ISA 2014: Do Orcs read the course syllabus?

A big hello from the city that spring forgot, Toronto, where the International Studies Association is holding its annual meeting. As I believe I’ve noted at various points, IR isn’t my thing, but the ALPS crew had a great opportunity to be part of a panel on Friday about innovative teaching, so here I am.

I hope to post several times from the event, as thoughts occur. And so it is here.

My first panel this morning is all about using games and fantasy to teach IR, including World of Warcraft, zombies (obviously), film and case study-driven approaches.

The common theme has been one of engagement and even enjoyment: the radically different approaches seem to stimulate students to go that bit further, with commensurate improvements of performance (based on pre/post tests). All good stuff.

At the same time, the tensions that colleagues observe are familiar ones. In particular, institutional necessities tend to impose limits: the need to provide course handbooks with learning objectives ends up being an immovable anchor that is – more often than not – worked around, rather than worked with.

At the same time, colleague after colleague has talked about institutional pressure to innovate pedagogy as a good in of itself. That’s great, but the impression that occurs is that this is a very disjointed and inchoate process: letting a thousand flowers bloom, if you’d like that old vision, albeit without a sense of what will happen with the successful experiments.

And this is the paradox. Innovation cannot be a good in itself: all of us think of instances of change for changes’ sake, and the costs that imposes on all involved. Instead, innovation needs to be for a reason and with an intention, even if that intention isn’t finally realised. But to do that, it requires colleagues to take a chance and trust that improvement is possible, even the path isn’t clear in advance.

That’s particularly true for student-led pedagogies of the kinds we talk about here at ALPS, where we anticipate that students will make unexpected discoveries.

We find ourselves moving towards a new era of pedagogic practice, but that is a conditional process. It’s telling that the participants in the panel tend to only use their pedagogic innovations in limited cases, rather than across the board. We’re all learning to loosen the ties and it’s going to be a fascinating journey.

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