Here comes APSA TLC 2015!

My first attempt at a group selfie back in NM didn’t quite work…

This blog was born out of a slightly-drunken conversation at the American Political Science Association’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Albuquerque, back in 2011. As such, TLC has a special place in the hearts of ALPSblog members, especially because the professors among us are so generous with buying us a fancy dinner [cough].

With all this in mind, it is with a happy heart that we note TLC 2015 is finally announced for 16-18 January in the fair city of Washington DC.

All of us have found the format a particularly useful one for properly discussing our work and building networks. By spending three days with the same stream of colleagues, there is a lot of opportunity to really get into the fine detail and to reflect on the linkages between papers.

Because we’re us, we haven’t yet sorted out if we can all go, but then again the call for papers isn’t open yet either, so let’s say we’re appropriately positioned. However, if you can join us, then we’d love to meet more of our readership, especially me, so do pencil it into your diaries now.

Building networks: we’re on Facebook now!

download (1)As a mark of our desire to build the community of users/readers that we already have here at ALPS, we’ve finally decided (a mere three years in) to set up a Facebook page.

The page will have all the latest blog posts linked in [sic – we’ll do that one another time], plus we hope we can get more of you to chip in with links, comments and ideas.

Do remember we also have our Twitter feed, so you really have no excuse for missing anything we do.

The ALPS team

ISA 2014: Hands across the (disciplinary) sea

As the last man standing at ISA 2014, it falls to me to make one of our regular appeals for more contributors to join us here at ALPS.

One of the things that has really struck us during the past few days is that IR and Political Science are facing very similar pedagogical challenges, but that we have taken different paths in addressing them. Both need to make often complex materials and concepts accessible to students who are easily distracted and both find themselves trying to marry what is in the classroom with what is happening on the news and on the streets outside.

The difference is perhaps one of attitude. My personal impression of the IR group here has been one of playfulness, a greater willingness to co-opt pop culture to serve pedagogical ends: zombies are the archetype here, but also movies, TV and books feature too. The opportunities that offers for engaging students are clear, even if the level of systematisation of approach has not been as great as in PolSci: the notion of the found object, the chance discovery holds strong.

Political Scientists use captions, IR scholars don’t

Despite our similarities, we have tended to keep apart. One of my colleagues (who shall remain nameless, but he’s got a beard and glasses) chanced to suggest yesterday that I was an IR scholar, because I study the EU and I know who Kant is. My forceful reply ran along the lines that I also know what a dolphin is, but I’m not a marine biologist and that my congenital ambivalence about the notion of hegemony meant I very much wasn’t a IR’er, but a comparativist (actually, I’m not even that, but we’ll move on here).

So it comes to this: we think some IR input would be good, both for us and for IR. We can see opportunities to move beyond telling people what you’ve done in your classroom, to discussing what one might do in the classroom and the wider lessons and implications thereof.

As we travel back to our respective homes, the ALPS crew are working on several ideas to move our work here into new fields and approaches, so if you’d like to be part of it, then we’d like to here from you, whether that’s just a post, or something more substantial.

ISA 2014: How do we teach about teaching?

It’s that post-panel moment for me here at ISA, at what is easily the largest conference I’ve presented at, if not the best attended session. As Amanda noted, we had a great range of presentations this morning, covering a wide range of what active learning is (and can be about).

However, it’s also a slightly different feeling this time, because I’m just about to present my paper again (possibly with fewer images of fruit). The ISA is trialling the filming of some of their Innovation Panels (of which we were one), with a view to posting those videos on the Association’s website as the beginnings of a resource for colleagues.

This is a logical step in the development of resources, from sites such as this one, or the one I’ve been running on resources for using simulations. We write about teaching and create some teaching materials, but video offers another channel for connecting with people.

However, as I’ve written about repeatedly here, the real trouble with teaching about teaching is that it is very hard to tell people about something that they need to experience. Thus, while I think the ISA’s experiment is a good one, it can only take us so far.

To illustrate, I’ve been reflecting on another Innovation Panel I attended yesterday. This one was a simulation of the UNSC, discussing a zombie crisis (using World War Z as a source text). It looked like a great game, with participants really getting into their roles. However, as an observer, I was very disconnected from the depth and the detail that the participants so clearly displayed. Put differently, I couldn’t have used that session (as it was presented) to run my own version.

An image that will mean nothing to you, unless you attended my presentation, thereby proving the point of this post

Teaching about teaching is thus rather meta, in that you have to teach while simultaneously commenting on the teaching.

As is usual on these occasions, I’m not going to offer a solution, but only a suggestion.

To me, it seems that what we are asking those we teach about teaching is that they put themselves in the students’ shoes: what’s it like for the freshman who walks into your classroom? If we can do that, then we can much better appreciate the consequences of our pedagogical choices. That’s true, because it’s the learning that’s key, not the teaching. What I think of my teaching is largely irrelevant if my students don’t understand what’s happening.

And so it is with our workshops and conferences about learning. Too often we sit at the front of the room, reading our paper about our innovative and engaging practice in the classroom. Well, the conference room is also a classroom, so why isn’t it worth pursuing active learning there?

This doesn’t have to mean a problem-based learning session, where you make the participants discover from themselves your practices or findings. But it does mean thinking about how to catch and hold people’s attention.

The prize here is one of buy-in from colleagues. To go back to Amanda’s post, the final comment from the floor – from Simon Rofe – was that we have to go out and sell our work to our disciplines. That’s very true, but it’s much easier to do if we package our goods in more attractive ways.

ISA 2014-Advancing the Learning Environment in the Digital Age

Four of the five ALPS editors are together again, presenting on this ISA Innovative Panel on various aspects of simulations, games, films, and the use of digital technology. Patricia Campbell of American Public University opened the panel with a discussion of the parameters of the digital world of pedagogy. Pamela Chasek of Manhattan College just presented on her Model UN course and how technology has really aided the endeavor, from using the internet for pre-conference research to having students text her when they are about to give speeches in their committees.  Also, I think that every Model UN team should have an award called “The Mike Tyson Award for Diplomacy”.

Susherwood again won the award for best graphics in a presentation, this time for the use of varying images of fruit as a metaphor for assessment, while Victor Asal discussed his WWII negotiation simulation, which helps students learn about mediation, rationality, and discrimination.  One key aspect of the simulation is that certain students, based on either the country they represent or particular attributes, are cut completely out of the simulation and unable to ‘win’. This tied into my own presentation with Nina Kollars, which was on the role of failure in courses and the need to focus on the experience and lessons learned by the losers in our games and simulations.

Patrick James of USC talked about his book, The International Relations of Middle Earth, which focuses on how we can learn positivist and critical theory from the Lord of the Rings.  He later shared that doctoral students are finding this book and its approach useful in studying for comprehensive exams.

Unsurprisingly, this last presentation hit me the closest, as I teach a course that is grounded in learning politics from film and fiction.  I’m going to pick up a copy of the book at the exhibit, and start incorporating the insights into my course.

But the best part was at the end, when a member of the audience called for some public diplomacy on behalf of pedagogy, to create a culture where learning about teaching is valued (and better attended!)

TLC 2014

The 2014 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference starts tomorrow in Philadelphia.  The ALPS team (all of us except Susherwood) willTLC Logo

be on the Simulation and Role Play II: Assessment and Methodology Track.  Stop by and say hello–we love to hear from our readers, and we are always looking for new contributors if you would like to join the ALPS team.



My new section of intro to international relations starts tonight.  Its an eight week course that meets once a week for hour hours.  Everything is prepped–syllabus printed, website set up, lectures ready to go.  Class starts in half an hour, and I can’t decide how I want to start things off.

There are two options: the first, my standard opener, is a discussion about how international events have had an impact on their day.  Students tend to struggle to come up with an answer at first, but as the discussion continues they struggle, by the end, to come up with anything that was NOT affected by international relations.  Its a nice way to create buy-in for the course, even for non-majors, and lets me start to learn their names.  After the discussion we do introductions and then review the syllabus, and then start the first lesson of the evening.

The second option is to use Victor’s Hobbes game.  It works really well as an icebreaker (they have to introduce themselves before engaging in combat) and makes the first experience in the class a fun one, thus also creating buy in.

The challenge isn’t which to use, but rather the timing.  Which is better as an opener with a new class?  We don’t really talk about realism until next week, so is the Hobbes game better saved until then?  If I do it tonight, should i use it as an opener, or later in the evening when they might be flagging?

Of course, my concerns about timing may be completing groundless: I doubt that the choice of when to do it–as an opener, before break, or a closing exercise–really matters that much in terms of the impact it has on the students.

…and now I want to test to see if it does have an impact.  Project for next  year’s TLC?