Getting Rid of Everything But the Kitchen Sink

This post was inspired by the ideas that Erin Baumann, Harvard, and John Fitzgibbon, Boston College, presented at the APSA Teaching & Learning Conference two weeks ago. They pointed out that instructors, myself included, often begin the course design process from the content-centric position of what we want students to learn. We collect resources for student consumption that illustrate principles and facts that we think are relevant to the subject of the course. Content for learning triumphs over the process of learning.

When engaging in this sort of scavenger hunt for content, a potentially much more useful question to ask is “What don’t students need?” The value of this approach hit home during a redesign of my course on economic development. I’ve taught this course for years at a variety of universities, and while I always make it a practice to update the readings, the learning objectives with which they were associated remained a fairly static and not very well thought out conglomeration. For the fall 2018 semester, the course is being consolidated with another course on environmental politics, and I’ve been forced to think hard about how I can adequately serve both subjects simultaneously.

I concluded that my existing course design wasn’t very elegant. Though I was fairly satisfied with what students were doing in terms of assignments and exercises, my predilection for the subject material had caused me to fall into the trap of “it would be nice if I covered . . . ” rather than ruthlessly restricting my syllabus to only the most essential content.

I needed a new design process, so I tossed everything about the existing course into a spreadsheet. Then I identified old and new topics — learning objectives actually — that I thought were critical to the new course, and deleted everything else. Same for readings — I discarded whatever didn’t narrowly correspond to the now smaller number of learning objectives, and found a few new ones that did.

I’m sure students will be pleased with the shorter reading list, even though their ability to skip over the most important, more-difficult-to-digest material in favor of breezier newspaper and blog articles has been greatly reduced. I’m happier because the course will be less of a bugaboo to teach given the pared-down content.

Links to the full series of posts on redesigning this course:

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?

 

Environment & Society – Call for Abstracts

Credit: Chad Raymond

Environment & Society has issued a call for abstracts on mega-projects:

Small is no longer beautiful. Small is out-dated, old-fashioned, inefficient and ugly. The future now consists of an ambitious series of massive plans and schemes for new infrastructure projects, beltways, roadways, railways, investment corridors, disaster-proofed cities and countries, carbon capture and storage, reforestation, wall building, migration fostering, terra-formation, space exploration, global sports events and so much more. The proponents of mega-projects resurrect modernist dreams of yesteryear, yet they offer utopian visions of an uncharted future. Although many of these mega-projects are still being planned or are in nascent stages, it is clear they have the potential to transform everyday life for many people and as a result they are likely to provoke resistance.

In this issue of Environment & Society we invite any papers which explore different aspects of mega-projects. This could include their environmental or social consequences, politics surrounding their planning and/or realization, and the visions and/or assumptions that animate them. It could entail exploring the organized collective opposition to these schemes, such as protest events, campaigns and social movements, or subtle acts of refusal. It could also examine the futures that mega-projects promise, their consequences and the alternative futures they foreclose. It could focus on highly visible lumpy schemes that are territorialized and driven by governments. Alternatively it could examine massive and far-reaching systemic changes in technology or social trends that reshape how large groups of people think or behave but which arise from consumer choice, political action and private entrepreneurship as well as state guidance. Continue reading

Making Games As Teaching Tools

Today we have a guest post by Dr. Andrew Biro, Head of the Department of Politics, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at andrew [dot] biro [at] acadiau [dot] ca.

Chad Raymond recently wrote a couple of posts (herehere, and here) about having students create board games based on course content. I did something similar in my Politics of Water class last fall, as a capstone exercise in the last couple of weeks of the course. It was a fun way to end the course, and by inviting high school students to play the games, it gave my students the sense that they really could use games to engage in a teaching exercise.

Students worked in groups of 4-6 to design a board game that incorporated some “lesson” from the course. The course is rather eclectic. Topics include geopolitical conflicts over water, municipal water privatization, engineering mega-projects (big dams), and gendered access to water in the household. This gave students lots of choices, and they produced eight fairly diverse games. Continue reading

Cultural and Historic Preservation Conference

And now for something completely different . . .

The Noreen Stonor Drexel Cultural and Historic Preservation program at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island, will host its annual conference on October 13 and 14. The theme for this year is “Gentrification & Preservation: A Reappraisal.” The conference will explore the relationship between gentrification, preservation, and the community – broadly construed.

“Gentrification” is a term that carries a great deal of emotional weight. It is frequently tied to issues of class and race, and historic preservation efforts are often accused of being a handmaid to gentrifiers.

The conference’s keynote speaker is Dr. Lance Freeman, professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. Dr. Freeman is a leading researcher in the study of gentrification, particularly the various relationships connecting race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and housing markets.

The conference schedule includes site visits in Newport as well as a session in the Newport Art Museum. For additional information, visit http://chpconference.salvereginablogs.com/ or email chpconference@salve.edu.

Theoretical Theatre: An innovative teaching method for EU Studies: Guest post from Viviane Gravey

This guest post by Viviane Gravey (UEA) was first published on Ideas on Europe.

The European Union has an image problem. The “permissive consensus”[1] (aka non-informed consent) that supported European integration up to the early 1990s is long gone, and the image of “the European construction” as a guarantee of peace is no longer sufficient. Even the last European Commission thought a “new narrative for Europe” was required. Of course, not all of the EU’s legitimacy problems are about its image or European citizens’ lack of information. As important (if not more) is a political debate on whether national sovereignty should be shared, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of shifting power to a supranational level.

As researchers studying European policy and politics, we all make different choices about where we draw the line between raising awareness of what the EU is and what it does and taking a stand on European politics. The possibility of a referendum on British membership of the EU will make this discussion, on whether to get involved and how to do so, all the more crucial. In this post, I suggest that a first and necessary step in engaging the wider public with Europe is to think about how we teach the European Union – and how we can do it better. As a student of EU environmental policies, I have long been keen to draw insights from environmental policy studies for wider EU studies discussions.[2] In this post I go a step further, reflecting on how an innovative teaching practice,  “theoretical theatre”, developed in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia could be adapted to teaching EU studies.

A growing need for better EU studies teaching

What makes the EU complex to teach? Part of the answer comes from the EU political system itself. In many European countries like the UK or France, where citizens are accustomed to a confrontational type of politics, the large number of veto players at EU level and the permeating culture of consensus is decidedly alien. Media coverage of the EU does not always help. EU citizens are often presented with a decidedly skewed account of EU policy-makingand very rarely with informative explanations of what people in Brussels – MEPs, Commissioners, ministers – actually do. Another key difficulty for teaching the EU is the need for teachers to find a balance between the history of European integration, the creation of EU policies, and the opposing theories explaining both. Teachers must find this balance while also trying to engage students in current debates on and in Europe.

How to (better) teach the EU is a topic of growing interest among EU scholars – as evidenced by the 1st European Conference on Teaching and Learning Politics, International Relations and European Studies, by the UACES Student Forum seminar in November 2014 or by the section on Teaching and Learning in a recent Journal of Contemporary European Research issue.  These forums are increasingly discussing innovative teaching approaches, such as greater use of simulations or harnessing the Internet for teaching purposes (see for example the Active Learning in Political Science blog).

Teaching theories, a key hurdle?

Out of the many difficulties encountered when teaching the EU, I suggest one of the key problems is to understand the great variety of theories mobilised to study the EU. This is an especially acute challenge when teaching students with no political science background. Applying theories for the first time – taking a step back and managing to explain the same event or issue with different “lenses” – can be pretty daunting.

A few years ago, researchers in UEA’s 3S research group developed an engaging teaching approach that breaks the ice and introduces students to the use of social science theories: the theoretical theatre. In this approach, a group of lecturers each impersonate a different theory/theorist and engage in a lively debate offering different explanations of an event, or solutions to a problem.

The theoretical theatre approach was first developed to expose students to different theories on sustainable consumption. The theories covered in this sustainable consumption theatre were Rational Choice Theory, Social Psychology, Social Practice Theory and Systems of Provision Theory. Each theory was impersonated by an academic who debated the best way to move toward more sustainable consumption from the perspective of their chosen theoretical perspective[3].

For the last two years, I have helped (with my blog co-editors) bringing together another session in a module on environmental politics and policy. In our theoretical theatre, contenders debate the 1932 Kinder Scout Mass Trespass and the development of access to land rights in the UK from the perspective of Stephen Lukes’ three “faces of power”. Instead of impersonating a theory, we chose to impersonate a theorist, with “Stephen Lukes” going head to head with “Peter Bachrach” and “Robert Dahl” in a performance with an arguably smaller comedic element (although we did use 3D glasses).

Both modules got very positive feedback from the students – which may partly be because the students get to see their lecturers dress rather originally to “get into character”. The different directions in which we’ve taken these modules demonstrate the flexibility of the concept – and is a sign of its adaptability to other fields.

An EU theoretical theatre?

I argue EU studies could benefit from such a theatrical treatment. EU studies is a broad umbrella term for what is a very pluridisciplinary field of study that includes law, political science, history and economics – but the theoretical theatre approach should be flexible enough to be applied to a variety of fields.

What would an EU theoretical theatre look like? In order to be easily understood, it would need to be clearly focused on a specific period in time and issue, with at least 2 (ideally 3 or 4) divergent theoretical readings.

The theatre could serve many different purposes: it could be an introduction to competing readings of an historical period (e.g. the empty chair crisis of 1965 or the 2004 enlargement), to debates on the reasons and modality of a given process (growth in power of the European Parliament) or to a key contemporary issue such as the euro crisis.

For example, a theoretical theatre could be organised around the issue of the EU’s democratic deficit and the role the European Parliament could play in addressing that deficit. Such a discussion might include the four following broadly sketched “theoretical readings”:

theoreticaltheatreEU

Pluridisciplinarity in teaching?

In a complex academic job market, teaching skills are becoming very important for early career researchers. The pluridisciplinarity and diversity of EU studies makes it a perfect field to experiment. The approach I presented here, the theoretical theatre, is only one of many examples of innovative teaching methods being used right now across the UK (and beyond). These methods (theoretical theatre included) may also lead to more pluridisciplinarity in teaching, not just in research.

 


[1]Down, I. & Wilson, C., (2008) “From ‘Permissive Consensus’ to ‘Constraining Dissensus’: A Polarizing Union?”Acta Politica43, 26–49

[2] For example, I co-organised a panel on “Debating EU Governance: Insights from Environmental Policy Studies” at the 2014 UACES Student Forum conference

[3] The Theoretical Theatre performance is available here.

The Real Thing

Coke Real ThingAs I’ve said before, the best writing assignments present students with a contextualized problem — a task — that immediately gives them a role to fulfill, an audience to communicate with, and a format to follow. Role, audience, and format should reflect the types of tasks students might encounter outside of college; for example, a letter to the editor or a policy proposal that presents an evidence-based recommendation on a specific issue. The traditional research paper, with an audience of only the course instructor and a format that is not recognized outside of academia, lacks the authenticity that will lead to improvements in students’ writing.

Doctoral programs in political science typically don’t train people in how to write* or how to teach writing to others, and I’ve only recently begun to better incorporate the principles of role, audience, and format into my own teaching. Here is one example, referenced in my last post on project-based learning.

Last semester’s instructions for a project on tourism, for which a team of students wrote a report and delivered a class presentation:

Choose a location outside the USA and design an international volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the participants and the host community derive long term benefit. Make sure you define “benefit” and be aware that it’s possible to have more than one. Also make sure to include a process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the program’s goals are achieved.

These instructions are okay but not great. This semester’s instructions are better:

Your team of hospitality industry consultants has been hired by Hilton Worldwide to complete a study on the feasibility of an international (meaning outside the USA) volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the guests and the host community derive long term benefits. You team needs to report on the following:

♦  The best international location and type of experience for this venture, with an explanation of why the location and experience is the “best.”
♦  An explanation of the “benefits” that guests and the host community will acquire.
♦  A process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the venture’s goals are being achieved.

I have another example in which audience, purpose, and format might be even more obvious; I’ll write about that in my next post.

*one reason for the stilted jargon-laden prose of many political scientists

Links to the entire Real Thing series:

Global to Local with Podcasts

Homer CakeI recently stumbled across Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning, by Drs. Joshua Farley and Jon D. Erickson of the University of Vermont and Dr. Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland (Island Press, 2005). The book begins with the premise that current social and environmental problems “require armies of independent-minded, collaborative, and passionate problem-solvers, not more Jeopardy champions” (p. xii). Unfortunately, educational systems are typically organized to deliver knowledge as isolated packets that, once encountered, can safely be forgotten. Students infrequently learn how to collaborate, much less apply different types of knowledge in an integrative fashion.

Problem solving often requires that one be aware of and be interested in how problems manifest themselves differently across different temporal or physical dimensions. I find this to be exceedingly difficult to teach to U.S. undergraduates, but I’ve found public TV and radio to be helpful. For example, when looking at environmental change in the context of economic development, I might assign stories about:

These podcasts, videos, and interactive online features are timely and serve as localized examples of global processes that would otherwise remain vague and of no real concern for many students. Also the content is in a novel format, at least in terms of what usually is assigned to students, which gets their attention.

Climate Challenge Politics–Quick Online Game

BBC Climate Challenge is an online interactive game that deals with the politics of solving a transnational problem. It took me about 25 minutes to complete the game and admittedly I charged right in for a few rounds before I really gathered what I was doing.

Click Here to Access the BBC Online Game

the link to the game is somewhat hard to understand. Click on the graphic that says OPEN. The interface for the actual game is not large. You may want to investigate ways to enlarge the screen in order to accommodate those with vision limitations 

The premise is this… You are the leader of your country and you need to make choices about the policies you will enact over several years. Each policy has a cost or a benefit. The cost or benefit categories are : money, food, power, and water. They operate on a sliding scale that goes up and down based on your choices.

bbc_climate_challenge

You select policy cards in each round and once every three rounds you go to an international negotiation to try and establish global CO2 level reduction pledges.

For the record, I barely managed to keep my office and I completely THRASHED the British economy… BUT I did hold up my international agreements.  Success? It isn’t clear…And that’s the nice part about this game. This is clearly a two-level game with competing objectives. You develop a very strong sense (if you play more than once) of the problem with public approval and managing an economy while trying to keep the world from descending into global climate hell.

The game teaches you almost nothing about the global effects of climate change and to be honest I’m thankful. I find many resources about politics and environmental issues have a tendency to highlight the problem of the environment over the problem of the political calculations in dealing with the environment.

Students who are reflective about the game will pick up on the sheer difficulty of making policy decisions and calculating the costs and benefits. Additionally, even if I wasn’t interested in getting reelected by my people, I found myself enacting competing policies year over year. I was an absolute hypocrite dealing out water privatization one round and then enacting massive public works projects the next.

I think for maximum effect students should be made to play this game at least twice recording their choices and outcomes after each round. The game isn’t flashy, or even exciting… but its points are clear and for this I give it a stamp of awesome.

Climate Change Games, Pt. 1: Climate Challenge

Having finished my series exploring Poverty Games out there on the internet, I want to turn to another topic that can be difficult to teach and where games may help.

Climate change can be a tough subject to teach, particularly when you only have a single class session on it.  A group of students may have widely different levels of knowledge on the subject, and many may share the skepticism of 40% of Americans who doubt that climate change is either happening at all or due to man-made activities.  That can be a substantial hurdle to jump if you want to have a discussion on policy options to tackle climate change–if they don’t believe that greenhouse gases play a role in global warming, then there is little point to discussing strategies to reduce the amount of GHGs going into the atmosphere.

As my primary research is on this subject, I think a lot about how to teach climate change.  And I’m always on the lookout for games that assist me with the problems of teaching climate change.

Today’s game does not really help with the dilemma I outlined above. It requires some buy-in from the students that climate change is a problem worth solving–indeed, that bias is built into the game, where the leaders of various regions of the world all miraculously agree that climate change is a problem and are generally willing to adopt costly measures to combat it.  I would love to be in a world with this political reality.  So playing this game will require either existing buy-in from your students, or some preparation on your part to show them the data on the correlation between carbon dioxide levels and temperature.  That data, combined with polls of climate scientists on the topics, plus a metaphor about insurance* generally get my students to the point of accepting the basic premise that this is an issue worthy of discussion.

The game is Climate Challenge, sponsored by the BBC.  Players take on the leadership of the ‘European Nations’ and over the course of ten terms lasting one hundred years must choose what policies to implement to try to mitigate climate change.  Most of the game focuses on the domestic angle, with players choosing from amongst policies at different levels and areas: national  (such as a fuel tax or planting forests)  industry (perhaps switching from coal to natural gas); trade (you can import or export energy, water, food, and green technologies); local (promote windfarms or energy efficiency standards); and household (such as promoting recylcling).  In a given turn there are dozens of policy options, some of which are only available based on previous adoptions, but you can only choose six. Each policy affects your country’s resources, including money, energy, food, water, and pollution.  Investing in water infrastructure at the local level, for example, costs a lot of money but increases the amount of water available.

There is also an approval rating factor to consider.  Some policies–such as build more roads, or subsidize aviation–increase pollution but are quite popular with the people.  Public opinion is indicated through sample quotes accompanying each policy as well as a dial on the screen. Failure to maintain your approval rating can result in you being kicked out of office. I managed to get kicked out on turn three–and the game immediately ended.

There is an international dimension to the game that is supposed to mimic the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, where you ‘negotiate’ with other leaders to agree to emission targets.  The only negotiating tactic is a straight up bribe, though, and generally as long as Europe does its share of GHG reduction the other countries will approve reductions with little effort on the part of the player.

At the end of the game you receive scores on three areas: Environment, Economy, and Popularity.  In my first run through the game I scored 85%, 0%, and 100%, respectively.  I had no idea that Economy was measured, so on the last turn I spent all my euros on popular measures like increasing pensions.

Overall, Climate Challenge is really fun.  Its very easy to learn with a clear interface and there is a tutorial to guide new players.  It is also very effective as a teaching tool, as it quickly and visually gives students an understanding of the different policy options that exist, the various levels of government that need to be involved, and the tradeoffs required to successfully combat climate change. A fuel tax, for example, is very effective at both increasing money and reducing pollution, but it is very unpopular.  In the game this is easily handled by going for a very popular policy to balance out the losses in the polls–and this provides a good point for discussion with the students about how true the game is to the political realities of addressing climate change.

Best use for this game is as an independent homework assignment before a class on climate change, with either questions for them to answer and turn in or a discussion in-class to act as a debriefing.

Fun: 2/4  Not sure how enthusiastic students will be about picking policies, although the min/maxers among us might get a kick out of it.

Ease of use: 4/4 very clear interface, and a tutorial is available.

Polisci Class Applicability: 4/4, as it really helps students understand the political challenges of climate change, and in a way that provides lots of room for discussion during the debrief.

*I point out that lots of people get fire insurance for their houses even though the chance of their house burning down is small, because we want to have some measure of protection in case an unlikely but catastrophic event happens.  We can generally agree that if climate change is real, it has the potential to cause a host of catastrophic problems (such as rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, droughts, and floods, increased disease vectors, excess heat, etc).  While its certainly possible that climate change is a hoax, that climate scientists are completely wrong–I ask them if they are willing to bet everything that this is true, and not take out perhaps some insurance just in case.  While this does not convince them all, it generally gets them to the point of willing to have a conversation about the issue, which is ultimately what I care about the most.