Stand up for your community

Pretty, if not necessarily insightful

We’re nearly at our Easter break here at Surrey, so we’re tying off classes for a few weeks, before heading to our research activities/graduation events/annual leave. Rather than bore you with details of the Cornish village that will be enjoying presence during next week, I’m rather going to focus on something completely different.

In the past week, I’ve had several different conversations where I’ve been asked about what I do as a citizen of the academic community. For non-academics, this is the unknown side of our work, as they assume we just write books, lecture and have the same holidays as our students. for other academics, there’s a bit more variety, depending on why they’re asking you, but possibly not as much variety as you might expect.

In short, doing stuff like being active in your study association, or reaching out to non-academic audiences, or sharing your work through social media: it’s all just CV-points, right?

Well, I’m aware that I have a dog in this fight, but I’m going to say that it’s certainly not like that.

Instead, it’s one of those tragedy-of-the-commons things: it’s easy to free-ride off the work of others who are maintaining the networks and the groups that exist, but at some point if no one does it, then the whole thing comes down around our ears. Sure, it’s nice when someone else organises things for you, but that’s not a reason to avoid chipping in to help yourself: many hands make light work.

But it goes beyond this.

Getting out there, talking and connecting with people is good for you, individually as well as environmentally. Being an active member of the community is an excellent way to get to know people working on interesting and relevant projects and to share your own work.

This blog is a case in point: this group found each other largely by chance at TLC and we’ve since used it to develop our own thinking on various research matters, to build a wider contact group in the discipline and to provide a space in which to debate and discuss. I particularly like that we now have a steady stream of guest contributors, because it means I’m getting to know more people, even as they get an opportunity to get to do the same.

The short version of this is that academia is a fundamentally collaborative profession. Even if we work by ourselves, we do so on the basis of others’ work and with a view to contributing back into a continually-evolved debate. Yes, writing your high-impact outputs is an important part of that, but it’s not the only part. The more you work to participate, the more you can shape the debate, directly and indirectly.

Finally it’s worth saying that the more people you meet, the more you’ll know what’s what and who’s who. Time and again I’m surprised by how small our community can be, so never underestimate the value of contributing to our communal life. And remember that reputations travel further than you think, both good and bad.

The Change All Around, Part 3

Here is my third post about environmental factors that are affecting my teaching this semester. My previous posts on the subject are here and here. This time I thought I would explore my situation from the standpoint of student behavior.

First item is this screenshot of the Canvas LMS gradebook. I use a grading system in which each assignment is worth a certain number of points, and a student’s final course grade is a function of the total points he or she has earned by the end of the semester. Individual assignments do not receive letter grades and are not graded on a percentage basis with a 0-100 scale.

I inform students — both verbally in the classroom and via text in the syllabus — that the percentage columns in the gradebook are absolutely meaningless in terms of their course grade. Yet they still fixate on these figures, and get dejected whenever they see a number that they perceive as conflicting with their self-image. (I attribute the innumeracy and the construction of a fragile self-identity to parenting and the K-12 education system.) Continue reading

Undergraduates Doing Replication: Replication Assignments in Action Part 2 of 3

Last week, I talked about the value of replication exercises for undergraduates and why they might be even greater than for graduate students. The opportunity to combine research and analysis skills with writing skills in a single assignment is almost too good to pass up since it kills several birds (or at least, typical course objectives) with one stone. Today I’ll briefly discuss a replication activity I wrote, and some strategies to help you make your own replication assignments successful.

The assignment I’m sharing today comes from Linda Camp Keith’s “The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Does It Make a Difference in Human Rights Behavior?” (Journal of Peace Research 36,1 (1999): 95-118). This was a unit project, summing up their studies in bivariate analysis. The replication assignment file can be obtained here. We began as any good researcher would, by getting to know our key dependent and independent variables. We then attempt to replicate her published bivariate results, which is one of the reasons I used this article here. I conclude with question 5, which previews the concepts of control that we’re moving into as they work on this assignment. Finally, in a brief follow-up assignment, students actually add the controls and replicate parts of the multivariate findings. Continue reading

Rules (and how to use them)

OK, so some rules don’t change…

For various reasons – some political, some professional – I’m thinking about rules.

So much of the work we do as scholars is about understanding the formal and informal rules of political interaction, and how political agents use, adapt to and shape them. The norms of political life are often purely conventional, but they can exert powerful effects, even before we get to notions of (il)legality. Take a moment to look at the leader of your country and think how much of our understanding of that individual is about their mastery of rules and conventions.

Fun, wasn’t it?

And so too in the classroom. Our institutions set up rules and regulations, codes and practices: in our classrooms, we fall into roles and habits.

One of the most useful things in my development of my practice has been to tackle those local rules in a political way: to think how I can make those rules work for me, rather than against.

To be (very) clear, that doesn’t mean breaking or ignoring rules, but reflecting on their intent and their definition and how they fit (or don’t) with what I’m trying to do.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways this works.

The first is when you’re doing something and then the rules change. This tends to be the more common, because we’re always doing stuff and the rules are always changing (or so it feels). The conventional view would be to throw up one’s hands and demand to know why ‘we’re fixing stuff that isn’t broke’: if it was good enough then, then why isn’t it now?

But rules do change and almost always for a well-intentioned reason (even if that latter point isn’t always immediately obvious). Rather than having a strop about it, we can more usefully consider how the rule changes impact on what we do and how we can adapt. Remember that change is usually evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, so it’s not a blank-sheet exercise.


Moreover, rules are mostly about process, not substance, in a HE setting, so adaptions will tend to focus on broad frameworks, rather than much more invasive details. You might be told who can run a seminar, but you very likely aren’t told what has to happen (or not happen) in that seminar. Or even what a seminar is.

As any of you with exposure to any legal training will know, rules are always incomplete, so think about what isn’t said as much as what is: it’s the gap that offer the opportunities.

And this is the second category: doing stuff where there are no rules.

When I set up my negotiation module, many years back, there was very little guidance from the regulations, because they were blind to formats of sessions. As much as the regulations where there, they set expectations on how I lectured and how I assessed. The former simply didn’t apply, because there were no lectures, while the latter acted as a starting point for getting creative with my assessment. In the end, I used that to anchor a sound pedagogic model of self-reflection within a ‘conventional’ assessment regime. I was happy, my institution was happy and my students got a strong incentive to work towards the learning objectives that I’d written. Everyone’s happy.

Of course, at some rules change (see above) and I’ve had to evolve my course most years to accommodate this thing or that. We’re now quite some distance from where we’ve begun, but I still get to exercise a considerable degree of freedom, while also meeting my institutional obligations.

Of course, this can all happen at a much more prosaic level: the number of students who take your class is largely out of your control, so you have to adapt (sometimes majorly so, as I’ve discovered). Likewise, the number of students who turn up for the class, or who have prepared is a variable that you work around.

If you think of these as just variants on the rule problem, then you can start to see how you can work to the other rules in your life.

Until they change, of course.

The ABCs of Mentoring

As an increasingly senior (i.e., “older”) faculty member, professional development efforts–whether my own or those intended for others — occupy more of my time and attention than they used to. People here began a more formalized mentoring program for junior faculty about a year ago, and recently I was one of the people called upon to dispense wisdom about teaching to some of our recent hires.

Instead of just talking at them, I decided to demonstrate some teaching via active learning by using Simon’s ABC exercise: I asked the mentees to write down on Post-It notes what they wanted to abandon, begin, and continue about their own teaching and then stick their notes on the wall. Here is a compilation of the results: Continue reading

Undergraduates Doing Replication? Why Not!?

When I taught Quantiative Methods last spring, a colleague picked up a paper of mine from the printer and came looking for me. “You’re doing replications with the undergrads?” she asked. “Why?” I looked at her and without thinking simply replied, “Why not?” Replicating studies is considered a best practice of sorts in graduate level methods training. None of the reasons given there – teaching disciplinary norms, emphasizing the importance of transparency in research, etc. – fails to hold in the undergraduate context. If anything, our undergraduates have more need of those objectives than our grad students, who will have them repeatedly reinforced across multiple classes. For most of us who teach undergrads, one methods class is all we’ve got, and we need to make it count.

For most of us, part of the objective of a research methods course is to introduce students to the ways of thinking and doing that characterize social science, and social science research especially. It’s a key point of socialization into the discipline, where they go from being students of politics to being students of political science. Continue reading

Enjoyable Cores, Aesthetics, and Narrative

This is part 6 of a six-part series of guest posts by Tomer Perry, Research Associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University. He can be contacted at tperry [at] ethics [dot] harvard [dot] edu. Tomer discussed the ideas presented in this blog series at a Stanford MediaX event.

For this final post of the series, I saved the best for last. And by ‘best’ I mean prettiest.

Kemet: a pretty game set in ancient Egypt.

Kemet is a great game but it has very little educational value. Although set in ancient Egypt and incorporating some Egyptian mythology, the game itself has nothing to do with Egypt but weirdly pits players against each other on a sandy board. Yet Kemet teaches an important lesson because it is absolutely beautiful. Like many of the most successful crowdsourced games, players of Kemet use gorgeous miniatures to move around the board. The pyramids players build while playing Kemet are actually 4-sided dice that are rotated to show each pyramid’s ‘rank’. Continue reading