Student Autobiographies

Today we have a guest post from Justin Rex, Senior Lecturer, Irvin D. Reid Honors College, Wayne State University:

One fundamental question that underlies many political debates is the extent to which individuals are in control of their status in life. To what extent are individuals a product of their own choices and to what extent are they influenced or controlled by larger forces like political parties, corporations, class, race, or gender? One’s answer to this question goes a long way toward explaining one’s position on welfare, immigration, healthcare access, and many other issues.

Justin Bieber BioStudents are often unaware of their own answer to this question. Frequently, their attitude is a reflexive, uncritical one and they struggle to view the world from a perspective different than the one already deeply ingrained. The problem is then how we as educators can get students to more explicitly acknowledge their own perspectives and to learn to see from alternative ones so they can make a more informed decision about their core values and political preferences.

One solution I created for my Introduction to American Government class is to have students write two versions of their autobiography. These can be short, 1-2 paragraph assignments completed at home or in class early in the semester. The first autobiography is written from the perspective of individualism. This version is the Horatio Alger story of their life, focusing on the good choices and hard work that led them to where they are today. Next, they write a structural autobiography. What factors outside their control helped them get where they are, such as their family, school, and socioeconomic status? Once students have completed their autobiographies, I ask them to share brief versions in class. As more students share, we begin to list commonalities. This list serves as a good introduction for these contrasting ways of seeing the social world. A good way to get students to think about their own values is to ask them which autobiography best explains their life.

This assignment is not a solution in isolation. To be useful, I refer back to it often. For example, when we discuss political ideologies, I ask students to draw connections between various ideologies and their autobiographical perspective. Through discussion, we are able to make the connection between classical liberalism and their individualist autobiographies the connection between socialist ideologies and their structural autobiographies. My students also complete a semester-long service learning project on a public problem of their choice. As students reflect on the causes of a problem like poverty, it is useful to have them consider the extent to which individuals, social structures, or some combination thereof are the cause. Their answers helps shape the solutions they ultimately recommend. Also, the assignment helps them think critically about individual and group efficacy for changing the social structures that contribute to the problem.

Justin can be contacted about the above assignment at justin.rex[at]

Logic Models

SpockTwo Saturdays ago I was at the Harvard Medical School’s palatial conference facilities, attending the launch of RISE, an organization that supports innovation through social enterprise in Egypt.  I got to see Dr. Mona Amer, a psychology professor at the American University of Cairo, give an excellent presentation on program development and evaluation. She emphasized that only by making assessment mechanisms part of the design process will it be possible to generate the data needed to measure success — echoing the points that we often make about the use of classroom simulations and learning outcomes.

Dr. Amer discussed how a logic model functions as an effective design template in this regard, and while she was talking I suddenly realized that it is the perfect tool for students in my upcoming development economics course. As I’ve been doing in some of my other courses, students will be collaborating on projects and as part of their work they will have to both define success and create a means of measuring it. I can explain the purpose of a logic model and then give student teams copies of a blank version for them to fill in. This might work much better than the worksheets I used in the spring semester.

The University of Wisconsin office of cooperative extension has this helpful guide to teaching and training with logic models.

Bringing students in: a Maastricht model?

Right now, I’m sat at the back of a room, watching a meeting. It’s more interesting than I’ve made it sound, and not only because cake has been laid on.

It’s the annual course meeting of the European Studies section at the University of Maastricht (where I’m visiting this week), where the team of student representatives meet the faculty staff. There are about 15 of each.IMAG1305

The student rep team – and they are a team – have organised the session, and picked the topics they want to discuss. This includes one about future careers and the programme prepares them, and one about ‘course coherence and interdisciplinarity’: broken student lockers, it ain’t.

These discussions are taken by small groups, taking about 30 minutes to discuss positive and negative aspects, as well as ideas for improvement. Everyone gets to talk about everything, with the reps taking notes, to produce a consolidated document afterwards.

For me, this is a somewhat different model from the ones I encounter at home. It’s more open than a Board of Studies (which is about programme management in general), but more structured than a Student-Staff Liaison Committee (which is often more of a clearing house for all manner of issues).

Instead, it’s coming across as a means of linking students and staff in a constructive discussion about major topics, with a view to producing outputs. With a couple of hours (and the aforementioned refreshments), it’s also an opportunity for issues to be explored and clarified and misunderstandings (on both sides) to be resolved.

The most striking feature of this process is the way in which the values of the section’s Problem-Based Learning approach is extended out of the classroom and into programme management. Students are front-and-centre, creating their own agendas, working towards targeted results. Such an approach has to be lauded, not least for making sure that the student focus does not stop once they step out of classroom.

In so doing, it also makes students stakeholders in their education, as they take some of the responsibility for the process. Interestingly, it is a good way of helping the reps to see that staff have to manage different interests and work within constraints: more of one thing often means less of another.

For staff, it’s a way to remember that their students can and do engage with issues beyond the mundane, and that some of the ideas that emerge can add genuine value.

To call all of this a model might be pushing it, but it is still the kind of activity that more institutions will need to use if they are to maintain and improve student engagement and satisfaction. The process is as important as the outcome here: by treating students with respect and as colleagues, we can start to get the emergence of new practice that serves all our interests.

Devil’s Workshop

Bosch 2If idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, then idle minds are even worse. I expected my comparative politics students to be mentally absent on the day before Easter vacation, so I surprised them with a rocket pitch competition based on a discussion that occurred the previous week. Students had twenty-five minutes to design a presentation with their teammates. The presentations had to identify the causes of a political process through a comparison of three cases — each team’s choice of two nation-states plus the fictional state of Gerkhania, which I will write about in a future post. Teams were free to select the two or three variables — which I referred to as factors — they thought were most relevant to their team’s analysis. Visually the presentations looked something like:

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Conferences as a hotbed of radical thinking

I like academic conferences. I like meeting old friends and acquaintances, the making of new contacts, the banter and the chatter, the overheard conversations of people who forget where they are and who might be listening, the discovery of even more areas of academic endeavour that you’re not interested in and (less frequently) that you are interested in. I like being away from work, while still being at work, even if the ubiquity of wifi (which allows me to write this at the airport) means that work-work is still able to get hold of you if they must. I like that I can usually get at least a flavour of a place I’d not get to visit otherwise, to broaden my cultural horizons, even if that does only mean eating the local delicacy.

And I like all these things despite the fact that I rarely learn anything at conferences. It’s not that it doesn’t happen – as you’re about to read – but that much of the substantive content is either stuff you’ve heard before (if it’s the big name prof giving a plenary), stuff that’s potential, rather than actual (if it’s a grad student outlining the next steps of their doctoral work), or stuff that confirms what you always suspected (most of the rest).

To be clear, that’s not a problem. Indeed, I’d argue it’s precisely what makes a conference really useful.

The thing I love (rather than just like) about conferences is the space to think dangerous thoughts, to discuss radical ideas. That conversation in the hotel lobby with the colleague you’ve not seen for a while, the chance combination of ideas that suddenly resolve into a plan.

At this conference, I’ve had several of those moments and have written some of them up already here.But it was today, as I pounded the streets of Toronto, that something came together that made me all eager to share.

As I’ve written before, I’m introducing a Liberal Arts & Sciences degree at Surrey and will be involved in teaching some of the core modules. That includes research methods this autumn.

Now, I’ve not taught research methods before and I’ve not been taught research methods before (my alma mater was rather like that), so I’m working here on the topic’s reputation, which is awful.

But yesterday, I was listening to Cai Wilkinson from Deakin talk about her task-based learning approach that she uses in her area studies course. Essentially, this is a form of PBL, where students have weekly, pre-defined tasks to achieve, such as writing a press release, or producing a storyboard.

That struck as a more manageable form of PBL, which I really want to use, but which I’m anxious about using, never having had direct experience of it. But it was the sudden connection I made today with another half-thought that was so stimulating.

Some weeks ago, my son came back from school and asking if we were related. Obviously, as his biological, legal and everything-else father, I said yes. But he wanted to show me his test for related-ness which he’d been playing all day. This seemed to involve hitting my hands and ultimately confirmed that we were related (which was nice).

But his question about “are we related?” struck me an excellent example of a question we might pose to an interdisciplinary group of students learning about research methods. It can be taken at least as a biological question, or a legal one, or a social one, or a hand-hitting one. Each approach is couched in different assumptions and probes different elements and in the contrasting of those approaches we might create space for students to appreciate the conditionality of any one approach.

Nice idea, but I’ve lacked a way to operationalise this. Until today, where I could see a way to do that brought in Cai’s model.

I’m not going to talk about it here – not least because it still needs some work – but it all serves to underline my starting point.

How many times do we come away from a conference, charged with enthusiasm and creativity, only for it to wither in the face of the pile of stuff back at work? My present enthusiasm is unlikely to survive the red-eye back home, but that moment to dream a little, to break free from the bounds of my day-to-day routine is something that I will be able to return to long from now. Come October, when I sit down with my students and ask them if we’re related, a bit of my mind will think back to a brisk spring day in Toronto.

And that’s why I really like conferences.

Leaning Towers of Puft

Stay PuftI used the marshmallow challenge in two classes last week — one an introductory course on globalization and the other a senior interdisciplinary seminar. Out of a total of fourteen teams, only two constructed a tower that remained upright when time expired. Most teams followed the same path to eventual destruction.

In each class I ran a debriefing discussion after the exercise in which I asked students how their experience of the challenge could be applied to problem solving in general. I then showed them Tom Wujec’s TED Talk (see the linked post above), which repeated many of the ideas they had generated on their own — namely that effective problem-solving is both an iterative and a collaborative process. Individuals rarely stumble upon the perfect solution the moment they begin thinking about a problem. Testing possible solutions — prototypes — increases the chances of achieving one’s goal. Facilitation skills are also important. Good communication and a willingness to consider the perspectives of others are just as important as technical skills.

Worksheets for Adaptive Decision Making

BieberThe last two worksheets that I plan on using this semester for project-based learning are more explicitly oriented toward, for lack of a better term, adaptive decision making. I’m hoping these worksheets will lead each student to do four things:

  • Assess what direction his or her team is headed in,
  • Decide whether that direction is a good one,
  • Think of either a new, better direction or think of something that will improve what his or her team is currently doing.
  • Determine with his or her teammates how to make the team more productive.

The worksheets are 6 Plus Minus Interesting and 7 What Might Happen If.

Enjoy, and if you use any of these worksheets, please tell me how it goes. Who knows, they might even help Justin Bieber’s legal team prevent him from getting deported.