Curriculum design in European Studies, International Relations and Political Science

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans & Afke Groen, Maastricht University.

We are going to be honest with you from the outset: this blog is not concerned with our teaching experience, but rather with an ongoing research project that we are working on with our colleague Johan Adriaensen and our student assistant Caterina Pozzi (both also Maastricht University). And it gets worse: this is a blog that ends with a cry for help.

We are working on a research project studying undergraduate curriculum design in European Studies, International Relations and Political Science. Surprisingly, there is relatively little research on actual curriculum design within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, in particular when it comes to such broad fields.

Sure, there has been a debate about what curriculums in these fields should look like. Some of our colleagues have, for instance, asked whether there is, or should be, such a thing as a core curriculum in European Studies, while others have looked at interdisciplinarity in the field of Politics. Similarly, at the policy level there have been some attempts to flesh out benchmarks and standards in European Studies, and International Relations and Politics.

But what is missing is a thorough attempt to build a database of programmes in European Studies, International Relations and Politics, and to compare the characteristics of these programmes.

This is where our ongoing research project comes in. The project builds on previous work by Johan and us, published in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies and European Political Science (in production). Both articles concern the training and monitoring of generic skills in active learning environments. Our new project takes a broader perspective on skills and methods in curriculum design. We conduct a meta-study of undergraduate programmes offered by the member institutions of APSA, ECPR and UACES. We particularly explore three key themes: (1) the teaching of skills, practical experience and employability; (2) the degree of interdisciplinarity; and (3) the flexibility and coherence of the programme.

All in all, we hope to provide (1) a unique and comprehensive database of how curricula are organised in practice. On this basis, (2) we will distinguish various types of curriculums and evaluate their advantages and disadvantages. Our final objective is to (3) formulate best practices for university teachers and programme developers. As such, the database also promises to be a useful resource for university policies, in particular in light of challenges such as the constantly changing objects of study in European Studies, International Relations and Politics and an increasingly diverse and international student body.

Although we are still in the phase of gathering data, we can already share a couple of interesting observations with you. For one, while some universities seem to think that programmes in European Studies, Politics and International Relations are no longer really necessary, it is good to see that this has certainly not meant that future students cannot choose from a wide array of such programmes.

Indeed, the curriculums that we have coded so far look quite different. For instance, our own BA in European Studies seems to pay much more specific attention to methods and skills development through separate courses (and many of them). Another striking difference between programmes, is the extent of choice offered to students; while some programmes consist of large, compulsory courses mostly, others include a wide array of electives or ‘tracks’ from diverse fields of studies (sometimes with over 100 or even 200 optional courses!).

The latter is also one of our main challenges: it is not always clear what exactly constitutes a programme’s curriculum. Often, the respective websites are not very clear – generally university websites are rather dense – and it is impossible to find core programme documents that might help us here. This is particularly the case for Eastern European and US programmes, which often revolve around a major/minor set-up.

Hence, we need your help! If you are based at a university and/or are teaching in a programme that is a member of APSA, ECPR and UACES, your input would be very welcome. If there is any documentation that you think might help us code Eastern European and US programmes, we would be very grateful if you could send it to patrick.bijsmans@maastrichtuniversity.nl.

We do offer something in return. First, we will keep you posted through Twitter and blogs. Second, we hope to organise panels and workshops on curriculum design at conferences, such as during this year’s European Teaching & Learning Conference in Amsterdam. If you would like to contribute to such get-togethers, do let us know. Finally, our aim is to eventually provide colleagues with access to our database, starting with those of you who help us move the project forward!

If at first you don’t succeed…. try, try again

Over the years, I have tried to incorporate a blog assignment into my Introduction to Comparative Politics class. I think this is the fourth attempt and I might finally be close to a format that works.

The most recent iteration of this assignment, which I did last fall and revised for this semester, centers on the students selecting a country for the entire semester. I have them fill out a preference survey and then assign, to avoid overlap. I call the assignment the Country Expert Project and it involves a couple of components. First, the students write a short reflection paper before they start the blog posts. They are supposed to talk about what they already know about the country (sometimes the answer is “very little”) and why they picked it. This serves as a baseline, because they will also end the project with a reflection on what they learned about their country and what surprised them. Another small assignment at the beginning requires them to read a handful of academic blog posts; we then discuss blogs as a genre and how it is different than a research paper.

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Keeping up with current events in the classroom

How do you include current events in your courses?

I’m teaching Introduction to Comparative Politics this semester and I just can’t keep up with all the relevant current events. Every morning, I scroll through my Twitter feed, full of examples that I can be using in class. My students tend to be very engaged with the news and I want to tap into this excitement by integrating more current events into class, but I just find it overwhelming.

What, in particular, are some of my challenges to integrating current events into a political science course, particularly an introductory course?

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Branching out

So, almost overnight, I seem to have developed a profile on Twitter as a commentator on voter ID.

I was on a radio programme last night, talking about Brexit stuff, but the following debate was on the proposals to introduce free ID cards for voters, to combat personation.

Since I knew this was coming up, I’d done some prep, but didn’t get to talk about that on the programme, so I tweeted it out on the way home:

So far, so media tart-y.

But for me it’s been a good micro-illustration of how we teach.

We take material that we know something about, arrange it to make sense, share it and then discuss it with others.

Here, even more than other areas of work, I’m happy to be corrected and to be forced to explain my working/logic.

At one level, we’re all working like this: offering up ideas and conceptualisations of some thing, then testing that in dialogue with other people and (hopefully) producing a more robust outcome.

So far, in this case, that’s been really interesting for me to work through my argument and to think about how it fits with other areas of research.

And that’s why I love teaching: it really makes you think.

Social Capital and M&Ms

Social capital is a “fuzzy” concept but serves as the foundation for some key comparative politics theories that we cover in my Introduction to Comparative Politics course. To help my students get a better grasp of the concept, I borrowed an activity from economics: the ultimatum game.

Briefly, I have the students pair up and distribute a handout to keep track of offers in the game. The students first need to allocate roles: proposer and responder. I tell them that the student whose middle name starts with an earlier letter in the alphabet is the proposer, just to randomize it somewhat. The proposer makes an offer of a division of some resource. Because candy is a (near) universal motivator, I use M&Ms and Skittles (I let the pairs decide which candy to play for, but I like to offer skittles for lactose-free students). I distribute 50 candies per pair and they play 5 rounds; in each round, the proposer makes an offer to split 10 candies. The responder can only accept or reject the offer. If the responder rejects, neither get any (they go back to me). If the responder accepts, then they divide the candy.

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Comparative Politics 2019: Looking Back

A few thoughts on my comparative politics course this year, now that the semester has ended:

Although I think my revised writing prompts made the intent of assignments more transparent, I forgot to preface each prompt with an overview of how readings related to the topic at hand. Also, for some assignments, it was obvious that students still weren’t reading items that I regarded as essential. If I don’t specifically refer to an author in the prompt, students often don’t read that author’s work. Since the relationship between the author and the question I posed was obscurely implied rather than explicit, I don’t have much justification for reducing students’ marks.

My Gerkhania simulation worked much better, in terms of student engagement, in a class of fourteen than it did in last year’s class of ten. Yet in each parliamentary session, students rapidly disclosed the roles they had randomly acquired to sort out how to construct coalitions that allowed the greatest number of them to “win.” I’m thinking of introducing two changes to the simulation next year that might reduce students’ tendency to default to rational actor behavior. First, keep students’ roles the same throughout the simulation, instead of randomly changing them for each session. This might cause students to develop a greater attachment to their fictional identities. Second, have students draft their own legislation instead of providing them with a a list of pre-determined bills.

Re-arranging course topics and pushing the qualitative comparative analysis deeper into the semester seemed beneficial, but many students still struggled with the assignment. They don’t, for example, understand concepts like “land productivity” and how measures like these can be used as independent variables. I need to continue separating the QCA into smaller components. Baby steps.

Getting flipped

So last week was our final teaching week before the Easter break. For reasons we don’t need to go into here, it’s not the end of our teaching block for the semester, so it’s a bit of a breather.

As such, my usual expectation is that class attendance takes a bit of a hit.

However, my lecture of 120 students only saw 15 turn up, which – even by my standards – isn’t good. At all.

Obviously those who came didn’t have the answers for their fellow students’ absence, so I decided to gather some data.

Using a quick SurveyMonkey poll, I offered students a range of options to choose from. As you can see, I got about 40% of the class (including a couple who had come) to respond, so reasonable enough to make some observations.

The first is that timing does matter. My lecture is 1000 on a Thursday, and the night before had been a big sports night, so there was certainly a bunch of students incapacitated by that. Also, a couple of students noted that Thursdays are solid with classes for them, abetted by some deadlines for other modules due at the same time.

However, while those factors explain part of it, I was also rather curious about whether our experiment in flipping plays a role.

My module is a first-year introduction to European integration, and I’ve been trying out a flipped format. This involves a pre-recorded lecture online, with the conventional lecture time being given over to Q&A on the recording and elaboration of key themes: there’s also a seminar session, which runs on more conventional lines.

So far, that Q&A part has not been running as well as I would like: only a small number of students ask questions and there’s evidently a block who haven’t watched the lecture beforehand, so can’t ask.

Part of my concern in trying out flipping was that students might see it as a way to disengage with the face-to-face element of the module. My efforts to tackle this including highlighting that the recording doesn’t have enough in itself to give all the material and framing students need to do well in the module: the Q&A always includes stuff that relates much more directly to the final exam (and I say as much).

Clearly, the survey highlights that this isn’t resonating with the students.

Even if we allow for a degree of “what might look like the answer least likely to cause offence”, there’s a big block covering the lack of utility of the (Q&A) lecture element.

Certainly, I can see that if you’ve not watched the video, then the lecture isn’t that useful, but I’m more concerned about those who feel that the recording suffices.

All of which leaves me in a quandry.

Part of me wants to rework the remaining sessions after Easter to be much more explicit in leaving material out of the online stuff, with the lecture picking it up instead.

But another part of me wants to stick with my approach to date and then we see how it goes with the exam.

Right now, I don’t have the answers to this one. I need to explore some more to see if attendance was similarly down in other modules, to better triangulate what’s happening here.

Your thoughts are welcome.

Scholarly Literature As a Conversation

Below is an example of a recent in-class exercise that I used in my comparative politics course, created in collaboration with our crack staff of librarians. The exercise is designed to teach students that the scholarly journal articles they are reading represent an ongoing conversation between experts. I have included the information students were supposed to locate in italics. Feel free to modify the activity to meet your own needs.

Warm Up

Which former president of the American Political Science Association was one of Dr. Raymond’s professors? (Lucian Pye) First person to submit the correct answer before time expires earns 10 points toward their final course grade.

Backtracking

Locate this article: Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy 21, 1 (January 2010): 93-112.

In this article, find citations for academic journal articles about democracy in the Arab world. Locate these articles. Write their citations:

  • Alfred Stepan and Graeme B. Robertson, “An ‘Arab’ More Than a ‘Muslim’ Democracy Gap,” Journal of Democracy 14 (July 2003): 30–44.
  • Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao, “Gauging Arab Support for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 16 (July 2005): 82–97.
  • Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler, “The Democracy Barometers: Attitudes in the Arab World,” Journal of Democracy 19 (January 2008): 97–110.

One of the above articles (Jamal and Tessler) contains a citation for an academic journal article written by another former president of the American Political Science Association. Locate this article. Write the citation:

  • Samuel Huntington, “Will More Countries Become Democratic?” Political Science Quarterly 99, 2 (Summer 1984): 193-218

In the above article, find citations for these two works: the original version of an academic journal article that you have read for this course, and a book that you have read about for this course. What are the citations for the two works?

  • Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (1959): 75.
  • Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 418.

Synthesis

How do the ideas contained in the scholarly works listed above relate to the ideas presented by Diamond in the initial article?

Your Own Research

Choose a research topic of interest (does not have to be related to this course). On the back of this paper, track citations of academic journal articles about the topic through time. What do the authors of these articles say about the topic? How do their ideas correspond or differ?

Political readings of “Lego Movie 2”

It’s a trap…

A few years back I wrote about the The Lego Movie and how it captured the operation of fascism in a form that was both accessible and about as enjoyable as fascism ever can be.

Some readers of this blog were unhappy that I’d ruined that film for them, so it’s only right I try to do that for another generation of scholars and young parents.

The Lego Movie 2 isn’t as good as the first one (confine discussion of whether this is ever possible to yourself, away from me), but obviously I watched it, because, well, Lego.

This aside, there’s still plenty of politics going on in the film., which I’ll write about now with some mild spoilers (because you’re not 9 years old and because you’re a serious scholar).

For the IR types among you, there’s a whole bunch of realism going on, with security dilemmas, anarchy and the brutishness that this engenders in actors. The collapse of the (ultimately benign) dictatorship in the first movie produces a literal and metaphorical wasteland in which actions are guarded and security is everything. The final reconciliation of the actors this time occurs when they identify a common external threat and work together to overcome it.

As a musing on power in its various forms, the movie offers a useful way to conceptualise how actors operate under uncertainty and the tension between collaborative and conflictual action, as captured in the notions of being a ‘master builder’ or a ‘master smasher’.

For the gender scholars, there’s a bunch of gendered roles, paternalism (and maternalism), as well as how children ‘become’ adults going on in all this too. It’s also a classic of the ‘absent father’ trope and all that implies.

But for my purposes, the film is all about constructivism.

The logic of appropriateness runs through the entire piece, as individuals strive and struggle to either fit into their environment or communicate their intentions.

If Emmet’s arc is one of finding a persona and an attitude that works from him (puberty alert!), then Bianca’s is one of learning to signal intentions less ambiguously.

As someone who teaches negotiation, I recognised a lot of these tensions from my classroom, where students are apt to adopt personae as ‘negotiators’ that don’t always sit comfortably with their more general sense of being.

In both classroom and the film, individuals try out different gambits, with varying degrees of sincerity and of success. But ultimately, as the film suggests, it is when there is a more open exchange of views that progress is made, clearing up the confusions and misunderstandings and realigning how we view other’s actions.

Indeed, the whole film turns on how individuals perceive one another and themselves: Finn misunderstands Bianca; Emmet is misled by Rex; Lucy struggles (as in the first film) with her sense of identity; Batman has to learn about living with light as well as dark; and Superman has to find accommodation with the Green Lantern.

Identity here is thus not purely about being true to yourself, but also about being true to others. Whether you accept that being doing both you end up with a happy society – as the movie argues (as movies are wont to do) – is another matter.

But however you take it, this case highlights how we can use cultural products to illustrate and illuminate our teaching: the beauty of politics is that it is pervasive, so we can find it pretty much anywhere we look, if we choose to see.

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 3

Another post on changes this year in my comparative politics course:

As usual, students are reading a lot of academic journal articles, especially from the Journal of Democracy. Although the writing in this journal is very user-friendly — concise sentences, little jargon — students lack the kind of familiarity with the genre that I do. Identifying and evaluating the elements of the author’s argument is a skill that gets better with practice, and the undergraduate students that I see need a lot of practice.

I regularly assign journal article analyses in my graduate courses. My original instructions for this assignment were too long so I simplified them. But I can’t assume that the process of analyzing the argument made in a text is immediately understandable to the average undergraduate. Years ago, I used an in-class exercise in textual analysis in an attempt to give undergrads some training in this skill. An actual example of the exercise can be found here. But I was never quite satisfied with the results.

On the first day of class this semester, I tried a new exercise, in part to prepare students for Seymour Martin Lipset’s “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address,” from American Sociological Review 59, 1. This article includes an abstract that handily functions as a summary for the reader. Journal of Democracy articles don’t have abstracts, so I redacted it. I projected the article’s introduction on the wall screen and asked the class to examine each paragraph in sequence to identify Lipset’s subject (which is stated at end of the first page and beginning of the second page).

I then divided the class into groups of two or three students each, and gave each group copies of a different section of the article. Each section presents a particular set of characteristics that, in Lipset’s opinion, facilitates the institutionalization of democracy. I asked students in each group to identify the characteristics discussed in the section that group had been given. Each group then reported its findings to the class, which I wrote on the board.

The exercise seem to work well in terms of demonstrating how to pull apart a journal article’s argument, and it made the first day of class a lot more productive than it usually is. The challenge will be to engage students in this type of exercise using articles that have a more complex structure.