbook. The personal stories add a dimension that makes the policy process and public administration real. A diverse set of guest speakers can also inspire the next generation of public service leaders and actors, as the students in the class see and hear what the many possibilities are within the field. The guest speakers become role models for the students, allowing them to see what their own success and careers could look like.  

Current Events and Media 

If you don’t have access to guest speakers, try using digital sources or current event reporting to augment text material. It’s one thing to read a several years old case study in a textbook about water quality when you can show a video in class from last night’s Newshour about water quality issues in a major metropolitan area. The news video is in the now, alive and more immediate to the students as they watch in class. The current event video also provides updated material to use in class assessments, class exercises or assignments. Another useful teaching tool available from a variety of sources are audio podcasts. The proliferation of episode-based podcasts and programs means that there is a good chance any topic covered in your textbook can be supported with a relevant podcast episode from a reputable news source or organization. Assigning a podcast for a class assignment is an efficient, effective and fun way to supplement your class material. Using digital video and audio tools in class can also support and reinforce desired teaching objectives as the students can see and better understand the impact of public policy, the policy process and public leadership decision making. Current events shared through digital media can also impress on the students the importance and immediacy of public policy and public affairs in our daily lives and how students are also part of this living, public process.  

Leverage On-going Programming 

Another way to bring material in our classes to life is to have students attend lectures, programs or activities already taking place on campus as a way to complement their in-class instruction. Attendance to these events can be used as part of class assignments or as an extracurricular activity that counts for in class points. Is a noted researcher or public official visiting campus for a program or lecture open to the broader community? Is the campus food pantry sponsoring a lecture on food insecurity? Is the student health clinic offering programming on wellness, service access and mental health? Leverage these events as part of your class if it brings the topics to life and fits your in-class material. By leveraging on-campus programming, students will also benefit from the networking, discussion and resource awareness that usually accompanies these events. Actively engaging the students via on-going programming can also advance their own agency in the public service process. Through their engagement outside of class they become part of the decision-making process, the conversation, the learning and the activities taking place all around them in their community. 

The strategies above are three simple, but effective ways to bring our text and class material to life. These strategies can also support program level learning objectives and curriculum goals of preparing critically thinking, civic minded, engaged individuals. In my practice, I have used guest speakers and media to great effect. I have also leveraged some programming before, but plan to use this strategy much more next time I teach the introductory public affairs class. My hope as an instructor is to keep students engaged with the material and the class as we all learn together. My best hope is to inspire students to see their place in society as a civic minded, engaged citizen, to promote the public good and even to promote their career and their future in public administration and public affairs. No pressure in these current times, right?

Author: Jose G. Alcaine, Ph.D., Adjunct Instructor, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Alcaine is a member of the ASPA Section on Public Administration Education.  

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