Content Conundrums

Earlier this semester, our excellent library staff released results from a survey on students’ perceptions of textbook costs. Some of the findings:
  • 79 percent said they had not purchased a required textbook because of cost.
  • 19 percent said textbook costs had caused them to take fewer courses.
  • 84 percent thought that free, open-access textbooks benefit them academically, with 66 percent saying that they are “very helpful.”

I’ve mentioned this before: as a first-generation college student from a lower-middle class background, I am sensitive to the costs of college for today’s students. And I avoid assigning reading material that is terribly written because I emphasize the importance of good writing to my students. The vast majority of commercially-available textbooks — at least for the subjects that I teach — fail on both cost and writing quality. And though Open Educational Resources (OERs) are free, they can still be junk stylistically.

Sometimes I assign trade or mass market paperbacks. They are much less expensive than textbooks, and they do better at embedding concepts in a narrative context, which makes information easier for students to understand and remember. But their perspective can be very narrow, leading to rapid obsolescence, especially journalists’ book-length treatments of their field reportage.

Chopping paperbacks into assignment-sized sections can also be difficult. Contrast Evicted by Matthew Desmond with Poor Economics by Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo. The former is a brilliant 400+ page ethnography with a complex cast of characters, while the latter gives a concise chapter-by-chapter illustration of different principles in development economics. While I regard both books as extremely worthy, Evicted is just harder for me to use.

Often digital content allows me to bypass these problems, but I typically curate it myself. To avoid Error 404 Not Found and paywalls, I began clipping webpages with Evernote. Each course got its own Evernote folder. I would put the link to the appropriate folder in my syllabus. Recently though I’ve been noticing increased use of formatting and multimedia that Evernote — or at least the free version of it — doesn’t capture.

So I’m returning to my past practice of just embedding URLs in my syllabi. The majority of my digital content comes from publications like The New York Times, which has been around since 1851. It isn’t going to suddenly disappear. Plus the web archive is searchable, articles can be located without a specific URL. In effect the Times and publications like it have become digital repositories without third-party gatekeepers. And for students, a unlimited access subscription is far less expensive than a textbook.

The last option that deserves mention is a digitally-native web text, like the what’s offered by our friends at Soomo. Here the idea is a core text enhanced by additional readings, video, and interactive features. Curation duties are handled mainly by the publisher instead of the instructor, but content aggregation remains highly customizable. Production costs are lower, so students save money over traditional textbooks. Many instructors don’t have the inclination to create or collect all the content they need, and in this instance a web text is now often a better option than a traditional textbook.

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

Recasting how you teach your discipline

Should we be dignified, or efficient? Or both?

Here at ALPS, we’re pretty open to new ideas, to questioning the assorted received wisdoms of the world.

So it’s always good to find examples from outside political science, not only because many of the things we talk about aren’t disciplinary, but also because it’s just stupid to think we have all the answers.

As a case in point, we might look to our little brothers over in economics. Over the past decade, they’ve taken a real battering because they seem to have utterly failed to model the world in any useful fashion.

A recent piece in The Economist pointed out, the most basic models that students get taught are often only caveated much further down the (academic) line, often after the point that many students get to. This leads to conventionalities in public discourse – trade as always positive-sum, for example – that simply don’t reflect the evidence or the state of the discipline.

In the febrile era since the great recession, students and faculty themselves have sought to throw out the approach taken to date and to build a new format.

That started with protests-cum-movements like the Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society, but has since matured into the CORE project.

CORE is a collective of faculty from various institutions, who have built a very extensive e-textbook, grounded in a fundamental different way of teaching economics. The challenges and issues are fore-grounded, rather than back-loaded, and there is a effort to invite discussion and debate, instead of presenting a fait accompli of theory.

As someone who never had any economics education at all, I’m really enjoying starting to explore this resource, which is meant for use by a wide range of users and is intended to be integrated into local teaching delivery. I’d really encourage to have a wander around the site too.

Part of me would, of course, like to just say “welcome: what took you so long”: political science has long accepted that there is contingency and conflict of interpretation of the world and has frequently used critical questions as a way into building an understanding.

But at the same time, it is refreshing to see how there is a project to re-examine so much of what makes economics the discipline that it has become. By contrast, political science has usually just stopped at the point of saying that there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, rather than trying to bring those ways together. As the quantitative shift continues to work its way through the community, there is a risk that such diversity is attenuated or stifled.

I’m always in favour of heterodox positions: the perils of group-think and conventionality are well-understood out on our side of the social sciences, especially in a era of ‘outsider’ politics. But even I wonder whether and how we might ever produce an equivalent piece of work as CORE, just as I wonder what might have had to happen for us to want or do to produce it.

 

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

The Uniformity Imperative

What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.

Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate.  A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.

Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.

What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.

At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.

Using social media as an academic

A slightly different post this week, off the back of a session I led in Brussels for TEPSA’s PONT project, on how to use social media. I talked with a group of 15 young professionals, planning academic or think-tanky careers, about why social media can be of use to them.

The key message was that even if you don’t really care about social media, it cares about you.

If you’d like a demonstration, then google yourself and see what comes up. I did that for the group and put up a slide with the first photo that appeared on google images. Suffice to say that everyone had a photo, just not necessarily of them, or a particularly relevant one.

Put differently, even if you’re not created a virtual profile, others might be, so you need to engage with things enough to address misrepresentation.

But if we’re going beyond that kind of hygiene model, then what’s important?

Be active

Social media relies on content, so if you want to have a meaningful profile on a given platform, then you need to create content. There’s little worse than setting up a platform, making a few desultory contributions and then leaving it to rot.

The speed of decay is much higher than in other media, so my recommendation is to plan and get into the habit of regular new content production. For me, that means weekly diary slots for blogging (like this), fairly standard points in the day for checking news sites to tweet, plus a slightly more flexible schedule for podcasting. Especially when starting out, being strict about producing is really important, otherwise it’s very easy to fall out of the habit.

If you are giving up on a platform, then give up clearly. If it’s early days, then try to delete your efforts, but it there’s any substance you should produce something to make it clear to any visitors that you’ve actively decided to stop (rather than just drifting off).

Be yourself

My primary social media audience is me: I assume that no one else is very interested in what I have to say, so it’s an opportunity for me to understand my thoughts on a subject.

That means I think of Twitter in large part as a public bookmarking of interesting content, and blogging as working through contentious issues, en route to more formal outputs and discussions.

Of course, over time that has changed and I have had many excellent interactions online with people about ideas and developments. And it bleeds over into real life [sic], where people want to talk with me about stuff I’ve written online.

But still I try to stay close to me and my interests.

In part that’s because I know that once I produce something, I lose control over it. Over the years, I’ve seen stuff I’ve made appear in all manner of random places, used to bolster all kinds of arguments, and not always in a way that I intended. However, because I feel that I’ve tried to be internally consistent, and frank about the limitations of what I produce, then I won’t get a nasty bite on the bum down the line.

Which is why I never produce content when I’m drunk. And to write nothing I won’t be happy showing my mother.

Be interesting/useful

The final idea to share is about focus. Don’t try to be some kind of master-commentator, opining on everything and anything: pick out what you’re good at and stick to that.

Sure, there are individuals who can cover vast tracts of social/political/cultural issues in an interesting way, but you’ll note that they are very rare and they always have a strong underlying philosophy or mentality that ties it all together.

I know I don’t have that, so I stick to what I know I can do: learning & teaching; and euroscepticism. Many are the ills of the world on which I have personal opinions, but nothing useful to say, so I say nothing.

If you’re starting out on social media, the temptation is to get stuck into everything. Resist, and build up a reputation and profile in something specific: that’s the best way to build your profile and credibility as a commentator, researcher and professional.

 

Social media’s huge attraction is that it’s in your control: you can build a presence that doesn’t rely on anyone else. But to make it work for you, you need to know your limits and know your objectives.

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 2

In my search for a new book to use in my comparative politics course, I sort of stumbled across Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America by Jeffery M. Paige (Harvard University Press, 1997). I say “sort of” because Paige, a sociologist by training, was a prominent scholar of agrarian revolution and development in the 1980s and 1990s — a name I had encountered as a doctoral student.

Search results for his publications turned up Coffee and Power, so I pulled it from the library. The book meets many of my criteria for being worthy of inclusion in my course. It is a multi-country study set in Central America that goes beyond the traditional white male Britain-France-Germany presentation of comparative democratization. The writing is academic but not too heavy with pointless jargon. And it serves as a good example of how to do research in the field.

The problem, as with the book I’m trying to replace, is that Coffee and Power, being than two decades old, is now very much a historical analysis. I don’t think a 400-page work that discusses events from the 1930s through the 1980s will succeed in getting undergraduates here interested in additional study in comparative politics. But I did figure out a way to use the book for what I think would be a good assignment, shown below.

Read Jeffery M. Paige, Coffee and Power, p. 53-84. Do a qualitative comparative analysis of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Classify each country as “high” or “low” for the following independent variables related to the coffee industry:

  • concentration of land ownership (average area of farm per number of farms)
  • farm productivity (amount grown per land area)
  • farm productivity (average yield)
  • technological sophistication (use of high-yield varieties or fertilizer)

Based on your findings, what can you conclude about the economic class structure and the likelihood of democracy in each country?