Rules (and how to use them)

OK, so some rules don’t change…

For various reasons – some political, some professional – I’m thinking about rules.

So much of the work we do as scholars is about understanding the formal and informal rules of political interaction, and how political agents use, adapt to and shape them. The norms of political life are often purely conventional, but they can exert powerful effects, even before we get to notions of (il)legality. Take a moment to look at the leader of your country and think how much of our understanding of that individual is about their mastery of rules and conventions.

Fun, wasn’t it?

And so too in the classroom. Our institutions set up rules and regulations, codes and practices: in our classrooms, we fall into roles and habits.

One of the most useful things in my development of my practice has been to tackle those local rules in a political way: to think how I can make those rules work for me, rather than against.

To be (very) clear, that doesn’t mean breaking or ignoring rules, but reflecting on their intent and their definition and how they fit (or don’t) with what I’m trying to do.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways this works.

The first is when you’re doing something and then the rules change. This tends to be the more common, because we’re always doing stuff and the rules are always changing (or so it feels). The conventional view would be to throw up one’s hands and demand to know why ‘we’re fixing stuff that isn’t broke’: if it was good enough then, then why isn’t it now?

But rules do change and almost always for a well-intentioned reason (even if that latter point isn’t always immediately obvious). Rather than having a strop about it, we can more usefully consider how the rule changes impact on what we do and how we can adapt. Remember that change is usually evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, so it’s not a blank-sheet exercise.

Usually.

Moreover, rules are mostly about process, not substance, in a HE setting, so adaptions will tend to focus on broad frameworks, rather than much more invasive details. You might be told who can run a seminar, but you very likely aren’t told what has to happen (or not happen) in that seminar. Or even what a seminar is.

As any of you with exposure to any legal training will know, rules are always incomplete, so think about what isn’t said as much as what is: it’s the gap that offer the opportunities.

And this is the second category: doing stuff where there are no rules.

When I set up my negotiation module, many years back, there was very little guidance from the regulations, because they were blind to formats of sessions. As much as the regulations where there, they set expectations on how I lectured and how I assessed. The former simply didn’t apply, because there were no lectures, while the latter acted as a starting point for getting creative with my assessment. In the end, I used that to anchor a sound pedagogic model of self-reflection within a ‘conventional’ assessment regime. I was happy, my institution was happy and my students got a strong incentive to work towards the learning objectives that I’d written. Everyone’s happy.

Of course, at some rules change (see above) and I’ve had to evolve my course most years to accommodate this thing or that. We’re now quite some distance from where we’ve begun, but I still get to exercise a considerable degree of freedom, while also meeting my institutional obligations.

Of course, this can all happen at a much more prosaic level: the number of students who take your class is largely out of your control, so you have to adapt (sometimes majorly so, as I’ve discovered). Likewise, the number of students who turn up for the class, or who have prepared is a variable that you work around.

If you think of these as just variants on the rule problem, then you can start to see how you can work to the other rules in your life.

Until they change, of course.

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