Social Sciences

Class Act

How to finesse the tricky balance of the elite researcher-teacher
Close-up of political science professor Dan Tichenor

Dan Tichenor tells a funny story about testifying before Congress on immigration reform.

The year was 2007 and the setting was Ellis Island. Tichenor, then a research professor at Rutgers University and a top scholar on the issue, had been summoned by a committee of the US House of Representatives to provide a legislative history.

Tichenor (above) was deeply honored to provide an expert briefing to Congress, of course, and the trip was also an occasion to visit New York City with his daughter, then 11. Waiting to give his remarks at iconic Ellis Island, the kaleidoscope of races and ethnicities represented at the hearing stirred in Tichenor strong memories of his own German-Hungarian roots. Father and daughter also got a kick out of their escorts, a security detail from the Department of Homeland Security, complete with the tell-tale wires tucked behind one ear.

Then the hearing started. Tasked only with setting the stage for a rigorous debate, Tichenor might have assumed that his would be the only testimony rendered that day without sparking contention. But this was immigration reform—Tichenor had no sooner finished his remarks than he found himself answering a highly speculative line of questioning from committee member Steve King, of Iowa.

“Let’s just say the Isle of Atlantis emerged and there were a billion people on the Isle of Atlantis and we decided we’re going to take them all in in one fell swoop in a given year,” King said.

Atlantis? Tichenor felt his pulse quicken. He had prepared himself for many potential lines of questioning but immigration from Atlantis was not one of them.

He began to respond, but King cut him off. The Congressman suggested that a massive influx of immigrants, as in the scenario he proposed, would dilute “American culture”—an important consideration in the immigration debate. He pressed Tichenor to identify whether there was something missing from American culture that immigrants should fill.

“I don’t think we’re missing anything in our culture,” Tichenor responded, grateful for an angle that he could thoughtfully address. “We’ve always been ‘a nation becoming’ and so, as such, we’ve always added extra layers to it. If anything, those who are the biggest critics over time—of a new wave of immigrants bringing in a new culture that they find threatening—they’ve been impatient with how long it takes, in fact, for newcomers to assimilate.”

In other words, the fact that our culture adapts to immigrants is part of what defines it.

Apparently satisfied, King turned his questions to another witness and Tichenor exhaled. Thinking back on the experience recently, Tichenor, now a UO political science professor, allowed that he has since thought of many pithy rejoinders he might have delivered that day. But minor regrets aside, he wouldn’t have traded his turn on the hot seat for the world.

“I consider my scholarship to be an important contribution (to the public conversation),” he said.

What He’s Not Doing

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, sophomore Maya Robbins stood shyly at the head of her class, alongside Tichenor, who asked her to portray one of the most famous attorneys in American history—Clarence Darrow, lead defense in the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial.

Reading from a transcript—with Tichenor in the role of William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist and three-time presidential candidate—Robbins and the professor recreated a spirited exchange between the chief contestants in one of the nation’s pivotal court trials.

Spirited exchanges are nothing new for Tichenor, as his congressional testimony attests. And that’s just one example of his public profile at a national level (also: The New York Times op-eds, National Public Radio commentary, essays for The Nation). Heading into a presidential election year, he is likely to be called upon as a go-to analyst, given that he specializes in both immigration and the US presidency.

Yet here he is in a UO classroom with a young undergraduate, urging her to get into character as Darrow.

It’s not just his encouragement and kindness that makes this moment special. It’s also what he’s not doing: lecturing. Here is a prolific scholar who has garnered scores of awards for his research on immigration, the presidency and social movements—someone who might be expected to get up in front of 300 students twice a week in a big lecture hall and personally mentor only a select few PhD students. At most public research institutions, this might be the norm for a professor of this status.

But that is just not Tichenor’s style.

This is not to say that Tichenor never lectures, but “with most of my class sessions, I’m doing academic exercises, discussions, simulations,” he says. “It’s like a pitcher in baseball—I don’t always want to throw a fastball.” Thus the script-reading scenario. The next day, it might be asking students to present various sides of the gun control issue or engage in personality assessments of past presidents. Whether he is standing before 20 students in a select program or 85 in an introductory course on public policy, Tichenor is guided by the same principle: Get them to participate.

The elite researcher-teacher is a tricky balance to maintain, given the demand to constantly publish scholarly articles and books. The UO is unusual among top-tier research universities in its expectation that its most esteemed faculty members will also teach—even introductory classes. This is completely in line with Tichenor’s own modus operandi.

Political science professor Dan Tichenor receives the Crystal Apple Award

Tichenor was awarded a Crystal Apple for his “versatility, polish and depth” as a teacher.

He holds the prestigious title of Philip H. Knight Chair—and was just named to the inaugural class of Carnegie Fellows—which acknowledge his status as a researcher. Yet he won’t allow his research efforts to steal from what he feels is ultimately the more important work awaiting him in the classroom.

Last year, in fact, Tichenor (right) won the university’s Ersted Award for Distinguished Teaching (The Crystal Apple), which recognizes exceptional early-career faculty. In presenting the award, then president Michael Gottfredson offered this praise: “His dynamism is matched only by his versatility, polish and depth. Students at all levels, from freshmen to graduates, commend Tichenor’s commitment to inspiring his students to take their new knowledge and skills outside the classroom.”


Hand-Picked Top Scholars

It all comes down to prioritizing what happens in the classroom. Margaret Hallock, director of the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, said flatly, of Tichenor: “I can’t believe how much time he spends with those students.”

Hallock was referring to Tichenor’s commitment to the Wayne Morse Scholars Program, a selective top-scholar program he founded in 2013 to provide talented and service-oriented students such as Robbins with an intensive, hands-on approach to studying complex issues in government and politics. Over two years, 20 or so hand-picked sophomores and juniors from political science and a variety of other majors enjoy seminar-style instruction, mentored research opportunities and practical experience in public affairs and American politics (One among them, Andrew Lubash, has enjoyed uncommon success.)

The chance to develop a program for top undergraduates was a big factor in recruiting Tichenor away from Rutgers, said Bruce Blonigen, associate dean for the social sciences. “It speaks to his dedication to teaching and engaging the next generation of citizens in important political and societal issues.”

With the Morse Scholars Program, Tichenor has created an “intellectual neighborhood,” Hallock said—a way for like-minded students to connect at a large university. In this neighborhood, Tichenor is more than just a teacher and scholarly role model, she added—he’s committed to the needs of every student, writing endless letters of recommendation and providing individualized academic support and career advising.

Hallock noted that while most Wayne Morse Scholars fulfill the practical requirement of the program through internships, Tichenor also honors requests to complete this expectation through a demanding research project—which for him, is a much more time-consuming undertaking.

Political science major Kelly Brandon, for example, has worked with Tichenor steadily for nearly a year while crafting an undergraduate thesis on the Supreme Court and its handling of juvenile offenders; he helped shape her project, guided her around obstacles in research gathering, connected her with a second reader for the project and edited multiple drafts.

Said Hallock: “He teaches the large classes and small classes, he does the research, he provides the advisory help and mentorship to students and colleagues, and his service record (to the university) is commendable. He does it all.”

Sudden Incongruity

The Scopes trial exercise was part of a Morse Scholars course called Democratic Dilemmas, designed to inspire students to tackle tough political and policy issues.

Following his faux debate with Robbins, Tichenor—in the span of a minute or two—guided the discussion from comfortable and somewhat predictable surface issues into much more ambiguous and challenging depths.

It started easily enough. One student argued that the scientific facts of evolution should trump the position of those who felt creationism should stand unchallenged.

But then Tichenor noted that scientists of the day also favored eugenics, the belief that the human race could be improved by allowing only people with “desired” traits to reproduce. That scientific “fact” has since been widely discredited, he added— so when should we defer to science and when should we question it?

A palpable and extended quiet fell over the room as 20-some young minds simultaneously shifted into high gear and began sifting through arguments to reconcile this sudden incongruity in logic.

Aerin Lerch, an environmental studies student, eventually waded in, haltingly. “I think the really important thing to always have in the school system is critical thinking,” she said. “Because science, I feel like, well, I don’t know. OK, so…”

“I think you’re on to a great point there,” Tichenor said, coaxing her along. “Don’t move away from that.”

Lerch collected her thoughts and tried again. “Scientists are always discovering more things and coming up with new ideas,” she said. “So while eugenics might have been the popularly accepted idea within the scientific community, that doesn’t make it right.

“We have to be critical of scientific findings,” she concluded, “and how they have an impact on ideas.”

Bingo. Tichenor, clearly pleased, finished the thought off. “What you’re saying here—which I love—is we should have a constant testing and contest of ideas within the classroom,” he said, “and within the scientific community.”

One of Tichenor’s biggest goals, he said later, is to turn his students into well-informed skeptics of status-quo thinking. But that’s not enough—he wants them to turn their analysis into action, to actively and thoughtfully pursue solutions that bridge the ideological gaps that are all-too-prevalent in this country.

“I want to make them better citizens,” Tichenor said. “In a democracy, we need to get over the typical partisan or ideological split to engage in public discourse on these difficult issues. I’m exposing students to a wide variety of ideas to challenge the initial assumption a student might have on any given question.”

Was Roosevelt Right?

Tichenor has published dozens of journal articles and book chapters on the American presidency, and on Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, in particular. His forthcoming book will address wartime presidents and the challenge of balancing national security and civil liberties.

In one of his recent classes, Tichenor found a “teachable moment” drawing on this research: the moral and ethical dilemma that FDR faced in World War II with “Operation Pastorius.”

That was the name given by eight German saboteurs to a plan in 1942 to attack hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls and other targets. Although they were caught before they had committed any acts of sabotage, Roosevelt was convinced that the country’s response should be as ruthless as the Nazi aggressor; he created a military tribunal that—backed by the US Supreme Court—found the accused in violation of the law of war and sentenced them to death. Six were executed in the electric chair, while the sentences of two who cooperated were commuted.

Tichenor introduced this scenario and began probing his students: Should the would-be saboteurs have been held as prisoners of war? What about jail time? Public sentiment was overwhelmingly for execution—what would you do, as president? As chief justice on the Supreme Court?

On one level, Tichenor said, this example forces students to broaden their perspective to see FDR in a light other than the generally glowing one that has survived over the years in popular culture.

But for a group of young students who are studying military tribunals and constitutional law, it’s also an opportunity to “peel back the layers of the onion,” Tichenor said, by using a compelling, real-life example to explore the tension between executive power and democracy.

“That’s a more interesting ethical debate for students—‘Was FDR right or not?’” Tichenor said. “Here’s an example where you can sink your teeth in. I want them to begin to think about the evidence and arguments on different sides of a tough question. I want them to gain some skills about how they want to clarify their own position on these things and to understand that there aren’t always going to be easy answers.”

When Students become Teachers

“You guys doing OK? I feel like I should get a beach ball or something for you to play with, get your blood flowing again.”

It was a Tuesday morning early in the year and students in Tichenor’s presidency class were, to be honest, dragging a bit.

Political science professor Dan Tichenor writes on the whiteboard while teachingThe upper-level course pushes students to analyze the American presidency through a multifaceted lens, revealing the uneasy relationship between liberty, democracy and executive power. Tichenor covers the entire history of the presidency over the 10-week schedule, starting with debates by the framers over presidential authority and ending with Obama and leadership in a time of divided government.

As with everything else he teaches, Tichenor places a premium on participation in this class. He likes to cite Paolo Freire, one of the past century’s most influential education theorists, who criticized classroom education as a process that too often treats students as empty vaults where instructors make “deposits” of knowledge.

“Education is most effective and liberating when there is a strong ‘dialogue’ in the classroom,” he quotes Freire in the course syllabus. “When students become teachers and vice versa.”

On this morning, however, his students needed a little prodding, and Tichenor gradually nudged them back to life, strolling the room comfortably and sprinkling his presentation with plenty of pop-culture references and amusing asides about politics in Dayton, Tennessee, and his parents’ adulation for JFK. If the moment calls for it, Tichenor is also quick to assume the character of influential figures ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

On that day, he brought up the late James David Barber, a political scientist famous in the 1970s for predicting a president’s success by assessing his personality and classifying him as either “active” or “passive,” and “positive” or “negative.”

Tichenor rattled off a string of past presidents—Washington, FDR, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama—and students responded in turn, calling out and placing each in one of four categories. This call-and-response seemed to rejuvenate the class, and then Tichenor delivered the kicker: Research shows that the top-ranked presidents of history had personalities across the board—completely disproving Barber’s theory.

While the punch line may have left some students disappointed that presidents can-not be summed up in such a convenient fashion, it got the ball rolling. Political science major Taylor Thompson spoke up: “Obviously, in practice, (Barber’s theory) is not very useful because you don’t really know the whole background of someone’s life. But let’s say you could really get to that (background), do you think his theory would be useful?”

“Oh yeah, that would be great,” Tichenor responded. “But the problem is that what contemporary presidents tell biographers is very carefully filtered by their handlers. We will always have imperfect information.”

This is the rhythm of the give-and-take. With apologies to Will Rogers, Tichenor apparently never saw a raised hand that he wouldn’t call on.

“He loves listening to what students have to say,” said political science major Ansel Carr, who took the presidency class last winter. “He’ll listen to what the student says, and then he’ll talk about it. He’s interested in everything.”

“I Can Do Better Than That”

A story: Preparing to teach for the first time, Tichenor, then an assistant professor at Rutgers, visited the classroom where one of his courses was to be held.

Three hundred students were seated in a sprawling expanse as flat and uninviting as a desert. A teaching assistant walked to the front of the room, announced that the professor was traveling (again), and pressed a button on a tape recorder. With that, the monotonous drone of the professor’s voice began.

“There was a PowerPoint, too, and periodically he would say, ‘next slide,’ and the assistant would change the slide,” Tichenor said, laughing. “You could hear the traffic in the background. He was probably recording it on the way to the airport. I thought, ‘I can do better than that.’”

Needless to say, his commitment to active instruction was not inspired by this virtual professor. Instead, it can be traced to his mother, a public-school principal, and his father, a Lutheran minister. But Tichenor owes the development of his approach to what he saw from the professors around him—both good and bad—while earning his PhD in political science from Brandeis University and teaching at Rutgers.

“I’ve been unwilling to make research be the be-all and end-all,” Tichenor said. “Even the most successful work one could do as a scholar will only have a fraction of the influence that you’ll have on the students that you’re going to spend time with. Those relationships matter a great deal to me.”


―Matt Cooper

Photos: Studio McDermott (portrait and classroom) and Tim Christie (award)