The Benefits of Recycling

Today’s post is more about career development than teaching . . .

Academia is a bureaucratic work environment. Information is constantly documented and distributed. Often this happens to the same piece of information multiple times. Consequently I began recycling my writing as much as possible several years ago, in the belief that it is better to make minor changes, or none at all, to writing upon which I have already expended mental energy. An underlying principle here is writing with an ultimate rather than a proximal use in mind. What is the most valuable end to which this writing can be eventually directed? A simple example: the proposal for your conference presentation becomes the abstract for the conference paper, which in turn becomes the abstract for the manuscript submitted to a journal.

A second and, for some, more important example: the stream of email, editorial comments, draft committee proposals, and other written minutiae that one produces — it’s all work. Don’t let it disappear into the ether. Instead, use it for future contract renewal, tenure, or promotion.

I admit that I didn’t fully recognize the potential value of this writing until my wife — also an academic — compiled her application dossier for promotion to full professor. Watching her, I realized that, in the course of my day-to-day business as an associate professor and department chair, I had generated chains of emails and memos that constituted evidence of service and scholarship à la the Boyer model. I saw that this material, if organized coherently, could form much of my own application for promotion, in many cases verbatim. Continue reading

Joint PSA/APSA/ECPR/BISA Pedagogy Conference on Teaching Politics in an Era of Populism

While I am very much looking forward to the ISA Innovative Pedagogy Conference, I’m also excited to share the call for proposals for this new pedagogy conference on Teaching Politics in an Era of Populism, a joint effort by the Political Studies Association, American Political Science Association, European Consortium for Political Research, and British International Studies Association. I am on the planning committee and very excited about bringing together a wide cross-section of scholars to debate these issues.

The conference will be held in Brighton, UK on 17-19 June, 2019.  We are accepting a wide range of proposals, including: individual papers, panels, workshops, 10 minute pedagogical TED-style talks, roundtables (submit as an individual, not a group), and ‘open source’, which is an invitation to be as innovative as you like in what you propose.  Submissions are due November 5th.  You can find more information on the conference web site.

From the call:

“This conference aims to provide a forum in which political science educators from different countries and contexts can come together to explore these challenges and share their experiences and teaching practices. We welcome contributions which explore the challenges faced in national, international, or comparative contexts. We also welcome different approaches to understanding populism and the challenges that it may present to political science educators in different contexts.”

  • Can or should political science education be ‘politically neutral’? Should we nurture values of democracy, equality, and citizenship and, if so, how?
  • How can we support students in developing knowledge, understanding and skills relating to the complex nature of politics, society and government? What role might different approaches to teaching such as simulations, civic engagement and other pedagogies play?
  • What are the challenges of constructing a curriculum and developing learning resources in a period of rapid and sometime dramatic political change?
  • How can we collaborate across different national and educational contexts to support critical learning in political science and international relations? What best practices are there for collaboration in both pedagogical research and cross-cultural classroom experiences?
  • Are there practices or pedagogies from other disciplines that can be adopted or adapted to address these issues?

Back once again

A short one today, as it’s induction week and we’re handling everything that comes with the arrival of several thousand students on-campus.

After only one day, it’s been really useful to be reminded about what seems obvious to you and what doesn’t seem obvious to students.

Just because no-one asked you about a thing before, doesn’t mean it’s obvious and the issue lies with them.

We’ve all got stuff that we’ve rolled over from year to year and no-one has queried. Until they do.

I got a query like that this morning, on something that has been unchanged for several years. Maybe it was just this one student, but maybe it was never very clear and no-one felt they could ask me about it.

Given that my working assumption is that there are always more questions and queries than those volunteered without prompting, I incline to the latter explanation.

Checking and re-checking our assumptions is hard, because often they are deeply implicit, or conditioned by external factors that we’re only marginally aware of.

That might be because of changing technologies, changing personal experiences of students, changing university regulations, changing activities by our colleagues, to list just the most obvious.

So when we meet our new students, we need to make sure that we’re not just treating them like our old students.

That means working through points as much as we can, being open to questions and queries and generally being alive to the potential danger of talking past each other.

And on that cheery note, it’s back to find out what else I’ve missed.

Old skool, ironically

ISA Innovative Pedagogy Conference

Registration is now open for the first annual International Studies Association Innovative Pedagogy Conference (ISA-IPC), which will be held on Thursday, November 15, 2018, in St. Louis, MO, in conjunction with the ISA Midwest meeting. This new ISA initiative marks the beginning of a series of programs to be held in conjunction with regional conferences around the United States, and beyond. The one-day event will foster a highly interactive environment to explore new ideas in pedagogy and assessment—and offers rich opportunities for professional development, networking, and classroom skills. There will be three types of sessions at the ISA-IPC: workshops, graduate teaching assistant training, and plenary meetings.

  • Workshops will be directed by leading voices on pedagogy, assessment, and professional development. Participants will attend four workshops during the day, chosen from a rich menu, to share innovations and ideas about different themes in international studies pedagogy. Among the workshop themes for 2018 are: Simulations & Games for Teaching Violence and Peace; Publishing Your Innovative Teaching Work; Research Literacy; International Studies Curriculum Design; Faculty-Led Study Abroad Programs; and Global Service Learning. These interactive short sessions will provide hands-on experience and materials for ready application, along with opportunities for professional networking and sharing of ideas.
  • Graduate Teaching Assistant Training session offer a hands-on learning opportunities for advanced graduate students who are instructing their own classes at their universities. Training will focus on running effective active teaching exercises, dealing with challenging situations in the classroom, assessment, and turning teaching opportunities into professional success. A certificate of participation will be provided for all attendees.
  • Plenary sessions will focus on best practices in innovative teaching and promote opportunities for collaboration and exchange. From the opening session to an evening networking reception, participants will share ideas with like-minded colleagues. A keynote presentation by ISA President Patrick James will foster further dialogue on best practices in active teaching and learning.

Free-riders or silent participants? Appreciating silence in active learning environments

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans & Afke Groen of Maastricht University’s Department of Political Science

We have been following the ALPS-blog discussion on students’ participation between Amanda and Simon with great interest. The situations they discuss are very familiar.

In Maastricht, learning takes place according to the principles of problem-based learning (PBL); through active participation and discussions in tutorials.

In the programmes that we teach in, we can grade students’ participation with a +0.5 on top of the exam grade for exceptionally good participation or a -0.5 for insufficient participation – a system introduced following discussions about the problem of ‘free-riders’.

We too see students who remain silent. We train students, encourage participation and discuss group dynamics, but students may not feel comfortable or skilled to live up to our expectations – certainly not in their first weeks at university.

Indeed, in the discussion between Simon and Amanda, the “problem” seems to be students who do not talk. Teaching is about “getting students to talk” and about “[getting] them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them”.

But to what extent is not talking a problem? Why doesn’t a student talk? And if it’s a problem, who’s problem is it?

Continue reading

New books in teaching and learning

And now its time for a little self-promotion.  

I want to draw our readers attention to two new edited volumes they might find useful in their own teaching.  Full disclosure: I have chapters in both of them, so my recommendation is not without bias. Both are interdisciplinary in approach, which can be very helpful in furthering our own innovation as teachers.

The first book is Human Rights in Higher Education: Institutional, Classroom, and Community Approaches to Teaching Social Justice, edited by Lindsey N. Kingston and published by Palgrave in its Studies in Global Citizenship, Education and Democracy series.  Many of our classes touch on human rights, and this book offers different perspectives on how to bring a human rights and social justice approach to undergraduate education.  All of the authors are connected to Webster University, but are from different disciplines including philosophy, sociology, criminology, law, photography, and psychology.  The approaches look at fostering human rights education at the institutional level (considering campus culture, student affairs, and research programs), classroom level (through specific courses, study abroad, and projects), and the community level (conferences, teaching non traditional students, and legal outreach).  My own chapter evaluates an interdisciplinary course I co-created with professors in philosophy and education on the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals that included a three day educational simulation of hunger and poverty at Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas.

The other book is Learning from Each Other: Refining the Practice of Teaching in Higher Education., edited by Michele Lee Kozimor-King and Jeffrey Chin and published by University of California Press.  The social scientists in this book offer innovative ways to approach curriculum design, classroom instruction, out-of-classroom experiences, and assessment.  One of the chapters, Jay R. Howard’s ‘Student Reading Compliance and Learning in the Social Sciences’ touches directly on previous ALPS conversations about encouraging students to do the reading, and is well worth a look. My chapter dives into the literature on simulations and games in the social science, evaluating data from published simulations in political science to determine whether concerns about simulations taking too much classroom time are valid (spoiler alert: I say no).  

There are lots of great books out there on pedagogy, but if you want some very recent work directly speaking to social scientists, you might want to check these two books out!

When you’re unprepared for class

4 hours of seminar discussion? No problem!

Amanda’s post prompts me to do a bit more reflecting on us, the instructor.

It’s really easy to focus on students as the source of problems, but as Amanda rightly underlines, that’s not the most productive of frames.

As a less-experienced lecturer, one of the most useful lessons I got in my training was that we go through different stages in our understanding of what’s happening in a classroom.

You start out by thinking it’s all about yourself, then you move to thinking it’s all about the students, before finally understanding that it’s actually about the situation you and they are in.

So part of that is recognising that you matter, but you’re not the only thing that matters.

And, frankly, sometimes we’re not at the top of our game.

Either that means we’ve not prepared enough, or we’ve not on the ball enough in the classroom.

I’ve done that – not often, but more than once – and I’m going to guess that you have too.

What’s the problem?

Clearly, there are lots of reasons why this happens and I’m not really so interested as to why, precisely because of that diversity. I know it happens to me when I teach straight after landing from an international flight, but that’s scarcely useful.

The more interesting point is to explore what impact this lack of prep has on your class and what you can do about it.

In the broadest of terms, this is a problem because of the signal it sends to your students. Just as you know full-well when they’re not concentrating in class, so too do they know when you’re not.

Just think back to when you were getting taught and you’ll recall the occasions you were on the receiving end.

If we ask students to be ‘in the room’, then we have do the same. That’s why I always laugh at academic conferences when everyone sits at the back of the room, doing other stuff on their laptops, despite what they say to their students back home.

(It’s also why I don’t say those things to my students)

What’s the solution?

Three steps suggest themselves.

First, acknowledge what you’re falling short on. This doesn’t have to be a big mea culpa, but just a simple recognition that you know what’s (not) happening and not trying to bluff your way out.

If not else, it’s better to get out in front of it and own it, before someone else does that for you.

Second, adapt what you’re doing in class to minimise the impact on student learning. If you could only prep 2/3rds of a lecture, focus on that part rather than winging the last part. If you’re supposed to be providing feedback, try using peer evaluation to replace a block of it.

That’s not always possible: if you forgot the key piece of equipment, then you should sort out getting ASAP. But you need to demonstrate your intention to make the session still work, either in a slightly different way or with a bit of delay. What’s critical is that you don’t just notice you’re not firing on all cylinders, but that you also act on it.

Third, after the session is done, you take action to make up any shortfall in the class and to avoid it happening again. That might mean some jiggling of content for next week’s class, or some additional materials on the online environment.

The longer-term redressing needs you to be reflexive and honest about what went wrong (which you should be doing in any case) and finding ways to deal with it.

So now when I fly I either do it so I can rest afterwards, or I move classes.

For you that might mean changing your schedules, or changing what you do in class, or getting a big orange sign to point to the key piece of equipment, so you don’t forget it.

Taken together, I can’t promise you’ll never have this problem again (especially if you’ve not yet had this problem), but I can tell you that it’ll become much more manageable and much less likely to happen again.

Game Theory Resource

A brief note on a free resource:

While crawling through the Intertubes, I stumbled across a twenty year old webpage on game theory by Eric Roberts, emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford. The sub-directory pages contain short, simple discussions of different theoretical models, with helpful examples — such as Rousseau’s stag hunt and versions of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Of particular interest, at least to me, is the explanation of strategies of play — given that I almost always try to minimize the maximum possible loss.

When students are unprepared for class

In line with Simon’s musings on whether or not he matters, I’ve been wrestling with whether all of my ideas about how to structure classes to get particular results actually work.  Do they matter?  

In one of my classes, only a handful of students were able to answer a pretty basic question: what is the main claim in this reading?  I’m sure many of us have experienced this before, but in line with my strategies on ensuring students do the reading, I thought I was well inoculated against the steady silence of puzzlement, for two reasons:

  1. Students have to write on all the readings each week.  Those papers include an annotated bibliographic entry for each reading, where in 1-2 sentences they must state the main claim of each reading.  Since about half the students wrote last week, they should know this.
  2. In this particular case I was asking about last week’s readings, which we had already discussed.  This was review!  I had mentioned these main points at least once before during our previous classes.

And yet, silence.

That’s not strictly fair.  A handful of students were able to answer my question for each of the readings.  But the bulk of the students just sat there, staring at me. First, let’s review Simon’s thoughts on getting students to talk, and then let’s consider the possible reasons for this, and how to solve them:

  1. They had not done the reading.  Since they only have to write 8 of the 12 papers, these students may have chosen not to write last week–and therefore didn’t bother to read.  
    • Solutions: require more papers. 8/12 was probably too generous, and it is clear that when students do not have to write, they don’t always do the readings very closely (often due to other legitimate commitments, such as work).
  2. They did the reading, but couldn’t remember it. Students may not take good notes when they read, and therefore can struggle with details.  They may also need training in how to identify key points so that they don’t miss the forest for the trees.
    • Solutions: teach students how to take notes on the reading.  Its an important skill, and we should not assume they already have it.
    • Continue to require the annotated bibliographies of the weekly readings so they build this skill over the course of the term.
  3. They did the readings, but were confused.  The readings I am assigning are a mix, but many of them are scholarly in nature.  Not all students in the class are majoring in the social sciences, and therefore may struggle with key terms. It was also a lot of reading–about 100 pages–and some of the chapters could have been split in two because they covered two widely different topics.  
    • Solutions: Review the syllabus to make sure that the mix of readings is appropriate in terms of amount and difficult.  
    • Take note of key terms and review them in class so that non-majors don’t feel lost.  
    • Continue to review the key point of each reading in class prior to discussion so that everyone is on the same page.  
  4. They may or may not have done the reading, but they did not make the connection between our discussions last week and the question of this week.  While I had mentioned the key points of the readings last week in passing, I didn’t make a point of it–I did not write them on the board, or encourage students to take notes of what I had said.  Often students don’t know how to recognize a key point that is made solely verbally.
    • Solution: anytime I mention a key point, make sure I put it on the whiteboard to signal to students that it is important.
  5. They may have known the answer, but chose not to speak up.  Even though I’ve encouraged my students to ‘fail’ in line with previous discussions on ALPS, many of them are afraid to say something wrong.
    • Solutions: whenever possible, use small groups to discuss the question first.  This allows students to check their answers with a small group of peers first, and then share them with the rest of the class if encouraged.  
    • Minute papers–where students take a minute to write down their thoughts–might also give them the time they need to choose the right wording for their responses.
    • Note who in their papers got the answer correct, and then cold call on those students to read their responses.  
    • Using encouraging language and thanking students for offering their response may also encourage quieter students to share their ideas in the future.  
    • Track and increase wait time.  What feels like an eternity to us in the silence is often mere moments, which might not be enough time to process the question and generate a response. There are plenty of strategies out there to do this effectively.

My takeaway: the students failure to answer my basic question is as much my failing as theirs.  We need to recognize the reasons WHY students can’t identify the key point of a reading, and exhaust all the structural and instructional tools and methods we have to get them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them.  Our job is provide the tools and training they need to succeed, and we should always make sure that any issues on the part of our students aren’t caused by a failing on ours.

Making a difference

because googling “I don’t matter” gets you to a lot of very negative JPGs…

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking of late about whether I matter or not.

Maybe it’s the after-effect of coming back from leave to discover that things have been just fine in my absence, or maybe it’s that the kids are old enough to need no support other than top-ups for their phones.

But certainly it’s also about the start of the academic year.

As someone dedicated to active learning, I know that I have to work from my students, rather than them work from me. Their centrality implies a less central role for me.

That’s particularly true in my autumn module on negotiation, which very explicitly and consciously puts students front and centre, and puts me at the metaphorical and literal side of the classroom, trying to help them to understand what they’re doing.

The corollary of this is that if students don’t bother, or aren’t bothered, then there’s little I can do to force learning upon them. 

At best, I’m like the sun in that favourite fable of IR: my best chance lies in offering positive encouragement and opportunity, not in brow-beating and punishing.

The challenge – for me, at least – is how to keep that sun beating down.

The round of academic events at the end of summer is always a good moment to gather thoughts and find new ideas to help in this. This year, it’s been good to hear again about the value of building a high level of communication with students, giving them some ownership of the process and acknowledging where the limits of my capacity lie.

This last point is a bit of paradox: by being clear about what I can’t do, I can also strengthen the value of what I can. This is not so much modesty as realism and reflection: if I seek to inculcate such values in students, then can do no better than practise them myself.

Of course, the difficulty comes in also having to acknowledge that you aren’t in complete control of things. I’m fine with saying that, but I know many colleagues aren’t, not least for fears that it undermines their authority.

The answer to this is that rather than thinking you have to know the answer to all possible questions, you really only need to know how to answer all possible questions.

That might seem semantic, but actually it’s about feeling confident about your more abstracted skills – of reflection, of research, of analysis – and applying them to the novel case your student has just presented to you.

Sometimes that means turning the question back to the student, or to the class, to answer (or work out what they’d need to do to answer). Sometimes it’s a matter of returning to underlining principles to answer. Sometimes it’s just saying that you’d need to go off and do some work to answer it next time.

All of these options rely on us being honest with students.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of “we know everything, you know nothing”, which underpins much of the didactic model: I’m the reservoir of knowledge, you should just sit downstream and drink your fill.

Instead, we have to recognise our limits and students’ abilities. I’m certainly not ashamed to admit that I’ve learnt as much from students as I have from colleagues: very different things, certainly, but still valuable things.

And in all this I do matter.

I might not be at the centre of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean I don’t shape, contribute, encourage and support. In short, I’m part of a group that learns.

And that’s what keeps me so eager to get back to the classroom.