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.

Supposedly.

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.

Managing Difficult Conversations

Today’s post discusses part of a previously-mentioned workshop on managing difficult conversations in the workplace. The workshop was led by Pamela Heffernan of Performance Management Associates. If you want to find out more about leadership development workshops like this one, she can be contacted at PHeffernan [at] PerformanceManagementAssociates [dot] com.

Difficult conversations can be managed effectively by following a process of preparation, engagement, exploration, and resolution.

To prepare, focus on the specific problem you want to resolve. Question your story; don’t rely on assumptions. What don’t you know about the situation that might be relevant? Also define your opening statement – the first words that will come out of your mouth – to frame the conversation around the issue at hand. This statement should be a maximum of two to three sentences and include an open-ended question that minimizes the other person’s defensiveness.

To engage, take a position of neutrality, talk with the person rather than at them, and ask questions to find out what you don’t know – what are the reasons the person is acting the way they are acting? Identify the person’s fear and address it: “I think you’re afraid of X. Is that correct?” Your task is to listen with curiosity. Only then will you be able to respond in an appropriate manner.

Next, explore potential alternatives. Focus on outcomes. What does success look like, and how do we get there? Ask “If you were in my shoes, how would you see this?” At this point you will probably know if the other person understands the impact of their behavior, wants to change, and is coachable, or if the person lacks the necessary self-awareness. In the latter case, the only choice, if you’re in a managerial position, as an instructor is with a student, is to require compliance.

Finally, develop a plan for resolving the situation. Establish agreement on who is going to do what when, and document it to hold the person accountable. A follow-up email becomes the launch point for the next conversation.

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

From Frying Pan To Fire?

A brief meditation on teaching in the era of Trump. From a comparative perspective. In more ways than one.

As someone whose income is in the world’s top one percent, I have the luxury of partaking in long-distance travel on a purely voluntary basis. Soon I’ll be vacationing outside the USA, a country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters. My destination? A country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters.

So yes, I see parallels, despite the geographic and cultural differences. The tribalistic nationalism. The sexism. The religious justifications. The cronyism. Most of all, the constant attempts to de-legitimize the very institutions that originally put these people into positions of power.

I know that I’m a bit more sensitive to the symbiotic relationship between popular prejudices and abusive government than many people, in part because my wife, as a Muslim and an immigrant, is classified as both a terrorist and a rapist in Trumpspeak. But history demonstrates that those who engage in idol worship and willful ignorance as a means to an end rarely see their expectations met.

And here is the connection to my teaching: the basic principle that I try to convey to students is that one benefits by comparing, as open-mindedly as possible, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity-driven analysis leads to unexpected insights, sounder judgments, and more satisfying outcomes in life. And it is quite acceptable to make mistakes along the way as long as one takes the time to try to figure out why things went wrong.

Unfortunately I am seeing an increasing resistance to this message among U.S. undergraduates. Far too many expect to be intellectually and morally validated solely on the basis of personal opinion. Far too few exhibit a willingness to consider the possibility that perspectives which differ from their own might have merit. If some students perceive my teaching as a threat to the comfortable psychological environment that they have constructed for themselves, I get labeled authoritarian, racist, sexist, or otherwise unprofessional — revenge for being told that their academic performance is not of the quality that they believe it to be. Who am I to tell them that they are not perfect?

This probably makes me sound like a disgruntled, insufferable elitist. But I wonder if we folks in the USA are in the midst of a disaster of our own making. Unstructured and unsupervised play during childhood has become the exception rather than the rule. Reality TV, online personae, and the War on Terror have been background noise for as long as today’s teenagers have been alive. Anxiety and depression are epidemic on college campuses. And now government by distortion, outrage, and caprice has been normalized. It’s probably only natural that many undergraduates think everyone has the right to their own immutable set of alternative facts.

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

Back End Skills

Most ALPS posts deal with the front end of teaching — the stuff that eventually turns into the student experience. Today I’m going to talk about the back end of the job: skills that are beneficial for one’s career because they have applications far beyond the classroom environment. Here are the skills that I now wish I had acquired while in graduate school:

Writing for the Audience

As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, the vast majority of academic writing is terrible. It is produced to be published, not to be read. Important ideas are not communicated well, if at all. For example, compare the writing of Anatol Lieven in Pakistan: A Hard Country to any journal article or multi-authored volume about that country. Or read Sarah Kendzior‘s The View From Flyover Country. These people can write well, a lot of people read what they write, and they have benefited professionally as a result.

Academics need to reach different audiences, and that requires learning how to write for those audiences. Take courses in journalistic or creative writing. Write memos. Submit op-eds to your local newspaper. Get feedback from people who write better than you do. Write a lot, even though it takes time. Use the process of writing as a tool to refine your thinking. Practice what we preach to students.

Graphic and Web Design

I’ve written about this before too — messages can and often should be communicated visually. But the message is lost if the visuals are bad. I’m often shocked by the inability of faculty members to display information in a manner that is easy to understand — whether for other academics or a curious and reasonably intelligent public. Creating simple but effective charts with Excel is not that difficult. Yet training in this basic skill was not part of my graduate program — I had to learn it on my own. Others probably never bothered.

My doctoral studies began just before the Web sprang into existence. Since then, I’ve been struggling to catch up with the digital revolution. This blog is one small tangible result. Don’t be left behind like I was — learn how to build websites. The more proficient at this you become, the more of an advantage you will have.

Data Literacy

Related to the above is the ability to work with data. Can you easily mine data by creating longitudinal analyses and calculating percentages? Do you know how to determine whether your data and conclusions are meaningful?  I am constantly amazed by what I can learn and communicate by making those simple Excel charts. I dream about what I could do if I knew R.

Stage Presence

Let’s face it: teaching is performance. As are committee meetings, admissions office recruitment events, and board meetings. Elocution and body language can make or break a conference presentation. Don’t be the person whom everyone immediately tunes out. Take a course in public speaking, acting, or musical theater.

People Management

We have to interact with others as part of larger organizations, and I bet every person who reads this has encountered at least one toxic colleague in their careers. Some of us end up with managerial duties, as research team leaders, department chairs, and administrators, yet we’ve never been trained for these roles. I recently attended a workshop on how to manage difficult conversations in the office, and it was eye-opening. Find out how you can become better at working with people. Then do it.

Look At Those Deck Chairs

I am going to return to beating one of my favorite dead horses — systemic change in higher education — partly because I just completed three days’ worth of commencement-related events at a university with a total full-time enrollment of only 2,500 students. This post is a preview of something that is already under review for publication in another venue, so I won’t go into my usual excruciating level of detail.

I remain convinced that we are in the early stages of a massive, decades-long consolidation of post-secondary educational institutions in the USA. The consolidation will hit small, private, non-profit colleges and universities first. Here are the basic indicators:

  • A population that is aging out of the labor force combined with low unemployment rates means fewer young people interested in attending college.
  • Continuing demographic decrease in the number of high school graduates in New England and the Midwest.
  • Expanding economic inequality will make the traditional four-year, full-time, residential undergraduate experience, with its high overhead costs, increasingly unaffordable for a greater number of high school graduates. Even those with sufficiently affluent socioeconomic backgrounds will seek out colleges and academic programs that are perceived as providing higher value-added and a better return on investment.
  • As of Fall 2015, there were at least 600 private, non-profit bachelor’s and master’s degree-granting institutions with less than 2,500 students. How many of these colleges can you name? You just proved my point. The vast majority of them have undistinguished reputations, are heavily tuition-dependent, and lack the resources that are available to students at larger institutions. These small colleges and universities will be the first to be crippled by falling demand.

Marian Court, Burlington, St. Joseph’s, Wheelock, Concordia Alabama, Atlantic Union, Mount Ida, Marylhurst, and Bacone represent just the tip of the iceberg.