Linda Beck
Professor of Political Science
Chair, International & Global Studies Council

Ph.D., University of Wisconsin
M.A., University of Wisconsin

According to Professor of Political Science Linda Beck, one of the most exciting things the UMF Political Science program offers is courses in practical politics in which students apply their classroom knowledge to real world experiences.

To complement an electoral politics course that UMF Professor of Political Science Jim Melcher offers for students interested in working on a political campaign, Beck developed a course based on her own international research and consulting on social accountability issues in Africa and Asia.

Social Accountability in Action

In Beck’s course on social accountability, students get practical experience by working for an organization that is seeking to keep government officials accountable for their formulation and implementation of public policies. Students spend the first few weeks reading about the importance of civil society and social accountability in a democracy. Then students put this theory into action by working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) on a social accountability project ranging from advocacy for or against pending legislation to proposing reforms for improved budget transparency.

“We have had students work with a wide variety of organizations around the State from Farmington’s local Western Mountains Alliance to the Heritage Foundation based in Augusta and the Maine Civil Liberties Union in Portland. They run the whole gamut across the political spectrum,” Beck said. “That’s one thing I like [about] working with my colleagues in political science — we’re not trying to tell students what to believe. We are trying to help students be fully aware of their perspectives and articulate them as well as opposing views. In a classroom, I can have students on the far right and the far left, and they are all working on the same project,” Beck added.

Students have also worked with government officials, including the president of the Maine State Senate on constituency relations and media outlets such as the Daily Bulldog, because media is critical to social accountability

The service-learning courses Beck and Melcher teach, combined with internship opportunities available to political science majors, give students opportunities to learn from area professionals. “We really encourage our majors to take these courses, because of the skills they gain and the contacts they make. It’s important for our students to have these professional experiences to prepare them for the competitive work environment after graduation,” Beck said.

International Consulting that Informs Her Teaching

Beck is a longtime consultant for the World Bank on issues of social accountability. Her latest research examines some of the most unstable parts of the world where governments have collapsed and now NGOs are working with international actors like the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development to reconstruct their societies and economies as well as their governments. One of Beck’s Political Science students is writing her honors thesis on a related topic, using cutting-edge, primary documents produced and used by public policy makers and international aid organizations.

Recently, Beck did a study for the U.S. Agency for International Development, “Democracy, Governance and Human Rights in Senegal.”

“We are looking at fragile states or what’s sometimes called failed states. Sierra Leone, for example, just crashed and burned during its civil war, which ended in 2002. But it has done an amazing job of recovering in part due to the critical role that civil society organizations and media outlets have played. We are looking for lessons we can take from places like Sierra Leone to apply to other fragile states like Somalia or the Sudan to permit them to transition to a more stable regime,” Beck explained. “It’s great fun to be able to have a student who you can talk to and who can benefit from this project.”

Beck has brought her own consulting and research experiences into the classroom. When discussing the “unlevel playing fields” that opposition parties face in Africa’s newly democratizing countries, she shared how she worked with and interviewed various opposition leaders who have gone on to become heads of state, such as the Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara and Senegal’s former President Abdoulaye Wade.

Beck spent a semester at the Beijing University of Technology through the UMF exchange program. While there, she met with various leaders of the growing environmental movement and the fledgling groups working with illegal rural migrants.

“I can’t wait to teach my New Asian Superpowers course next spring! It will be great to draw on my interviews with rural migrants when we discuss the problems associated with China’s hukou system, which makes immigration to urban areas illegal for most rural Chinese seeking employment,” Beck said. “I think that these types of personal accounts make our teaching come alive, especially for UMF students who have never traveled outside the United States.”

Making Political Theory Come Alive

Beck works closely with her colleagues in the UMF Philosophy Department while offering a distinctive twist on classical, modern and contemporary political theory.” The premise of my Political Theory courses is that current political activism is connected to and underpinned by political philosophy. Political theory can be a little dry for some students, so I try to make it come alive by discussing its relevance to current events,” Beck explained.

“For example, this spring I had members of the local Tea Party come to talk about their views, and then we had a discussion about the connections between the Tea Party’s goals and an essay by Milton Freidman on classic libertarian views on limited government,” Beck said.

“The next week we had an activist from the Occupy Augusta Movement come in, and we discussed the connections between that Movement and the liberal views of John Rawls. I want them to realize that political activists have a philosophy and it’s important to understand that philosophy in order to evaluate the political views and public policies they are proposing. Too often, today, politics is reduced to a series of sound bites — I want them to go deeper,” Beck added.

Creative Cross Collaboration for Both Faculty and Students

“One of the great things about working at UMF is that there are so many committed and talented faculty members that are open to collaboration.”

For instance, Beck and UMF Professor of Music Steve Pane have given guest lectures in each other’s courses using the documentary Africa Underground, which analyzes the impact of the Senegalese hip-hop movement on this West African country’s presidential elections and democratization movement since 2000. “Steve provided a broader context on the music and politics of the hip-hop movement for my African politics students, while I gave his Musicology class a crash course in Senegalese politics. This kind of cross collaboration is fun, and it opens up so many opportunities for teaching and learning,” Beck said.

So, Beck was delighted when one of her students, a senior majoring in Political Science, told her he decided to minor in Music History after taking an inspiring music course. “When students ask me what they should major in, I tell them that they should major in what they enjoy. Because with a liberal arts education all the disciplines combine to give students important skills that are not only valuable for many careers, but also for an open-minded approach to the world,” Beck said.

An Affordable Liberal Arts Experience

Beck noted that one of the amazing things about UMF is the opportunity for students to have the advantages of a small liberal arts college without the price tag of a private one.

“With a liberal arts education,” said Beck. “You become an individual who knows how to seek out, interpret and analyze information. I think that you are a better citizen as the result of a liberal arts education. It provides the opportunity to open your mind to broader experiences.”

Beck also noted that students at UMF are intellectually curious. “The students at UMF have a real thirst for knowledge. There is a real desire to learn. I feel like a make a difference in their lives. I’m able to watch their growth from freshmen to seniors, and it’s amazing. It’s so much fun to watch. I feel as though I’m making a contribution to that development,” Beck said.