A quick reminder: come to Cyprus and discuss the impact of active learning

A couple of months back I told you about the call for papers for the ECPR’s Joint Sessions in Nicosia, Cyprus, where Peter Bursens and I are running a workshop on the impact of active learning.

Well, the deadline is now closing fast, so this is your prod to get those abstracts in, so we can decide whether we want to spend a week with you, alternative having intense academic debate and enjoying the Mediterranean sea.

There were various queries when we announced the call, so it might be of help to you to run over the key points again now.

Firstly, the core objective is to work on different ways of measuring the impact of active learning. That can include any kind of active learning and any kind of impact (including on teachers/instructors/facilitators): this is a very nascent field, so the workshop is really an effort to step out into the (broadly) unknown. There’s no methodological favouritism, but having data does still matter: we want to get away anecdote as much as possible.

Secondly, we really want to get breadth – the joy of a new area of research is precisely that there is no settled path, so do come with your ideas and do challenge us on the panel abstract that we produced.

Finally, there is some funding available, but only for doctoral students. And fees are much lower if your institution is a member of ECPR.

We think this is a great opportunity to break new ground, so we really hope you can join us for this. Conference details and registration are here.

Embedding social media

The piece I wrote some weeks back, about how to do social media, continues to attract interest from various quarters, possibly because of its amazing insights, possibly because I keep linking to it on my assorted feeds [sic].

One aspect that I didn’t explore very much was how to embed social media into what you do.

It’s easy to produce lots on such platforms, but harder to link it all up, especially with non-social media activity, such as teaching.

This came back to me yesterday, watching a webcast of Jon Worth. Jon’s a super-active campaigner and consultant, dashing around Europe to offer advice and support to all manner of groups. Continue reading

The REF Impact & Pedagogy conundrum


For reasons that I think mainly relate to having missed the relevant meeting, I am my Department’s Impact lead for REF, the multi-annual evaluation exercise of research quality in British universities. The Impact part of it relates to efforts to measure what, um, impact that research has outside of the academic community.

For the purposes of this post, let’s assume I’m thrilled with this honour.

The intention behind REF might well be an honourable one, but as so often in life, the practice is more complicated than the theory. How does one measure any of these things? What does one measure? And so on.

A particular bugbear for me, and other UK-based academics in the same situation, is the ambiguous position of pedagogic research. Continue reading

Universities and academic freedom in the age of Brexit

Me, corrupting young minds yesterday

Academic freedom isn’t the kind of subject that comes up very often in the UK. I would say it’s benign neglect, but actually it’s just neglect: no-one really seemed to fight that fight and so things just trundled on. We’d watch events in Turkey, Hungary or the US, sigh or tut and then get on with things here, where nothing really changes.

As such, the past week has been a bit of a wake-up call.

The short version runs like this. A Conservative MP, part of the Whip’s office, wrote a couple of weeks ago to all university vice-chancellors, asking for a list of names of ‘professors working on European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also asked for links to syllabuses and to any online teaching materials.

About a week later this broke in public, with VCs accusing the MP of ‘mcCarthyism’ and ‘witch-hunts’: his own unwillingness to speak publicly about his intentions for this material only gave further to people’s suspicions.

As much as the government disowned the MP’s actions, the response from academic quarters gave a perfect opportunity for sections of the press to lay into the ‘liberal brain-washing’ that apparently goes on in universities: I’ll pass on linking to such pieces, but if you want to find them, then I’d look in the right-wing press.

At the root of this is a basic talking at cross-purposes. Universities (and academics) feel very concerned these days about their position: their general situation is ever more precarious, be that in terms of students, funding, research or the role they play in society. In their eyes, this all looked like an attack on their core values. I’ll put my hand up on this too: I’m not normally one to sign public statements, but I did so as Treasurer of UACES, an association that was very much in the front line of all this. Continue reading

APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop

Last week I attended the first APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop in Washington, DC, an event organized by APSA staff (thanks Julia!), Joyce Kaufman of Whittier College, and Victor Asal of the University of Albany-SUNY. The subject of the workshop? Teaching international relations.

A few thoughts about the event:

  • The participants came from institutions with wildly different enrollments and missions, but teaching was primary to their professional life. They approached the praxis of teaching with intentionality and an interest in continuous improvement, despite changing student demographics, declining resources, and organizational inertia. Several of us felt that a stark difference exists between the notion of political science as a community of scholars and the realities of the workplace. For more on this topic, see Jennifer Hochschild’s recent letter to the editors of PS — the “Mismatch between (Some of ) APSA and (Some) Political Scientists.”
  • Many undergraduate students could benefit from basic training in epistemology. They often ignorant of the difference between cause and effect, the explanatory and predictive functions of theory, and the role of the scientific method in evaluating truth claims. Students typically don’t know what questions are the right questions to ask or how to understand the answers they get.
  • People use a variety of course frameworks to expose students to international relations theories and methods. Some employ a critical issues focus, in which topics like climate change and human rights function as springboards for analysis. Others build their courses around case studies or simulations. This diversity in approach points to the dis-utility of a one-size-fits-all canonically-oriented textbook.
  • International relations can help students better understand human behavior and become more adept at social interactions. Traditionally-aged undergraduates want to perceive themselves as unbiased adults capable of thinking strategically, yet games can easily elicit quite a different response. Placing students in situations where the system is rigged against them can make them more fully grasp the individual effects of discrimination and structural inequality as well as the importance of civil discourse in a democratic society.

The workshop gave me some insight into what other people consider to be best practices in the teaching of international relations. The conversations were productive and enjoyable. I hope APSA continues to organize this type of workshop.

Supporting a pedagogic community

Yeah. It’s like this. Just like this.

When I talk with people about the work I have done in L&T over the years, I often find myself remembering that I’ve covered a lot of ground in that time.

However, I’m also frequently reminded that there’s a lot more I could have done, and could be doing. And so it’s been in recent weeks, where I’ve just started mentoring some colleagues at my home institution as they prepare for their application to Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.

For those of you unfamiliar with the HEA, it’s the UK body for HE teaching. I was very proud to become one of its National Teaching Fellows a couple of years ago, having been a Fellow for a lot longer.

The Senior Fellowship is the next step for most colleagues once they have their initial qualification and UK universities are putting a lot more effort into getting staff to work towards these higher levels of recognition.

For me, it’s a new opportunity to translate existing skills into a new environment. My mentees have to produce an e-portfolio to document how they meet the various criteria and then either write an essay or give a presentation in a viva, to show how all those elements fit together.

Once again I am reminded that we often don’t reflect on our teaching practice very much, and that we also tend not to document what we do: my mentees are having to start with some discussion about how to capture their activities, despite their copious experience.

It also makes me think that this blog – and the ALPSblog community in general – has been a very positive development on this front, precisely because we do all unpack and explore the different aspects of what we do as educators and pedagogists in a way that goes beyond the usual forms of quality assurance that we experience.

As so often, I’m finding that I’m gaining as much as those I work with from this process, as I am asked to reflect on how to engage with the particular requirements of this process and on how to make the most of it.

In short, there’s always more to learn out there.

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.