Snippets from Comparative Politics

Some end-of-the-semester thoughts on my comparative politics course, in relation to a post from the beginning of the semester and to Simon’s post last week about a framework for active learning.

First, the simple stuff:

Running this course with only ten students at 8:00 a.m. is problematic, for reasons I have mentioned before. Lack of students definitely decreases the level of activity in my Gerkhania simulation. Attendance has picked up but is still only eighty or ninety percent, so in the future I really need to give pop quizzes — in paper, rather than electronic, form — on a semi-frequent basis.

I have noticed a problem with the reading responses. For these assignments, I usually pair an article from an academic journal — often the Journal of Democracy — with shorter and more current items from news outlets like The Atlantic, Politico, and The New York Times. Some students developed the habit of reading only the latter and ignoring the former. I need to force students to read the journal articles, but haven’t quite figured out the best way of doing this.

Now for the complex stuff: Continue reading

Advising: When Process Is The Problem

What turned up in a Creative Commons search

A post about advising, a topic we haven’t talked much on this blog — an example from last year is here — but which, depending on where you work, may be seen by your superiors as the panacea for everything from retention to student psycho-social dysfunction. Hence the push for advising to evolve from “transactional” to “transformational” (always be wary of alliteration). Since students nominally attend college to obtain an education, and faculty are the ones who formally provide that education, the responsibility for advising students frequently falls to them.

My university recently hired a consultant to evaluate the advising landscape on campus. His report highlighted several aspects of advising that are, in his view, in need of improvement:

  • Constant churn in academic administrators.
  • Absence of accountability for university employees whose duties include advising, whether in a supervisory or “point of service” capacity.
  • Advising mechanisms designed without input from the people who hypothetically need to be advised (students).
  • Information relevant to the student academic experience that is generated by one part of the university is not shared with other parts, something I discussed in 2012.
  • Online resources that for students are difficult to locate and inconvenient to use.

Note that faculty lack the authority or resources to solve any of these problems.

So what is a faculty member to do, especially in the midst of a requirement-heavy curriculum that presents the academic path through college as a series of boxes to check off, instead of as a process that is heavily influenced by the student’s choice of social interactions? Something that I am slowly migrating toward — initially reflected in the print and digital promotional material that I have designed for my department — is to present options to students in the form of “here is the choice a past student made in this situation, and this is where that student ended up. Your results might differ, but we know that this outcome is at least possible.” I am hoping that giving advisees concrete examples like this will more effectively communicate what might be beneficial for them to know.

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 6

Another update, this time in relation to the Place Making Essay discussed in Part 2  of this series —

To backtrack a bit, and provide some context I probably should have supplied in Part 1, the objectives of this course are to:

  1. Introduce students to concepts and methods used by social scientists and others to explain globalization.
  2. Develop the skills needed to understand complex problems related to global interconnectedness.

Students’ essays did, with varying degrees of success, thoughtfully respond to the assignment’s two prompts:

  • How does the process by which an object is made affect its ability to create a sense of place for people who use that object?
  • Has globalization altered the meaning of places or of the objects within them? Why? If so, how have meanings changed?

I did not see much discussion about the ways in which globalization affects communities, in the sense of “place making.” In retrospect, this is another example of me assuming, incorrectly, that students will follow ideas down the rabbit hole like I do — examining the more nebulous systemic implications of narrowly-defined events. If I use this assignment in the future, I might change the prompt to something like:

  • People assign meanings to the physical spaces they use. How do these meanings change when built environments and the objects within them are globalized? How are people’s spatial interactions affected? Do communities benefit? Why?

Despite horizons in students’ writing that were narrower than I would have liked, I think the essay unexpectedly hit my second course objective, through the interaction with students in the ART 202 course and the IYRS Digital Materials and Fabrication program. These interactions required students in my course to communicate effectively with complete strangers who had, in many cases, unfamiliar perspectives and different goals. A prerequisite for learning how to solve problems that arise from global interconnectedness is actually connecting with people who are different, and that happened in this assignment.

Links to all posts in this series:

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 1

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 2

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 3

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 4

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 5

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 6

Changing Course on Globalization, Part 7



Return of the Information Diet

Returning to a topic I mentioned at the end of a post from 2014:

Spring has sprung in this part of the world, sort of, and there are four weeks left in the semester. So, in addition to (slightly) warmer weather and more daylight, the workload is ratcheting up — giving me a stronger urge to procrastinate. I compensate by doing some spring cleaning. And simplifying my information environment does allow me to be more productive.

So far I have I unsubscribed to a half dozen mailing lists — that generate emails I don’t read or that announce events I never attend — and deleted perhaps a few hundred electronic files. I’ve also started weeding through paper files in my office. A photocopy of a policy from 2012? There’s either a new policy, or the old policy is available online, so into the recycling bin it goes. And I’m setting aside books for eventual sale on eBay. The end result? I waste less time searching for what I’m trying to find and am less distracted.

And on the subject of distraction, I have been deliberately shutting down my email for long periods of time during the day. As a department chair, I have a “respond within twenty-four hours” policy with students, but for the most part they email to schedule in-office appointments so that I can sign forms (we lack modern conveniences like electronic signature capability for even the simplest bureaucratic tasks). I propose a few potential times in my replies and the appointments get scheduled with little fuss. Other faculty prefer to have appointment sign-up sheets on their office doors, an equally efficient method. But the bulk of the email I receive from official university sources can either be immediately deleted or does not require my immediate attention.

Another aspect of this process for any faculty member who will eventually be applying for tenure or promotion: when sorting through files, whether paper or digital, set aside material that demonstrates your contributions to the university and to the discipline. Store it in a safe, marked location. In my case, the material includes that classroom observation report from a senior colleague in 2015, the smattering of appreciative emails from alumni who enter graduate school, and the advertising flyers for campus presentations of my research. All of it goes into a box or a backed-up digital file folder for me to sort through once I start putting my application together and need reminders of all that I’ve accomplished. Until then, I can forget about it.

The Not-So-Pop Quiz and Absent Students

More thoughts on the management of extremely small classes . . . especially those that convene at 8:00 a.m. Mine has only ten students, and recently attendance has sometimes been as low as 40 percent, which empirically demonstrates that a substantial portion of the class thinks regularly attending class is unimportant.

I am not one of those professors who penalizes students’ grades for non-attendance — my students are legal adults with their own lives and get to suffer the consequences of their decisions. I also don’t give many in-class exams. For the subjects that I teach, I believe that writing is a better assessment tool than tests composed of multiple choice questions.

I also believe that reading and writing before class, and discussion during class, are in and of themselves critical for learning. But, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, what is to be done?

Last night I remembered the physics exams I had as an undergraduate. Often students were allowed to bring along a single sheet of paper with notes written on it, to reference during the exam. The real purpose of the “crib sheet” was to get students to review their notes and identify for themselves the concepts and processes that were important for an understanding of physics. Also the act of writing and rewriting to make the most critical information fit on a single piece of paper helped strengthen memories of this information.

I decided to employ a similar method. This morning I announced that class on Tuesday of next week would include a quiz. I explained in detail the format of the quiz, its intent, and the fact that it would be an extremely low-stakes event — worth only 10 points out of an available total of 1,200 from all other assignments. I gave each student a blank 3 X 5 note card to write notes on; they can use the card during the quiz.

The downside is that I now have to create and grade a quiz. But even if the entire class decides to show up, I will still have only ten quizzes to grade. A reasonable trade-off, in my opinion.

I’ll report on how this goes next week.

First Annual Teach, Play, Learn Conference

Announcing the first annual Teach, Play, Learn Conference on Friday, June 22, 2018, at Indiana University South Bend. The goals of the conference are to:

  • generate awareness and interest in the changing technologies and pedagogies in the quickly evolving area of educational games and playful learning.
  • demonstrate benefits of using games as part of classroom education.
  • showcase practical solutions for the design and implementation of games in the educational context.

Deadline for proposal submission is April 27. Details are here.

The Tyranny of Small Numbers At Intermediate Scale

I have written previously about the negative effects of small class size on how I teach, which I’m noticing again this semester in a class of only ten students. I have also written about low-enrollment institutions like Mills College. If your employer is small, tuition-dependent, and the surrounding area is losing population, it is time for you to worry. But today I am going to explore size effects at the intermediate level by looking at how enrollments affect curricula.

As the chair of a small department that manages three separate majors, none of which graduates more than a dozen students per year, I am hypothetically responsible for balancing two  competing agendas — filling classrooms with students who will likely never again take a course in the same disciplinary area, and offering a sufficiently diverse menu of advanced courses for students majoring in that disciplinary area.

In a recent discussion about one of my department’s programs and the upcoming academic year, I advocated in favor of offering a number of introductory course sections that is similar to the number that has been offered previously. These course sections typically enroll thirty to thirty-five students each, in contrast to upper-level courses that might enroll a dozen or fewer. The higher head count per class reduces overload and adjunct compensation, a cost that has exploded at my university because of a lack of oversight by deans and provosts. It also means more students are exposed to this particular field of study, increasing the chance that some might select it as a first or second major in a future semester.

Someone else instead supported an increase in the number of upper-level courses. This, the person claimed, would better serve students in the major — by giving them more topics to choose from — and perhaps increase the attractiveness of the major to current and potential future students at the university. Continue reading

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 5

Today we have the final post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso, assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Our previous posts discussed why we wanted a blended learning approach to our research methods course, the design of the course’s online modules and offline workshops, and the involvement in colleagues. We have saved the best for last: what did students think of our redesigned course?

Because of the time and energy required by this project, we became very invested in it. We thought the flipped classroom was awesome. So when the course evaluations came back in, we were happy to read that students generally liked the flexibility that the new course design gave them, the look of the online environment, and research methods content. A few students even mentioned their appreciation for the academic skills modules — they had been struggling with certain skills like academic writing, but as graduate students they had felt too embarrassed to ask for help. Continue reading