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.

Hey! Be my buddy?

buddyIt’s conference season, and I’m guessing you’ve had the usual moment of sitting down for a panel, only to get one of those presentations that just doesn’t work.

I’m thinking of the “I know you said 15 minutes, but I’m going to talk for 30+”, or the “I’m going to just read the words on my slides”, or even the fabled (but rarely-spotted) “I’m just going to read out my paper, verbatim.”

I’ve been lucky this year and not had anything so egregious, but I’ve talked to plenty of others who did get these. Not even the silver lining that someone had actually written their paper before the conference could make up for it. Continue reading

Farewell to Surrey

A few thoughts inspired by the recently-concluded Political Studies Association-sponsored Workshop on New Pedagogies at the University of Surrey in Guildford, as I sit in Terminal 3 at Heathrow.

Not a hobbit
Not a hobbit

Active learning strategies present several advantages and disadvantages for teachers. First, they often recognize that people don’t necessarily all learn the same things at the same speed. Any classroom in which these techniques are employed can be thought of as an effort in differentiated instruction — which can be beneficial when students possess varying amounts of prior knowledge.

Second, these methods create spaces where students can and often must behave in different ways. Not only can this force students to figure out how to ask the important questions in the right ways, it can also increase their motivation, an important intermediary variable when it comes to learning.

Third, many active learning exercises include a meta-cognitive stage in which a student’s articulation of his or her understanding is what produces understanding.

Also not a hobbit.
Also not a hobbit.

Fourth, active learning can, if implemented properly, offer opportunities for students’ conceptual, skill, and emotional development. Integrating all of these dimensions into the classroom requires careful consideration on the part of the instructor, but the payoffs can be quite high.