Step outside of yourself

Life’s a… re-posted picture of a beach

In one of the crueller ironies of life, I’ve been working through a half-dozen doctoral theses – either as supervisor or examiner – in recent weeks, just as the weather has been so lovely as to make any work a distraction.

But, professional that I am, I have managed it, just in time for my summer leave, during which I intend – successfully, I warrant – to do absolutely nothing that doesn’t involve relaxing and/or eating.

Consuming such a volume of words, and commenting thereon, has been instructive for me, as well as for the authors (I hope).

In particular, it’s underlined a couple of key messages that apply as much to teaching as they do to research. Continue reading

Nobody knows anything

Yesterday was a tricky one on both sides of the Atlantic for political scientists. Between Trump’s press conference and the British government’s ever more erratic behaviour on Brexit, it felt at points like a film about politics, rather than a real-life one.

It’s not to say that these things are intrinsically wrong or bad*, but that they are exceptionally hard to understand. My own cri de coeur about not knowing any more got more traffic than anything I’ve posted for a very long time, suggesting I’m not alone.

And I’m not, which is rather the point.

One of the more prominent challenges for those who teach is that you’re expected to know everything, either by your students or by yourself.

Think to when you began teaching and how you worried about needing to cover all the bases and know all the answers. “What if they ask me a question I don’t know?” is the cry we’ve all made (except those of us with delusions of adequacy).

Continue reading

Keeping it fresh V: summertime madness

It’s that period in the year where we’re all doing all those things we said we’d do now, because we didn’t have time then.


Personally, thanks to the continued pyschodrama of British politics, I’m still knee-deep in commitments to lots of people, with only scant sight of any end. Indeed, I’m increasingly of the opinion that ‘summers’ (in the sense of a break) don’t really exist.

Fortunately, my habit and commitment to write a weekly post here reminds me that this project has fallen off the wagon somewhat. By the end of February I had a good sense of what I was going to do with my revised module on negotiation, so I parked it.

And now it’s July and I need to get the handbrake off once more.

Those with better memories will recall that I plan to create a series of interlocking activities that shape subsequent work and allow for a mix of exploring different issues, while also deepening their understanding of the interlinkages.

The main issue has been to find a topic that can link these all together.

While the shores of IR promise the potential of conflict and peril, I am concerned that it doesn’t let me drop down to more mundane and domestic issues.

Likewise, modelling an environment in politics risks having to make use of structural divisions on ideological lines that might be difficult to sustain over a semester.

If the framework is to work, then it needs to give enough space to allow for a range of activities, while also generating meaningful consequences to handle down the line.

With this in mind, I’m inclining to make the group into some fictional advisory committee to a government, which can then pronounce on assorted issues, sometimes representing different interests, sometimes acting on personal conscience.

An interesting opener to this – and the idea that came to mind this morning – is that this structure lends itself to a nice ice-breaker, where students can get to know each other and begin to assess their capacities.

Historically, I’ve used Victor’s Hobbes card game for this, mainly to highlight that people are shits (not Victor, obvs) and that since negotiation requires you to deal with people, you need to work on how you handle them.

However, what I have in my mind’s eye is something that speaks more to building some trust and confidence in each other, given that they will be having to have a functional relationship over 11 weeks.

Of course, knowing what you’re aiming for isn’t the same as actually having it mapped out, but it’s an important start: as and when I find myself trying to escape the turmoil of Brexit, I can at least have a clear point to work from.

Unless the football thing intervenes.

What’s the point?

Hirschman is for life, not just organisational theory day

It’s been open day season here: putting on talks and activities to entice students to join our fine institution (helped by the excellent weather).

One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the extent to which we sell the study of Politics as intrinsically valuable, as against as a pathway to other things.

It’s long been a tension that has interested me, as my teaching on negotiation clearly sits across the divide. As I tell our potential applicants, I get lots of feedback from alumni telling me how useful it was to develop their negotiation skills for when they bought a house, set up a business or – in one memorable exchange – had to sack someone.

All important life events, but not Politics in the narrow sense. Continue reading

Chickens and eggs in online resource development

What’s that HAL? You can’t lip-read because I’ve covered up my webcam?

As the token European in the ALPSblog team, I guess I should make some passing reference to the football [sic] World Cup, but given my abject disregard for the game, this isn’t going to happen. I’ll leave it at pointing you to others who do want to link it in.

Instead, I want to consider a new challenge I’m grappling with this summer: building properly online interactive resources.

This is for a project I’ve mentioned before, a resource for Oxford University Press to frame their online materials in and around EU politics, produced by a team of colleagues here at Surrey (when they’re not watching the football). With a mix of text, audio and activities, we want to try and make the most of the online-ness of it all.

The issue has been to know quite what that might actually mean.

Very helpful was a recent conference call with their tech people, who basically told us that we can propose whatever we like. That might sound banal, but their view was very much that they’d rather rein us back in than have us stick to a list of prescribed formats. In essence, they’d tell us if we’ve gone too wild in our thinking. Continue reading

The simplicity-complexity dilemma

Having been all chuffed with how my EU simulation was received in Prague at EuroTLC, I read Patricia’s post about using doughnuts to model a two-level game with a mixture of admiration and jealousy.

The admiration comes from the elegance of its design and jealousy from the feeling that I’d not come up with something nearly as good.

So, props to Patricia (and hello to my local doughnut vendor), but it also raises an interesting question that was niggling me in Prague and which has been a long-running debate here on ALPSblog, namely the tension between making something ‘realistic’ and drawing out the essence of a situation.

It’s a generic problem for all teaching and learning: we can’t (or shouldn’t) hope to describe and explain every last thing in the world around us, so we use heuristics of theory and extrapolation to provide ‘good enough’ models. Continue reading

In theory I can drive a small lorry…

Almost exactly like this

Of the many things I imagined I would get from EuroTLC, I never imagined that would include the discovery that I’ve been legally able to drive a small lorry for the past quarter of a century.

That conversation sprang out of a sharing of national identity papers in the beer hall – yes, we do know how to have fun – which ultimately resulted in me turning over my driving licence to find all the many categories of vehicle I am allowed to drive.

And that’s a good metaphor for one of the bigger themes of the conference for me: getting from theory to practice.

Despite having a bit of plastic that permits me to do these things, I’ve never actually tried to do them. Quite aside from the questions this raises about how driving tests worked in Buckinghamshire in the early 1990s, it also points to the difficulty of turning abstraction into practicality.

As a couple of colleagues noted during the event, we have two bodies of literature that don’t really speak to each other. Continue reading

Contingencies and contingency

Maybe not the best choice, given how that one pans out, but you get the idea

Reading Chad’s post reminds me – as if it were needed – that we operate in increasingly contingent times: there’s very little that is secure and dependably reliable.

That’s true of student enrolments, central financing and even the structure of the subject matter we study. Everything’s in flux, all the time.

This was driven home for me by a meeting I attended this week in Northern Ireland of the British and the Irish political studies associations, where we were talking about how Brexit is challenging us on a number of different levels.

Of these, the question of how to teach Brexit looked quite prosaic and manageable (as we’ve discussed previously here), certainly compared to big challenges like institutionalising the new interactions with practitioners that Brexit has created, or changing the way the academy sees impact.

Those discussions are on-going and I’ll come back to them at another point when they have moved on some more. In the meantime I want to think about resilience.

As you doubtless know, one of the worst things about contingent situations is the draining nature of the uncertainty: to spend you whole time wondering/worrying about what is happening (or might be about to happen) is just plain tiring. It’s hard to lift your head to a brighter future when you’re knee-deep in whatever unpleasantness you find yourself in.

A central part of coping with that is to recognise that you’re not alone. Continue reading

Sharing materials, shaping ideas

Let’s hope not, right?

While trying not to let the great ideas of Nicosia slip off my radar, I’ve got to admit to being rather excited about Prague and EuroTLC.

As I discussed last week, EuroTLC is a more applied event, which is why I’m looking forward to getting my hands metaphorically dirty: a semester with no teaching is good for many things, but not for developing one’s learning & teaching practice.

As part of EuroTLC, we’re being encouraged to share materials beforehand. You can find my stuff in Best Practice Workshop (Session B) if you’re interested.

Once again, this raises the question of how to share and what to share in pedagogic materials. While we often note here how generous people are with their teaching ideas it’s just as frequently that we note that we’re not sure what’s the necessary minimum to impart.

To take my case, the materials I’ve uploaded should be enough to play the game: the pack that goes to the students and some notes: the calculator is more a reflection of my getting bored with the discussions about the role of maths in social science education than any essential part of gameplay.

But I can also see that the face-to-face element of my presentation is going to be important too, because it’ll point out the areas where my paperwork isn’t up to scratch and, more importantly, how this game could be re-purposed.

Of course, that latter issue is of as much interest to me as it is to the person asking: I see in it all what I want to see, but I’m also keen to discover what others see.

This is not merely an academic consideration, but a more practical one for me, driven by a new project I’m working on this year.

Working with Oxford University Press, colleagues and I are building an online platform to consolidate and integrate existing outputs from the publishers, with a mix of text, blogs and – you’ve guessed it – activities.

The game I’m presenting in Prague is also going – potentially – going to become part of this resource, but in a rather different format. That format change is driven by both the use – individuals, via a website – and the need to protect IP – so no downloadable PDFs to share with your mates.

Re-imagining this game for that very different environment means having a strong sense of how it works and what it’s trying to do. Already that’s meant some long discussions with co-authors, editors and the tech bods to work our the parameters. If I’m not able to understand my game’s essence, then I can’t very well expect a coder to create an appropriate version for the website.

It’s with all this in mind that I’m heading Prague, thinking about how these things can and might work.

Countdown to Prague

“The learning gains might be this big. But then again, maybe not”

My diary tells me that today I’m uploading materials to the EuroTLC website, in anticipation of the third conference at the end of the month.

EuroTLC is something we’ve written about before (here), but it’s worth revisiting how it differs from APSA’s TLC, which had been something of an inspiration.

While TLC has kept a rather academic bent to its work – streamed workshops focusing on papers – EuroTLC has been more interested in applied approaches: how to do stuff in the classroom. That’s evident in the structures – lots of practical sessions and a variety of formats – and in the general collective model of lots of different organisations chipping in.

Of course, there’s the practical necessity that being able to get together enough papers to run a TLC-style event is very difficult, and indeed rather redundant, given the existence of TLC itself. There’s never been a desire to cannibalise TLC, but rather to fill a gap that was felt to exist in the market.

But how does this all matter?

Well, building on the work I’ve been doing in Nicosia, EuroTLC is a good moment to advance that agenda.Some of the Joint Session participants will be there too, so it’s an obvious jumping-off point to get some more buy-in from colleagues.

And here the nature of EuroTLC becomes more relevant. If participants are more interested in ‘doing stuff in the classroom’ than in research per se, how to make the connection.

Of course, this is a slightly moot point, since I’m aware that the two things aren’t mutually exclusive and – more to the point – that interest in one often co-exists with the other. I want to do better and more useful things in my classroom, so I’m interested in what constitutes ‘better’ or ‘more useful’.

At the same time, I know from past EuroTLCs that playfulness is not always easily aligned with rigorous. The opportunity to try out new pedagogic things is a joy in itself – the moment of thinking “why did no one ever try this before?” – but it’s not the same as attempting to apply a methodical and dispassionate analysis. Put bluntly, sometimes it’s just enough to be trying something new.

But this is rather why Peter and I set up our Cypriot workshop in the first place: neophilism isn’t enough. And that’s not even getting to the dull fact that most things have been tried before; it’s just that we didn’t know about them. Which is the point.

I’m all for exploring what we do, but that doesn’t have to be without a map. Indeed, a map might point us to new (for us) things that actually work.

Talking with participants at other EuroTLCs (and TLC, for that matter) I often encounter the sentiment – usually the next day – of “well, it was fun, but was it any good?”

That’s the moment to connect the different elements.

Now I just need to loiter around hotel lobbies and airport departure lounges to buttonhole people.

You’ve been warned.