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Participant-Observation in the Washington Semester

by Russell Riley and Jack Nagel

A time-honored principle of pedagogy holds that learning is enhanced when students engage in an unfiltered encounter with the natural or social world. This premise justifies laboratory research and field work as powerful complements to classroom interaction and library study. Since 1994, the College's Washington Semester Program (WSP) has offered experiential learning to students of politics. Undergraduates enrolled in the WSP spend an entire term in the nation's capital, devoting three days a week to an unpaid, government-related work assignment, and taking a common set of courses offered by Penn faculty residing in or traveling to Washington.

The core course in the Washington curriculum is largely devoted to training students to become participant-observers. Applying this anthropological technique to domestic political settings is less odd than it may seem, because in many ways the culture of Washington is exotic, with its own peculiar folkways and rituals, hierarchies, and incentive structures, as well as a unique language impenetrable to the outsider. Immersion holds promise of revealing to our students the mysteries of a culture at once alien and familiar.

Penn's WSP students have proved remarkably adept in getting themselves placed in prominent and interesting work sites, including committee and personal staffs on Capitol Hill, the White House, the Dole for President campaign, CNN, Nightline, the Children's Defense Fund, the Pentagon, and a host of other federal agencies. Participation at the workplace in itself serves an educative function, conveying valuable skills ranging from how to compose a professional memorandum to management of intra-office conflict. We do not, however, believe that advanced vocational training is a sufficient reason for the University to sponsor the temporary movement of our students into the political arena. Although the internship is required of WSP students, the program gives no academic credit for workplace participation per se. Instead, it requires that students demonstrate the intellectual value of their experiences. WSP teachers must therefore help them become informed, critical, and insightful observers of American political life.

Accomplishing these objectives is no mean feat, because we are usually working against a powerful countervailing force: workplace partisanshipnot in the narrow sense of commitment to Republican or Democratic advantage, but rather the tendency we all have to become partisans of the institutions with which we are affiliated, to make biased judgments based on where we sit. Such impulses are especially strong in young, enthusiastic workers, who want to make a favorable impression on supervisors who might provide paid jobs or crucial letters of recommendation after the term ends.

The program counters such impulses in two main ways. First, the shared classroom experience helps students achieve a measure of critical distance from the workplace. Here we actually aspire to offer an ivory tower, a refuge of rationality in a setting not always hospitable to it. (Of course, the usual ivory-tower dangers of hyper-abstraction do not obtain when the student's real-world anxieties are just a Metro ride away.) Those who import workplace biases into the classroom are subject to gentle correctives, not only from professors but also from fellow students who have been alerted to both the benefits and hazards of immersion in the political world. We know we have established the appropriate classroom culture when a student begins her comments with the disclaimer, "I may be `going native' here, but...".

Second, the Washington Semester features an array of original research options that require our students to exploit primary sources not readily available in Philadelphia. Some pursue interview-based research, questioning people at the workplace or using connections developed there. One such student interviewed representatives of competing Cuban-American interest groups in order to develop an insightful analysis of their influence on American policy. Others take advantage of written resources at the workplace, such as internal records or confidential studies unavailable to outsiders. For example, a student content-analyzed incoming White House correspondence in search of patterns in popular perceptions of the presidency. Still others find useful material in Washington's mountains of archives. This semester, history Professor Marc Trachtenberg is sending his students into such sources as the National Archives and the records of the Holocaust Memorial, to awaken them to the complexities of historical research. In each case, the writing project imposes on the student the need to reflect carefully on the evidence Washington affords, and to analyze it according to high standards of research under close faculty scrutiny.

The results have been gratifying. In each of the last two years, prize-winning senior honors theses in American politics originated in their authors' Washington semesters, as did four articles published in Sound Politicks, the journal of the political science honor society. Moreover, the work of some WSP students has been published by in-house organs in Washington, testifying to the value their contributions have for employers. Program alumni have developed an enviable record of subsequent performance, which many attribute to their experience in the Washington Semester.

In part, these successes are a function of scale. WSP enrollment is limited to no more than twenty students per semester, so our students receive the kind of one-on-one attention that is not always possible on campus. Nevertheless, direct experience within the capital community remains the central distinguishing feature of the Washington Semester. What students can discover there about the nation's political life is no more replaceable than what their undergraduate colleagues in biology or astronomy are discovering through microscopes and telescopes. It is the thrill of the direct encounter that, we hope, will spark in these students the intense, enduring enthusiasm for learning that ought to be at the center of a Penn education.

The Talk About Teaching series is a joint project of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society.
Dr. Riley, a lecturer in political science, teaches the core seminar of the Washington Semester Program and is its on-site associate director. Dr. Nagel, a professor of political science, is director of the program.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, November 18 1997, Volume 44, No. 13