Teaching and the day job

Today’s one of the biggest in British politics and UK-EU relations for a long time (and given recent history, that’s a pretty high bar), and I’ve got lots to be doing on that.

But I’m writing this blog.

At the end of the week, I’m putting in my paperwork for promotion, where I know that I’m going to be judged primarily on my ‘proper research’ outputs.

But I’ve spent a week putting together L&T panels for conferences.

I’ve got a draft paper on Brexit that needs me to sit down and do some more work on it, to get it closer to submission.

But I also need to do some reading for the supervision of my doctoral student, working on pedagogy.


Victor put it nicely here: L&T scholarship matters, whether or not others realise it.

On my (purely anecdotal) evidence, I have given a lot more people direct help and advice on L&T than on anything else I’ve done, and through the wonder of teaching, that has shaped a stack of lives.

So even when there’s a lot of other stuff to be getting on with, don’t not get on with this too.

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 1

In line with the first and third bullet points in my post last year about teaching comparative politics, I’ve tried to make the relationships between course learning objectives, readings, and writing assignments more transparent to students. I’ve done this in part by making writing prompts refer more explicitly to what I want students to learn. For example, here is last year’s assignment about Venezuela, which I placed in the section of the course about democracy:


  • Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, “Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance,” Journal of Democracy 19, 3 (July 2008): 113-127.
  • Uri Friedman, “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2017.
  • Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, “Venezuela Is Falling Apart,” The Atlantic, 12 May 2016.
  • Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Crisis,” Caracas Chronicles, 12 January 2016.
  • Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” The New York Times, 17 December 2017.

Of Mainwaring and Scully’s eight lessons, which is most relevant for Venezuela? Why?

Answering the above question requires reading the Journal of Democracy article, which is good. Yet the question also demands that students apply a general framework to a specific context that is totally unfamiliar to them. A few newspaper and magazine articles aren’t enough to give students a clear sense of what is happening in Venezuela’s political system. The end result is a badly-constructed rhetorical situation likely to generate answers that aren’t relevant to the learning objectives behind the assignment.

Here is the 2019 version of the assignment, which I have placed in the section of the course on political protest:

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New year, new me. Not

You’ll be happy to know that I have no recommendations to offer this new year, except to say that January is an absolutely awful time to start changing your life.

That’s true for most people, but it’s very much so for academics.

Our year doesn’t run from January, and the past few weeks have been a brief pause in the gallop from semester to semester.

I have my ‘to-do’ list sat in front of my monitors in the office and it’s not a pretty sight. Plus, I notice, it doesn’t even include all the stuff I need to do.

Plus, everyone else is back at work now, so that email inbox is filling up nicely.

So what can we do?

This shouldn’t be cause for getting down though.

In these days, before it really gets going again, there’s still some space to take stock and to look ahead across the coming months.

It’s like standing on a little hillock, looking across the plain and trying not to get too concerned about the marshalling armies preparing for battle on the land you are about to tread.

Key point to remember here is that you’ve made it through the first semester and through the start of the academic year.

Semester two is more of the same, not whole-new-ballgame territory. Plus you probably also get it broken up by Easter. Plus the days are getting longer again.

So keep your chin up and think about what’s been good so far and about how you’ve avoid/manage the bad stuff.

And for that alone, it’s a happy new year.

The Difference Between Good and Bad?

One last post about teaching my redesigned course on development last semester:

Is the ability to follow directions what distinguishes the excellent from the average student?

Writing assignments in my courses require students to synthesize information from a variety of source material into a single, cohesive argument. Exams are no different. My instructions for the final exam included “refer to relevant course readings” and “see the rubric below for guidance on how your work will be evaluated.” The rubric contained the criterion “use of a variety of relevant course readings.”

I assumed that these statements would translate in students’ minds as “my exam grade will suffer tremendously if I don’t reference any of the course readings.” Yet nine of the fifteen students who took the exam did not use any readings, despite having written about them earlier in the semester. Four others only referred to a single reading. Only two students incorporated information from several different readings.  

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’m at fault here.

Life Planning

For most academics, the gears of course planning grind exceedingly fine. We tinker with projects, lectures, and assignments, trying to create what we imagine as the ideal learning experience. But that’s frequently not what we do outside of the classroom.

The winter holiday break is a good time to take stock of one’s life and position oneself better for the future. Although it’s never too late, the sooner you begin taking charge of your personal affairs, the better. So, some basics:

I ask these questions because, if your experience has been anything like mine, you didn’t get trained in personal financial management while in graduate school, and you probably haven’t utilized whatever training might be available through your employer.  

Happy Holidays 2018

Last month I wrote about the multi-year death spiral at Iowa Wesleyan University. My 2017 column for Inside Higher Ed discussed four broad signs that a small college or university is headed toward failure. But how can a faculty member employed by a tuition-dependent institution like Iowa Wesleyan get a firmer grip on his or her employer’s financial health?

One way to do this is to calculate the percentage change over time in a school’s annual total expenses per full-time equivalent (FTE) undergraduate. The larger the expansion in expenses per student, the worse the school’s financial condition and the lower the chances of its long-term survival. 

Is this measurement the only sign of serious trouble? No, but it’s a good rule of thumb that is simple to calculate. Enrollment data can be obtained from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Not-for-profit colleges and universities report their operational expenses on Line 18 of IRS Form 990, which are available from organizations like ProPublica or Charity Navigator.

I decided apply this rule of thumb to several colleges and universities that suffered declining enrollment, eliminated academic programs, or were otherwise reported as in financial difficulty.  My analysis uses data from fiscal years 2011 through 2016. Why use this time span? Prior to FY 2011, colleges and universities were trying to cope with the immediate effects of the Great Recession, which, as I have previously argued, accelerated what are probably near-permanent changes in undergraduate enrollment. It seemed fair to give schools six years after the economy had begun to stabilize to adjust to the new normal. Finally, when I began my analysis, the most recent publicly-available federal tax filings were from FY 2016.

Below are my results, ordered from the smallest increase in expenses per FTE undergraduate to the largest. I bear none of these schools any ill will. Many have histories of serving marginalized populations. But I predict that at least half of them will close within the next five years. 

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Dib, dib, dib

I promise to not panic

I’m on a train, heading into London, where I’ve got a meeting.

I’m not planning to do any teaching today, nor even to give a presentation or a briefing.

And yet, on a quick check through my bag, I’ve got the following on me:

  • My laptop, including the power cord and the adaptor for connecting to output devices;
  • My voice recorder, should I want to record a podcast;
  • My workbook, where I keep notes on what I’m doing;
  • Post-it notes; and,
  • Board marker pens

In short, I’m ready and poised to do a whole bunch of teaching-type activity.

Partly, this is because I hate re-packing my bag each time I leave the house, but much more it’s because I’ve found myself in situations too often when I don’t have the things I would like to have on me.

I do wonder if this is because I’ve had my professional development during a period of rapid technological change, when resilience really mattered.

When I started out, it was all acetates and overhead projectors, unless they were broken, in which case it was the blackboard.

And then data projectors arrived, if you could get the computer booked out and then get it to connect to the projector.

I spent several years working with a dual system: a computer with powerpoints and a bag full of acetate (plus some chalk, just in case, because, well, I’m me).

(and yes, I do still have those acetates filed away, somewhere in my office)

Nowadays, even though I’ve not had a tech problem for several years, I still try to be prepared should one occur. In fact, the last time it did happen, I was giving a keynote at a conference, and I just had to wing my talk without my slides for the first half: unpleasant, but not fatal.

The message here is that your teaching can be delivered in more than one way, but to make that possible, you need to be ready and able to use those different ways when needed.

If you don’t want to learn by bitter practical experience (ahem), then I offer this technique: sit down and consider what you do and what could go wrong. That might include technology problems, or problems with the room you’re in, or too many/few people turning up, or not having the time you thought you did, or any of that.

Now think about what you can do about it.

In pretty much every case, there’s plenty you can do, adaptations you can make. I’ve not yet had a class that had one of these problems that I could get something useful out of, from the time only one person turned up to the time when none of the lights worked. Or the time my train got really delayed (like now).

And before you worry too much, just remember that most of the time things work just fine.

And that’ll be in part because you’re ready for anything.

Mastering Research Proposal Writing: Innovation through the Combination of Traditional Lectures and Active Learning

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Markus Siewert.

Throughout the course of their study, every student has to write a research proposal. In the old days students used to be confronted with this task at the very end when preparing their Bachelor or even Master thesis. The good news is that in the social sciences we have largely moved beyond this state of affairs since the courses that offer guidance on how to craft a research design have become standard in almost every curriculum.

Yet, everyone who teaches introduction to research design or project-based courses – like I do on a frequent basis – knows that helping students to master drafting a coherent research proposal can be a real challenge. In her chapter ‘Design Your Own Flying Carpet’: Helping Students to Master Research Proposal Writing, Ivana Rapošová, based at Masaryk University, presents an innovative design for a course session whose main goal is to meet this end through the fruitful blend of brief lectures and student-led activities.

The core objective of the session is to guide students step-by-step through the process of coming up with a road map for their research. The session starts with a brainstorming of potential research ideas and blind spots followed by a short debriefing and peer-to-peer feedback.

Based on this, key guidelines for drafting a research proposal are introduced focusing on aspects like formulating an appropriate research question, justifying the research, deriving a suitable research strategy, embedding the research question in the context of the state-of-the-art, etc. At each step, students are presented with small tasks allowing them to put the abstract rules into practice straightaway and to revise their research design along this way.

The chapter moreover offers empirically-grounded reflection on the achieved learning outcomes, both from the perspective of the students and the course instructors. Although the evaluation lacks robustness due to the small number of observations, Rapošová convincingly discusses the added value and potential benefit of her innovative design. Here, a valuable avenue for future research would be to test the effects of an active learning design against traditional frontal teaching in a quasi-experimental setting.

In sum, Rapošová’s chapter is a stimulating read on a topic of utmost importance for us as researchers and teachers as well as for our students. I, for my part,will definitely implement this approach in one of my next classes.

Iterating Student Game Design

More final thoughts on my heavily-revised course on development from last semester: as explained in Parts 4 through 6 below, I included a scaffolded series of assignments on design thinking through SCAMPER, a method for creative problem-solving. In a debriefing discussion on the last day of class, one student expressed frustration that the game she and her team had built was not graded. I only graded how well students had written their evaluations of other teams’ games. 

I thought this was a fair point, and said so. But my past use of peer review of student-designed games had proven to be useless — teams simply gave other teams’ games full marks regardless of the games’ actual quality.  And I really did not want to get involved in the minutiae of assessing the quality of all the games that students had created.

Then I thought of applying the last phase of design thinking — experimentation and iteration — to the problem at hand, and this plan came to mind:

  • Compress teaching about design thinking and the related preparatory assignments into a shorter period of time (e.g., first half of the semester).
  • Teams of student design games. 
  • Each team plays and evaluates a game created by another team.
  • I provide the evaluations of each game to its creators.
  • Each team then uses the evaluations as feedback to improve the design of its game. 
  • There is a second, final round of game play. This time each team scores the other team’s game against a rubric. The rubric focuses on how well the second version of the game incorporated the feedback on the initial design.

This sequence might satisfy students’ expectation that everything they do must be graded. 

Links to the original series on redesigning this course:

Is this the real life?

Is this just fantasy?

As my day-job stumbles from one bizarre episode to the next, it’s been great to have the relative stability of my teaching.

Yesterday was our last class of the semester, so we spent a bunch of time on wrapping things up.

In so doing, it occurred to me that I’ve not been particularly systematic about this, so I tried this time to make sure I went around the houses.

First element was to try and draw out the overarching learning outcomes from the module: the stuff that’s been there most of the time, but which hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront of any one session.

When we focus on individual sessions, it’s easy to also focus our attention on the specific outcomes, without making the connections up to the higher-level points.

That fed into the two major part, namely the assessment.

In my case, students have a single piece of work to do for assessment, which requires them to integrate their reflection and learning from the whole module, so talking about those kind of things is doubly-useful.

In both cases, I tried to start from students’ questions and concerns: I’ve been touching on key points throughout the module, but I know from long experience that often that’s not enough. Just because you think you’re clear, doesn’t mean you are.

That’s particularly relevant here, as the assessment is a personal reflection, so I want to emphasise that only each student can determine what is central in that, since they known themselves better than I can.

Finally, I encourage students to give feedback.

No session is perfect – or even close – but the more feedback you can get from students, the better. That can be through the formal channels your institution uses, or more informally in class.

I didn’t use it this time, but the ABC system can also work well for generating ideas.

They don’t know it yet, but as I bump into students in the coming period of time, I’ll be asking for their views on how it all went.

Which just leaves the last task: putting my paperwork in order now, so that I have less to scrabble through next autumn. Much as there’s a temptation to just park your stuff on a shelf somewhere and forget it, it’s hugely more efficient and effective to sort it all out now, while it’s still fresh in your mind.

In short, practise what you preach to your students.