By William Harms
Photo by Dan Dry

Students learn best when they are excited by the questions and by the prospect of looking for answers.”
—Charles Lipson

In teaching, the questions are as important as the answers, says political science professor Charles Lipson.

“I never want my courses to sound like the answers are all settled and that my job is simply to dish them out,” Lipson says. “Students learn best when they are excited by the questions and by the prospect of looking for answers.”

Lipson’s own research deals with international cooperation and conflict, and with political aspects of the world economy. His most recent book on international relations, Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace, explains one of the most striking features in world politics: why democracies do not fight wars against each other.

He also has written extensively about education and academic integrity. His book Doing Honest Work in College: How to Prepare Citations, Avoid Plagiarism, and Achieve Real Academic Success, published by the UChicago Press, is used as a guide on many campuses. It is the first book for college students that deals comprehensively with academic honesty, plagiarism, and citations, including effective use of the Internet.

Fostering intellectual inquiry

Intellectual openness is crucial, says Lipson. “Whether a class is a large lecture or a small seminar, I want to encourage student inquiry.”

To foster exchanges, Lipson tries to make his classes comfortable spaces. “It really helps when students begin addressing each other by name, when they start posing questions to each other instead of simply turning to me,” he says. “I love it when they begin to push each other intellectually and build on each other’s answers,” he adds.

Lipson teaches a wide variety of courses in the College, from large lecture classes to smaller upper-level seminars. The teaching style is quite different for the two.

“In a lecture,” he says, “it’s crucial to provide structure—to post slides of your main points and to include lots of visual material. When I’m discussing the run-up to World War I, for example, it really helps to include maps, pictures of national leaders, photos of weapons and arms factories, and even propaganda posters. The visual cues reinforce the key points in the lecture,” he says. “In seminars, the structure is more subtle but no less important. It comes from nudging the discussion one way or another and keeping it focused.”

“I really love that he teaches classes that employ international relations theory without being too theoretical,” says fourth-year student Tara Chandra. “The 19th-century world politics class that he taught in the fall was basically an in-depth look at how IR theory explains the historical events of the 19th century, especially in Europe. But instead of just being theoretical, it taught students how to apply the theory they learned to actual history.”

Former professor inspires teaching

When he’s teaching, Lipson says, he frequently remembers his own favorite undergraduate teacher, Charles E. Lindblom, a professor of political science and economics at Yale University. “He taught me in several seminars and was a model of what a good teacher can be. By taking us seriously, he seemed to shepherd us into his intellectual world,” Lipson says.

Lipson’s students are equally appreciative of the impact he’s had on them.

“He can command a lecture hall with ease but values each of his students and goes out of his way to be helpful. His commitment to quality instruction and research is evident in every conversation,” says fourth-year Greg Nance.

“I love teaching in the College, and I feel privileged to teach at the University of Chicago," Lipson says. "Our students are wonderfully smart, wonderfully interested. Most important of all, they seem to love ideas for their own sake. What more could a professor want?”

Originally published on May 27, 2011.