His Life

Bruce's Teaching Philosophy Statement

Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Bruce A. Wallin   

My philosophy of teaching involves having students both learn and learn how to think. I want them to learn the facts pertaining to topics relevant to the area of study, but equally important acquire the ability to conceptualize, analyze, and form judgements based on the application of principles to practice – in short, to think. 

I accomplish this through the composition of my lectures, exams and in-class activities – and also my enthusiasm for the subject matter and for teaching itself, as I believe that if I am enthusiastic, it is difficult for the students to not be engaged. My lectures on a topic usually begin with its factual basis, often followed by a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of that institution, process, political arrangement, or policy. I then try to present potential reforms, usually offering a spectrum from mild to radical. I rarely reveal my preference, neither in discussing strengths and weaknesses or reforms, seeking to stimulate student analysis free of the influence of my own political views.

My examinations generally follow this same path. They first include a factual portion, identifying and explaining the significance of various concepts relating to and elements of the topic at hand. The essays then challenge the student to form some opinions of his or her own, both at the conceptual and practical or applied level. 

On the conceptual side, for example, I may ask the American Government students (POLU150) their opinion on the relationship between the experience of the framers of the Constitution and the principles in the document they produced, and call for some judgment as to whether this was beneficial or not, while a more “applied” question might have them strategize on how to gain Congressional passage of a particular bill. An exam in the budgeting class (POLU335) might ask them to present and analyze reforms of the federal budget process. I find that this opportunity to apply what they have studied to contemporary issues energizes students. 

I also believe in challenging students, both in class and on examinations. In class I will frequently call on students. I find that this keeps their minds engaged, and is a response to Leonard’s warning “the lecture system is the best way to get information from the professor’s notebook to the student’s notebook without touching the student’s mind.

I am very involved in my profession, regularly attending and presenting papers at two conferences each year. I constantly update the material the students read so that they will be reviewing the most recent analyses of current issues. I use material I have come across at the conferences I attend, through listservs that I have joined, and by constantly reviewing the websites of the organizations most relevant to my courses, such as those of the Congressional Budget Office, the Rockefeller Institute, the National League of Cities, the Congressional Research Service, etc. The reading for my current budgeting course includes analyses that were just released in January, for example. In their evaluations, students often comment on how much I know and have shared about issues that are currently under consideration by government, whether at the federal, state, or local level.

To promote a collegial teaching environment, I often include in the reading packet of my upper division course or post on Blackboard my most recent conference papers, and present them in class. This gives the students the opportunity to become familiar with and comment on their professor’s current research. Linking teaching and my research is important to my approach to instruction, as I find it lowers the barrier between student and teacher. 

My examinations are very demanding, and I let them know this in advance by giving them a sample answer or two. My approach to grading is to outline a perfect answer, and then hold each student to it. This ensures equity in grading, which is important to me. I expect the students to not just tell me something about the topic, but everything they can, emphasizing its significance. I curve the results of the exam, allowing me to push the best students while not overly penalizing those with perhaps less adequate preparation. 

I also try to be sensitive to the fear some students have to ask questions in lecture. Each week in my budgeting class, which deals with very complex issues, I have every student turn in a piece of paper, without their name on it, listing any items that need clarification. I then respond to them.

What I have found to really energize students is taking ownership of some part of the course. I have become a firm believer in experiential learning, and in particular the use of simulations. Instead of merely teaching my introductory course about public opinion polls, I conduct one using the class as the sample. Most importantly, several years ago I began using federal deficit reduction simulations in my budgeting classes, using four class sessions at the undergraduate level. They have been so successful that I have incorporated a simplified version into my introductory American government class. The upper-division and graduate versions make extensive use of Blackboard.

It is my opinion that one best learns the difficulty of making policy if he or she lives it, if only for a day or two. The federal budget looks easy to cut until you approach it from the perspective of a particular member of Congress, who has his or her own values, a particular constituency, and reelection concerns. Students have consistently reported the simulation to be one of the most interesting aspects of the course, a perfect complement to the readings and classroom discussions. I have presented the simulation at conferences on teaching and learning, and published it in a political science journal.

In my upper-division and graduate classes I have also moved away from traditional research papers to group PowerPoint presentations. PowerPoint has become the staple of most meetings in the post-college world, and working in groups on research again teaches the students skills s/he might not otherwise learn, such as division of labor, coordination, and compromise.

While I am extremely proud of the overall ranking of my effectiveness given in student evaluations, I am as proud of the fact that students consistently rank my course higher than comparable means in level of difficulty, the amount they learn, and the benefit of in-class activities.

I have come to believe so strongly in experiential learning that I have extended it outside the classroom in my courses. One year several members of my budgeting class volunteered to present and help run a version of the deficit reduction simulation for the Academy of Public Service at Dorchester High School in Boston. I sometimes offer the services of my upper-division and graduate students to conduct research for Boston city councilors, with students using their work to fulfill a course’s research requirement.

Most recently I felt strongly about involving my students in experiential education abroad, and developed a Dialogue of Civilizations program to Japan for Summer I in 2008 that compared public policy in the US and Japan, and allowed a great deal of interaction between our students and those of Meiji University.

As a more detailed example of how I teach, let me outline how I approach my undergraduate class on The Politics of Budgeting and Taxation (POLU335). Students often enter this course with a sense of dread. Therefore my first objective is to get students interested in the topic by conveying its importance. I want them to understand that next to its constitution, the budget is the most important document of any government, that it is a statement of priorities, a plan of action, and that it represents societal compromises among competing interests. If they learn that little can be accomplished without financial support, they begin to see the significance of studying budgets. I want them to understand that there is no more fundamental political question than who gives and who gets, who pays (taxes) and who receives (services).

Once engaged, I want them to learn the budgetary processes, politics, and policy issues at the federal, state, and local levels of government, and the institutions and actors that shape them. I expect them to become familiar with concepts that may have previously seemed complex to them, such as the incidence and progressivity of various tax instruments. I also want them to formulate their own opinions about the budgetary process itself, and how it relates to the proper (or not) determination of the role of government in society, and to evaluate reforms. As noted, the federal deficit reduction simulation is also a critical element of the course. 

I don’t expect each and every student to become a budget nerd by the end of the course (although some do). I do, however, aim to have them understand the importance of budgets and the manner in which we develop them, the importance of institutions and politics in their development, and the potential for, but difficulty of, reform.

In sum, as a professor of politics I try to prepare students by giving them both the intellectual tools and the passion to succeed in that world should they so choose (after taking my American Government course, one of my students ran for the State legislature in New Hampshire and won, becoming the youngest state lawmaker in the nation.) Many of my budgeting students have gone on to careers in government in a subject area they couldn’t have imagined when they enrolled in my class. And for those that do not choose public service as a vocation, they will at least leave Northeastern better informed about the political and policy issues of the day. When my head hits the pillow at night, I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to help accomplish this.

Eulogy, by John Portz

January 3, 2012 

We’re here today to remember – and to celebrate – Bruce.  His life touched all of our lives in so many ways.  As a colleague, friend, father, husband, brother, cousin, uncle, Bruce was a part of all of our lives.  In remembering Bruce and his life, I will share a few stories, and I will add a few quotes.  These are quotes that Bruce found important and used on occasion.  They are not his words, but they capture sentiments that he felt strongly about.  I’ll call these “Bruce quotes.” 

Bruce has been part of the Northeastern and Boston community for the past 21 years, but his story begins long before that.  Born in upstate NY, Bruce shared his early years with his parents, his sister Barb, and the cousins that became part of his family.  This was the beginning of the Polish gatherings, legendary assemblies of the extended clan.  From NY, the family moved to St. Paul Minnesota, where Bruce finished high school.  In high school, one of Bruce’s first loves took shape:  sports.  A star on the basketball team, Bruce was a high achiever… some would say, very competitive. 

A Bruce quote:  “If you cannot win, make the one ahead of you break the record.” 

Whether in basketball or any other sport, Bruce was in the game to win.  And beyond sports, Bruce always sought to be the best.  As a teacher – which I’ll say more about in a moment – scholar, community citizen, and parent—another important story—Bruce wanted to be the best. 

From Minnesota, Bruce headed back east to the Ivy League for college.  He completed undergraduate studies at Princeton—adding rugby instead of basketball to his sports reportoire—then back across the country to Berkeley for graduate school.  California became Bruce’s new home.  To this day, he has continued to follow California politics and regularly appeared on a budgeting roundtable at the annual meetings of the Western Political Science Association.  At Berkeley, Bruce met his mentor, the late-Aaron Wildavsky, one of the most prominent political scientists of the last 40 years.  Bruce became life-long friends with Aaron and his wife Mary, who came from California to be with us today.  At Berkeley, Bruce found his niche as a budding political scientist. 

A Bruce quote:  “Do what you like.  It’ll probably turn out to be what you do best.”

This was Berkeley in the late 60s,  As Bob Dylan said, “The times they are a changing.”  Bruce was part of the 60s revolution.  A favorite story from this time relates to Bruce’s agricultural skills of growing certain plants in his apartment that could serve recreational purposes (today we would say medicinal purposes).  Bruce tried to convince his father that they were tomato plants, with limited success, and then complained to the police when someone stole them. 

Bruce made it through Berkeley, than went to Washington, D.C. to try out government work.  After a few years at the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, it was back to academia – this time as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  This is where I met Bruce.  I was a graduate student in the department and heard about this new professor who quickly developed a reputation as an outstanding teacher, and a pretty neat person as well.  I remember him as a teacher, colleague, and friend,..and as a basketball player.  It’s back to sports.  I played basketball against Bruce—students versus faculty game—and remember his skill of clearing the lane as he drove to the basket…bodies flying.  For Bruce, basketball was an extension of rugby.  At Wisconsin, Bruce found another love of his life… Putney, his chocolate lab.  A man’s best friend.  Putney would be a part of Bruce’s life for the next 15 years. 

From Wisconsin, Bruce went back to California to teach at Cal-State Fullerton, where he met Vickie, with whom he would have two lovely daughters.  He also continued his political science career.  By this point, Bruce was fine-tuning his teaching skills that would have him become one of the best teachers at Northeastern. 

A Bruce quote:  “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.  Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Indeed, Bruce taught many students to “yearn for the vast and endless sea.”  His classes were legendary.  He made budgeting come alive; students wanted to take budgeting.  He twice received the university’s prestigious Excellence in Teaching Award.  He was demanding of his students.  He expected them to do the best.  He expected their attention.  If a student talked on a cellphone in Bruce’s class, he had a simple solution.  Take the cellphone; look up Mom in the contacts; call Mom and suggest that her son or daughter could get more value from her tuition dollars if he or she paid attention in class.  That usually ended the cellphone problem. 

Bruce loved teaching.  He was helping to shape the future.  It was truly his calling in life.  Bruce touched the lives of so many students, not only when they were in his classroom, but well beyond.  Bruce kept in touch with so many students.  He wanted them to succeed.  He helped many, many students find internships and jobs.  Each year he worked with students to apply for the Truman Scholarship, and celebrated their accomplishment regardless of how far they made it in the competition.  He led student trips to Japan and was instrumental in setting up a partnership with Meiji University.  He pushed students to do their best, even when they might face difficult times or think that they were on their own. 

A Bruce quote:  “If there is no wind, row.”

Bruce would help students “to row,” but he knew they needed to reach those heights with their own efforts. 

For the last 21 years, Bruce has been a part of Boston.  With his Jamaica Plain neighbors, he has advocated for city services and their neighborhood.  He loved this neighborhood and Forest Hills, where he will finally rest. 

Bruce has been an accomplished scholar.  His book on federal revenue sharing won an award from the American Political Science Association, and he has been a frequent consultant on various government activities, always trying to improve public service. 

For these years, Bruce has been a vital part of the Northeastern community.  On committees at all levels of the university, in department meetings, and of course, in teaching, he has been an important figure in the development of Northeastern University.  He has the reputation of ‘calling it like he sees it.’  Whether a top-level administrator or department colleague, Bruce will let you know what he thinks.  As he teaches his students, challenging authority or the ‘accepted wisdom,’ is a role we all should play.  Bruce did not shy away from that role.  He earned our respect, and indeed, our love.  We will miss him. 

But, I’ve saved the most important for last.  Yes, Bruce loved teaching, but he loved Anne and Eva even more.  Being a father was the most important role in Bruce’s life.  His girls were the most important part of his life.  To Anne and Eva, this is a very difficult time.  We are all here to support you, but I know that doesn’t diminish the hurt you must be feeling.  It’s OK to hurt, but I now your father would want you to rise up and make the best life possible for yourselves and those around you.  He may not be with you in person, but he is certainly with you in spirit.  You become the next generation.  You have the opportunity to carry forward his love of life.  You have the opportunity to make a difference in the world, as your father did, whether as a teacher or any other calling you choose.  I think he’s excited for you, and he will be with you. 

I will close with another Bruce quote, from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.  This is to have succeeded.”

I think Bruce succeeded.


Bruce's obituary

WALLIN, Bruce A.
Of Jamaica Plain, age 63, on December 29, 2011. Bruce is survived by his wife, Vickie, and two daughters, Anne, 15, and Eva, 11, and a sister, Barbara Lynch. Bruce was born in Amsterdam, New York. In 1990, he moved to Boston to join the Political Science Department at Northeastern University, after teaching at Cal State Fullerton, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and several years working at the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in Washington D.C.. Bruce completed his undergraduate degree at Princeton University and his Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley.

Bruce was a scholar in the field of public finance and an award-winning teacher.  Bruce taught hundreds of students, and remained in close contact with many through the years.  His vibrant personality made his classes legendary and his students soon learned that subjects, such as public budgeting, could be exciting areas of inquiry.  He twice received the University's prestigious Excellence in Teaching Award.  Bruce naturally connected with people.  Friends and colleagues alike enjoyed his wit and warm, outgoing friendship.  His writings in political science earned praise in academic and public affairs circles. His book on revenue sharing received an award from the American Political Science Association. He also completed studies for the Brookings Institution and Twentieth Century Fund. Bruce taught and conducted research abroad as a Fulbright Scholar in the Czech Republic, a Visiting Faculty member at Meiji University in Tokyo, and at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Bruce was also well-known in his local community of Jamaica Plain as an active participant in civic life.  He regularly provided commentary to local media outlets on local and national politics, volunteered as a youth soccer coach and was the co-founder and leader of the West Roxbury Courthouse Neighborhood Association.

Service and burial will be at 1:00 at the Forsyth Chapel (95 Forest Hills Ave.) in Forest Hills Cemetery on Tuesday, Jan. 3.  A memorial service for the Northeastern community will be held at Northeastern University at a later date.  In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Northeastern University Political Science Gift Fund, and will be used for scholarship support for students.  Donations can be sent to: Department of Political Science, 303 Meserve Hall, Northeastern University, Boston, MA  02115.


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