Back End Skills

Most ALPS posts deal with the front end of teaching — the stuff that eventually turns into the student experience. Today I’m going to talk about the back end of the job: skills that are beneficial for one’s career because they have applications far beyond the classroom environment. Here are the skills that I now wish I had acquired while in graduate school:

Writing for the Audience

As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, the vast majority of academic writing is terrible. It is produced to be published, not to be read. Important ideas are not communicated well, if at all. For example, compare the writing of Anatol Lieven in Pakistan: A Hard Country to any journal article or multi-authored volume about that country. Or read Sarah Kendzior‘s The View From Flyover Country. These people can write well, a lot of people read what they write, and they have benefited professionally as a result.

Academics need to reach different audiences, and that requires learning how to write for those audiences. Take courses in journalistic or creative writing. Write memos. Submit op-eds to your local newspaper. Get feedback from people who write better than you do. Write a lot, even though it takes time. Use the process of writing as a tool to refine your thinking. Practice what we preach to students.

Graphic and Web Design

I’ve written about this before too — messages can and often should be communicated visually. But the message is lost if the visuals are bad. I’m often shocked by the inability of faculty members to display information in a manner that is easy to understand — whether for other academics or a curious and reasonably intelligent public. Creating simple but effective charts with Excel is not that difficult. Yet training in this basic skill was not part of my graduate program — I had to learn it on my own. Others probably never bothered.

My doctoral studies began just before the Web sprang into existence. Since then, I’ve been struggling to catch up with the digital revolution. This blog is one small tangible result. Don’t be left behind like I was — learn how to build websites. The more proficient at this you become, the more of an advantage you will have.

Data Literacy

Related to the above is the ability to work with data. Can you easily mine data by creating longitudinal analyses and calculating percentages? Do you know how to determine whether your data and conclusions are meaningful?  I am constantly amazed by what I can learn and communicate by making those simple Excel charts. I dream about what I could do if I knew R.

Stage Presence

Let’s face it: teaching is performance. As are committee meetings, admissions office recruitment events, and board meetings. Elocution and body language can make or break a conference presentation. Don’t be the person whom everyone immediately tunes out. Take a course in public speaking, acting, or musical theater.

People Management

We have to interact with others as part of larger organizations, and I bet every person who reads this has encountered at least one toxic colleague in their careers. Some of us end up with managerial duties, as research team leaders, department chairs, and administrators, yet we’ve never been trained for these roles. I recently attended a workshop on how to manage difficult conversations in the office, and it was eye-opening. Find out how you can become better at working with people. Then do it.

Look At Those Deck Chairs

I am going to return to beating one of my favorite dead horses — systemic change in higher education — partly because I just completed three days’ worth of commencement-related events at a university with a total full-time enrollment of only 2,500 students. This post is a preview of something that is already under review for publication in another venue, so I won’t go into my usual excruciating level of detail.

I remain convinced that we are in the early stages of a massive, decades-long consolidation of post-secondary educational institutions in the USA. The consolidation will hit small, private, non-profit colleges and universities first. Here are the basic indicators:

  • A population that is aging out of the labor force combined with low unemployment rates means fewer young people interested in attending college.
  • Continuing demographic decrease in the number of high school graduates in New England and the Midwest.
  • Expanding economic inequality will make the traditional four-year, full-time, residential undergraduate experience, with its high overhead costs, increasingly unaffordable for a greater number of high school graduates. Even those with sufficiently affluent socioeconomic backgrounds will seek out colleges and academic programs that are perceived as providing higher value-added and a better return on investment.
  • As of Fall 2015, there were at least 600 private, non-profit bachelor’s and master’s degree-granting institutions with less than 2,500 students. How many of these colleges can you name? You just proved my point. The vast majority of them have undistinguished reputations, are heavily tuition-dependent, and lack the resources that are available to students at larger institutions. These small colleges and universities will be the first to be crippled by falling demand.

Marian Court, Burlington, St. Joseph’s, Wheelock, Concordia Alabama, Atlantic Union, Mount Ida, Marylhurst, and Bacone represent just the tip of the iceberg.

Sharing materials, shaping ideas

Let’s hope not, right?

While trying not to let the great ideas of Nicosia slip off my radar, I’ve got to admit to being rather excited about Prague and EuroTLC.

As I discussed last week, EuroTLC is a more applied event, which is why I’m looking forward to getting my hands metaphorically dirty: a semester with no teaching is good for many things, but not for developing one’s learning & teaching practice.

As part of EuroTLC, we’re being encouraged to share materials beforehand. You can find my stuff in Best Practice Workshop (Session B) if you’re interested.

Once again, this raises the question of how to share and what to share in pedagogic materials. While we often note here how generous people are with their teaching ideas it’s just as frequently that we note that we’re not sure what’s the necessary minimum to impart.

To take my case, the materials I’ve uploaded should be enough to play the game: the pack that goes to the students and some notes: the calculator is more a reflection of my getting bored with the discussions about the role of maths in social science education than any essential part of gameplay.

But I can also see that the face-to-face element of my presentation is going to be important too, because it’ll point out the areas where my paperwork isn’t up to scratch and, more importantly, how this game could be re-purposed.

Of course, that latter issue is of as much interest to me as it is to the person asking: I see in it all what I want to see, but I’m also keen to discover what others see.

This is not merely an academic consideration, but a more practical one for me, driven by a new project I’m working on this year.

Working with Oxford University Press, colleagues and I are building an online platform to consolidate and integrate existing outputs from the publishers, with a mix of text, blogs and – you’ve guessed it – activities.

The game I’m presenting in Prague is also going – potentially – going to become part of this resource, but in a rather different format. That format change is driven by both the use – individuals, via a website – and the need to protect IP – so no downloadable PDFs to share with your mates.

Re-imagining this game for that very different environment means having a strong sense of how it works and what it’s trying to do. Already that’s meant some long discussions with co-authors, editors and the tech bods to work our the parameters. If I’m not able to understand my game’s essence, then I can’t very well expect a coder to create an appropriate version for the website.

It’s with all this in mind that I’m heading Prague, thinking about how these things can and might work.

Additional Snippets from Comparative Politics

A few more quick thoughts about my comparative politics course, which just ended . . .

On the last day of class, I distributed pieces of paper and asked students to write down what they thought were the two best and two worst assigned readings, and to include brief explanations of their choices. Nine students were in the room — out a class of ten. Despite such a small sample, I will go out on a limb and draw some conclusions, all of which relate to transparency:

  • I should preface each writing assignment with a very brief overview of how assigned readings relate to the topic at hand, because students don’t automatically know this. For the question “Does Chinese culture promote authoritarianism?” the class read an interview with Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew. Two of the students didn’t understand that Yew, being of Chinese ancestry like many other Singaporeans, was discussing his views on Chinese cultural norms.
  • I should also explicitly inform students that readings are written in different styles for different audiences, which means that some of the readings will be more difficult and less enjoyable to read than others. For example, in the section of the course on revolution, I assign Theda Skocpol’s 1976 article “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions.” Two students said this article was a least favorite reading, because of its style. Oddly, in my opinion, a few other students complained that the long-form journalism found in some of The New York Times articles was hard to understand.
  • Students have difficulty placing unfamiliar historical events in chronological order and parsing out how what happened before might have affected what happened after (the “history just happens” mentality). For an assignment about Iran, students felt confused about the relationship between the 1979 revolution, popular support for the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic, and more recent anti-government protests. While I find it easy to connect the dots, students don’t — for them, context can be confusing. So for some assignments I need to narrow down the reading list.

After students finished identifying readings they liked or disliked, I asked them if they would have preferred formal mid-term and final exams, or regular quizzes, as an alternative to some of the writing assignments. I was surprised that they said no, since I had been under the impression that they used test scores to reassure themselves of their performance. One senior said that he didn’t remember a thing from test-based courses he had taken, while he remembered a lot from writing-based courses, and therefore he regarded the latter as much more beneficial. Two others said that, as studies have shown, they and their friends promptly forgot whatever facts they dumped into short-term memory the night before an exam, so they regarded exams as anxiety-producing events irrelevant to their learning. If next year I use quizzes as a stick to improve attendance in class, they will probably need to be the “write a paragraph that answers the question” type.

 

Model Diplomacy: Smart, easy to use foreign policy simulations

Model Diplomacy is a series of free National Security Council simulations put out by the Council on Foreign Relations. Michelle used it in her class last year, and I decided based on her positive experience to try it in my intro to IR class this year.  In this post I’m going to explain the basics of Model Diplomacy, discuss my experience using it, and give my recommendation.  Spoiler Alert: I loved it.

Continue reading

Countdown to Prague

“The learning gains might be this big. But then again, maybe not”

My diary tells me that today I’m uploading materials to the EuroTLC website, in anticipation of the third conference at the end of the month.

EuroTLC is something we’ve written about before (here), but it’s worth revisiting how it differs from APSA’s TLC, which had been something of an inspiration.

While TLC has kept a rather academic bent to its work – streamed workshops focusing on papers – EuroTLC has been more interested in applied approaches: how to do stuff in the classroom. That’s evident in the structures – lots of practical sessions and a variety of formats – and in the general collective model of lots of different organisations chipping in.

Of course, there’s the practical necessity that being able to get together enough papers to run a TLC-style event is very difficult, and indeed rather redundant, given the existence of TLC itself. There’s never been a desire to cannibalise TLC, but rather to fill a gap that was felt to exist in the market.

But how does this all matter?

Well, building on the work I’ve been doing in Nicosia, EuroTLC is a good moment to advance that agenda.Some of the Joint Session participants will be there too, so it’s an obvious jumping-off point to get some more buy-in from colleagues.

And here the nature of EuroTLC becomes more relevant. If participants are more interested in ‘doing stuff in the classroom’ than in research per se, how to make the connection.

Of course, this is a slightly moot point, since I’m aware that the two things aren’t mutually exclusive and – more to the point – that interest in one often co-exists with the other. I want to do better and more useful things in my classroom, so I’m interested in what constitutes ‘better’ or ‘more useful’.

At the same time, I know from past EuroTLCs that playfulness is not always easily aligned with rigorous. The opportunity to try out new pedagogic things is a joy in itself – the moment of thinking “why did no one ever try this before?” – but it’s not the same as attempting to apply a methodical and dispassionate analysis. Put bluntly, sometimes it’s just enough to be trying something new.

But this is rather why Peter and I set up our Cypriot workshop in the first place: neophilism isn’t enough. And that’s not even getting to the dull fact that most things have been tried before; it’s just that we didn’t know about them. Which is the point.

I’m all for exploring what we do, but that doesn’t have to be without a map. Indeed, a map might point us to new (for us) things that actually work.

Talking with participants at other EuroTLCs (and TLC, for that matter) I often encounter the sentiment – usually the next day – of “well, it was fun, but was it any good?”

That’s the moment to connect the different elements.

Now I just need to loiter around hotel lobbies and airport departure lounges to buttonhole people.

You’ve been warned.

Some more pop culture ethics

I’m pleased to report that even after a gap of several years, I still recently managed to destroy a colleague’s enjoyment of The Lego Movie by pointing out its representation of fascism, including the Newspeak of “everything is awesome.”

Such found objects are valuable, not simply as a way of robbing the joy from quality time with the kids, but also a way into discussing complex political issues.

This resurfaced for me once again, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there was a very interesting piece on the morality of superheroes, which built on the emerging questioning within the Hollywood system of whether masked individuals meting out extra-judicial ‘justice’ might not be quite the unmitigated good it once was portrayed as.

(And yes, I know that graphic novels got to this a long time ago, but we’re talking here about a form that a lot more people consume.)

The second was the consequence of being left home alone and watching The Hitman’s Bodyguard (THB), which I shall not review beyond noting a key piece of action occurs in Coventry.

It’s a classic odd-couple buddy movie, with many wisecracks and location scenery, and for that it’s very run-of-the-mill.

However, the story turns on genocide and responsibilities to act (in various ways). There’s a bunch of ethics thrown in, although not enough that anyone seems to notice the jarring effort of key characters laughing about ‘ass’ as they walk through the scene of a bombing.

All of which suggests that there might be two levels of discussion one could have with students about the issues involved.

At the obvious level, there’s the ethics as promoted by the film(s) you discuss. In the case of THB, there’s a tension between natural and judicial justice, as well as between means and ends. There’s even an element of the balance between structure and agency, in the discussion about life-partners, that might open up some useful lines of debate.

As the article notes, such overt discussion of the great responsibilities of great power is becoming more common in superhero movies, which might be a reflection of producers’ increased confidence in what audiences can handle, or might simply be because just fighting people eventually runs out of steam at some point. But the consequence is that ethics, even if it is ethics-by-numbers, is there on the screen to be considered. And if you have a class that’s still getting to grips with the basics, then this is as good a way in as any.

But there’s also the less-obvious layer of discussion: the kind of stuff that’s either not mentioned or not even obviously considered by the movie’s makers.

To take an obvious example, THB isn’t about gender, but it’s also about gender. That’s clear from the gendering of roles, the rescuing of women and the occasional knob joke. I’m guessing it’s not what the director wanted me to think about, as I watched, and I’m also guessing it’s not what the director thought very much about either, but that’s precisely the point. Such dimensions get woven into the fabric of a cultural product, and it is for us to notice and unpick those.

Culture invites multiple readings, and so let’s try doing just that. Wikipedia tells me THB got ‘mixed reviews’, and I can believe that: any film that portrays such a lax depiction of border controls deserves to be challenged.

Happy viewing…

Snippets from Comparative Politics

Some end-of-the-semester thoughts on my comparative politics course, in relation to a post from the beginning of the semester and to Simon’s post last week about a framework for active learning.

First, the simple stuff:

Running this course with only ten students at 8:00 a.m. is problematic, for reasons I have mentioned before. Lack of students definitely decreases the level of activity in my Gerkhania simulation. Attendance has picked up but is still only eighty or ninety percent, so in the future I really need to give pop quizzes — in paper, rather than electronic, form — on a semi-frequent basis.

I have noticed a problem with the reading responses. For these assignments, I usually pair an article from an academic journal — often the Journal of Democracy — with shorter and more current items from news outlets like The Atlantic, Politico, and The New York Times. Some students developed the habit of reading only the latter and ignoring the former. I need to force students to read the journal articles, but haven’t quite figured out the best way of doing this.

Now for the complex stuff: Continue reading

Faculty Pathologies I: Inadequate Administrative Processes

Continuing on the theme of what I’ve learned in the last year of building my own business doing dissertation and academic coaching and freelance editing, at the invitation of the blog owner, Chad, I’m back for a two-part series on common problems that I’ve seen working with faculty on their research, project, and time management. This is part 1 of 2.

Faculty usually begin their careers trained to do one thing: research. If they’re lucky, they’ve been trained to teach, at least a little bit, too. But no one ever begins their career trained in administration and management. Those are, theoretically, on-the-job skills that you pick up on the way. As a result, most faculty have vastly underdeveloped systems for managing administrative processes: committee work, cycles of paperwork like monthly meeting agendas, required paperwork for grants and other funding, and the most dreaded one of all – email.

For most of us, email becomes the default way of managing our committee work, paperwork, and other not-research-but-still-necessary-business. Which means, then, that a system to manage our email becomes a necessity. That system needs to comprise two parts: incoming management, and archiving management.

Managing incoming email needs to be something that you do deliberately, not something done haphazardly. I recommend setting aside 2-3 times per day to process your inbox. Anything that can be answered in 3 sentences or less gets a response; the rest get deleted, archived immediately if appropriate, or placed in a specific folder or given a tag/flag indicating that follow-up is required. Then, once a day, have a dedicated time for churning through the things that require more detailed follow-up. Set a designated amount of time for this and stick to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t tackle one or two semi-quick ones if you have 10 minutes between meetings, but it does mean that email becomes a designated, deliberate task, rather than an interstitial one.

The second part of email management is archiving. The goal is to keep your inbox containing only those things that are active: ongoing conversations, tasks you’re working on, things you need to follow up on. Everything else that’s closed should be either deleted or archived into a system of folders. Most of us are reasonably good at this, but it’s a good idea to make part of your Friday shutdown routine a quick cleanout of the inbox to archive anything that’s been completed that week that hasn’t already been put away so that you can start the week with an empty inbox.

These and other skills are things I can help you develop through academic coaching. If you’re interested in academic coaching, the summer is a great time to start. It gives you a chance to develop and solidify new or better habits before the chaos of term time arrives. Feel free to take a look around my website at http://www.leannecpowner.com/coaching/  and if you’re interested, drop me an email at Leanne@leannecpowner.com . The initial consultation is free. You can also follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LeanneCPowner/ or Twitter @LeanneCPowner for free daily writing tips.