Otterbein New Teacher of the Year Rachel Schwartz Teaches Students to be Comfortable with “Messy and Complicated” Topics
Posted May 10, 2022
Each year, Otterbein honors outstanding teachers for their impact on their students, colleagues, and the University. Assistant Professor of Political Science Rachel Schwartz, the recipient of this year’s New Teacher of the Year Award, has received rave reviews from students taking her courses. To learn how she offers such a meaningful learning experience to her students, we asked her some questions about her approach to teaching.
How would you describe your teaching style?
Schwartz: As a teacher, I strive to foster an environment of empowered learning in which students are the engines of their own educational development, rather than passive recipients of information. I try to help students develop a sense of self-efficacy and encourage them to pursue their own curiosities through student-driven course assignments. Through my teaching I also aim to provide students with the tools and strategies to solve problems, draw connections, and reflect critically on their own values, beliefs, and experiences.
What inspires you to teach?
Schwartz: What inspires me most is seeing students take the knowledge and skills they are acquiring in the classroom and apply them outside of it. For example, three students from my International Law course last fall are working as part-time paralegals for a local immigration attorney. In the class last semester, they did an assignment where they had to write an expert declaration on behalf of a fictional person seeking asylum in the United States. They’ve since told me that the assignment was so relevant to the work they’re doing now. It’s these moments — when students are able to see those real-world connections — that are the most rewarding.
What do you hope your students take from your classes?
Schwartz: The primary thing I want students to take away from my classes is an appreciation for the complexity of the social and political world and the need for nuance in examining it. At a time in which we are constantly bombarded with new information that has been distilled into 140 characters or a brief soundbite for us, it’s easy to see everything as a “black or white,” “all or nothing” issue. But in my classroom, I always try to “muddy the waters” and get students comfortable sitting in and grappling with that gray area of uncertainty. When students are somewhat unsure of how they feel about a particular political issue because they can see it from multiple, competing angles, I feel like I’ve done my job. It means they are thinking critically, wrestling with the messy and complicated nature of politics, and reflecting on what it means for them.
Why are you passionate about the subjects you teach?
Schwartz: I’ve had the great fortune of being able to do quite a bit of international travel, starting when I was a college student. I’ve always been very curious about how people in other places with different histories, norms, and experiences live and how they engage with the world. Being able to spark in students a similar curiosity about and eagerness to engage with and learn from the rest of the world undergirds everything I do in the classroom. I think cultivating this broader global awareness is particularly important on a campus like Otterbein’s given that there are so many first-generation students.
What is your favorite class to teach?
Schwartz: This is a tough one, but I’d probably say it’s a tie between my Comparative Government course and my International Law course.
In Comparative Government, students learn about the building blocks of politics around the world. We ask questions like “What is democracy?,” “Why do democratic systems break down or become stronger?,” “Why do people engage in protest?,” “What is nationalism and how does it shape politics?” I like this course because it’s exciting to watch student get those foundational concepts and theories and then apply them to contemporary events in the United States and abroad.
I enjoy teaching International Law, which is a more advanced course, because it really asks students to grapple with big questions related to the nature of international cooperation and conflict. I also use some really fun simulations in that course, which students seem to enjoy.
What do you think students get from Otterbein faculty that they can’t get anywhere else?
Schwartz: I think students get a level of attention and concern that is hard to find at larger institutions. We invest in learning who our students are and what makes them tick, which also helps us find and pass on exciting professional opportunities that allow students to build skills and find their passions outside of the classroom.
What is one lesson you want students to carry with them not related to the subject matter?
Schwartz: The one lesson that I hope students carry with them is that they don’t have to have it all figured out — either in college or afterward. Try new things that you’re not so sure about! Get outside of your comfort-zone! Worst case, you learn a little bit more about the things you don’t like while on your journey to discover what you do. And that’s very useful information to have too.