I remember it vividly-ish

See? It’s not just me…

A bit of an odd one for you this time: it’s the end of semester here and so the mind wanders somewhat.

Not so long ago, I was re-reading Eric Schlosser’s Command and control, an excellent account of nuclear weapons incidents in the US. This had been off the back of a lunchtime discussion with colleagues about how there’s a nuclear device buried in the Thames, not so far from where I write, which had been jettisoned back in the 1950s by an ailing RAF bomber.

Yes, we do know have to have fun.

Any way, the book’s brilliant and I totally recommend it to you and students for opening up classroom debate about nuclear ethics beyond MAD. However, if you weren’t sure about nukes and their safety, then I’d maybe give it a pass, otherwise you’ll not sleep very much.

But this is a – slight – aside. The book in turn reminded me of a film I’d watched back when I was much younger, which I recalled was a thoughtful dramatisation of a B-52 crew’s ethic anguish over their mission: shades of Dr Strangelove but without the LOLs. Continue reading

Simulating EU foreign policy

Goddess of Fortune, before you ask

Despite what we here at ALPS like to make you think, other groups do work on simulations and active learning in political science and international relations. And because everyone’s a lovely person around here, we all get on famously with each other.

One of those groups is the Europe-wide group that used to run under the ANTERO label, and which has now become NORTIA. Funded by the EU, it’s a network of academics working on EU foreign policy, covering both research and teaching. As ANTERO, they managed to build up a really good rep as the people to go to for such things.

One of their more recent outputs is a handbook on simulations.

As well as useful info on designing such things, with links to video, they also provide full documentation for a simulation of handling a crisis in Ukraine.

I’ll recommend it to you despite my (small) involvement, not least because it draws out some more of the issues surrounding application to a specific subject area, which will be use to you, whether or not you’re working in it or not.

In so doing, it invites us to think once again about the difficulties of translating from generic to specific, which is often a barrier to implementing active learning techniques. However, the effort is well worth it, as these materials show really well.

I’ll also remind you that it’s very nearly the deadline for the ECPR Joint Sessions: sun, sand and simulations. But without the sand.

Elephants in the classroom

So today I got to wake up really early, to head into London to do a slot on the BBC, going through the newspapers.

Of course, as you might have noticed – even if you’re not in the UK – a couple of young people got engaged yesterday: she acts, and he’s unemployed.

As the photo suggests, there was a certain lack of diversity in newspaper coverage.

And being the contrarian that I am, I pointed refused to pick any story to do with this (although I did mention the advert for a commemorative plate, not least for the speed of turn-around).

All of which is a long way around to a question that we often face in our teaching: how much should we confront the big, obvious questions or issues in our field?

Much has been said in recent years about teaching contentious politics and many of us now face this issue. Some things beg to be discussed and debated, but with the risk that no one can get enough distance from it all to say anything of real value.

Put differently, precisely because we feel something is really important, we might struggle to disengage our passions from our reasoning. And even if we can, then others might not; and might not accept that we have.

As you might imagine, this happens quite a lot to me on the subject of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU: my personal preferences are mine, and I don’t inflict them on others, trying instead to be led by the evidence on the many and varied aspects of the subject.

Often that works, but not always. This past weekend saw a demonstration of when it doesn’t, when quite a few people took except to an article that I’d tweeted, assuming that I had either written it, or condoned it. Choice epithets ensued.

(For the record, I don’t write editorials for national newspapers. And if I did, I wouldn’t have written that).

Anyhow, the point is the same: if someone’s stuck at the ad hominem stage, then it’s very difficult to do the kind of stuff we want to do: reasoned and considered debate.

So what to do?

Basically, the trick I like to use is to tackle things from the side, obliquely casting light.

This relies on you thinking about what it is that you want to discuss about the big issue, and then finding another way to discuss that.

Thus for Brexit, I find it useful to talk about principles of British and of EU politics, to explore what they are in more abstract terms, before then inviting people to make their own application to the matter in hand.

In its strongest form, you might not even talk about the elephant at all: it’s why historians have it easy, because they can always find another example with which to paint a picture without enflaming the same passions.

It’s why I chose the commemorative plate: it’s not the couple themselves, but it does cast light on the nature of popular buy-in (literally as well as metaphorically) and myth-making, as well as the unreasonableness of our expectations (exhibit 2 was going to be a full-page photo in another paper entitled “happy ever after”, which is a hostage to fortune if ever there was one).

Sometimes, you don’t have to talk about the thing, to talk about the thing.

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