When you’re unprepared for class

4 hours of seminar discussion? No problem!

Amanda’s post prompts me to do a bit more reflecting on us, the instructor.

It’s really easy to focus on students as the source of problems, but as Amanda rightly underlines, that’s not the most productive of frames.

As a less-experienced lecturer, one of the most useful lessons I got in my training was that we go through different stages in our understanding of what’s happening in a classroom.

You start out by thinking it’s all about yourself, then you move to thinking it’s all about the students, before finally understanding that it’s actually about the situation you and they are in.

So part of that is recognising that you matter, but you’re not the only thing that matters.

And, frankly, sometimes we’re not at the top of our game.

Either that means we’ve not prepared enough, or we’ve not on the ball enough in the classroom.

I’ve done that – not often, but more than once – and I’m going to guess that you have too.

What’s the problem?

Clearly, there are lots of reasons why this happens and I’m not really so interested as to why, precisely because of that diversity. I know it happens to me when I teach straight after landing from an international flight, but that’s scarcely useful.

The more interesting point is to explore what impact this lack of prep has on your class and what you can do about it.

In the broadest of terms, this is a problem because of the signal it sends to your students. Just as you know full-well when they’re not concentrating in class, so too do they know when you’re not.

Just think back to when you were getting taught and you’ll recall the occasions you were on the receiving end.

If we ask students to be ‘in the room’, then we have do the same. That’s why I always laugh at academic conferences when everyone sits at the back of the room, doing other stuff on their laptops, despite what they say to their students back home.

(It’s also why I don’t say those things to my students)

What’s the solution?

Three steps suggest themselves.

First, acknowledge what you’re falling short on. This doesn’t have to be a big mea culpa, but just a simple recognition that you know what’s (not) happening and not trying to bluff your way out.

If not else, it’s better to get out in front of it and own it, before someone else does that for you.

Second, adapt what you’re doing in class to minimise the impact on student learning. If you could only prep 2/3rds of a lecture, focus on that part rather than winging the last part. If you’re supposed to be providing feedback, try using peer evaluation to replace a block of it.

That’s not always possible: if you forgot the key piece of equipment, then you should sort out getting ASAP. But you need to demonstrate your intention to make the session still work, either in a slightly different way or with a bit of delay. What’s critical is that you don’t just notice you’re not firing on all cylinders, but that you also act on it.

Third, after the session is done, you take action to make up any shortfall in the class and to avoid it happening again. That might mean some jiggling of content for next week’s class, or some additional materials on the online environment.

The longer-term redressing needs you to be reflexive and honest about what went wrong (which you should be doing in any case) and finding ways to deal with it.

So now when I fly I either do it so I can rest afterwards, or I move classes.

For you that might mean changing your schedules, or changing what you do in class, or getting a big orange sign to point to the key piece of equipment, so you don’t forget it.

Taken together, I can’t promise you’ll never have this problem again (especially if you’ve not yet had this problem), but I can tell you that it’ll become much more manageable and much less likely to happen again.

Making a difference

because googling “I don’t matter” gets you to a lot of very negative JPGs…

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking of late about whether I matter or not.

Maybe it’s the after-effect of coming back from leave to discover that things have been just fine in my absence, or maybe it’s that the kids are old enough to need no support other than top-ups for their phones.

But certainly it’s also about the start of the academic year.

As someone dedicated to active learning, I know that I have to work from my students, rather than them work from me. Their centrality implies a less central role for me.

That’s particularly true in my autumn module on negotiation, which very explicitly and consciously puts students front and centre, and puts me at the metaphorical and literal side of the classroom, trying to help them to understand what they’re doing.

The corollary of this is that if students don’t bother, or aren’t bothered, then there’s little I can do to force learning upon them. 

At best, I’m like the sun in that favourite fable of IR: my best chance lies in offering positive encouragement and opportunity, not in brow-beating and punishing.

The challenge – for me, at least – is how to keep that sun beating down.

The round of academic events at the end of summer is always a good moment to gather thoughts and find new ideas to help in this. This year, it’s been good to hear again about the value of building a high level of communication with students, giving them some ownership of the process and acknowledging where the limits of my capacity lie.

This last point is a bit of paradox: by being clear about what I can’t do, I can also strengthen the value of what I can. This is not so much modesty as realism and reflection: if I seek to inculcate such values in students, then can do no better than practise them myself.

Of course, the difficulty comes in also having to acknowledge that you aren’t in complete control of things. I’m fine with saying that, but I know many colleagues aren’t, not least for fears that it undermines their authority.

The answer to this is that rather than thinking you have to know the answer to all possible questions, you really only need to know how to answer all possible questions.

That might seem semantic, but actually it’s about feeling confident about your more abstracted skills – of reflection, of research, of analysis – and applying them to the novel case your student has just presented to you.

Sometimes that means turning the question back to the student, or to the class, to answer (or work out what they’d need to do to answer). Sometimes it’s a matter of returning to underlining principles to answer. Sometimes it’s just saying that you’d need to go off and do some work to answer it next time.

All of these options rely on us being honest with students.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of “we know everything, you know nothing”, which underpins much of the didactic model: I’m the reservoir of knowledge, you should just sit downstream and drink your fill.

Instead, we have to recognise our limits and students’ abilities. I’m certainly not ashamed to admit that I’ve learnt as much from students as I have from colleagues: very different things, certainly, but still valuable things.

And in all this I do matter.

I might not be at the centre of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean I don’t shape, contribute, encourage and support. In short, I’m part of a group that learns.

And that’s what keeps me so eager to get back to the classroom.

1st Mini-TLC at APSA and the Future of Conferences

In line with Simon’s last post, something of a continued meditation on conferences and academic disciplinary associations in the USA, relative to last weekend’s one-day TLC, which was embedded within the APSA annual meeting:

Bridge to nowhere

Conferences reflect perverse incentives that do not reflect the realities of the academic labor market. Only a small minority of people who obtain PhDs, regardless of field, end up working as tenured professors at elite research universities teaching one or two, or zero, courses per semester. Yet to have even a chance of being hired or tenured by any institution, regardless of its position in the reputational pecking order, one is supposed to present (at conferences) and publish (in journals) research. The research is almost always irrelevant to anyone outside the discipline and much of the time also irrelevant to those within it.

These norms allow academic conferences to prey financially on graduate students, who are led to believe that they must attend, to both present research and to interview. In an age of digital communication tools and decreasing numbers of tenure-track positions, neither search committees nor disciplinary associations should be encouraging graduate students to pay out of pocket to attend conferences, the costs of which can exceed $1,000 per event.

But therein lies the rub: the more people who register for and attend a conference, the more profitable the conference is to the disciplinary association that has organized it. Whether a conference enables graduate students, their advisers, or other faculty to become more effective at what most academics spend most of their time doing — teaching — is not a concern. To claim otherwise is to ignore the economics of the system.

Conference attendance by full-time faculty is subsidized by their employers in the form of professional development support. Yet the way in which most conferences are structured means that opportunities are lacking for enhancing the teaching skills used on a daily basis in the workplace. Given the declining fortunes of many colleges and universities in the USA, this subsidization is likely to decrease, and decrease substantially, at some point in the near future — or maybe it’s occurring already.

Making the most of it

Upload a video, or seek out a pastel de nata?

I’m back at UACES this week, including our regular L&T workshop, which got a really good turnout for a range of practically-directed panels and workshops. 

As always, one of our concerns in running this event is finding a format and a content that will draw people in, above and beyond the regulars who form the backbone of our work.

This time, that meant inviting applications for active workshops and a roundtable drawing in some different perspectives on engaging learners.

While this was all positively received, my mind already turns to next year’s event, in Lisbon (I know, it is a great venue) and how we can engage people.

Indeed, as we’ve moved into the general conference, I also want to make the most of the time we get to spend together.

Continue reading

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.