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.

On the one hand, we have the ‘show-and-tell’ pieces, where individuals talk through what they have done in their class: very specific, very introspective, but also actual practice.

On the other, we have the pedagogic literature of high theory on learning: very generic, very wide in potential application, but without operationalisation.

The gap comes in translating the latter into the former, and vice-versa. It’s all very well to know about Bloom’s taxonomy, but try to apply it to your practice and it’s a different kettle of fish: everything in the class can be anything in the taxonomy, depending on an arbitrary classification by yourself.

Similarly, while it’s good to know what someone’s done in their class, it’s more useful to have a more abstracted model that can be adapted more simply to your specific needs.

At EuroTLC we did try to bridge that gap. People presented not papers but workshops where participants got to have a more hands-on approach and opportunities to discuss underlying mechanisms. In the coming weeks, we’ll be bringing you several of those ideas in guest posts.

But still the issue remains.

Part of the solution might come in the form of different materials and activities. Over the conference we talked about various event formats and resource provision to try and address such problems: none of them quite hit the nail on the head, but the process itself was a productive one and something that I’ll be returning to in coming posts.

Now I’m off to clear my head with a refreshing drive in my new minibus…

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.

Much as it’s terrible that colleagues face the same kind of challenges that you do, it should also be a source of strength. As the old saw has it, a problem shared, is a problem halved. By being able to talk with others about these things we get not simply to off-load it all, but also to find someone who can help to manage and relativise it.

If nothing else, to find that you don’t have to face this all alone can be a comfort, even if it can’t resolve matters. If we draw an analogy from our professional paradigms, we make better and more sound advances by sharing and trialing what we do. Likewise, by sharing and working together, we might find ways to better address our situations.

Certainly, I can attest that it has been the support of colleagues on both big and small issues that I have found most comforting and helpful in my career.

To take the most obvious example, this blog and the network of people associated with it has been a central part of my developing practice as an educator and as a public communicator. It’s also been a huge source of help and support for issues that go well beyond the particular remit of what we nominally do.

Life can be tough, and our professional lives increasingly so, but that should only strengthen our mutual bonds. If nothing else, it’s one of the things that remains largely under our own control: in the seas of structure, there are still islands of agency.

We should make the most of them.

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.

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.

Faculty Pathologies I: Inadequate Administrative Processes

Continuing on the theme of what I’ve learned in the last year of building my own business doing dissertation and academic coaching and freelance editing, at the invitation of the blog owner, Chad, I’m back for a two-part series on common problems that I’ve seen working with faculty on their research, project, and time management. This is part 1 of 2.

Faculty usually begin their careers trained to do one thing: research. If they’re lucky, they’ve been trained to teach, at least a little bit, too. But no one ever begins their career trained in administration and management. Those are, theoretically, on-the-job skills that you pick up on the way. As a result, most faculty have vastly underdeveloped systems for managing administrative processes: committee work, cycles of paperwork like monthly meeting agendas, required paperwork for grants and other funding, and the most dreaded one of all – email.

For most of us, email becomes the default way of managing our committee work, paperwork, and other not-research-but-still-necessary-business. Which means, then, that a system to manage our email becomes a necessity. That system needs to comprise two parts: incoming management, and archiving management.

Managing incoming email needs to be something that you do deliberately, not something done haphazardly. I recommend setting aside 2-3 times per day to process your inbox. Anything that can be answered in 3 sentences or less gets a response; the rest get deleted, archived immediately if appropriate, or placed in a specific folder or given a tag/flag indicating that follow-up is required. Then, once a day, have a dedicated time for churning through the things that require more detailed follow-up. Set a designated amount of time for this and stick to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t tackle one or two semi-quick ones if you have 10 minutes between meetings, but it does mean that email becomes a designated, deliberate task, rather than an interstitial one.

The second part of email management is archiving. The goal is to keep your inbox containing only those things that are active: ongoing conversations, tasks you’re working on, things you need to follow up on. Everything else that’s closed should be either deleted or archived into a system of folders. Most of us are reasonably good at this, but it’s a good idea to make part of your Friday shutdown routine a quick cleanout of the inbox to archive anything that’s been completed that week that hasn’t already been put away so that you can start the week with an empty inbox.

These and other skills are things I can help you develop through academic coaching. If you’re interested in academic coaching, the summer is a great time to start. It gives you a chance to develop and solidify new or better habits before the chaos of term time arrives. Feel free to take a look around my website at http://www.leannecpowner.com/coaching/  and if you’re interested, drop me an email at Leanne@leannecpowner.com . The initial consultation is free. You can also follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LeanneCPowner/ or Twitter @LeanneCPowner for free daily writing tips.

Building a grid for measuring the effect of Active Learning

The great thing about colleagues is the way that they get you to move beyond yourself. Reading Peter’s summary of our Nicosia discussion is a case in point, setting out our agenda in a way that makes me want to write more about the ideas involved.

That means the dream I had last night about how to run my negotiating course will have to wait until next week, for which we might all be graeful.

At the centre of Peter’s idea is the creation of a framework that would allow colleagues to engage in a more systematic and rigorous examination of the effects of Active Learning. In so doing, it plots a middle path through the challenges I set out before.

On the one hand, a framework can be too vague, offering no real purchase on the issues involved, nor a mechanism for comparison of individual pieces of research, even if it would have the benefit of flexibility.

On the other, prescription might guide the work much better, but at the risk of missing out important elements. And that’s after the long, hard struggle to agree such a detailed model in the first place.

The compromise approach suggested by our discussions is to divide the big question of ‘what effects?’ along three discrete and meaningful dimensions.

The first is to unpack ‘Active Learning’. Our workshop alone contained simulations, creation of videos, semi-structured facilitated group discussion, problem-based learning and more: each rather different, each brought together by not much more than the placing of the student in the centre of the learning activity.

Indeed, much of my informal conversation in Nicosia was precisely about what makes Active Learning, Active Learning. Given the range, it’s difficult to come up with a definition that includes the kind of range listed above, but excludes something like a lecture. And there’s a question about whether lectures should be excluded in any case: colleagues using EVS might feel that they’re doing Active Learning.

And no, I didn’t get to an answer on this one. There’s maybe something in thinking about learning as being about stimulus-response, with active learning focused more on the response element, but by that point I was feeling that I was hopelessly out of my depth and in need of an educational scientist with some emergency theory.

Digressions aside, this dimension logically matters: the type of thing you do in your learning environment should influence what students learn from it. By differentiating across the variety, we might be able to spot commonalities and differences, especially as it doesn’t a priori exclude consideration of the effect of non-Active Learning situations too, as a benchmark.

Which leads to the second dimension of types of effect.

Here again, much discussion ensued in Nicosia about what types of effect to consider and how to group them. As I’ve discussed already, Bloom’s tripartite cognitive-affective-psychomotor domaining forms an obvious starting point, even if you can have a discussion about whether something like self-confidence is a skill or a disposition or something else.

However you resolve this one, there are still the three main areas of ‘facts’, skills and attitudes. Clearly one can break each of these down into more specific elements, and consider interactions between each of them – if my students enjoy it more, do they learn more facts? – but this does at least begin to structure the range of what we might consider.

The third dimension – of context – is somewhat different, since it’s not about the activity per se, but rather the environment in which Active Learning takes place. Several of our papers dealt with school children rather than university students, posing a question of whether this made any fundamental difference.

My personal experience makes me think that it is more a difference of degree than kind: the high levels of confidence and knowledge allow university students to take simulation scenarios further than school pupils, in terms of depth, realism and reflection. However, others find rather different dynamics, which suggest that differentiation across this might hold value.

Again, we come back to the impact of types of Active Learning and to the scope and magnitude of effects.

And this might be the biggest challenge: measurement.

Peter didn’t try to specific minimum or common standards for measuring effects, in part because of the scale and scope indicated by the three dimensions. However, we have to hope that as we start to work on this, we might all develop a better sense of what works how: to take the obvious example, some techniques will work better than others for different effects.

So, a plan. And a grid.

On to the next step.

An Active Learning shopping list

This guest post comes from Peter Bursens, University of Antwerp.

In a previous post Simon referred to the lavish Cypriot mezze as a metaphor for the discussions during our ECPR workshop on active learning. There is indeed a lot on our plate when it comes to elaborating a systematic research agenda on the effects of active learning. Thanks to the participants we now have at least a shopping list to purchase the necessary ingredients.

The primary aim of the workshop was to go beyond descriptions and good practices of active learning tools in political science. Participants were invited to collect empirical data from their active learning environment and apply appropriate methods to explore the effects on learning outcomes.

We identified five parameters to situate the papers of the workshop: the dependent variable, the independent and intervening variables, methods, data and context.

The dependent variable refers to the different types of learning outcomes. Knowledge, skills and attitudes were often used as broad categories, although these concepts were defined differently according to the theories used (cognitive, affective and regulative outcomes or cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes, to name just two). Other more concrete outcome variables included interest, motivation and self-efficacy. Yet other papers measured effects on civic engagement or even on the motivation to study political science in higher education.

The independent variables often referred to students’ disposition such as gender, age, previous education, previous experience social capital and others. As intervening variables the papers looked at a variety of active learning instruments. Most papers dealt with different types of simulations and role play games, but others used movies, ICT tools, learning approaches such as problem based learning, and video production.

Papers applied a wide variety of methods: some used (advanced) quantitative statistics, others pre- and post-test while some used qualitative tools such as discussion groups, interviews, observations or even diaries. Often the choice of the method followed the ontological positions of the researcher as most were positivist and some were constructivist minded.

Data varied according to the methods. Survey data were most common, although some papers had response or sample issues. Most papers relied on self-reporting, while objective and observational data were more rare. Datasets had a range from a few hundreds to just four students.

Finally, the context varied as well. Higher education students (but different types of programmes and courses, and also extra curricular events) were the most popular. Some also look at the secondary school pupils.

Of course, the workshop only addressed a small number of the potential questions to be asked regarding the effect of active learning environments. Nevertheless, from the workshop, a three-dimensional projection could be derived that can help the political science community to define the puzzles of a future research agenda. A typical research question for a paper within this agenda would be what effect does active learning environment X in context Y have on learning outcome Z. A final observation regarding the research agenda is that political science would benefit from the theories and methods from educational science.

Conclusion? A lot to digest for the workshop participants. More guests at the table would be warmly welcomed!

Nostimo fagito!