Designing curricula when you have a blank sheet of paper

Opportunity, or bear-trap?

One of the more challenging challenges in my professional life has been curriculum design. I’m currently on my fifth major project, effectively designing an entire programme from scratch.

For those of you from countries/institutions when you don’t get to handle such things, I offer you a mixed greeting. On the one hand, you’re missing an amazing opportunity to contextualise your teaching within a much bigger picture. On the other, it’s a massive pain in the neck to do.

Here in the UK, we have prescribed degree structures: universities validate a package of modules/courses, which together make a named degree. There are options (some of which might come from other degrees), but there’s almost no mixing-and-matching by students to build a major, in the American style. It’s good in that it provides clearer progress and development (plus shorter time-to-completion), but at the price of the limited options for intellectually-curious (or uncertain) students.

Usually, this is a task undertaken by a team from the lead department, but in my case that’s only happened the first two times. All the rest have been for degrees that the university didn’t offer beforehand,  which opens up a whole new can of worms. Continue reading

Simulating the Syrian Civil War

Today we have a guest post from Guy Zohar, an instructor at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He can be contacted at guyzoharbiu [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Syrian civil war is already one of the bloodiest and most devastating conflicts in the 21st century, and it is far from over. To explore various dimensions of the war, seventy-five people at the recent International Studies Association (ISA) annual convention in Baltimore, Maryland participated in “The Syrian Civil War and the Spread of Terror” simulation.

Participants assumed roles such as Bashar al-Assad, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi and were assigned to teams that represented major actors in the conflict. Team size varied depending on the actor’s complexity and its power status. Each participant was given short and long range goals to accomplish in the face of challenges such as terror attacks. The ultimate long range goal was to agree on a framework for settling the entire conflict. Continue reading

Follow up on Model Diplomacy

A while back I put out a plea for new simulations for my Introduction to International Politics class. I asked specifically about the Council on Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations and got some useful feedback (on that and others). In case others are interested, I figured I’d post a follow up.

I decided to structure my course around two sets of simulations. First, I planned on a series of four different one-day Model Diplomacy simulations, at key times during the term. I replaced my group debate assignment with these. Since I centered the group debate assignment around current events as a way of applying course material to a contemporary question, the Model Diplomacy simulations were a reasonable replacement since they, too, focus on a current event. Continue reading

Advising as Active Learning

This way to commencement.

It’s now advising hell, er, season, at my university. If you are outside of the USA, you might be unfamiliar with this phenomenon — it’s when undergraduates come to faculty for advice about which courses they should register for in the upcoming semester.

Students often approach the process passively  — if I let them, they will simply ask me “What should I take?” Many are also under the misapprehension that a path they believe is “pre-med” or “pre-law” is necessary for gaining entrance into a graduate program (it isn’t). Or they are convinced that a “minor” — a small cluster of courses on some topic — is in and of itself a career credential (it isn’t). Notice that the actual learning that might or might not occur in these pre-packaged bundles of courses is not what the students are worrying about.

To be fair, the underlying purpose of the curriculum — to function as a vehicle for learning — is fairly opaque. For example, at my university sixteen distinct student learning outcomes are assigned to courses that fulfill general education requirements, courses required by academic programs might have an equal number of additional outcomes, and there is now talk about creating a third layer of outcomes at the institutional level. Yet there is no comprehensive, well-tuned effort to capture and evaluate the data necessary for determining whether these outcomes are being met. If faculty are unable to point a student to course X as a reliable means of learning Y, it’s doubtful that students can do it.

In an attempt to work around these problems, I require students to bring to a meeting a draft of a four-year plan in which they’ve listed what courses they think they’ll be taking and when. The document, which gets revised over time, serves as a tool for a much deeper conversation, for two main reasons.

First,  the process of drafting an academic schedule for which the endpoint is graduation illustrates that choices have consequences. For example, playing a sport is the highest priority for some students, and they like to avoid enrolling in courses that conflict with practice sessions or matches. But some courses are often taught only in particular semesters at particular times. With the four-year plan, students see the longer-term effects of their decisions, and that they bear ultimate responsibility for how they choose to invest their time, money, and effort.

Second, the four-year plan is an entry point for a discussion about how the title of a course, the curricular requirements that can be fulfilled by successfully completing it, and the degree to which the student will find the course interesting and challenging are frequently completely independent of each other. Given that people usually learn more when they are both interested in and challenged by what they are studying, I tell students to take people, not courses, whenever possible. While I can make suggestions about this, it is up to the student to actively perform the necessary due diligence.

Stand up for your community

Pretty, if not necessarily insightful

We’re nearly at our Easter break here at Surrey, so we’re tying off classes for a few weeks, before heading to our research activities/graduation events/annual leave. Rather than bore you with details of the Cornish village that will be enjoying presence during next week, I’m rather going to focus on something completely different.

In the past week, I’ve had several different conversations where I’ve been asked about what I do as a citizen of the academic community. For non-academics, this is the unknown side of our work, as they assume we just write books, lecture and have the same holidays as our students. for other academics, there’s a bit more variety, depending on why they’re asking you, but possibly not as much variety as you might expect.

In short, doing stuff like being active in your study association, or reaching out to non-academic audiences, or sharing your work through social media: it’s all just CV-points, right?

Well, I’m aware that I have a dog in this fight, but I’m going to say that it’s certainly not like that.

Instead, it’s one of those tragedy-of-the-commons things: it’s easy to free-ride off the work of others who are maintaining the networks and the groups that exist, but at some point if no one does it, then the whole thing comes down around our ears. Sure, it’s nice when someone else organises things for you, but that’s not a reason to avoid chipping in to help yourself: many hands make light work.

But it goes beyond this.

Getting out there, talking and connecting with people is good for you, individually as well as environmentally. Being an active member of the community is an excellent way to get to know people working on interesting and relevant projects and to share your own work.

This blog is a case in point: this group found each other largely by chance at TLC and we’ve since used it to develop our own thinking on various research matters, to build a wider contact group in the discipline and to provide a space in which to debate and discuss. I particularly like that we now have a steady stream of guest contributors, because it means I’m getting to know more people, even as they get an opportunity to get to do the same.

The short version of this is that academia is a fundamentally collaborative profession. Even if we work by ourselves, we do so on the basis of others’ work and with a view to contributing back into a continually-evolved debate. Yes, writing your high-impact outputs is an important part of that, but it’s not the only part. The more you work to participate, the more you can shape the debate, directly and indirectly.

Finally it’s worth saying that the more people you meet, the more you’ll know what’s what and who’s who. Time and again I’m surprised by how small our community can be, so never underestimate the value of contributing to our communal life. And remember that reputations travel further than you think, both good and bad.

The Change All Around, Part 3

Here is my third post about environmental factors that are affecting my teaching this semester. My previous posts on the subject are here and here. This time I thought I would explore my situation from the standpoint of student behavior.

First item is this screenshot of the Canvas LMS gradebook. I use a grading system in which each assignment is worth a certain number of points, and a student’s final course grade is a function of the total points he or she has earned by the end of the semester. Individual assignments do not receive letter grades and are not graded on a percentage basis with a 0-100 scale.

I inform students — both verbally in the classroom and via text in the syllabus — that the percentage columns in the gradebook are absolutely meaningless in terms of their course grade. Yet they still fixate on these figures, and get dejected whenever they see a number that they perceive as conflicting with their self-image. (I attribute the innumeracy and the construction of a fragile self-identity to parenting and the K-12 education system.) Continue reading

Undergraduates Doing Replication: Replication Assignments in Action Part 2 of 3

Last week, I talked about the value of replication exercises for undergraduates and why they might be even greater than for graduate students. The opportunity to combine research and analysis skills with writing skills in a single assignment is almost too good to pass up since it kills several birds (or at least, typical course objectives) with one stone. Today I’ll briefly discuss a replication activity I wrote, and some strategies to help you make your own replication assignments successful.

The assignment I’m sharing today comes from Linda Camp Keith’s “The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Does It Make a Difference in Human Rights Behavior?” (Journal of Peace Research 36,1 (1999): 95-118). This was a unit project, summing up their studies in bivariate analysis. The replication assignment file can be obtained here. We began as any good researcher would, by getting to know our key dependent and independent variables. We then attempt to replicate her published bivariate results, which is one of the reasons I used this article here. I conclude with question 5, which previews the concepts of control that we’re moving into as they work on this assignment. Finally, in a brief follow-up assignment, students actually add the controls and replicate parts of the multivariate findings. Continue reading