The Perfect Storm

I’ve been working on my paper for the upcoming APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, where I will be presenting research on students who were in different sections of my university’s fall semester first-year seminar. The survey was an attempt to compare levels of student academic engagement across sections, in the hope of showing that game design projects in my sections were associated with higher survey scores. As usually happens with my research on this kind of topic, there are no easily-recognizable patterns in the survey data. Aware of the looming conference paper deadline, I began thinking about possible alternative explanations for the data. This led me to look at the student evaluations for my seminar sections, and I was surprised to find that average evaluation scores had sharply decreased from the previous year, despite nearly identical course content. Odd.

So I starting asking colleagues what had happened in their seminar sections. I received reports of students’ problematic classroom behavior, lack of motivation, and declining academic performance. There also seems to have been an uptick in diagnosed or in-need-of-diagnosis psychological disorders among last fall’s incoming class of undergraduates.

While there is some solace in knowing that many of us had similar experiences, this could be the thin edge of a very problematic wedge. In the United States, academic ability and college preparedness correlate with socioeconomic status — unfortunate, but true. And at my university, as at others, more incoming students are being granted larger tuition discounts than in the past, which reduces net tuition revenue per student. In sum, in order to fill seats the university recruits a greater proportion of academically-marginal students by offering them greater amounts of financial aid.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you teach the students you have, or more accurately, the students that the university brings to you. If declining aptitude is a long term trend, what practical steps can I — on the front line, so to speak — take in an attempt to adjust to what might be the new normal? Continue reading

Food Matters

The Agricultural History Society has extended its call for proposals for panel sessions and papers for its May 2018 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, USA. The new deadline for proposal submission is January 1. The conference’s theme is Tropicana: Commodities across Borders. The theme locates the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America in a global history of commodity production and consumption. Full details on the CFP can be found here.

Since I have shepherded a new minor on food studies through our faculty governance system, and applied for a federal grant on the same subject, food as a field of academic study has been occupying a growing — pun intended — amount of my time and energy. I’ll probably be writing more on this blog about teaching food production and consumption systems during the spring semester, but for now here is a simple assignment that uses food to get at socioeconomic inequality, public health, globalization, and environmental sustainability:

  • First, ask students to collect grocery receipts, either from their parents or from members of the off-campus community.
  • Second, have the students go into the markets where the foods listed on the receipts were purchased to identify the origin of these foods. Fruits and vegetables, at least in major U.S. supermarkets, are labeled by country of origin. For processed foods, like canned soup, additional research into corporate supply chains will be required.
  • Using some guiding questions, have students analyze — either through discussion, an individual writing assignment, or a team project — what they have discovered about who buys certain foods, where, and why.  What broader conclusions can students reach about the effects of people’s food choices?

 

APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop

Last week I attended the first APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop in Washington, DC, an event organized by APSA staff (thanks Julia!), Joyce Kaufman of Whittier College, and Victor Asal of the University of Albany-SUNY. The subject of the workshop? Teaching international relations.

A few thoughts about the event:

  • The participants came from institutions with wildly different enrollments and missions, but teaching was primary to their professional life. They approached the praxis of teaching with intentionality and an interest in continuous improvement, despite changing student demographics, declining resources, and organizational inertia. Several of us felt that a stark difference exists between the notion of political science as a community of scholars and the realities of the workplace. For more on this topic, see Jennifer Hochschild’s recent letter to the editors of PS — the “Mismatch between (Some of ) APSA and (Some) Political Scientists.”
  • Many undergraduate students could benefit from basic training in epistemology. They often ignorant of the difference between cause and effect, the explanatory and predictive functions of theory, and the role of the scientific method in evaluating truth claims. Students typically don’t know what questions are the right questions to ask or how to understand the answers they get.
  • People use a variety of course frameworks to expose students to international relations theories and methods. Some employ a critical issues focus, in which topics like climate change and human rights function as springboards for analysis. Others build their courses around case studies or simulations. This diversity in approach points to the dis-utility of a one-size-fits-all canonically-oriented textbook.
  • International relations can help students better understand human behavior and become more adept at social interactions. Traditionally-aged undergraduates want to perceive themselves as unbiased adults capable of thinking strategically, yet games can easily elicit quite a different response. Placing students in situations where the system is rigged against them can make them more fully grasp the individual effects of discrimination and structural inequality as well as the importance of civil discourse in a democratic society.

The workshop gave me some insight into what other people consider to be best practices in the teaching of international relations. The conversations were productive and enjoyable. I hope APSA continues to organize this type of workshop.

Cultural and Historic Preservation Conference

And now for something completely different . . .

The Noreen Stonor Drexel Cultural and Historic Preservation program at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island, will host its annual conference on October 13 and 14. The theme for this year is “Gentrification & Preservation: A Reappraisal.” The conference will explore the relationship between gentrification, preservation, and the community – broadly construed.

“Gentrification” is a term that carries a great deal of emotional weight. It is frequently tied to issues of class and race, and historic preservation efforts are often accused of being a handmaid to gentrifiers.

The conference’s keynote speaker is Dr. Lance Freeman, professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. Dr. Freeman is a leading researcher in the study of gentrification, particularly the various relationships connecting race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and housing markets.

The conference schedule includes site visits in Newport as well as a session in the Newport Art Museum. For additional information, visit http://chpconference.salvereginablogs.com/ or email chpconference@salve.edu.

Call for Proposals: 2018 TLC

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It’s that time again . . . the next APSA Teaching and Learning Conference is going to be held February 2-4 in Baltimore, Maryland. This conference is not the standard sequence of tedious, badly-attended panel sessions. Participants can facilitate interactive workshops or engage in full-weekend working groups on particular topics. Proposals are due September 24. Full details are at the APSA’s TLC webpage.

Having been at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for the ISA’s annual meeting earlier this year, I can tell you that it’s a good conference location with interesting food options within walking distance. These options include Faidley’s Seafood, if you’re interested in crab cakes.

ISA Creative Teaching Workshops

At the ISA’s annual convention last month, ALPS members led two of the Creative Teaching Workshops organized by Carolyn Shaw of Wichita State University. My colleague Sally Gomaa and I led the Teaching the World Through Authentic Writing Assignments workshop. Here are a few of our thoughts on the experience:

First, we were pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd. Sally and I met Carolyn, Simon Rofe, and Mary Jane Parmentier in person for the first time and reconnected with some of the ALPS crew. But participants in our workshop took diversity to an entirely different level — graduate students to senior faculty from a variety of academic disciplines, at least eleven different nationalities, and employment or study at a wide range in institutional environments.

This diversity demonstrated the truth that there is no universally-applicable solution to making students learn, whether through writing or any other means. Case in point: in the U.S. system of higher education, I am free to formally assess my students as frequently and in whatever manner I want, which allows me to use writing assignments as a stick to force students to read information that I provide. People who work in other systems don’t have this freedom, and writing exercises might have to be organized as ungraded classroom activities — which assumes students 1) attend class regularly, 2) see value in the activities. Another example: the instructor might not be  teaching in his or her primary language, which complicates the process of evaluating and providing feedback on students’ writing.

A second observation: the standard conference panel is a terrible way to learn about new pedagogical strategies. Its “I talk, you listen” format contradicts nearly every principle of active learning. Our panel, about teaching, was the usual affair with little time for give-and-take with the handful of people in the audience. The contrast with our workshop, where a much larger group of people applied themselves individually and collaboratively, frequently lobbing “What if we tried this?” and “Have you thought about this?” questions at each other, was stark. Nearly all of us teach, and for many if not most of us, teaching occupies the majority of our work time. So why are conferences structured to be mostly irrelevant to the careers of most academics? (Nina, Amanda, and Simon have discussed this subject previously).

Last item, related to the previous one: as is my habit, I did some participant observation while walking the hotel hallways and attending events. I noticed the young, bright-eyed, sharp-dressed graduate students, performing the rituals that they have been led to believe will gain them entry to the professoriate. It made me feel a bit queasy, because for many there will not be a pot of career gold at the end of the graduate school rainbow. The labor market for academics in many fields has collapsed. From my position of privilege as a tenured faculty member, I write about this subject periodically, like Cassandra of Troy. For someone else’s perspective on how the academy in the USA exploits the (sometimes willfully) naive, read Kevin Birmingham’s essay in The Chronicle.

Summer Peace-Building Symposiums

This summer, the International Peace & Security Institute, the Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center, and the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology are cooperating on two symposiums that will teach practical skills in peacebuilding. The Bologna symposium focuses on conflict prevention, resolution, and reconciliation, while the Sarajevo symposium is on post-conflict transitions. Additional details are here.