A Healthy Exchange
University of Manheim
When Hopkins associate political science professor Mark Blyth finished his first class session of Contentious Topics in European Political Economy last June, he was startled by a rumble that shook the classroom. “I thought it was an earthquake or something,” he recalls, laughing. Turns out the noise was just the appreciative students in his class at the University of Mannheim, banging on their desks.
“In Germany, students don’t applaud at the end of lectures,” Blyth later learned. “They knock on their desks.”
Chalk up another learning moment in the academic exchange between the political science departments of Johns Hopkins and Mannheim universities. Established in the late 1980s by the Krieger School’s Richard Katz, the exchange each year brings a handful of graduate students from Mannheim to Hopkins to take classes. More recently, the Krieger School has begun to send political science graduate students and faculty to teach at the German university.
The German exchange students, who take all their courses in English, enrich the political science experience at the Krieger School because of the strength they bring in empirical analysis, Katz has found. “Mannheim is one of the European centers of empirical political science,” he says. The students who come to Hopkins “are very strong in survey research. They’ve been among the best students we’ve had studying American politics.”
The benefits of the program extend both ways, according to Blyth, who taught his first course at Mannheim last summer, while also studying German at the Goethe Institute.
“What you tend to get from a German professor is: What does the data tell us? They are very much focused on the data,” says Blyth. He worked hard to “provoke and push the boundaries” of what his German graduate students “think they know.”
Toward that end, he encouraged his students to ask questions prior to their analysis of the data, for example, How would you know that the standard story of European unemployment is right? “That seemed to be quite a revelation,” Blyth says. On his final exam, an essay test in English, he concluded with the challenge: Having completed this course, the readings, and discussions, you must now advise the German chancellor on German economic policy. “They all got terribly freaked out about that one,” says Blyth, “whereas American students would jump at that kind of question.”
Krieger School graduate student Erin Ackerman returned last summer to Mannheim for her second stint of teaching Introduction to American Government to the university’s undergraduates. She’s found the biggest difference in teaching German students is “in the style of reading and approaching texts.” At Mannheim, she says, “Students read more closely and really focus on the specific details supporting an author’s argument,” in contrast to American students, who are expected to read more pages for the broader themes and concepts.
Ackerman says the Mannheim teaching experience has also challenged her to examine her own assumptions about American politics. She recalls a German student, for example, who interrupted her lecture on voting rights to ask, “’Could you explain this whole registering-to-vote process?’” The question launched an entire discussion about how U.S. voter registration and other structural differences might affect voter turnout and political participation.
—Sue De Pasquale