I remember it vividly-ish

See? It’s not just me…

A bit of an odd one for you this time: it’s the end of semester here and so the mind wanders somewhat.

Not so long ago, I was re-reading Eric Schlosser’s Command and control, an excellent account of nuclear weapons incidents in the US. This had been off the back of a lunchtime discussion with colleagues about how there’s a nuclear device buried in the Thames, not so far from where I write, which had been jettisoned back in the 1950s by an ailing RAF bomber.

Yes, we do know have to have fun.

Any way, the book’s brilliant and I totally recommend it to you and students for opening up classroom debate about nuclear ethics beyond MAD. However, if you weren’t sure about nukes and their safety, then I’d maybe give it a pass, otherwise you’ll not sleep very much.

But this is a – slight – aside. The book in turn reminded me of a film I’d watched back when I was much younger, which I recalled was a thoughtful dramatisation of a B-52 crew’s ethic anguish over their mission: shades of Dr Strangelove but without the LOLs. Continue reading

The Risk Averse Generation

http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Kitten-Pet-Couch-Scaredy-Cat-Animal-Paws-2558459Fall semester is again drawing to a close — final exams are later this week — and as I have done in the past, I will review some teaching successes and failures by loosely applying Simon’s ABC method to myself.

But I will start with a general impression about a changing teaching environment, based on my own experiences this semester and discussions with some of my colleagues. We are seeing incoming college students who increasingly exhibit psychological traits that hinder academic success: an inability to plan, a reluctance to take risks, a lack of coping skills and emotional resiliency, and a fragile sense of self-worth. Learned helplessness is just one manifestation of this phenomenon.

While these students might have the same innate intellectual ability as students have had in the past, they are far less confident about themselves and fear uncertainty to a much greater extent. And so they try to avoid situations they perceive as challenging, refuse to test themselves on what they might not know, and their academic performance suffers as a result. In my case, I have seen the overall grade distribution in my first-year seminar shift markedly to the left — more D’s and F’s and fewer A’s. Maybe this is a one-time occurrence, but I doubt it.

Simulating EU foreign policy

Goddess of Fortune, before you ask

Despite what we here at ALPS like to make you think, other groups do work on simulations and active learning in political science and international relations. And because everyone’s a lovely person around here, we all get on famously with each other.

One of those groups is the Europe-wide group that used to run under the ANTERO label, and which has now become NORTIA. Funded by the EU, it’s a network of academics working on EU foreign policy, covering both research and teaching. As ANTERO, they managed to build up a really good rep as the people to go to for such things.

One of their more recent outputs is a handbook on simulations.

As well as useful info on designing such things, with links to video, they also provide full documentation for a simulation of handling a crisis in Ukraine.

I’ll recommend it to you despite my (small) involvement, not least because it draws out some more of the issues surrounding application to a specific subject area, which will be use to you, whether or not you’re working in it or not.

In so doing, it invites us to think once again about the difficulties of translating from generic to specific, which is often a barrier to implementing active learning techniques. However, the effort is well worth it, as these materials show really well.

I’ll also remind you that it’s very nearly the deadline for the ECPR Joint Sessions: sun, sand and simulations. But without the sand.

Food Matters

The Agricultural History Society has extended its call for proposals for panel sessions and papers for its May 2018 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, USA. The new deadline for proposal submission is January 1. The conference’s theme is Tropicana: Commodities across Borders. The theme locates the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America in a global history of commodity production and consumption. Full details on the CFP can be found here.

Since I have shepherded a new minor on food studies through our faculty governance system, and applied for a federal grant on the same subject, food as a field of academic study has been occupying a growing — pun intended — amount of my time and energy. I’ll probably be writing more on this blog about teaching food production and consumption systems during the spring semester, but for now here is a simple assignment that uses food to get at socioeconomic inequality, public health, globalization, and environmental sustainability:

  • First, ask students to collect grocery receipts, either from their parents or from members of the off-campus community.
  • Second, have the students go into the markets where the foods listed on the receipts were purchased to identify the origin of these foods. Fruits and vegetables, at least in major U.S. supermarkets, are labeled by country of origin. For processed foods, like canned soup, additional research into corporate supply chains will be required.
  • Using some guiding questions, have students analyze — either through discussion, an individual writing assignment, or a team project — what they have discovered about who buys certain foods, where, and why.  What broader conclusions can students reach about the effects of people’s food choices?


Elephants in the classroom

So today I got to wake up really early, to head into London to do a slot on the BBC, going through the newspapers.

Of course, as you might have noticed – even if you’re not in the UK – a couple of young people got engaged yesterday: she acts, and he’s unemployed.

As the photo suggests, there was a certain lack of diversity in newspaper coverage.

And being the contrarian that I am, I pointed refused to pick any story to do with this (although I did mention the advert for a commemorative plate, not least for the speed of turn-around).

All of which is a long way around to a question that we often face in our teaching: how much should we confront the big, obvious questions or issues in our field?

Much has been said in recent years about teaching contentious politics and many of us now face this issue. Some things beg to be discussed and debated, but with the risk that no one can get enough distance from it all to say anything of real value.

Put differently, precisely because we feel something is really important, we might struggle to disengage our passions from our reasoning. And even if we can, then others might not; and might not accept that we have.

As you might imagine, this happens quite a lot to me on the subject of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU: my personal preferences are mine, and I don’t inflict them on others, trying instead to be led by the evidence on the many and varied aspects of the subject.

Often that works, but not always. This past weekend saw a demonstration of when it doesn’t, when quite a few people took except to an article that I’d tweeted, assuming that I had either written it, or condoned it. Choice epithets ensued.

(For the record, I don’t write editorials for national newspapers. And if I did, I wouldn’t have written that).

Anyhow, the point is the same: if someone’s stuck at the ad hominem stage, then it’s very difficult to do the kind of stuff we want to do: reasoned and considered debate.

So what to do?

Basically, the trick I like to use is to tackle things from the side, obliquely casting light.

This relies on you thinking about what it is that you want to discuss about the big issue, and then finding another way to discuss that.

Thus for Brexit, I find it useful to talk about principles of British and of EU politics, to explore what they are in more abstract terms, before then inviting people to make their own application to the matter in hand.

In its strongest form, you might not even talk about the elephant at all: it’s why historians have it easy, because they can always find another example with which to paint a picture without enflaming the same passions.

It’s why I chose the commemorative plate: it’s not the couple themselves, but it does cast light on the nature of popular buy-in (literally as well as metaphorically) and myth-making, as well as the unreasonableness of our expectations (exhibit 2 was going to be a full-page photo in another paper entitled “happy ever after”, which is a hostage to fortune if ever there was one).

Sometimes, you don’t have to talk about the thing, to talk about the thing.

Continuous Improvement, Perhaps

As another semester begins to wind down, I remain convinced that it is always a good idea to tell students what they are doing and why. They are unlikely to figure this out on their own.

For students, my first-year seminar has evolved into a semester-long exercise in problem-solving, yet I don’t mention “problem-solving” anywhere in the syllabus or in the directions for any of my assignments. So as a first-pass attempt at improvement, I’ve yet again tweaked my end-of-semester meta-cognitive Quality of Failure assignment. Directions for the Quality of Failure essay now read as follows:


Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes your learning in the course in relation to your Knowledge Plan from the beginning of the semester. Respond to the following questions:

  • What helped or hindered your learning about the problem solving process when reading, writing, and designing games?
  • Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Moore and Soledad O’Brien? Why or why not?
 I don’t think the results are ideal, but they are good enough for now.

A quick reminder: come to Cyprus and discuss the impact of active learning

A couple of months back I told you about the call for papers for the ECPR’s Joint Sessions in Nicosia, Cyprus, where Peter Bursens and I are running a workshop on the impact of active learning.

Well, the deadline is now closing fast, so this is your prod to get those abstracts in, so we can decide whether we want to spend a week with you, alternative having intense academic debate and enjoying the Mediterranean sea.

There were various queries when we announced the call, so it might be of help to you to run over the key points again now.

Firstly, the core objective is to work on different ways of measuring the impact of active learning. That can include any kind of active learning and any kind of impact (including on teachers/instructors/facilitators): this is a very nascent field, so the workshop is really an effort to step out into the (broadly) unknown. There’s no methodological favouritism, but having data does still matter: we want to get away anecdote as much as possible.

Secondly, we really want to get breadth – the joy of a new area of research is precisely that there is no settled path, so do come with your ideas and do challenge us on the panel abstract that we produced.

Finally, there is some funding available, but only for doctoral students. And fees are much lower if your institution is a member of ECPR.

We think this is a great opportunity to break new ground, so we really hope you can join us for this. Conference details and registration are here.