Observers or actors? Academics as participants

Last week’s office

I got to spend a couple of days in Florence last week, celebrating the 50th anniversary of UACES, the UK’s European Studies association, of which I’m Treasurer.

We spent some time looking back, but also a lot talking about where we are and where we might be heading, both as an association and as academics in general. Being joined by the heads of our American and Irish sister bodies also raised some really interesting ideas about collaboration across borders.

Underpinning that discussion was a debate that has been coming ever more to the fore in recent years: how much should we, as academics, be trying to offer ideas and solutions to public debate, rather than just analysis?

Clearly, this has always been a question that has been there for the academy, since our fundamental objective of trying to understand the world is necessarily linked to participating in it. But the various events of late – from government crack-downs to elections and referendums to societal challenges – have all pointed towards a role also being forced upon us.

Put differently, if everyone thinks we’re getting involved any way, shouldn’t we get involved properly: if we’re taking the costs, then shouldn’t we try to generate some benefits too? If you like, this is the equivalent of my post on social media a few weeks back: if you don’t project an image, then someone will project it for you.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that we didn’t crack that particular nut last week, not least because the fineness of the line between contribution and campaigning leaves many feeling very uncomfortable. Having seen how some of those who have been seen to cross that line have been treated, that discomfort is understandable, if not necessarily the only factor to consider.

At a time when politicians seem to be facing ever more issues to which they have no good response, the role of the academic in providing insights and options surely becomes more important. It’s literally our job to try and make sense of assorted phenomena and it would be remiss of us not to share that sense-making with others.

That might be easily said, but how that translates into practice is unclear. Do we wait to be asked? Do we have to agree among ourselves? Do we just call out bullshit, or try to advance evidence-based solutions?

All big questions, with assorted viable answers.

At the very least, we need to be talking about this, before we find ourselves pushed into roles that others have chosen for us.

First Impressions

Having wrapped up the first month of another fall semester, here are some reflections on this year’s incoming undergraduates as compared to those from previous years — based on a completely unscientific sample composed of the forty-four 17-18 year olds whom I’m teaching in two sections of a first-year seminar.

  1. Ignorance of basic technical processes continues to increase. This ranges from not understanding that electronic files have different formats to being unable to upload to a server any file, regardless of type. Or, in some cases, students recognizing the need to click on a “submit” button, but then not verifying that what they submitted was what they actually wanted to submit. (Resulting in a grade of zero each and every time.)
  2. When confronted by these technical challenges, students are more likely to react with learned helplessness, making my standard response of “figure it out”  even less endearing than it was previously. (Student evaluations for these seminars average a full point lower on a five-point scale than for other courses.)
  3. The immediate post-high school attitude that learning is a pro forma exercise in “tell me what I need to know” is just as common, if not more so, than it has been in the past. Few of the students start college exhibiting genuine curiosity about a world that is external to themselves.
  4. Male students demonstrate learned helplessness and lack of curiosity much more frequently than female students. It seems we are raising a generation of men who are at risk of living life as unskilled, low-paid, socially-maladjusted drones.
  5. Undergraduates are getting poorer,  more ethnically diverse, and less well-prepared. Although they perceive a college education as the ticket to a middle class existence, they have less understanding of what they have to do to obtain this ticket, and they are more frequently entering college with characteristics that make this objective much harder to achieve. For example, the more hours they expend on financially-necessary part-time employment, the less time and energy they have available for developing the habits and skills that would allow them to overcome pre-existing academic deficits. From the supply side of the equation, these students require greater amounts of financial aid and support services, making them more expensive to educate.
  6. Compensating for all of the negatives listed above is the fact that I am rarely faced with the sense of entitlement that can develop among the wealthiest and best-prepared students. They go to places like Harvard instead.

Recasting how you teach your discipline

Should we be dignified, or efficient? Or both?

Here at ALPS, we’re pretty open to new ideas, to questioning the assorted received wisdoms of the world.

So it’s always good to find examples from outside political science, not only because many of the things we talk about aren’t disciplinary, but also because it’s just stupid to think we have all the answers.

As a case in point, we might look to our little brothers over in economics. Over the past decade, they’ve taken a real battering because they seem to have utterly failed to model the world in any useful fashion.

A recent piece in The Economist pointed out, the most basic models that students get taught are often only caveated much further down the (academic) line, often after the point that many students get to. This leads to conventionalities in public discourse – trade as always positive-sum, for example – that simply don’t reflect the evidence or the state of the discipline.

In the febrile era since the great recession, students and faculty themselves have sought to throw out the approach taken to date and to build a new format.

That started with protests-cum-movements like the Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society, but has since matured into the CORE project.

CORE is a collective of faculty from various institutions, who have built a very extensive e-textbook, grounded in a fundamental different way of teaching economics. The challenges and issues are fore-grounded, rather than back-loaded, and there is a effort to invite discussion and debate, instead of presenting a fait accompli of theory.

As someone who never had any economics education at all, I’m really enjoying starting to explore this resource, which is meant for use by a wide range of users and is intended to be integrated into local teaching delivery. I’d really encourage to have a wander around the site too.

Part of me would, of course, like to just say “welcome: what took you so long”: political science has long accepted that there is contingency and conflict of interpretation of the world and has frequently used critical questions as a way into building an understanding.

But at the same time, it is refreshing to see how there is a project to re-examine so much of what makes economics the discipline that it has become. By contrast, political science has usually just stopped at the point of saying that there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, rather than trying to bring those ways together. As the quantitative shift continues to work its way through the community, there is a risk that such diversity is attenuated or stifled.

I’m always in favour of heterodox positions: the perils of group-think and conventionality are well-understood out on our side of the social sciences, especially in a era of ‘outsider’ politics. But even I wonder whether and how we might ever produce an equivalent piece of work as CORE, just as I wonder what might have had to happen for us to want or do to produce it.

 

The Uniformity Imperative

What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.

Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate.  A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.

Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.

What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.

At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.

Using social media as an academic

A slightly different post this week, off the back of a session I led in Brussels for TEPSA’s PONT project, on how to use social media. I talked with a group of 15 young professionals, planning academic or think-tanky careers, about why social media can be of use to them.

The key message was that even if you don’t really care about social media, it cares about you.

If you’d like a demonstration, then google yourself and see what comes up. I did that for the group and put up a slide with the first photo that appeared on google images. Suffice to say that everyone had a photo, just not necessarily of them, or a particularly relevant one.

Put differently, even if you’re not created a virtual profile, others might be, so you need to engage with things enough to address misrepresentation.

But if we’re going beyond that kind of hygiene model, then what’s important?

Be active

Social media relies on content, so if you want to have a meaningful profile on a given platform, then you need to create content. There’s little worse than setting up a platform, making a few desultory contributions and then leaving it to rot.

The speed of decay is much higher than in other media, so my recommendation is to plan and get into the habit of regular new content production. For me, that means weekly diary slots for blogging (like this), fairly standard points in the day for checking news sites to tweet, plus a slightly more flexible schedule for podcasting. Especially when starting out, being strict about producing is really important, otherwise it’s very easy to fall out of the habit.

If you are giving up on a platform, then give up clearly. If it’s early days, then try to delete your efforts, but it there’s any substance you should produce something to make it clear to any visitors that you’ve actively decided to stop (rather than just drifting off).

Be yourself

My primary social media audience is me: I assume that no one else is very interested in what I have to say, so it’s an opportunity for me to understand my thoughts on a subject.

That means I think of Twitter in large part as a public bookmarking of interesting content, and blogging as working through contentious issues, en route to more formal outputs and discussions.

Of course, over time that has changed and I have had many excellent interactions online with people about ideas and developments. And it bleeds over into real life [sic], where people want to talk with me about stuff I’ve written online.

But still I try to stay close to me and my interests.

In part that’s because I know that once I produce something, I lose control over it. Over the years, I’ve seen stuff I’ve made appear in all manner of random places, used to bolster all kinds of arguments, and not always in a way that I intended. However, because I feel that I’ve tried to be internally consistent, and frank about the limitations of what I produce, then I won’t get a nasty bite on the bum down the line.

Which is why I never produce content when I’m drunk. And to write nothing I won’t be happy showing my mother.

Be interesting/useful

The final idea to share is about focus. Don’t try to be some kind of master-commentator, opining on everything and anything: pick out what you’re good at and stick to that.

Sure, there are individuals who can cover vast tracts of social/political/cultural issues in an interesting way, but you’ll note that they are very rare and they always have a strong underlying philosophy or mentality that ties it all together.

I know I don’t have that, so I stick to what I know I can do: learning & teaching; and euroscepticism. Many are the ills of the world on which I have personal opinions, but nothing useful to say, so I say nothing.

If you’re starting out on social media, the temptation is to get stuck into everything. Resist, and build up a reputation and profile in something specific: that’s the best way to build your profile and credibility as a commentator, researcher and professional.

 

Social media’s huge attraction is that it’s in your control: you can build a presence that doesn’t rely on anyone else. But to make it work for you, you need to know your limits and know your objectives.

Beyond the mountains

As part of the various discussions on learning & teaching at UACES last week, we held a roundtable on the INOTLES project that I’ve been involved with for the past few years.

We were talking about the difficulties of designing pedagogic materials for use by others, and I gave the example of the photo above.

It’s from my summer holiday in Croatia (yes, we had a lovely time, thank you for asking).

Most days, we would sit on the beach, swim a bit, read a bit, generally laze about. But I would also find myself asking what was on the other side of the mountains that I could see.

At one level, I know exactly what’s there. I have a map, guidebooks; I’ve even possibly spent some time on Google Earth, flying over the terrain.

But at another level, I have no real idea what it’s like. I’ve never visited (having found that the beach was a perfectly lovely spot); I’ve never even talked to someone who has been over the mountains.

And that’s rather the situation I find with designing materials for others to use.

I feel I had a good grasp of what’s important in any given pedagogic method, the core elements that must be present for it to work, and I feel confident that I can communicate that to others.

But I also know that without actually experiencing the situation of the end-user, it’s very hard to make something that is very useful (rather than just functioning), because there are a wide variety of factors that come into play.

To come back to the INOTLES project, one of the big challenges was re-adjusting my understanding of the situation of our partners in Eastern Europe. While I was worrying initially about aligning assessment with game-play in simulations, they were worrying about a lack of furniture in their classrooms.

Problematically, this is not an easy situation to resolve. When we create materials for sharing, we always do with a number of assumptions that are more or less implicit. Even if we could list all those assumptions, it’s not immediately obvious how they might impact on pedagogy (the presence/absence of furniture might be a good example).

Perhaps the best we can do is be alive to this issue and to be open to discussion with end-users about how they see things and what adjustments might be suitable. In short, talking with each other might be the way forward, to take us to the edge of the mountains.

Checking assumptions, breaking the ice: the UACES L&T workshop

Oh, I seem to be promoting this website… (thanks to @bentonra for the photo)

I’m in Poland this week, for the annual conference of UACES, the world’s largest European Studies association, of which I’m very proud to be Treasurer.

As part of the conference, we run an L&T workshop on the day beforehand. We’ve been doing this for some years now and it seems to be a good way of ensuring some critical mass on things teaching-y and for giving an opportunity to try out some different formats.

As such, each year, we do different things in a very deliberate way: it not only keeps it fresh, but also demonstrates to participants how they can reconfigure their practice.

Last year, I was tasked with an ice-breaker task, so I tried out an activity that sought to marry ‘getting to know you’ with ‘talking about teaching.’

Obviously, I used post-it notes to achieve this.

As we started, we gave out a post-it to everyone and told them to write one idea that they have found useful for improving their teaching practice. I was keen to stress that should be no limits to this, so it could be anything at all.

Once they’d done that, I got people to stick their post-it on to their name badge and then go and introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know, and explain their idea to each other.

Within minutes I had a room of people chatting away.

After a while, as chat began to die down, I got everyone to swap around, to meet a new person they didn’t know and repeat the exercise. We did a third cycle too.

Having broken some ice, I then asked everyone to stick their post-it on a whiteboard, which I’d marked up with two axes: a horizontal one of small things-big things, and a vertical one of degree of subject specificity.

The final stage was to talk about what had been posted and using it to flag some points that fed into the next part of the workshop.

As an exercise, I’d observe that it was very helpful for getting a bunch of people who mostly didn’t know each other to start conversations, but also in getting me to think about the variety of what people bring to such sessions.

I’m very fortunate that I have a great community of people with whom I exchange regularly on L&T: we share a lot of language and range of considerations.

But that’s not the only way of doing things, as this exercise demonstrated.

I’d made some assumptions about what people would write: my own contribution was ABC feedback; small, quick, generic. Surely everyone would do the same.

Well, as you can see in the photo, there was a load of that (group 2), but we also had a lot of other stuff too (see list at the bottom of this post).

In part, this reflected some debate about “what’s ‘small’/’big’”, but it was mainly about the different backgrounds of the people. A browse of the list will show that all kinds of things are there.

So it’s a good moment to remember that we have to check our assumptions, not only with our students, but also with each other.

Now to find out more about what inverted learning might involve.

That list in full:

1: Quite small, relatively subject specific

  • Innovative assessment (e.g. briefing papers, not always essays)

 

2: Small and generic

  • Student field trips (with prep talks)
  • To do the work at the best/highest level, to bring to discussion new, sometimes challenging ideas
  • Find a balance between interaction and structure and guidance
  • Inverted learning, leading to advanced study, leading to connections of experience and debates
  • Tell jokes
  • ABC feedback
  • Role play
  • Tell jokes
  • Get students to use Moodle in class
  • Good use of first and last 5 minutes of the class
  • Involving participants in the discussion

 

3: more substantial, but still generic

  • Meetings to exchange experience/knowledge
  • Tour de table: get students to hear their own voice
  • Discussing current news by linking current problems with EU studies
  • Setting up workshops
  • Role play exercises
  • Brain-storming sessions
  • Use professional exchange: people of different scientific and professional backgrounds address cross-cutting issues
  • Working with students’ practical experience
  • Using self-reflection as a teaching method: students reflecting their performance during an internship, classes
  • Engagement through debating
  • Introduce student-run blog
  • Using study visits to enhance students’ experience and understanding

 

4: big, and quite subject-specific

  • Teaching EU business (school) students
  • Visit Brussels
  • Mixing masters and undergraduate cohorts in same unit