It could be said that MCCC’s new political science professor has teaching in his blood.
Michael Snyder comes from a family of teachers.
“Both my parents are teachers, my younger brother is a teacher, my older brother is an MD who, as part of his job, teaches medical residents and students,” Snyder said.
His relatives focus on physical sciences, including chemistry, physics, and biology.
“I’m sort of the oddball,” he said. “I broke ranks, becoming a political scientist and really focusing on political philosophy.”
Snyder was born in the small coastal community of Baytown, Texas. When he was 7, he and his family moved to Springfield, Ill.
He began his college education with an inclination toward following in his family’s footsteps.
“I was originally a physics major, for about a year and a half, before changing to political science,” Snyder said.
“I changed because I found the kinds of problems that political scientists, and especially political theorists, face to be more engaging.”
He ended up splitting time between Springfield and Peoria for school.
“I started at a community college called Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ill. It’s really not an overstatement to say that you get a stronger academic feel at a two-year school than a four-year school,” Snyder said.
“You tend to get teachers more interested in teaching than research in two-year schools.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good teachers at four-year schools, he said. It’s just that you don’t have much contact with them until your third and fourth years.
“A first- or second-year student typically has less opportunity to meet directly with their professors,” he said.
The start that students can achieve at a community college is very important to Snyder.
“I really think it provides a great opportunity for students to advance themselves at a two-year school,” he said.
He said he could tell he had an advantage over other students when he transferred to a four-year university.
“If I had to do it over again, I would probably pick to do my first two years at a community college again,” he said.
When it came time to move up to graduate school, the road was long, though enjoyable, Snyder said.
“I was slow getting through school. I ended up with two bachelor’s degrees and a minor, though it ended up taking me five years to get them.
“I finished my master’s and my Ph.D. on time, with breaks working in industry in between. Though it was a bit slow, I would do it again,” Snyder said.
He decided to switch things up when it came time to attend graduate school, choosing Queen’s University Belfast, in Northern Ireland.
“I lived there for about four years and that was an adventure,” he said.
Synder liked that courses were typically set up with two hours of lecture and one hour in a small group seminar.
“So even if you had about 40 students, you would meet up in groups of eight for discussion. That’s something that I would like to maybe implement as a teaching style in my own classes for my own purposes,” he said.
Snyder has taken all of his experiences across the United States and from his time abroad into consideration when it comes to his own teaching methods.
“Class discussion is very important,” he said. “I always encourage it with either voicing your opinion or raising your hand. Asking questions doesn’t just inform the students, but informs me as well, so questions are always welcome.”
He also has changed his views on being a student.
“School is a lot of hard work,” he said. “I think people underestimate how hard students work.”
Now 37, he said he’s not sure he could go back again and be a student.
“Before getting a job and everything else, you have to work about 60 hours a week to finish on time and be successful, I think.”
“So students work very hard, they’re not just goofing around.”
His teaching methods try to include realistic expectations with his students and their individual abilities.
“I try to be realistic and understand that most of my students won’t remember 80 percent of what I talk about in my class a year later, unless they are going to be a political science major,” Snyder said.
“So I try to think about what’s that 20 percent that will stick with them for years and be the most important.”
He said there are several main goals that he has set out to achieve as a teacher.
“I think about my class as having two teaching goals. The first is to understand the material as most of the material relates to your life in some aspect,” Snyder said.
“The second goal is to impart some practical skills that tie into some other activity, such as writing research and communication activities.
He said he wants students to understand how to parse out information and how to present it, so he tries to also integrate practical skills that will help with any occupation.
“Something will come up in your life that you will be thankful you have those skills,” he said.
Being involved with academics has given Snyder great joy.
“Being an academic means you get to always explore new ideas and new concepts. The learning never stops, and you get to share that learning with other people, and that’s the real perk of the job,” Snyder said.
“I guess that’s my selfish reward for being in academics; always being able to learn new things. The longer you are in academics, the fewer of those ‘aha! moments’ or ‘lightbulb moments’ occur, but they still come.”
Snyder sees being part of the higher education system as exciting.
“Higher education is important in society on all levels,” he said. “To be part of the process there isn’t really anywhere else I would rather be; I really think it’s cool.”
He said he would have been happy at a four-year school too, because he also loves doing the research.
“But being at a two-year school is good too, as you get to teach.”
He said the only time he wasn’t sure he wanted to teach was his first year in graduate school.
After the first year, however, Snyder says something clicked and he knew that teaching was his calling.
He talks about his love for the works of Hegelian philosophers. Hegelianism is a variety of German idealist thinking.
“There is a lot of contemporary writing that tries to update what Hegel was trying to do for the modern world,” he said. “What they do to sum it all up is that freedom is a social concept, and that we can really only be free if we can relate to each other and understand each other in appropriate ways.
“A community-centered notion of freedom is based on how well we can relate and interact with each other instead of an individual conception of freedom that can be socially alienating. That’s kind of what all that’s about at the end of the day.”
In his own work for his Ph.D., Snyder focused on distributive justice.
“Distributive justice is the question about how we distribute good and bad things in society,” he said. “Usually it is about goods, it could be about punishments for crime, or education. It’s a very broad category.”