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.

When There’s No There There

Earlier in the semester, a student became hostile in class. I told the student to stop and that I wasn’t going to engage in an argument. The student became increasingly belligerent, so I responded by ordering him to leave the room. By this point the student was out of his chair and indicated that he would not leave willingly, so I pulled out my cell phone to call university police. The student said a few more things, using profanity in the process, and left the room. After getting the class back to business, I emailed the appropriate academic dean, the dean of student affairs, and the director of campus security.

What then transpired was enlightening, but not in a good way. I thought I had acted responsibly: de-escalating the situation by convincing the student to leave the room before he became violent. But according to university administrators, the student’s behavior did not constitute a reasonable — in legal terms — threat to anyone’s safety. Per university policy, as long as a student approaches that standard of reasonableness but doesn’t cross it, the student can say or do anything in class. Even if the student is removed from the classroom, the student can come back the very next day and engage in the same behavior all over again.

If, on the other hand, I had acted irresponsibly and deliberately provoked the student to commit a violent act or threaten harm to someone in the room, then the student could have been suspended or expelled.

In essence, I discovered that there is no middle ground where I work. Maintaining an environment that is conducive to learning for all students is not as much of a priority as I thought it was.

Embedding social media

The piece I wrote some weeks back, about how to do social media, continues to attract interest from various quarters, possibly because of its amazing insights, possibly because I keep linking to it on my assorted feeds [sic].

One aspect that I didn’t explore very much was how to embed social media into what you do.

It’s easy to produce lots on such platforms, but harder to link it all up, especially with non-social media activity, such as teaching.

This came back to me yesterday, watching a webcast of Jon Worth. Jon’s a super-active campaigner and consultant, dashing around Europe to offer advice and support to all manner of groups. Continue reading

Collaborative Reading – Follow-Up Thoughts

Today we have an update from Colin M. Brown, College Fellow in Government at Harvard University. He can be reached at brown4 [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

In a post last year, I talked about the potential of using annotation software like CritiqueIt to make the reading process more collaborative. In short, by creating a single copy of the reading that students can mark up together online, there’s the potential for creating discussion prior to and during class, and also for getting students to see course readings as statements in a dialogue.

My first use of CritiqueIt was promising, but I’m less satisfied after having further used it in two undergraduate seminars plus a graduate-level, continuing education course.

Two things have continued to work, probably still making the tool a net positive. First, as a diagnostic tool CritiqueIt makes class prep easier, because it gives me a window into what students find interesting or are struggling with. Students indicate their interest implicitly or explicitly, and they also seem relatively fine with using their comments to signal that something doesn’t make sense—especially useful when they’re having difficulty with something I didn’t expect. Second, they seem to like it. Students seem to perceive it as a cool new gimmick, and I seem to get credit for trying it.

However, while CritiqueIt lets me know what students want the conversation in class to be about, it hasn’t generated a conversation among students on its own. Students have posted a few responses to other students’ annotations, but the kind of exchange I mentioned in the original post hasn’t happened consistently. Students seem to be completing the assignment because it sends me a signal that they have, in fact, engaged with the reading. This provides me with feedback for me, as mentioned above, but was not my ultimate reason for using the tool.

Since I want students to see political science writings as part of an ongoing exchange of ideas, there are three changes that I’ll be implementing next semester, thanks to insights from my colleague Daniel Smail, who has been experimenting with the same tool in his history courses:

  1. Build CritiqueIt into the entire semester. Students need time to get used to the tool, and the expectation that it’s an integral part of their work.
  2. Assign early readers. If everyone reads the night or morning before class, there’s less incentive to start a dialogue that none of their peers will respond to. By dividing up the collaborative readings and having one or two students make their annotations three or four days before class, there will be more time for students to jump into the conversation.
  3. Work CritiqueIt into summative assessment. This also normalizes the use of the tool, and gives students the incentive to develop better commenting skills. Students will need several days to virtually hand the document back and forth so this has to be accounted for in scheduling other assignments. But giving them a longer piece of journalism on the broad course theme and having them react to it, and then to each other, knowing that their comments will be graded on some explicit rubric, might be a better way to tease out their ability to respond critically to arguments—and actually use something they learned from class.


The REF Impact & Pedagogy conundrum


For reasons that I think mainly relate to having missed the relevant meeting, I am my Department’s Impact lead for REF, the multi-annual evaluation exercise of research quality in British universities. The Impact part of it relates to efforts to measure what, um, impact that research has outside of the academic community.

For the purposes of this post, let’s assume I’m thrilled with this honour.

The intention behind REF might well be an honourable one, but as so often in life, the practice is more complicated than the theory. How does one measure any of these things? What does one measure? And so on.

A particular bugbear for me, and other UK-based academics in the same situation, is the ambiguous position of pedagogic research. Continue reading

Amoeba Game

I’ve been telling students in my first-year seminar that the design of a good game often simultaneously combines chance, strategy, competition, and cooperation. About a month ago I invented a simple game to demonstrate how this could be accomplished.

I took the class outside, defined starting and finishing lines — about twenty-five meters apart — and divided the class into teams. The game had only one rule: every person on a team had to keep his or her left hand on the right foot of another teammate. First team to reach the finish line “won” the game.  Continue reading

Universities and academic freedom in the age of Brexit

Me, corrupting young minds yesterday

Academic freedom isn’t the kind of subject that comes up very often in the UK. I would say it’s benign neglect, but actually it’s just neglect: no-one really seemed to fight that fight and so things just trundled on. We’d watch events in Turkey, Hungary or the US, sigh or tut and then get on with things here, where nothing really changes.

As such, the past week has been a bit of a wake-up call.

The short version runs like this. A Conservative MP, part of the Whip’s office, wrote a couple of weeks ago to all university vice-chancellors, asking for a list of names of ‘professors working on European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also asked for links to syllabuses and to any online teaching materials.

About a week later this broke in public, with VCs accusing the MP of ‘mcCarthyism’ and ‘witch-hunts’: his own unwillingness to speak publicly about his intentions for this material only gave further to people’s suspicions.

As much as the government disowned the MP’s actions, the response from academic quarters gave a perfect opportunity for sections of the press to lay into the ‘liberal brain-washing’ that apparently goes on in universities: I’ll pass on linking to such pieces, but if you want to find them, then I’d look in the right-wing press.

At the root of this is a basic talking at cross-purposes. Universities (and academics) feel very concerned these days about their position: their general situation is ever more precarious, be that in terms of students, funding, research or the role they play in society. In their eyes, this all looked like an attack on their core values. I’ll put my hand up on this too: I’m not normally one to sign public statements, but I did so as Treasurer of UACES, an association that was very much in the front line of all this. Continue reading