And Now For Something Else Completely Different

The effects of too much time spent sitting in front of a computer put me in the market for a standing desk converter — one of those table-top contraptions that are adjustable in height, enabling the user to work sitting down or standing up. Like me, you’ve probably been seeing them increasingly frequently in your travels and have wistfully wondered, “Do I deserve to enter the ranks of the office equipment elite?” Luckily our crack library staff came to my rescue. They permitted me to test drive one and take this inexpensive Ikea hack back to my office for my own use.

I then researched various commercially-available models to get something for my home. I was drawn to products made by Varidesk, Eureka Ergonomics, and FlexiSpot. My search narrowed my options to one model from each company. One was priced at US$400 and two were priced at US$300. I scrutinized the design of each to gauge durability and convenience. I read comparative analyses written by professional reviewers.

Then serendipity struck: a standing desk unit sold by Staples, the office supply retailer, looked remarkably familiar. I compared dimensions and appearance, and yes, it was an exact match to one of the previously-described models, but priced at only US$200. So I bought the thing and am now using it to type this post.

It occurred to me that the process I used to make my decision is the same type of analytical thinking that we want our students to become proficient at — cast a wide net to gather the best information one can find, evaluate it according to context, and render a judgment. It’s one of the skills that we say students will develop if they take political science courses. So now I’m trying to figure out how to turn my experience into an assignment, to make the connection between what gets learned in an academic setting and the ability to apply it elsewhere more obvious to students.

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.

Critical Reading with CritiqueIt: A Guest Post from Colin Brown

Our latest guest post is from Colin M. Brown, PhD, a Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University.  He shares with us a great tool for teaching students how to critically engage with texts in a meaningful way.

Active learning has shown effectiveness in teaching concepts, but what about in instructing college students how to read effectively? One unavoidable problem in political science remains teaching students how to read actual works of social science. We expose students to original research and “great books” in our field as a way of simultaneously teaching the course content and also teaching how to read a particular style of social science argument.

This is well and good, and like writing, reading is a skill where students will learn mostly by doing. But are there things we can do to assist the process of learning how to read analytically?

Continue reading

TMI and teaching today

Well done, Google Images…

I’ve got an odd problem this week: too much information.

My class is on Britain and the EU and my students are drowning in material. As well as all the usual reading lists that exist, there’s also a mountain of stuff for non-specialist audiences, because of the looming referendum here in the UK.

How to handle this? Continue reading

Zendo Revisited: A Simple Methods Game for Large Classes

Zendo is a methods game that is the subject of the very first post I wrote for ALPS back in 2011. Since then, I have used it regularly on the first day of my research methods course.  Among its many advantages is that it helps reduce the anxiety students face on their first day of methods (a well-documented issue; at least six articles in recent years reference this concern) by having their first activity being a game.  The game itself allows students to engage in hypothesis generation and testing and begin to understand issues of generalizability and scholarly collaboration. It is a great introductory activity, but its utility has been limited due to the necessity of purchasing the physical pieces required for play.  Until now, that is! We now have a way of playing Zendo that requires no pieces and works for large classroom settings as well as small.

Continue reading

Flipping conference presentations

Possible source of confusion

I’m back in the office after a fabulous week of learning & teaching-related events. OK, maybe the exam board I went to wasn’t fabulous, but it was certainly instructive.

However, the big thing was going out to Chisinau in Moldova – the world’s second-least visited country – for a workshop of INOTLES, to discuss how we implement all our fine work in the partner institutions.

As workshops go, it went well: sensible amounts of time of different activities, a healthy mix of presentation and discussion, all facilitated by a positive environment and (ahem) local produce.

But, as is usual in such situations, I got me thinking about how we run such meetings of academics, but least because I was also having conversations about the next European Teaching & Learning Conference (see my posts from the last one).

Asking for ideas about how to be more engaging, I came up with a bunch of very radical stuff. However, it lately transpired that I had been drinking and that very little of it was actually workable, so it was back to the drawing board on the plane home.

The one idea that did seem to have something to it was the notion of a ‘flipped conference presentation’.

Basically, you’d ask people to produce a paper (as usual), but to then record a podcast of their presentation to post online, so that people could watch before the conference, and then use the panel time for discussion.

This would obviate the situation we all know, of a panel that runs out of time for questions. It would also be a learning experience for many, so they could see how simple recording yourself can be, which they could then take into the classroom. They win, we win, lovely.

It’s something I’ve not heard of before, but a quick google search suggests that I’ve far from the first to have the idea – try Jack Yensen, for example, or this example from Michael Seery. And props to Daniel Lambach for the link to Rom’s piece in PS that I’d missed.

Of course, this is not without its challenges. Just as people don’t always read papers before a conference, they might not watch all the podcasts and then they have little to go on when they turn up to the panel. Lots of signposting beforehand might help, as might a panel structure where the chair ‘interviews’ the panellists on common themes in a first section of time, before opening up to questions from the floor.

Technical issues might also pop up. If it’s ‘something not working’ then a conference helpdesk would resolve it. If it’s ‘this is stupid’ then either you have to be flexible, or you could offer another way out.

However, my thought of a way out might not strike you as very desirable.

So, something to think about.

As you’ll note from the two examples of others doing this, it’s not a PoliSci thing, nor even a social science thing, but a pedagogy thing. Another good reason to cast your net widely.

Do it yourself, learn it yourself

brussels sprout atomium blue backgroundI spent an hour last night trying to produce an app. I’m not really happy with what I produced, but I am happy I’ve tried.

Over the past month I’ve been working on a new project, ‘A Diet of Brussels‘. Basically, it’s podcasts about Britain and the EU. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for some time, but the surprising outcome of the general election meant that things suddenly took a new turn.

Perhaps that’s not the right way to express it, since it was more a case of throwing myself in the proverbial deep end, instead of trying to over-think things, which I’ve noticed is one of my less-good habits (alongside not using the word ‘bad’).

Fortunately, I had already secured the main piece of kit, namely a decent voice recorder, at a knock-down price, so I was ready to go.

A couple of hours practising recording in a manageable way and editing (with Audacity‘s excellent freeware) to up the production quality fractionally, and I had something that I could live with other people listening to.

Next step was building a platform. Fortunately, I’d already made a website before (this one, since you ask), so using Wix was quick and easy, as was the purchasing of domain names. Soundcloud provided the main platform for hosting the audio files themselves, and will be good for a few months yet on their free plan: iTunes also was easy enough to set up a mirror for the files, for the trendier end of my audience. Throw in a new Google account and then I could add in a Twitter feed and a Facebook page.

And off I’ve gone. So far, I’ve made 17 podcasts in about a month and am still to settle into a proper rhythm, mainly because once I sit down and start recording, it’s much easier to record a couple more while I’m there. Add to that lots of pushing online to people who will propagate further and I’ve got an audience that is small, but respectable. A huge help with this was a couple of name-checks in the Politico Europe daily Playbook email, so I guess I have to reflect on my previous words on said organisation, at least in part.

In terms of learning, there are several big things here.

Most obviously, this is a form of experiential learning: I’ve got my hands metaphorically dirty in a number of new activities, in a way that ties together my L&T work with my other research. In the past month, I’ve managed to advance my skills and my thinking in ways that certainly wouldn’t have happened otherwise. As someone who other talks about getting students to do this, it’s only right that I should remind myself that this actually works.

I’m also reminded that things are never quite as difficult as one thinks they’ll be. Before I started, I thought that the quality of recording was going to be critical (hence the recorder) and it left me a bit hamstrung. I could blame listening to Serial for excessive expectations, but then I remembered that I’m not a professional broadcast journalist, but an academic, and just got stuck it. Now my model is that I’ll get better as I do more: classic active learning again.

The value of strong networks has become evident too. My logo comes from the most amazing glove-puppet you’ll ever meet, Berlaymonster, and the support from colleagues in Brussels and the UK has been invaluable in making this get as far as it has. I know that when I’m done with this post, I can ask for help with the app I was trying to make last night and get it.

And finally it’s all making me think about the value of patience. If you think you’ll change the world with your first effort, then you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. Instead, these things that time: this very blog has taken several years to get to where it is today (insert punchline here), just as our individual reputations have taken time to develop as they have.

But time is also about timing: I got lucky with the election result (even if it wasn’t one I personally cared for) and I got even luckier with the name-checking. I have the advantage that I know this project is fixed-term (until the referendum happens) and I know that because I’ve started now I’ll be much better placed when more people get interested nearer the time. And given that the key aim of the project is to help inform people about what’s what, that has to be a good thing.

In the last few weeks of class this semester we’ve been discussing life-long and life-wide learning: I’m really glad to be actually doing some of that.

Now then: off to ask a man about an app.

Coping with the information overload

7537238368_27da452a16_oOn Friday I was teaching students about barriers to learning, including over-stimulation and overload of information.

This morning, I turn on my desktop to find a dozen journal updates, another dozen updates from news sites I subscribe to, a pile of interesting/important stuff to read/digest about Thursday’s general election, as well as all the rest of my work. Outlook reminders ping into life even as I type (including the one to write this).

I was on the verge of saying that this is a particularly bad time, between the different things happening around me, but actually it’s fairly typical. and I guess it’s not unfamiliar to most of you.

In short, there’s a hell of a lot of information out there and more and more of it is heading towards you.

I’d love to give you some good advice here. Something about filtering, or prioritising, or deep breathing, or mindfulness, or some such. But I won’t, because I don’t think I do any of these things. Probably the sum-total is to regularly read Oliver Burkeman’s This column will change your life on The Guardian website (and then promptly forget it all).

So why tell you this?

To remind you that you have to handle this and that students probably have to handle it too. Maybe not so much on the academic side, but quite likely more on the social/personal side. If we don’t have an appreciation that their education is only one part of their lives, then we might be better able to design and run learning environments for them that engage and stimulate.

As always, there are different paths open to you (and them). I realise that I rely on a number of different filters to pick up new research (e.g. Google Scholar alerts, Twitter lists, journal update emails) and on routine to produce content (e.g. blogs, academic writing). These work (most of the time) for me, but other things might work for you: I’ve tried having a commonplace book (or Evernote, for a digital equivalent), but never quite clicked with it, for example.

Data management is a key skill for our students, as we can testify, so we should be having those kinds of discussions with students.

But now my colour-flagged email list grows longer. At least, I tell myself, it’ll all be much quieter next week, once this election has passed and everything’s sorted for another five years. Maybe lying to myself is also a part of it.

Building critical media skills

A logo, yesterday.

Today sees the launch of a major new venture in reporting the European Union: US-based Politico has opened a large Brussels office.

American readers will be more familiar with Politico than those elsewhere, but essentially the new bureau aims to provide coverage of the EU without getting lost in the national contexts that most European media operate in.

I mention this partly as a public-service announcement, for those looking for more detailed reporting on the EU, which has previously been rather patchy. The last best source was The European Voice – originally set up by The Economist, before going it alone – which Politico bought out and has now rolled into its new venture. On a first glance, there is a lot of material available to stimulate debate and discussion.

However, I also mention it, because it provides a good opportunity to help students develop their critical reading skills. Politico does fill a gap, but it remains the gorilla in the room, with a staffing base far in excess of other outfits. Some concern has been raised in the previous months about whether such a dominant position risks abuse of that position, but it in terms of killing or promoting certain stories or in terms of framing debate.

It’s obviously too early to tell, but as an exercise in asking students to reflect on how the media shape our understanding, we might ask them to look at the materials posted up and identify any patterns or themes in coverage. These could be compared to outlets such as EUObserver or the FT.

Such meta-criticality has to be part of our work with students if we want to fully develop their understanding of the world. Recognising that the media is part of that is thus no bad thing.

Teaching with social media

Facebook_like_thumbReading Casey’s post, I have been reflecting on my own use of social media in the classroom. Here at Surrey, we’ve long been active in this field, because we recognised the value of developing new spaces of communication as a way both of getting more from our teaching and of preparing students for the world outside the classroom.

The value of that has become clearer over time, not least in the facility that our graduates have demonstrated in using those media to make themselves more attractive to employers and to support the community of learning they developed during their time with us. For our part as educators, we have see real benefits from connecting and engaging with a far wider community than might have been possible in the bad old days of the 2000s (sic).

But all of this raises a number of questions, not least of which is the matter of how one gets to a situation where social media can reasonably be brought into the classroom.

In part, this is a transitional issue, since usage of social media becomes more and more pervasive. Certainly, as everyone seems to be using social media, so the pressure to join in becomes ever higher, and the barriers ever lower: the amount of technical expertise needed to use Twitter (for example) is minimal, even if optimal use still requires some work.

However, we have to recognise the limits to this: I still encounter groups of students who have no experience at all with particular media (including my own class, last week). Precisely because there are so many platforms to choose from, there remains a distinct possibility that your students won’t use (or know how to use) the platform you want. Put it like this: none of us use Pinterest.

In such cases, either you have to train people up – as I’ve done for my Twitter negotiation – or you have to use a Bring-Your-Own-Device model, where the substantive content can be accessed via multiple platforms. The latter is more flexible for students, but requires much more technical expertise on your part.

Surrey’s approach has been to create a more general environment in which social media are mainstreaming into different parts of our provision. That means active Twitter and Facebook pages, which get used to connect prospective and current students, programme information and specific content within modules. By trying to link together elements, we raise the overall visibility and introduce the different platforms to users.

A good example of this is our use of hashtags in Twitter, to highlight particular campaigns: currently, our #PoliticsMonth events are bringing in a range of activities to the university, and students can not only see those more easily, but also contribute more easily. When I chaired a hustings for the general election for our Politics Society last month, I could gather questions from the floor using the event hashtag, which meant more efficient gathering and organising of their input to the panel. A similar system could be set up for large classes, with the lecturer getting instantaneous feedback to their device during lectures, which could then be fed more seamlessly into the content.

Likewise, the encouragement of students to use social media to talk with each other and with teaching staff provides a rapid and accessible means of supporting student learning: a tweet or a Facebook post can be read by others who might be in the same situation. In terms of general student support, this has been a great boon, especially for our students out on professional placements, often overseas.

The keystone in all of this is then a degree of engagement by staff. If they don’t use social media, and use it often, then it’s very hard to get students to do the same.

In that, I have been very fortunate to have the group of colleagues I do, since we have had a very high level of buy-in to the social media work. That has covered Twitter, Facebook, blogging and other platforms. Importantly, it’s also required a maintenance of activity over a long time-frame.

Indeed, that time-frame is effectively open-ended: we’re about three years into this and we’ll carry on as long as necessary. That needs someone to keep reminding people to do it, until it becomes almost second-nature: certainly, many of my colleagues use social media very reflexively, which is easy for them and reinforces the message about the value of doing it for others.

Even without the kind of massive investment that some other units have made into this field – LSE is a good example of what can be achieved online – I would hope that our example will show how even a modest application of effort can have significant pay-offs.