Time to get meta! It is annual review time at my institution….I
hate/love this point in the summer because I am forced to/have the opportunity to reflect upon my approaches to research and teaching.
In the process, I came to some generalized insights about my approach to assignment design. I decided that in my most satisfying assignments had one of three tacit techniques buried somewhere underneath. Although I’m certain there are more than three…The following is what I
penned typed out…
• Alternate Modes of Expression: Demonstrate Mastery Through Transfer
I think that one means to developing student intellectual capacity comes from asking students to express course content in ways that force lateral thinking into other disciplines or topics—this is sometimes referred to as transfer. I attempt this most commonly in my introductory courses because students are generally very good at rote memorization and regurgitation, and often mistake this for mastery of content. Along these lines, I work to develop assignments that force students to manipulate the content they thought they knew into mediums they might normally eschew. Among my favorites? 1. task students groups with drawing images of course concepts and debates without the use of written words; 2. tell them to write a haiku that summarizes the reading for the day; or 3. apply a theoretical perspective studied in class to popular film. (See: Hunger Games Example)
• Words Control Perspective: Language Has a Direct Effect on Expression
Political science is full of cool concepts that students take as inherently neutral. The truth is, many words are part of particular communities of discourse. That is, words tend to enable some kinds of expression while disabling others. Concepts such as terrorism, collateral damage, or even mother/child/family… open and close off routes of expression just by using them. My all-time favorite author for breaking this down is Carol Cohn. She wrote a brilliant article in which she discusses “technostrategic talk” (available via pdf through the link)…Cohn beautifully articulates her participation in a community of defense intellectuals. She learns to speak through their acronyms and discuss the very serious business of missile accuracy. In the process, however, Cohn admits that in learning their language, she could no longer clearly express concepts that she found important–human rights, loss of loved ones, the devastation of war on communities. An absolute must for all my courses.
Warning, this is a demanding but thoroughly enjoyable read for undergraduates.
• Reflecting on Self and Structure: Games and Simulations
A great deal of my development in pedagogy involves experimentation with simulations and games. Games afford a unique opportunity for role play, oral and written expression, and development of group work skills. Simulation and game play also create a spirit of competition that most (but not all) students find energizing and entertaining. However, the biggest benefit to these teaching tools, in my opinion, is their potential for critical thinking development. This occurs in two ways.
First, post-game exploration of the rules and structures requires that students critique the model inherent to the game and then to ask what role those rules played in driving the outcome.
Second, post-participation self-reflection of behavior requires that students consider their actions in the scope of game play in order to help them identify areas for professional development. My favorite version of this is Victor Asal’s Hobbes Game