Coming up for air

Do catch up on sleep, too

It’s that strange, twinkling time in the academic year; that point when your acquaintances ask: “so now the students have gone, I guess you’re on your holidays too, right?”

I appreciate this will vary for colleagues in other countries, but here in the UK it’s a 12-month year and the summer is the time to ‘do all the stuff we didn’t do in the semesters.’

In several ways, this is almost an unilluminating as the queries about how you fill your summer, since everyone I know in academia is busy doing all kinds of things all the time.

Given that our workloads all all as unique as we are [sic], rather than try to generalise too much, I just want to share my reflections on how I’m passing the time until the end of September, when we get our academic year going again. Continue reading

Teaching Political Development with Imaginary Travel

Today we have the first of two more guest contributions by Gigi Gokcek of the Dominican University of California.

credit: Chad Raymond

Political development courses are inherently interdisciplinary, drawing upon economics, history, anthropology, sociology, geography, and political science. For students, however, this is a course about the politics of less-developed countries. I first taught this subject in a traditional way: readings on theory, methods, and cases about the Global South, with exams and a final research paper. This approach left me unsatisfied, despite positive teaching evaluations from students. I wanted to deliver a more animated, meaningful experience, the kind that comes from actually traveling to the places being studied. I also felt it was important that students understand the usefulness of creativity, discovery, and expression across a variety of disciplines. How could I do this without turning the course into a study abroad program that would exclude students who couldn’t afford the extra cost?

Albert Einstein once said that, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” I wondered if a thorough re-imagining of this course might allow it to better engage students in the analysis of development problems in the Global South. I redesigned the course as if I were the CEO of an international consulting firm, with students as employees who were regional and disciplinary experts on development issues. Working in pairs, their task for the semester was to investigate a specific development challenge in a country of their choice and offer a viable solution to the challenge to the country’s government. As the CEO, I required that each group present an oral and written report on their project. A pair of students even came up with a name for this imaginary firm: Gokcek Global Consulting.

Student projects included access to clean water, providing high quality public education in rural areas, safe travel through roads for children in gang-infested areas, and local policing of terrorism. Coincidentally all regions of the Global South (Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia) were represented, even though this was not something I set out to achieve. Students selected countries or topics based on their own familiarity or curiosity. In most cases students already had traveled to or studied the selected country. Students learned about the multiplicity of factors that need to be considered when addressing a development problem, and the need to take a holistic approach to the study of any country. In short, without getting on a plane, students gained an appreciation and empathy for people living in the Global South.

It takes a department…

Insert joke about Belgium’s space programme here

I’m coming back to the idea of soft ties and community building in education, having spent the weekend in Bruges, celebrating 20 years since my Masters degree.

For those of you not familiar with the College of Europe, it’s a Masters-only institution, teaching students on various aspects of European integration. It has a reputation as a training ground for those going to work in Brussels, in and around the European Union. Certainly, from my year, there are now many friends who are now senior people in European or national organisations, from ambassadors to heads of unit, professors to executive suite types.

I mention this not to brag – if anything, there’s a strong dissonance of seeing such people in such roles, when your lasting memory is of them having a food fight at a cheese fondue party – but to observe that our reunion was grounded in the very strong sense of community that we shared.

As students, the College insisted that we not only study together, but also live  and eat together, in the various residences that they provided. At the time, I’m not sure I appreciated being given 21 meals a week – especially come ‘sandwich Sunday dinner’ – but it meant that we got to spend a lot of time together, learn more about each other as people, rather than just classmates.

Obviously, such a model has very limited directed utility outside of seminaries, but the idea is a useful one. If we can build spaces for students to interact, above and beyond their direct study contact time, then we can open a range of inter-personal experiences that will serve them well, both personally and professionally.

Indeed, I would argue that this is also of value in narrower academic terms. If you’ve had a group of students that know and understand one another, then you will have noticed how much more quickly they can fall into discussion of the matter in hand. There isn’t the all-too-frequent getting-to-know-you phase, something that can be quite lengthy in a subject such as ours, where bear-traps of sensitive issues abound.

Instead, you have a group that can discuss and debate, while knowing the general lie of the land of opinions, and knowing how this conversation fits into all the other ones they have had. Thus it also acts as a partial antidote to the silo-ing of courses/modules that we all complain about.

Assuming you haven’t got a set-up like the College, then what can you do?

Most obviously, you can organise more time in and around classes: talks, socials, study groups. That doesn’t have to fall on you to arrange, but you can certainly facilitate. In my experience, you might have to put more work in of this at the start, but as you get students more involved, they typically want to do more themselves.

But you can also communicate the value of building such links between students. That means emphasising the benefit they can derive from talking to each other, about study and not about study. Of course, if you’re pushing active learning, then this is a much easier sell: you’re showing students that what they think matters.

And that’s the closing point to all this: you have to be sincere and consistent about all this. To go back to Bruges, the College holds its ‘sprit’ very close to its institutional identity and contrives to promote it in many ways – implicit and explicit – in its activity. It is in that mutual reinforcement that the message gains credibility and buy-in: every student who turns up in September has had their expectations adjusted.

How about yours?

The Intel Community and the Theory of Knowledge

Today we have a guest post from David Young, Head of Theory of Knowledge and Ideas, The English College in Prague. He can be reached at david [dot] young [at] englishcollege [dot] cz.

A while ago I was asked to  develop a critical thinking course for an International Baccalaureate (IB) school as a preparation for its Theory of Knowledge course.  As someone who teaches global politics, I was drawn to two books: David T. Moore’s Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis (2nd ed 2007), and the invaluable The Art of Intelligence (2014) by William J. Lahneman and Ruben Arcos. Both have had a significant impact on my teaching and my position as the school’s co-coordinator for Theory of Knowledge (ToK), a core element in the IB programme.

In ToK, students are supposed to formulate and evaluate knowledge claims and ask questions about the acquisition of knowledge, making it one of the most challenging elements in a congested pre-university curriculum. I’ve found the analysis of intelligence and the ethical issues surrounding its collection and dissemination to be an exciting way for students to learn about ToK concepts such as reason, imagination, intuition, and sense perception. From my perspective, using principles of intelligence analysis has both enhanced my understanding of ToK and improved the course for students.
Continue reading

Using Stats in the Regular Classroom: The 3 S’s Approach to Interpretation

One of the obstacles to using statistically-tested articles in the regular classroom is that most students don’t know (or don’t remember) how to interpret the results. I developed a very simple scheme, known as the 3 S’s, to help them understand results tables and quantitative articles more generally. While the basic framework was designed with linear regression in mind, after a few practices you should be able to introduce the framework in the context of more complicated modes (i.e., in probit/logit the size of the coefficients isn’t really meaningful by itself).

The first S: Sign. Hypothesis testing is generally about whether the relationship we find goes in the direction we think it should. This is predicted by the sign on the coefficient: whether the relationship is positive (upward slope) or negative (downward slope). So the first thing we’re interested in, when we’re testing a hypothesis, is whether we’ve gotten the sign right. Does what we found match what we expected?

The second S: Sureness. Now that we’ve found the sign or direction of the relationship, how sure are we that the sign is right? This is the concept of statistical significance, simplified down to its core element. Sureness asks about whether the value we found is “far enough” away from 0 to allow us to be sure that the sign is right. If the value we found is very close to zero and we’re very uncertain (statistically speaking) about that value, we can’t trust that the sign is right. The true value could actually lie on the other size of 0, and thus our sign would be incorrect. If the value is “far enough” from 0, then we can be reasonably sure that the sign is correct. I usually gloss over the concept of “far enough” and explain that they’ll cover standard errors in their statistics or methods course. For now it’s enough to know that we can be sure of most rather large numbers and even some small numbers if we’re very highly certain about the value we estimated for them.

The third S: Size. Only after we’re sure the sign is right can we meaningfully talk about the size of the relationship. Size isn’t the only thing that matters; in fact, it’s usually the least important in interpreting statistical results. The size of the relationship tells us how much the value of the dependent or outcome variable changes for each one-unit change in the independent or input variable. I have sometimes found it helpful to write out the middle-school equation for a line, y = mx + b, and explain the effect of coefficients by talking about what if x changed from 4 to 5 – how much would y change? What if it went from 58 to 59? Etc.

You can find a helpful powerpoint that walks through this logic – the Crash Course Statistics package – on my website.

Is Your Employer in Trouble? Part 3

FEMA Photo/Leif Skoogfors

Last week, I discussed  some of the environmental aspects of working in U.S. higher education that ought to be considered by foreign academics. Today I have some links to information that is relevant to both foreign and U.S. audiences:

First, if you already work for a U.S. college or university, especially a small one, check out my recent essay in Inside Higher Ed on how to identify whether your employer is heading for unrecoverable failure. Colleges and universities don’t fall off of a cliff overnight; many exhibit danger signs for years. Faculty should pay attention to these signs if they want to preserve their careers — but frequently they don’t.

Second, Moody’s Investors Service reported that one-third of small private colleges in the USA had operating budget deficits in fiscal year 2016, up from one-fifth in 2013.

Third, this story in The New York Times discusses the bleak financial outlook for many colleges and universities in the USA, both private and public.

The seminar and social media: Guest post by Samantha Cooke

As part of our guest post series, this piece by Samantha Cooke (Surrey) considers how to incorporate Twitter into seminar classes.

In 2014, I undertook a research project examining the use of social media in Higher Education, following experiences with lecturer and student engagement within a Security Studies module on which I was running seminars.

As someone who only had a Twitter account to keep up to date with the news, the regular use of Twitter alone was new to me. In this respect, the classroom served as a great environment for a newcomer to this social media platform as it provided a framework within which I was able to learn how everything worked. The findings of this project have since been published in Education and Information Technologies. Continue reading