Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 2

On at least two occasions over the semester, my class will be meeting with students who are enrolled in an art course. The art students will be creating objects with 3-D printers and CNC cutters at the nearby IYRS School of Technology & Trades. The interviews will form the basis for a writing assignment in my class that I hope illustrates globalization’s effects on design, production, and trade — something that I am calling the Placemaking Essay. Here are my directions for the assignment:

1. Review course readings on terroir, Irish pubs, McDonald’s, and trade.

2. Read the rubric.

3. Write an 2-3 page essay, based on your interviews with ART 202 students and observations of their work, on the following:

  • How does the process by which an object is made affect its ability to create a sense of place for people who use that object?
  • Has globalization altered the meaning of places or of the objects within them? Why? If so, how have meanings changed?

Make sure to clearly define your use of terms like “place” and “community.” Cite course readings as you would for a reading response.

This essay also connects to a reflective writing assignments my students will be completing at the end of the semester. I’ll save the details on that for later.

Storm in a teacup?

Storm damages scaffolding, in metaphorical whirlwind

Reading Chad’s post yesterday – talking about the structural pressures on student demographics in the classroom – was an excellent touchstone for me, as I received my feedback for my course on negotiation.

In common with other UK institutions, we have a system of centralised evaluations of courses, which we encourage students to complete: I’ve written before about these, but suffice to say that while it’s good to get a more standardised measure across provision, it’s not without issues.

In the case of negotiation, I’m often aware that I benefit from the unusual delivery – hardly any lecturing, but instead practical sessions, together with some flipped learning: students like the freedom it give. However, this year I’ve noticed some new comments creeping in, somewhat akin to Chad’s situation. Continue reading

More ABCs for Comparative Politics

Happy New Year everyone. Today I’ve got some additional exploration of ABCs for my spring semester comparative politics course, as an update to posts on the subject from September.

I did in fact abandon the book Around the Bloc because of its age and length, and this freed up space in the syllabus for more more articles from the Journal of Democracy. The contents of Journal of Democracy are more concise, contain less jargon, and are overall much better written than what’s found in other journals, making it an excellent source of material on comparative democratization. I’ve inserted a few more questions into the syllabus quiz that require students to find these assigned articles at the beginning of the semester. If students don’t have this skill, they have plenty of time to acquire it by talking to a librarian.

I’m going to begin using Egypt as a small case study. Egypt complements my use of Russia as an example of failed democratization and authoritarian resilience, and it also makes a good contrast with Iran on the subject of revolutions.

I will continue to use the assignment that I created last spring in which students compare two nation-states using either a most similar systems or most different systems design. A year ago, I created a template for students to use for completion of these assignments; however, some students seemed confused about the relationships between variables because of the way I formatted the template. Also some of the completed assignments were awkward for me to read because students had stuffed multiple paragraphs or lots of bullet points into each table cell. So I have revised the templates and changed the assignment directions:

Continue reading

Continue: Fall 2017 Edition

I will continue using the somewhat tried-and-true knowledge plan and quality of failure essays, but I am going to modify them yet again. I want these assignments to push students toward the realization that they need to take responsibility for their learning by evaluating how and why it happens, instead of assuming that they can displace this task entirely onto me. However, I still see a large portion of students responding to these meta-cognitive prompts  without much thought, as if they are following a recipe in a cookbook.

So I have condensed the questions that I ask in these assignments even further, making them more open-ended, in the hope that it will force students to exert more effort in examining their own attitudes and behaviors.

The knowledge plan prompt now reads as:

Plan for this course by writing a 2-3 page essay (double-spaced, equivalent to 11 or 12 point font) that answers these questions: 

  • What do I want to get out of this course?
  • What strategies will help me achieve these goals?

The quality of failure prompt now says:


Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes the following:

  • What helped or hindered your learning during the semester?
  • Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Moore and Soledad O’Brien? Why or why not?

Abandon: Fall 2017 edition

As promised in my last post about teaching risk-averse students, I am going to again apply Simon’s ABC technique to last semester’s teaching. And since I taught two sections of my first-year seminar, I’ll focus on that.

First item on the “abandon” list: in-class peer review of student-designed games. Although I think the rubric that students use to evaluate classmate-designed games is good, they simply refuse to use it to provide honest feedback. I know that the majority of the students understand at least some of the principles reflected by the rubric because of the way they have analyzed the games in the final exam. In the classroom, though, they rate the games as perfect. A potential replacement for the peer review process — and this is really more of a “begin” item — is a short writing assignment after each round of game design in which they compare the game their team designed with another team’s game that they played in class.

Second thing to abandon: my organization of memo-writing assignments. I have assumed, incorrectly, that first-semester college students can grasp the purpose and format of a memo with minimal instruction on my part. After three separate iterations of the assignment, complete with an opportunity to rewrite each memo, I didn’t see significant improvement in the quality of students’ work, which was the same thing that happened in the course last year. A possible solution is to walk students step by step through the mechanics of writing a memo in class, so that by the end of the process they have in their hands a  document that they can submit for a “perfect” grade. But this would remove pretty much any opportunity for students to independently engage in creative thinking, which is another term for problem solving. More holding of students’ hands to protect them from anything they might find unpleasant. I’ll have to think more about how to better organize an assignment like this.

Third item on the list, which is speculative at this point: abandon the whole course. I’ve been teaching this first-year seminar since its inception four years ago, when it came into being through a revision to my university’s general education requirements. The developmental rationale for the course is not well-defined, and the learning outcomes associated with it are mostly not measurable. Valid data on how the course may be of benefit to students simply isn’t being collected, which means that it is really nothing but an empty three-credit curricular requirement. While I think the topic on which I have built the course is a good one, I am finding it less enjoyable to teach over time. And interaction with university administrators about aspects of teaching it have been less than satisfactory. So, if I have the opportunity in future fall semesters not to teach the course, I might take it.

Food Matters

The Agricultural History Society has extended its call for proposals for panel sessions and papers for its May 2018 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, USA. The new deadline for proposal submission is January 1. The conference’s theme is Tropicana: Commodities across Borders. The theme locates the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America in a global history of commodity production and consumption. Full details on the CFP can be found here.

Since I have shepherded a new minor on food studies through our faculty governance system, and applied for a federal grant on the same subject, food as a field of academic study has been occupying a growing — pun intended — amount of my time and energy. I’ll probably be writing more on this blog about teaching food production and consumption systems during the spring semester, but for now here is a simple assignment that uses food to get at socioeconomic inequality, public health, globalization, and environmental sustainability:

  • First, ask students to collect grocery receipts, either from their parents or from members of the off-campus community.
  • Second, have the students go into the markets where the foods listed on the receipts were purchased to identify the origin of these foods. Fruits and vegetables, at least in major U.S. supermarkets, are labeled by country of origin. For processed foods, like canned soup, additional research into corporate supply chains will be required.
  • Using some guiding questions, have students analyze — either through discussion, an individual writing assignment, or a team project — what they have discovered about who buys certain foods, where, and why.  What broader conclusions can students reach about the effects of people’s food choices?


Continuous Improvement, Perhaps

As another semester begins to wind down, I remain convinced that it is always a good idea to tell students what they are doing and why. They are unlikely to figure this out on their own.

For students, my first-year seminar has evolved into a semester-long exercise in problem-solving, yet I don’t mention “problem-solving” anywhere in the syllabus or in the directions for any of my assignments. So as a first-pass attempt at improvement, I’ve yet again tweaked my end-of-semester meta-cognitive Quality of Failure assignment. Directions for the Quality of Failure essay now read as follows:


Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes your learning in the course in relation to your Knowledge Plan from the beginning of the semester. Respond to the following questions:

  • What helped or hindered your learning about the problem solving process when reading, writing, and designing games?
  • Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Moore and Soledad O’Brien? Why or why not?
 I don’t think the results are ideal, but they are good enough for now.

Collaborative Reading – Follow-Up Thoughts

Today we have an update from Colin M. Brown, College Fellow in Government at Harvard University. He can be reached at brown4 [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

In a post last year, I talked about the potential of using annotation software like CritiqueIt to make the reading process more collaborative. In short, by creating a single copy of the reading that students can mark up together online, there’s the potential for creating discussion prior to and during class, and also for getting students to see course readings as statements in a dialogue.

My first use of CritiqueIt was promising, but I’m less satisfied after having further used it in two undergraduate seminars plus a graduate-level, continuing education course.

Two things have continued to work, probably still making the tool a net positive. First, as a diagnostic tool CritiqueIt makes class prep easier, because it gives me a window into what students find interesting or are struggling with. Students indicate their interest implicitly or explicitly, and they also seem relatively fine with using their comments to signal that something doesn’t make sense—especially useful when they’re having difficulty with something I didn’t expect. Second, they seem to like it. Students seem to perceive it as a cool new gimmick, and I seem to get credit for trying it.

However, while CritiqueIt lets me know what students want the conversation in class to be about, it hasn’t generated a conversation among students on its own. Students have posted a few responses to other students’ annotations, but the kind of exchange I mentioned in the original post hasn’t happened consistently. Students seem to be completing the assignment because it sends me a signal that they have, in fact, engaged with the reading. This provides me with feedback for me, as mentioned above, but was not my ultimate reason for using the tool.

Since I want students to see political science writings as part of an ongoing exchange of ideas, there are three changes that I’ll be implementing next semester, thanks to insights from my colleague Daniel Smail, who has been experimenting with the same tool in his history courses:

  1. Build CritiqueIt into the entire semester. Students need time to get used to the tool, and the expectation that it’s an integral part of their work.
  2. Assign early readers. If everyone reads the night or morning before class, there’s less incentive to start a dialogue that none of their peers will respond to. By dividing up the collaborative readings and having one or two students make their annotations three or four days before class, there will be more time for students to jump into the conversation.
  3. Work CritiqueIt into summative assessment. This also normalizes the use of the tool, and gives students the incentive to develop better commenting skills. Students will need several days to virtually hand the document back and forth so this has to be accounted for in scheduling other assignments. But giving them a longer piece of journalism on the broad course theme and having them react to it, and then to each other, knowing that their comments will be graded on some explicit rubric, might be a better way to tease out their ability to respond critically to arguments—and actually use something they learned from class.