Being a Research Consumer: The Article Sort

Becoming a competent consumer of political science scholarship is almost always an objective of my courses, especially general education courses intended to expose students to the social scientific way of thinking. To support this objective, a long ways back I wrote a document called “Reading and Understanding Political Science,” which is an undergraduate’s guide to types of scholarship in political science, the parts of an empirical article, and questions to ask oneself while reading quantitative, qualitative, and formal modeling publications. We typically read this for the second day of class, when most are still struggling to obtain textbooks in this new order-by-mail world. After a brief review of the typology and parts, we engage in The Great Article Sort.

To begin, we brainstorm a list of key words and other ways to tell what type of article an item is. Then I pair students off, have them introduce themselves, and distribute 2-3 articles from a pile that I’ve prepared to each pair. Their task is to classify as many articles as they can in 5-8 minutes; extras (and ones that pairs have finished) go in a stack up front for recirculation. The pair with the most correct classifications at the end gets 2 bonus points, so they make two copies of their findings – one to turn in at the conclusion of the sort period, and one to keep for discussion. At the conclusion of the work period, I collect a copy from each group and we review their responses as a class – both what they decided and how they knew. The whole activity, including debrief, takes about 20-25 minutes, depending on how many items they want to discuss.

Preparation for this activity took about 45 minutes and consisted mostly of using JSTOR and the internet to access publications where I knew I could find articles of various types (literature reviews, empirical, op-eds, modeling and other theoretical pieces, etc.) across the various subfields of political science. For longer items, usually I printed only the first 4 pages; printing two pages to a sheet and both sides of the paper meant that they’re still only one piece of paper in the stack. Sometimes I was able to reuse items I had in my personal collection that I no longer needed (e.g., spare copies from something distributed in a previous term). I had about 25 items labeled with letters, and usually two copies of each so that we had enough to go around. This wasn’t enough for a 35-person class. If I were prepping this activity again, I’d aim for 40 items and number them, and be very selective in the debrief discussion.

Thinking Comparatively

Last time, I posted about ways to get students involved in making hypotheses, forming expectations, and testing them with instructor-provided data. Today’s activity leverages technology in a different way, by allowing students to collaborate on data generation and encouraging comparative thinking as a means of drawing conclusions.

I begin by creating and sharing a Google spreadsheet (1) with several questions across the top of columns, and several cases listed one to a row. Then, pairs or small groups of students are assigned one or two cells of the resulting table. For example, my Intro to American Politics class did comparative civil rights struggles, comparing African Americans, women, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and the LGBT+ community as cases, and motivations/starting conditions, core strategies, de jure discrimination, and de facto discrimination as questions. One group of students might have motivations and strategies for African Americans, and another group had de jure and de facto discrimination for LGBT+ Americans.

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Let’s be criminals! Guest post by Felia Allum

allumFelia Allum (University of Bath)

As a teacher, who researches organised crime in Italy and Europe, I wanted to re-invigorate my teaching approach and reach out more effectively to my students. In previous years, my undergraduate unit ‘Organised crime and democracy in Italy’ has always been very popular with students because of the nature of the topic, it always attracts and indeed, there is now a buoyant community of academics researching this topic.

When I taught this unit I sought to teach my students about the different cultural and economic conditions that surround Italian mafias and organised crime generally, to understand why individuals become mafiosi, what decisions do they make and why? What cultural values shape their world view? What economic activities do they undertake and why? Why do mafiosi seek out politicians and businessmen? But, this form of teaching was very teacher-led with me at the centre, giving out my wisdom. It worked but it was safe and only those highly motivated and enthusiastic students really understood the different debates that I was pressing.

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Fish out of water?

That whirl I mentioned

It’s only a couple of days until we get to run our PSA/APSA sponsored workshop here at Surrey, so it’s a whirl of organisation around here.

Since I’m going to get everyone to try and chip in some thoughts as we go, I’m not going to dwell too much on the planned activities, but instead think about the potential dynamics that might arise.

While some of us very cosmopolitan, it’s also the case that others of us haven’t crossed the pond too often (at least to judge by someone’s queries about ATMs, sockets and mobile telephony standards).

I recall when I first met the ALPS people, back in New Mexico in 2011, I was also largely unaware of what to expect or of how things were. For me, it was a very liberating experience. Continue reading

How joined-up is your curriculum?

6318258412_b0209b8fa7_bWe’re rolling around to the end of our teaching here at Surrey. That means several things. First, that students are now focusing more on their final exams than on classes, since they don’t heed our advice that the latter will help an awful lot with the former. Second, that we’re trying to join the dots (again) between what we’ve joined over the past weeks. And third, that it’s nearly time for the amazing L&T new pedagogies workshop we’re running here (yes, since you ask, you can still book here).

But back to the second point, connectedness.

In my first year class yesterday, we ended up covering a bunch of concepts that I’d thought had been covered elsewhere, but which seemed not to have been. I did that because I needed them to explain some points that I knew weren’t being covered by anyone else. I could give you more specifics, but I’m guessing you know what I mean, because it’s something that happens pretty much every lesson; even if only in its mildly form of “you remember how you learnt about X in that other class? well, here’s an application.”

This is a real issue for social sciences like ours. Unlike physical sciences, where there is a much more graduated progress from core concepts to advanced application, we tend to find ourselves plunging into assorted deep ends from the get-go. The reasons are simply that we have a lay experience of politics that we don’t with quantum mechanics, and that the former is something that sits well within our reflective practice and is indeed a key part of our engagement with our environment. Put differently, you can have a conversation about power and agency with a 6-yr old and quickly get into very profound considerations.

The problem that this creates is that the degree to which we can make assumptions about prior knowledge and understanding (being two distinct things here) is highly uncertain. While we try to plan curricula for our programmes of study, we do so on the basis of implicit understandings of what an average student might know about beforehand. And of course, average students don’t really exist.

All of which makes it very hard to work towards a solution. The classic approach would have been to just give students what you, the teacher, think is important, whether they’ve had it before or not. The more modern approach would be to map out all the key points of learning and ensure that they are covered in some way.

Perhaps we need another approach, that it is more student-centric.

If we adopt an active learning approach then we work out from the students’ experience, to address problems as they find them, rather than presenting pre-packaged ‘solutions’. In endeavouring to solve the problems they find, students can draw in new knowledge, into frameworks of understanding , in ways that make sense to them. As that process continues, so the elements become joined up and the gaps reduce.

However, we have to acknowledge that this doesn’t mean that gaps disappear automatically. One of the beauties of political science is precisely that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat, working from fundamentally different premises. Organic, student-led growth of understanding doesn’t necessarily capture that.

Two partial solutions offer themselves here. One is to continue with the thing of activity that I opened with – making connections in sessions. But the other is to create learning environments where there are incentives to seek out new connections and paradigms of understandings. Simulations would be just that sort of environment, where you can take students out of themselves and ‘be’ someone else.

And yes, if that sounds interesting, there is a workshop about that.

Learning from Teaching

CgV3SvnW8AQNSAZIt’s going to sound very pretentious, but all this travel is very disorientating. Exactly one week ago, I was sat in a seminar room in Hong Kong, helping people design simulation games, something that now feels simultaneously very familiar and very distant.

Amanda and I have posted already about these workshops (here), but given some of the things I’ve been doing since then, I wanted to pick up on a broader theme, namely of how we ourselves learn from the teaching we do.

Last night, I was in London, taking part in a panel discussion about Britain and the EU, as part of my other work, with an audience of school children. And that sentence already contains my first error.

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Teaching the Value of Replicability

Guest contributor Markus Gastinger is at the Technical University of Dresden. He can be contacted through and is willing to share his material upon request.

Markus Gastinger

In the winter term of 2015/2016, I was teaching a course on international organizations (IOs). The course was attended by 25 Master students and supported by a lecture. Since not all students had a prior degree in Political Science, we began by reviewing three major IR theories – realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and social constructivism. We had a fair mix of readings for all three but realism was underrepresented because of its state-centered ontology. We discussed constructivist texts with true zeal but they did not – and I write this with great deference and sincere admiration – lend themselves to (quick) lessons in replicability. This cannot be said of rational-choice contributions. After we had discussed the Principal–Agent (PA) model, we read an important contribution by Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks (2015) published in The Review of International Organizations. This article struck a chord with students since its large-N approach to studying delegation (the transfer of authority to an international secretariat) and pooling (the transfer of authority to a collective member-state body) gave them an overview of 72 IOs.
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