Ethnography of Consumption – A Twist

Buying is believing

The spring semester is ending here, and as usual everyone is dragging themselves across the finish line. There is not much left for students to do in my globalization course, but — given the structure of the U.S. higher education system — we still have to meet in the classroom. So, in search of something to fill time, I created an activity based on the last paragraph in my response to Leanne’s scavenger hunt exercise.

I collected some random products from home, all branded: running shoes (Saucony), cell phone charger cord (Samsung), bag of lentils (Jack Rabbit), hand towel (Cannon), and a tote bag to transport everything (London Review of Books). In class I laid all these items on a table and lied about getting them from a friend. I then told students to examine everything and write an answer to “What story is the owner of these things trying to tell others about the kind of person he or she is?” Students had already completed ethnographies of consumption, so they had some understanding of the connection between identity construction and consumption choices.

After five minutes, I grouped students into teams to create presentations, which they delivered during the second half of class. I got to listen to them unknowingly analyze my self-image as practical, value-oriented, and health conscious. (I would have been just as happy with other adjectives.) Once the last team had presented, I revealed that the items were my own by plugging my cell phone into the wall socket with the charger cord.

As a last minute invention, this activity worked fairly well. Students got to practice collaborating, communicating to an audience, and applying concepts. And all I had to do was bring a tote bag to class.

Teaching Trump #2

A follow-up to Amanda’s post about teaching in the time of Trump. Trump’s campaign and administration represent an opportunity to teach about racism in the construction of national identity. I stumbled into this subject accidentally in my globalization course last week, with an assignment that asked students to write a response to “Is France or the USA a more global society?” Students were supposed to reference the following items:

Yesterday I heard this radio report about residents of Newton, Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest and therefore whitest communities in the USA: Continue reading

The Change All Around, Part 1

The spring semester is about to begin, and as usual I have changed what I will be doing and how I will be doing it. I thought it might be interesting for the dear readers of this blog to learn about some of the factors that will affect my teaching over the next few months. But just to be contrarian, I’ll start in reverse chronological order:

I’ve decided to use Michelle’s technique of placing simulations at the end of the semester when both students and I will be approaching burnout mode. I have done a complete redesign of my comparative politics course, dropping the themes in favor of more traditionally-presented content like the diverse institutional arrangements of democracies. In an attempt to get at this topic, I have resurrected my Gerkhania simulation, but have tweaked it to give it more structure. First, I will assign students roles that have different ethnically-oriented, two-sentence backstories. The class will then convene as the Gerkhanian Commission for National Reconciliation, which has the following tasks: Continue reading

Farewell to Surrey

A few thoughts inspired by the recently-concluded Political Studies Association-sponsored Workshop on New Pedagogies at the University of Surrey in Guildford, as I sit in Terminal 3 at Heathrow.

Not a hobbit
Not a hobbit

Active learning strategies present several advantages and disadvantages for teachers. First, they often recognize that people don’t necessarily all learn the same things at the same speed. Any classroom in which these techniques are employed can be thought of as an effort in differentiated instruction — which can be beneficial when students possess varying amounts of prior knowledge.

Second, these methods create spaces where students can and often must behave in different ways. Not only can this force students to figure out how to ask the important questions in the right ways, it can also increase their motivation, an important intermediary variable when it comes to learning.

Third, many active learning exercises include a meta-cognitive stage in which a student’s articulation of his or her understanding is what produces understanding.

Also not a hobbit.
Also not a hobbit.

Fourth, active learning can, if implemented properly, offer opportunities for students’ conceptual, skill, and emotional development. Integrating all of these dimensions into the classroom requires careful consideration on the part of the instructor, but the payoffs can be quite high.

There are no bad ideas

Activating prior knowledge is a critical step in engaging students and facilitating learning.  There’s a whole bunch of literature in cognitive science that tells us that learning happens when students connect new knowledge to existing knowledge.  Brainstorming is one simple technique that can activate prior knowledge and encourage students to make these connections. Continue reading

What We Know About Learning

Eddie WatsonAnother follow-up to the 2016 TLC — this year’s keynote address was delivered by Eddie Watson, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia. He devoted part of his address to what the cognitive scientists and psychologists know about learning, and how we can put that knowledge to use in the classroom:

  • Identify what your students already know and teach accordingly. Use knowledge probes, pre-semester surveys, and pre-test/post-test instruments.
  • Performance followed by immediate feedback increases learning. The feedback doesn’t have to come from you — it can be just as effective if it comes from peers. [Perhaps this points to a reason why some simulations and games are pedagogically valuable.]
  • Learning is often facilitated by social interaction. [See above.]
  • Frequent testing promotes learning; it is more powerful than passive “studying.”
  • Being able to actively process information — for example, by applying it in a particular context — tends to result in greater learning.

For additional details, read Daniel Willingham’s work, which is linked to this post and to the blogroll on the ALPS homepage.

It’s not what you say…

2934775218_4edd6d67a5There’s a lot to be said for banality. It’s probably the most under-rated of teaching practices, mainly because it’s so little remarked upon. We always talk about pushing our students to the edge of their knowledge and understanding, so that this edge is pushed further back, and we also keep flagging the core ideas as lodestones, but we only rarely come back to the stuff in-between: the logical corollaries of the core concepts.

Yesterday’s class with my negotiation students was a case in point.

The session was centred on the theme of preparation, and asked them to agree a governmental coalition in the wake of the Spanish elections. This threw up lots of great thoughts and discussions about many points: Spanish politics, coalition-building in general, verisimilitude in simulations (they ended up with a grand coalition), and even stuff about preparation (I’d possibly been less than helpful about what prep they needed to do).

But for me, the big lesson was one that I end up discussing at length every year, but never quite manage to embed explicitly in the module’s work. And it’s a banal point: simply put, it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear that matters.

“Sure”, you’re thinking, “that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”


Even if you never studied negotiation, then you know enough about constructivism to appreciate the objective weight of subjective interpretations, enough about the importance of clear communication in any sphere of life, and enough about life to know that misunderstandings and talking-at-cross-purposes happens pretty often.

But you also might well have never put those things together to consider the banal point that people will tend to understand things as they understand them, rather than as someone else understands them. So it doesn’t matter if I think I’m being clear, if you don’t think I’m being clear.

Likewise, my students seemed to have a bit of block in understanding why there had been some tension in the negotiations. A couple of groups had left the room to work out some options, and didn’t want to be disturbed by emissaries from the other parties. Unfortunately, since they were the PP and PSOE and ended up with that grand coalition proposal, when they did present it to the others, they didn’t get much joy. Both sides were still quite sore about it, even during the debrief, and we had to work through how this had come to pass before we could get to all that other stuff I mentioned.

I’ve written about this before in a different context and that’s maybe the point: at some stage it becomes so obvious that it’s hard to remember that we need to remember it.

In my case, I’m fortunate that it’s such a pervasive issue that it does always come up at some point in class, but you might not have that. All of us might do well to remember that to leap from central theoretical tenet straight to the boundary can be exciting and engaging, but it can also come with costs.