#TLC2023 prep time

I open by freely admitting that this post is totally self-serving, but since it’s the first time in ages that I actually wrote the paper ahead of the conference, I’m going to extol the virtues of writing your paper ahead of the conference.

APSA’s TLC is nearly upon us and the heritage it brings of a track model means that pre-written and -circulated papers is still very strong. You can check out the submissions so far here.

As an opportunity to get focused and specific feedback on your work, especially if you’re looking to publish, this is pretty hard to beat: getting a bunch of people working in the same field, in a room for most of two days, sharing ideas, isn’t something you get to do that often in conferences.

And if, cough, one of those people is an editor on a leading L&T journal, then all the better.

Having already started to work my way through the papers on my track, I can see we’ll be having a lot of very productive debate in Baltimore, which we’ll be doing our best to share with you all.

How To Identify Problem Students

While going down the YouTube rabbit hole early last September, I stumbled across this video by a Canadian lawyer about the three types of clients to avoid. These clients display urgency, flattery, or (lack of) responsibility — often simultaneously. As stated in the video, these signals occur in any customer service industry. I’ve certainly seen them, and probably you have, too.

Urgency — a student claims to have an emergency that requires your immediate action. Questions for you to ask: “Is this a real or perceived emergency? Did the situation arise because of the student’s behavior?” In a serendipitous example, two weeks after watching the video, I received an email from a student with “URGENT CONCERN” in the subject line. It wasn’t urgent, nor was it my concern.

Flattery — a student says that you are the only professor that can resolve their problem. It is an attempt to distract you from the real cause of the situation. E.g., “This is my favorite course, but it’s the only one I’m doing badly in this semester, and if my GPA drops below X, I will lose my scholarship and have to drop out of college. Are there any extra credit assignments?”

Responsibility — nothing is the student’s fault. For example (actual email I received last month): “The wi-fi is completely shut down on campus and I can’t submit anything, I’ve been trying to for the past hour. I know our assignment is due and I’ve tried submitting it but I don’t know what to do. I can attach the writing here but can’t upload anything to Canvas.” My response? “The library has computers on every floor.”

How soon is too soon?

We’re in the process of building some new undergraduate modules for our degrees here and it’s been reminding me of a rather basic dilemma in programme design: when should we start students on the ‘hard stuff’?

The air quotes point to a first issue, namely that there are different kinds of ‘hard stuff’ out there.

Part of it is topics that require more advanced skills or more detailed knowledge, often applied, that seems to rest on a strong foundation of core competences: think advanced quants modelling or very particular policy issues.

But it is also the openly structured, student-led work in general. Obvious case in point: we put the dissertation at the end so the student can explore a subject in their own way, having got a bunch of stuff from us.

You’ll be shocked* to learn that I disagree with many people about this model.

Firstly, we typically get students joining us who’ve been socialised into a particular learning model by schools – much of it learning to hit the ‘right’ elements from the curriculum – that we try to shift towards more critical and self-reflective approaches, so why not work on that from Day One?

Secondly, as the examples above show, you could argue that dropping students straight into more ‘advanced’ work might be a strong incentive for them to buy into different ways of working, plus if you know your students are new to it then you can make some allowances about how far they can go.

Case in point: I’ve been looking at courses with my son and there’s one that involves an independent project every year of study. It’s a good way to highlight the applied value of the other content, practice for more ambitious work down the line and a training ground for thinking and reflection.

Finally, given how most degree classifications put weight on later stages of study, does it make utilitarian sense only to be introducing ‘hard stuff’ in those later stages, instead of early on, when they can iron out the wrinkles?

In practical terms, my experience has been that first years are more willing to do something new (because they don’t know ‘how things are’) and they have more ability than we typically recognise, even if their achievement isn’t the same as a final year student.

If we’re using active learning systems, then that’s all fine, because these aren’t so predicated on prior learning, but instead give space to students to take things as far as they can. Moreover, the applied nature of many such environments also makes it easier for new students to understand the wider value of what they’re doing.

Yes, it also means having a robust system of student support as they make the transition, but that should be something that we provide in any case. Indeed, the values of more advanced study – reflection, criticality, resilience – might ultimately help them to feel better able to support themselves.

None of this is particularly novel (as Amanda could tell you), but it’s still good to be reminded of it as we build new content.

Our confidence in building ambitious learning environments for our students is likely to translate into students who can become more confident about their learning.

* Not shocked

Advice For Job-Seekers

We’re in peak season for campus interviews. At this stage of my career, I’ve had and seen many of them. So a bit of advice to those whose applications ended up at the top of the list:

We’ve all probably heard the statement, “No one in the room knows as much about your topic as you do,” intended to alleviate the anxiety of speaking before an audience of strangers. In an attempt to strengthen the performance of job candidates, I now propose the Chad Raymond Corollary: “No one in the room is as interested in your topic as you are.”

If your interview includes a research presentation or a teaching demo, practice multiple times — by which I mean full dress rehearsals, not just reviewing what you think you’re going to say in your mind. Boil the talking down to one or two main points. Eliminate words that you stumble over. Whittle down the content until you can deliver the entire presentation at a steady, deliberate pace within the specified time limit.

Then cut at least another 25 percent. Preferably more.

Why? Expect a delay because of the technology in the room isn’t working properly. Then introductory announcements by hosts. And you will need to entertain questions at the end. But mainly because people don’t really want to hear someone else speak non-stop for 45 minutes about a topic that has less import to them than what they will eat for dinner that night.

The above also applies to conference presentations.

Last, and I can’t stress this enough, figure out how you are going to engage your audience. If you prompt people in the room to do something, they are more likely to have a stronger, more positive view of your abilities. At minimum, they won’t be looking at their phones.

A small communication/adaptability exercise

Some Lego, recently. And yes, I do know the worktop needs varnishing again

My neighbour (and fomer colleague) Roberta came by the other day to borrow my Lego. I’d love to say this kind of thing happens regularly, but it really doesn’t.

She had recalled an activity I’d done with various groups some years ago, to teach them about the importance of communication

The game is super simple (if you (or a neighbour) have the Lego to hand and involves trying to recreate a model, albeit with some restrictions.

Full details here.

For me, the value of the exercise is about getting students to think some more about how well they prepare for activities and how well they can make running adjustments should things turn out to be quite so simple as they thought. Which is of – hopefully – general application, not just for classrooms.

It’s also a nice ice-breaker, especially if you have multiple teams up against each other.

As I say, this isn’t a new exercise, but somehow I never really wrote it up fully. Perhaps I need to go back through my playbook and check there aren’t other things I could be sharing with you.

But do remember, you’ll have to wait for Roberta to return the Lego before you can ask for it.

The robots are coming! And they’re… writing essays!!

It’s a truism that no academic is actually interested in assessment. Sure, there are certainly academics who find assessment stimulating and and engaging as a topic, but none of us has ever met one.

Except you have: me.

I never really understood the antipathy towards assessing: maybe it’s a carryover from being a student, where being tested felt, in very large part, like being punished. And I’m not going to pretend that I really liked sitting down to go through scripts.

One big exception to that was the reflective piece that my negotiation students wrote about their work, exploring and expanding on what they had taken from the course and contextualising it in the wider literature. Every one was a fascinating insight into my students’ heads, in a way that 4,000 words on ‘IR is overly fixated on power’ never is.

Any way. The only point were colleagues do seem to get more interested is when they have a problem with their assessment.

Right now, that problem is ChatGPT.

If you’ve somehow missed this one, this is an AI text generator, capable of creating extensive – and seemingly well-written – responses to minimal prompts. Including to things like essay titles.

To say that colleagues have been concerned is very much an understatement.

Both online and in-person, I’ve seen colleagues describe the system as the death knell of the essay format in assessment. Text is both of a standard that it could satisfy criteria to get a passing grade and that isn’t going to trigger anti-plagiarism software (since it’s not cut-and-paste, but organically created).

For all the rumours that this latter software will become upgraded to pick up on such AI-generated text, the feeling is deeply pessimistic.

My own view is perhaps more measured, mainly because with all the examples I’ve seen I haven’t felt the output is that impressive, especially for any one looking to bypass they way to the kind of higher grade that so many students seek out.

As others have noted, the quality and rigour of such texts isn’t up to much, which means both that it’s possible to pick up on AI generation (even if evidencing a plagiarism case is still a massive pain in the neck) and that students get a dubious amount of return (in grade terms).

But the bigger point is that text is only part of how assessment works.

The choice of questions you ask and the requirements you impose on students also matter massively.

Take that negotiation class I mentioned. Because I knew all the students, saw all they did in class and debriefing them extensively at the time about their learning, I had a very clear idea of what might be in their reflective pieces.

So if someone tried to write about stuff they hadn’t done (and a couple tried), I knew and could mark accordingly.

More generally, this all should be making us think more carefully about what assessment is for. And part of that is acknowledging that the very large majority of students don’t want to cheat on their education: sure it’s less effort (they think), but it screws when they are out in the world, trying to use skills or understanding they don’t actually have.

So I leave you with this example of how we can get students to engage with these challenges. It’s not a whole solution, but it is a recognition that blind panic or utter despair aren’t helpful responses.

We’ll be coming back to this several more times, no doubt, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

New Journal – Call for Papers

An announcement:

The School for International Training (SIT) is debuting an academic journal for the publication of research on the world’s most critical global issues.

The new Journal of Critical Global Issues, a peer-reviewed, open-access digital journal, will contribute to SIT’s mission to educate future scholars and professionals to address critical issues in pursuit of a more sustainable, peaceful, and just world. The journal aspires to support respectful communities, foster intercultural understanding, advocate for social justice and inclusion, and promote sustainability.

The Journal of Critical Global Issues invites proposals from researchers and scholars to contribute to an online roundtable discussion in May focused on the following areas: climate and the environment; development and inequality; education and social change; geopolitics and power; global health and well-being; identity and human resilience; and peace and justice. Roundtable presenters will have the opportunity to publish work related to their roundtable presentation in the inaugural issue of Journal of Critical Global Issues. We seek contributions from diverse theoretical and methodological perspectives to join us for this event.

Event information:

Location: Virtual
When: May 15-17, 2023
To submit a proposal for a roundtable discussion, please submit a 500-word abstract of your presentation here by February 15.

Questions? Contact university.relations@sit.edu.

Return to the source

Is that… America I can see? No. No it’s not.

It’s the new year, which also means it’s that time when several of us go “I really do need to write that TLC paper”.

[cough]

Yes, next month we have APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference happening in the fine city of Baltimore (better than it’s reputation, I’m reliably told and who am I to argue). TLC is still the premier L&T event for polisci in North America, and is also the place where the people who give you this blog first met up.

Since those discussions back in Albuquerque a dozen years ago, a lot has changed: most of us have changed institutions and all of us have moved our practice on considerably. Indeed, it’s possible that only Victor is as he was, perennially on the verge of writing a post for us 😉

As a case in point, I’ll be attending this year in a number of capacities.

Firstly, I’ve a paper on how I’ve designed the asynchronous online simulation that I’ve mentioned here before: we’re still in the testing stage, but it’s looking good and my yes-still-to-be-written paper will talk through both the specifics and some more general theorising about how to go about such a thing. Links will follow.

Secondly, I’m part of the Journal of Political Science Education workshop on how to publish on L&T. We’ll be running a couple of sessions of this during TLC, so if you’re about do attend: as part of the editorial team and the one with responsibility for simulations submissions, I’m really keen to talk about how we can get the most out of your work for others. My own paper will probably pop up as an example of what I’m talking about, although whether as a good or a bad example remains to be seen.

Finally, I’m there generally as an ALPS blog person. This role is certainly the most enjoyable, not least because it reminds me of the most thing-that-could-be-in-a-film moment of my life.

Our blog has endured because of our excellent readers and contributors: without all you guys then what we do would be just so much hot air. So thank you all.

Chad and I have helmed this ship since the start and we’re both starting to think about the next stages of our glittering careers, so if you’d like to buttonhole me for a chat about becoming a more central and active part of the team here, then I’m all ears.

As in the past, I’ll be trying to live-blog from the event next month, but in the meantime I have a paper to write and a sudden reminder that I need to check out what Kim Kardashian is up to these days.

How Do I Get An “A”?

Last summer, when building LMS sites for my fall semester undergraduate courses, I inserted a link titled “How do I get an ‘A’,” assuming it would get students’ attention. The link was to this short video about the importance of deadlines.*

I decided to expand on this idea for the spring semester and beyond, with an LMS page that contains the link to the video and this advice:

  • The due date is not the do date. Instructions and deadlines for all course assignments are available in the syllabus and on Canvas from the beginning of the semester. Plan ahead and complete assignments several days before they are due.
  • See the syllabus for the location of reading assignments. Ask librarians how to access these materials at no cost. There are computers available for this in the library and at other campus locations.
  • Revise your writing to eliminate as many unnecessary words as possible. Bad writing is an indication of sloppy thinking. If you are not familiar with the revision process, use the Writing Center.
  • Read the feedback on the quality of your work that is contained in assignment rubrics and my comments. It is not possible for me to care more about your learning than you do.
  • Sleep, eat, and exercise. Sufficient quantities of each are necessary for learning.

While the above can be construed as facilitating more learned helplessness among students, I’m finding that my syllabus quizzes just aren’t doing the job of communicating some of the most basic academic aspects of being a college student.

*Courtesy of TikTok via Reddit. Not something I created.

The Death of Curiosity? Part 3

A final review of the previous semester, this time on my course about environmental politics and economic development. I tweak the design and content of this course every year, probably because it’s my favorite topic to teach (some prior examples of this here and here).

As in the other undergraduate course that I taught, I administered my own course evaluation. Sample is 18 out of 22 students. Here are the results for the questions with a 5-point scale of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”:

  • I now have a better understanding of the causes of poverty and economic growth: 4.3
  • I now have a better understanding of the relationship between economic development, environmental change, and risk: 4.4
  • The game design project helped me learn about environmental vulnerability and risk analysis: 3.6
  • I am now better able to use risk analysis as a decision making tool in my own life: 4.0
  • More courses at this university should include training in skills like risk analysis: 4.2

The relatively low score for the third question matched my observations. As in previous iterations of the course, teams of students designed games. This year I specified that the games needed to teach players about the environmental vulnerabilities faced by business owners. I devoted portions of some classes to presentations about system design and failure, and there were many writing assignments about the relationships between economic development, climate change, and risk. Yet, as in prior years, the games students built had little relevance to the design objective. In terms of mechanics, they mainly resembled Monopoly or Life.

I’m taking this as a sign that I need to impose even more limitations on the creativity students can but don’t exercise on this project. Next year I’m going to require that the games:

  • Be played on a board that is a map of the local community.
  • Have player roles that focus on a specific industry or institution threatened by climate change — such as tourism, food, or housing.
  • Contain mechanics that take into account the system components of place, people, and processes.

The good news is that I was completely surprised by answers to the evaluation’s “My favorite reading in the course?” Eleven of the respondents named the novel How to Get Filthy Rich In a Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. Comments about the book included:

  • Clearly written and entertaining.
  • Nice to be able to connect with a character throughout the story.
  • Explained the timeline of a developing country through a perspective that I could visualize.
  • Unique and thought provoking.

I’ll definitely be including this novel in the course next year.