TMI and teaching today

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Well done, Google Images…

I’ve got an odd problem this week: too much information.

My class is on Britain and the EU and my students are drowning in material. As well as all the usual reading lists that exist, there’s also a mountain of stuff for non-specialist audiences, because of the looming referendum here in the UK.

How to handle this?

To some extent this is a common problem for us all. The days of students having to struggle to find any materials, combing the racks in the library for something that might not be there, piecing together fragments as much by chance as design: those days are largely gone.

Instead, with a universe of information at our fingertips, searchable from any device, plus the ability to connect with others in similar situations to share tips and ideas; all of that means that learning how to navigate through the mass is a primary skill. What my students face this week is simply an exaggerated form of this.

The strategy needs to have two elements to it.

The first is the need to make this challenge explicit: be clear with students that while everything they could need is out there, they need to work out how to identify and parse it. That’s not simply something you give to the new hire who’s teaching research methods, that’s something you try to communicate through all the teaching your students take, whatever the subject. Think about the feedback you give on coursework and the number of times you comment on the choice or (lack of) breadth of sources – did you discuss how they find those sources beforehand?

Which leads nicely to the second element: give them a hook to hang their searches on.

The beauty of politics and political science is that it is contested; there are different, legitimate ways of looking at things. If we’re trying to help students to know their own minds (and articulate and defend their positions), then giving them ways into the material is really useful. They might not necessarily agree with your way in, but it gives them a baseline to work from/against.

And that’s what I’m planning for my class. Instead of trying to talk about everything on the UK-EU relationship – which would be impossible in a whole module, let alone the hour I have – I’m going to take an idea and lay out a structure for them to arrange their thoughts. That thought – that the UK hasn’t ever had a coherent EU policy – isn’t a vastly original or big idea, but it sets up an approach into the historical development, the inter-penetration of systems and the current referendum quite nicely. I’m going to guess that you’re already thinking about how that might work, whether or not you know much about the subject.

That’s rather the point.

788250479_b8c99dccc8_oThe fetish of academia is freedom: freedom to explore your choice of subject how you want. It’s why we put dissertations and theses at the top of the pile, because it’s an opportunity to escape what other people tell you to do, and instead do what you want, how you want. But it’s also the thing that students often find hardest, because the safety harnesses have gone and ‘there are no wrong ways of doing this’ sounds more like a threat than a liberating moment.

If I think back to my own doctoral work, I spent 18 months flailing around, trying to work out what I was doing. It was only when I got an idea – not a big one, but a clear one – that suddenly everything fell into place and I wrapped it all up in next-to-no-time (another 18 months [sic]).

Note that I’m not arguing we should always spoon-feed students, but that we do need to give them hooks from which to hang their ideas (and their safety lines). If we do that, then we give them a point from which to explore and to build their own understanding.

Let’s see how it works.

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