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.

Open Source Public Policy Research Reports

Courtesy of the Human Security Studies Group at the Naval War College, I recently learned about EveryCRSReport.com, a non-profit project that has the goal of making every report written by the U.S. Congressional Research Service freely available online. This is unclassified, taxpayer-funded research on a huge variety of topics, produced for the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The Congressional Research Service itself refuses to supply these reports directly to the public, so a third party has taken up the task.

If you’re teaching an undergraduate course on U.S. domestic or foreign policy, or on the U.S. Congress, the website could be a useful resource for students.

This article on Medium explains more about the mission and history of EveryCRSReport.com.

Extending Simulations without Becoming Overextended

Today we have another guest post by Joel D. Moore of Monash University Malaysia. He can be reached at joel [dot] moore [at] monash.edu.

Simulations are hard work. Extended simulations that occur over multiple class periods are doubly so. Instructors must invest substantial effort to set them up and even more to monitor them once they are running. The decentralized learning that makes them so effective also makes it hard to fairly and transparently assess participants. Thus, instructors may be dissuaded from employing them despite their pedagogical benefits.

Social networking software (SNS) can reduce these burdens. With some slight customization, an SNS can be used to efficiently capture most forms of student interaction in a way that is easily accessed by the instructor. SNSs are equipped with user-centered messaging, chat, blog, group, event notification, and file sharing capabilities. SNSs also feature optional plug-ins that can be used to further enrich the experience. They can easily serve as a mechanism for simulation participants to communicate with each other, while allowing instructors to monitor events in real time with no additional work on the part of the students. Another benefit of using an SNS is that once one creates the architecture of a simulation, it can be redeployed instantly for a future class, or quickly modified for another simulation that has a similar array of roles. Continue reading

Where Do Flash Games Go to Die?

Related to my recent post on replacing traditional textbooks with digital content:

For the last two years, I have used the Stop Disasters! game in my course on humanitarian emergencies, which is online. A significant number of the students are outside the USA when they take it. Stop Disasters! runs on Flash. Flash is an application that has been incompatible with Apple devices for years and its owner, Adobe, will cease supporting it entirely in 2020. Web browsers now require installation of special plugins and whatnot to run it. This means that my students may not be able to play this game without jumping through a bunch of technological hoops, a burden that I can’t justify imposing on them.

Unfortunately a lot of online pedagogical games and simulations are Flash-based; a few that have been discussed on this blog include Ayiti: The Game of Life3rd World Farmer, and Inside Disaster. Clicking on the link for the simulation at the Inside Disaster website produces a black screen, so it is no longer accessible whether one has Flash running or not.

These online tools have an irritating tendency to have short lifespans, which to me greatly lessons their convenience. Board games don’t end up in the technological dustbin of history at anywhere near the same speed. Maybe it’s time to switch back to exercises based on tangible objects rather than software applications. But how does one do that in the online environment?

 

Content Conundrums

Earlier this semester, our excellent library staff released results from a survey on students’ perceptions of textbook costs. Some of the findings:
  • 79 percent said they had not purchased a required textbook because of cost.
  • 19 percent said textbook costs had caused them to take fewer courses.
  • 84 percent thought that free, open-access textbooks benefit them academically, with 66 percent saying that they are “very helpful.”

I’ve mentioned this before: as a first-generation college student from a lower-middle class background, I am sensitive to the costs of college for today’s students. And I avoid assigning reading material that is terribly written because I emphasize the importance of good writing to my students. The vast majority of commercially-available textbooks — at least for the subjects that I teach — fail on both cost and writing quality. And though Open Educational Resources (OERs) are free, they can still be junk stylistically.

Sometimes I assign trade or mass market paperbacks. They are much less expensive than textbooks, and they do better at embedding concepts in a narrative context, which makes information easier for students to understand and remember. But their perspective can be very narrow, leading to rapid obsolescence, especially journalists’ book-length treatments of their field reportage.

Chopping paperbacks into assignment-sized sections can also be difficult. Contrast Evicted by Matthew Desmond with Poor Economics by Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo. The former is a brilliant 400+ page ethnography with a complex cast of characters, while the latter gives a concise chapter-by-chapter illustration of different principles in development economics. While I regard both books as extremely worthy, Evicted is just harder for me to use.

Often digital content allows me to bypass these problems, but I typically curate it myself. To avoid Error 404 Not Found and paywalls, I began clipping webpages with Evernote. Each course got its own Evernote folder. I would put the link to the appropriate folder in my syllabus. Recently though I’ve been noticing increased use of formatting and multimedia that Evernote — or at least the free version of it — doesn’t capture.

So I’m returning to my past practice of just embedding URLs in my syllabi. The majority of my digital content comes from publications like The New York Times, which has been around since 1851. It isn’t going to suddenly disappear. Plus the web archive is searchable, articles can be located without a specific URL. In effect the Times and publications like it have become digital repositories without third-party gatekeepers. And for students, a unlimited access subscription is far less expensive than a textbook.

The last option that deserves mention is a digitally-native web text, like the what’s offered by our friends at Soomo. Here the idea is a core text enhanced by additional readings, video, and interactive features. Curation duties are handled mainly by the publisher instead of the instructor, but content aggregation remains highly customizable. Production costs are lower, so students save money over traditional textbooks. Many instructors don’t have the inclination to create or collect all the content they need, and in this instance a web text is now often a better option than a traditional textbook.

Connected Course in Cultural Anthropology

credit: Chad Raymond, amateur Orientalist

Check out Anth101.com, a free online course in cultural anthropology created/hosted by Michael Wensch of Kansas State University. This project is one of the best designed exercises in online learning I’ve ever seen. Michael and his collaborator, Ryan Klataske, discuss the deep pedagogical principles behind the project at the anthropology blog Savage Minds. As someone with a long history of being a pretend anthropologist — which began by sneaking into an American Anthropology Association meeting long before I started my doctoral studies — I’m very impressed with how the course abandons teaching about anthropology as an academic discipline in favor of presenting it as an understanding of one’s individual and collective existence in the world. I know that sounds like the lofty clap-trap one often hears from idealistic academics, but Wensch has built the course around a series of exercises that show people how to experience the concept in some very practical and relevant ways. And his textbook The Art of Being Human, which accompanies the course for free, is an excellent read.

Teaching with Trump: A Challenge and an Invitation to Problem-Based Learning

Our series on “teaching Trump” continues today with a guest post by Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and  Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. He can be reached at Martin [dot] Edwards [at] shu [dot] edu.

Talk to the hand.

Teaching in a professional international affairs program offers some unique challenges. The focus at the graduate level is on professional skill development rather than preparing students for comprehensive examinations, and our students come from a wide variety of disciplines rather than as political science undergraduates. The election brought a unique challenge for those of us that teach International Organizations. It made clear that we need to better train students to speak up in defense of multilateralism, especially at a time in which the White House is suspicious of it. So, given the current climate, in which the White House is openly dismissive of the value of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Financial Institutions, and NATO, how can one rethink an established course so as to demonstrate its relevance? My approach to “Teaching with Trump” during the Spring semester was to refocus my graduate course on problem-based learning. 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

The Brand New Subway Game

nyc-subway-mapFor anyone teaching geography, urban planning, or public policy, the Brand New Subway game is a fun digital tool. Created for a competition in honor of the book “The Power Broker,” it allows players to design New York City’s subway system. Players can create an entirely new system from scratch, or modify past, present, and future systems. The game also includes an option for creating subways from scratch for other U.S. cities.

Players get three kinds of continuous feedback on their designs:  the price of a single fare, the average weekly ridership, and the overall rating of the system. The overall goal is to design a system that attracts the largest number of riders and efficiently gets them to where they want to go at the lowest price. The trade-offs between ridership, operating cost, and system quality make the problem very difficult to solve.

The game’s user interface is fairly easy to figure out and players can save works in progress. A simple way to use this game: have student teams compete against each other to build the best subway. Include as part of the competition a presentation where each team defends its design against questions from other teams.

Unconventional Movies As Conventional Pedagogical Tools: The Dark Knight

Gigi GokcekToday we have a guest post from Gigi Gokcek, associate professor of political science at the Dominican University of California. She can be contacted at gigi.gokcek[at]dominican[dot]edu.

Professors have long relied on movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Red Dawn (1984), and Thirteen Days (2000) to teach about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. While the active-learning literature validates the effectiveness of using movies like these, today’s college students may relate better to more contemporary movies. Do unconventional movies, from such franchises as Fast and Furious, Star Trek, DC Comics, and Marvel’s X-Men and Avengers, work just as well? My experience suggests that they do. When combined with activities derived from the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, I find that they are valuable tools for teaching important political science theories and concepts.

Although many students may have seen these movies by the time they enroll in my courses, I often leave this activity until the end of the term so that they have acquired sufficient knowledge of course material. The key to the assignment is that students are not told where the course content is portrayed in the movie. Students have to think more critically while viewing the film, and thereby apply what they have learned to a new setting. They use this worksheet to help make these connections. Continue reading