Meet the ALPS Blog team!

As part of our new ALPS set-up, we’re trying to get out more to meet up with colleagues, talking active learning and sustaining our community.

If you’d like to chat with any of us, then you find a handy list of events we’re signed/signing up to this year below. We’re all very pleasant, friendly types, so you’re always welcome to have a chat.

We can help with all your learning & teaching queries, and we’re also happy to advise on getting published (both here at the blog and elsewhere).

And if you’re not at these events, then we’re only an email away.

Looking forward to seeing you in 2024!

EventWho’s there?
Serious Play, Toronto, 12-14 AugustPigeon
Tacticon, Denver, 22-25 AugustPigeon
UACES, Trento, 1-4 SeptSimon
APSA, Philadelphia, 5-8 SeptAmanda, Jennifer, Pigeon

Farewell to the personal statement

The personal statement is a cornerstone of applying to university for students in the UK. Applicants get to write up to 4,000 characters dedicated to making the case that they are the right person for a particular course, used however they best see fit. Usually this is about presenting a case that they have thought through their choice, are excited about the subject and that they have grand plans when they graduate. It’s a pivotal moment for many, sitting down and putting to paper what makes you “you” for the first time.

Today, however, UCAS (the UK’s University and Colleges Admissions Service) announced that the personal statement would be no more and that they are replacing it with a new written format that also would be submitted along with UCAS applications. 

Having worked as Admission Tutor for York’s Department of Politics and International Relations for the past three years, I know all too well how much students worry about the personal statement. Parents and sixth-form colleges are often part of this worry – stressing that there is a right and wrong way to present a personal statement. UCAS itself offers advice to all applicants on how to ‘stand out from the crowd’ through the personal statement, offering a list of eight different topics that an applicant might want to address. 

However, despite all this stress and pressure, it’s an open secret in higher education that in many institutions, the personal statement no longer has the level of import that it once had. While they still might be read in some cases, primarily decisions on whether to make an offer or not have largely hinged on grades alone for some time now. That students were feeling this pressure was then, at best, a bit unproductive. Especially when they could have been investing that time and effort in a more worthwhile way by concentrating and getting those grades in the first place. 

However, the personal statement might have been more harmful than by being simply ‘unproductive’. For those institutions that still seriously consider the personal statement, the statement was giving an outsized advantage to those applicants who had stronger support networks around them when they were applying to university. Privately educated students have been especially identified as ones who would be getting this kind of extra support.

Given that research from UCAS found that 79% of applicants reported that it would be difficult to complete the personal statement without support, these factors matter. They matter especially as universities look to widen participation in coming years – something that might be more likely under the newly elected Labour government. Currently, the rate of applications from those with the most disadvantaged backgrounds is actually declining across most of the UK (Scotland is the exception here).  

So, I think that the removal of the personal statement is a bit of a win. It’s something that’s been coming down the pipeline for some time and now we know that the changed system will be in place for students applying to begin their studies in September 2026. 

But what’s replacing the personal statement? 

UCAS have shared that ‘following extensive research, testing and validation with students, teachers and advisers, and universities and colleges’, rather than the 4,000 character text box personal statement format, students will be asked to respond to three questions: 

  1. Why do you want to study this course or subject? 
  2. How have your qualifications and studies helped you to prepare for this course or subject? 
  3. What else have you done to prepare outside of education, and why are these experiences helpful? 

This guided approach has clear advantages. Applicants who are not getting support in the drafting process will have clear pointers on what they should be writing about and in a more simple and structured way than with the free-form personal statement. 

Of course, this is not a silver bullet to the problems with the personal statement. Afterall, this isn’t a sharp shift to only focusing on students’ grades. There is still a written portion of UCAS applications. Questions still remain. Will universities give this new format more weight than they do the personal statement in making offer decisions? Won’t privately educated students and non-first generation students still have an advantage in the drafting process? Will the focus on ‘this course or subject’ mean applicants feel more pressure to make earlier decisions to only apply for one subject area? Some of these problems are unlikely to be easy or even fully realisable fixes – but this change is a step in the right direction. 

Connections Wargaming Conference Notes

In late June/early July I road-tripped to the Connections Wargaming Conference at the Army War College (Carlisle Barracks, PA), along with visiting my mother, twin brother, and sister-in-law in Rock Hall, MD (I gorge on seafood every time I visit them). It priced out cheaper to drive than fly, but I think I’m getting too old to be driving 6 days round trip. My wife had to extract me from my Jeep with a crowbar when I returned home, and my lower back hasn’t been on speaking terms with me since. But I digress!

Although predominantly geared towards the Department of Defense, UK Ministry of Defence, and defense contractors, Connections also features civilian educators (such as this scraggly pigeon), entertainment game designers, and wargaming hobbyists. I attended lectures ranging from game graphic design to social science analytic gaming, the latter of which I’ll expand on in a future post. I also presented on running large classroom games (100 or more students), which I’m also delivering in workshop format at the Serious Play Conference in August (in Toronto). As mentioned in a previous post, Discord is my secret sauce for organizing and running large games, along with having roughly one assistant for every 25 students. So far, my assistant team has typically had a 50/50 split between teaching assistants and student volunteers.

Connections also features game demonstrations and social gaming nights, giving attendees ample opportunity to see new games in publisher pipelines and simply have a good time competing with fellow attendees, leaded or unleaded cold ones in hand.

Ethical statement: when I’m not political sciencing at Colorado State, I write for Mobius Worlds Publishing, a Littleton, Colorado-based roleplaying game design firm. Mobius’s tentpole products are Prowlers & Paragons: Ultimate Edition, a superhero RPG system, and Freedom Squadron, an “ode to GI Joe” setting using Pinnacle Entertainment’s Savage Worlds rule system (I make no personal profit from sharing the links).

At Connections I demonstrated a prototype real-world infantry squad tactical decision game using Prowlers & Paragons (P&P) core mechanics. Core mechanics are the fundamental rules that drive a game. For example, hands are Poker’s core mechanic, and dice modifiers are common RPG core mechanics. Although aimed towards superhero play, the rules can easily be calibrated for human-level performance: think military units, first responders, and experts such as medical, cyber, intelligence, and diplomats. In another future post, I’ll discuss core mechanics, let alone the importance of matching the right core mechanics to a classroom game’s learning objectives.

I’ll go out on a limb and assume that most political science classrooms don’t need to model infantry squads to match course learning objectives. Still, they could model individual political decision-makers in tense crisis scenarios that require immediate decisions.

This was my third Connections and I highly recommend it. The conference welcomes educators with open arms–to wit, I met a college curriculum designer with no military background who was there simply to learn how to integrate games in his curriculum design process. Maybe I’ll see you next year!

Speaking of which, I hadn’t planned on attending APSA 2024, but I received a last-minute invite that I couldn’t turn down. The invite was related to this blog, which you’ll hear more about in a future post. That’s three posts I owe you!

My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Misery

The USA’s impending descent into fascist dictatorship might have some of you thinking about revising your fall semester courses. In 2017, we published a “Teaching Trump” series (scroll down to the bottom of the linked page to access all posts). Here are some additional resources that I highly recommend:

  • Reza Aslan, “Is the Trump presidency a religious cult?” Big Think, 15 April 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS7pnPlQLcY.
  • Democratic Erosion Consortium. Site includes a sample syllabus.
  • Jean-Paul Faguet, “The Lessons of Bolivia,” Journal of Democracy 29, 4 (October 2018). Social cleavage theory; the disintegration of previously stable political party systems.
  • Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “Robert Putnam Knows Why You’re Lonely,” The New York Times, 13 July 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/07/13/magazine/robert-putnam-interview.html. Political effects of America’s declining social capital.
  • George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, 2013. Profiles the disintegration of the economic engines of America’s middle class over a thirty-five-year period.
  • Ben Rhodes, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, 2021. The scourges unleashed by the USA upon the world — unfettered capitalism, social media, and militarism — have now been weaponized against it.
  • Karen Stenner, “Authoritarianism,” Hope Not Hate, 1 November 2020, https://hopenothate.org.uk/2020/11/01/authoritarianism/. “Liberal democracy now exceeds many people’s capacity to tolerate it.”
  • Milan W. Svolik, “Polarization versus Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 30, 3 (July 2019). Elected leaders have an incentive to persuade voters to “trade off democratic principles for partisan interests.”
  • Ece Temelkuran, How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, 2019. The step-by-step recipe for establishing an authoritarian regime.

Higher education and the UK General Election

Polling day looms in the UK. Therefore, I thought I’d step a little away from the teaching and learning content today and share a few reflections about what this election means for UK higher education and consider what the winner of the 4th July will inherit in terms of the university sector. 

I appreciate that much of this will be familiar to those in the UK, but thought this could still be an interesting review for those that might not be as familiar with higher education in this country. 

Experts have been keen to point out that higher education isn’t a doorstep issue in this election, meaning that few voters are making it their key issue, or even one of their top issues, as they weigh their decision at the ballot box. There are a long list of other concerns that seem a lot more immediate for voters across the country. 

However, whether it’s getting much coverage at the moment or not, the next government will have its work cut out for it with universities.

It is no great secret that it’s not a boom time for higher education in the UK. A branch of the main union for academics in the UK, UCU, has compiled a list of the current redundancy programmes in universities across the country – which makes for unpleasant reading. 

Part of this problem is a funding model that is reliant on student tuition fees. Since 2017, these fees have been capped at £9,250, with no room for manoeuvre with any potential inflation. And, as those that keep an eye on the news and on their bank balance will know, that potential for inflation has definitely been met. Whilst universities largely profited on the £9,250 tuition fee in 2017, by late 2023 that same £9,250 meant that they were operating with an average annual loss of £2,500 per home undergraduate student.

To cover this shortfall, universities turned to the international student market. Without the same tuition fee cap for home students, annual international student fees vary from £11,400 – £38,000 for undergraduate courses and £9,000 – £30,000 for postgraduate courses. However, the success that the higher education sector had in recruiting international students has quickly run into a wall of anti-immigrant discourse and practice in the UK, which has now played a part in a downturn of international student numbers. Universities that expanded staff numbers and built new accommodation blocks to cater for international students are now finding themselves in deficit.  

This is why Universities UK have called for an urgent reassessment of the funding model and called for a sustainable approach to university funding

This is a call that has been met with… well, not much of anything, really. 

Of course, a General Election does provide some concrete insight into political parties’ policy positions and so might give us some insight into what is to come. Polling from YouGov shows that there are a lot of issues that voters do care about at this election. The NHS, immigration, the economy, housing, and the environment are all issues that outrank education as voter priorities. It’s of little surprise then that there has been scant attention to the crisis in UK higher education in the run-up to the election.

Part of the limited political attention that has been given to universities during the General Election campaign has been to bash so-called Mickey Mouse degrees – a framing that 1) only sees that the value of a university education through an economic lens and 2) even with that economic lens applied, means avoiding the fact that the 80% of students that do gain financially from going to university are still suffering from the lack of actually helpful policy intervention. 

Unless everyone’s been winding up pollsters, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party looks to be the winner of the General Election. The party’s General Election policy pitch on education education has been described as ‘the vaguest on detail and offered very little the party had not said before’. Across the 136 pages of the Labour Party manifesto, three paragraphs, totalling 119 words, were dedicated to reforming higher education. However, while short, there was some cause for hope here with recognition of the funding crisis and a commitment to the future of UK higher education: ‘The current higher education funding settlement does not work for the taxpayer, universities, staff, or students. Labour will act to create a secure future for higher education and the opportunities it creates across the UK.’

Trying to avoid a reputation as a party of taxation, Labour has made much of its promise to deliver spending goals through increased growth. Whilst the party has, to date, been somewhat vague about how that growth will be driven, the university sector is one area that could boost the economy. Research spend in the UK returns good value for money, with every £1 invested returning around £7-8 in net Gross Value Added

The current party of government, the Conservatives, makes much of shutting down economically underperforming degrees in their manifesto. These courses would be replaced with support for up to 100,000 apprenticeships. Fresh off of strikes and marking boycotts in the previous academic year, there is also a commitment to ‘work with universities to ensure students get the contact hours they are promised and their exams get marked’. One imagines that this wouldn’t be through supporting academics in negotiations with employers to help ensure these strikes don’t occur. 

Times Higher Education have put together a party-by-party breakdown of manifesto commitments concerning higher education, that’s worth a read if you fancy getting a deeper look. However, what’s clear is that the next government will, despite the litany of other pressing issues, have to do something to protect the UK’s higher education sector during its term. 

Whilst higher education is not a frontpage topic in this election, it’s clear that this election will matter significantly to the sector. It might not be an easy or a cheap thing to fix, but the winner of the 4th July election will want to dedicate significant time, attention, and money to the UK universities. 

Despite a year of rough news for UK universities, and the fact that it is heavily raining as I write this in early July, I remain an optimist. Universities matter to our politics and, having spoken to seemingly endless crowds of keen applicants at recent open days, it’s very apparent that politics still matters to those coming to university. So, let’s get ready to see what happens next. 

Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

Generative AI in the classroom

Many contemporary conversations about innovations in teaching and learning will eventually touch on the same subject – AI and its place in higher education. There have already been some great posts on ALPS covering a range of angles for exploring AI and political science education, including protecting the integrity of assessments, the choice to adopt or resist AI in the political science classroom, on AI and specification grading, and on AI and the pace of technological change. ALPS is not alone in this attention to AI. PS: Political Science & Politics published a piece by Ardoin and Hicks in April detailing fears of AI-driven academic misconduct and suggested methods for successfully using AI as a learning tool. Looking at WonkHE’s coverage of AI over the last year shows the extensive and profound effects that AI-related concerns and applications are already having in the sector.

However, one thing that has been largely overlooked to date is the idea of bringing AI into the political science classroom, not as a tool for research, for writing essays, or summarising texts, but as a subject of study. 

The generative AI tool ChatGPT has experienced a meteoric rise in its widespread adoption. It took 2 months for ChatGPT to reach 100 million users. Comparing this to TikTok’s 9 months, Instagram’s 30 months, and Spotfy’s 55 months, shows just how rapid the uptake of the chatbot has been. ChatGPT is now being hyped as a replacement for Google Search, with many using it as a first port of call for answering queries. This gives ChatPGT and its developer, OpenAI, an enormous amount of political power and opens up the potential for generative AI to be a vital subject of political science study. 

A recent paper published in the Journal of Political Science Education by Stefan Kehlenbach, entitled ‘The Impact of Infrastructure: Considerations of Generative AI in the Classroom’ set out this case well. One section at the end of Kehlenbach’s article stood out to me: 

All elements of political science research are impacted by AI in some way, and so by asking important questions about its usage we can leverage its popularity to ask the important questions that political science wants to answer. How does the spread of AI impact lawmaking now that policy makers are beginning to use generative AI as a part of the lawmaking process? What role does AI play in national defense? Should an AI system be allowed to make decisions about who to attack, or how to deploy troops? How might this impact the existing structures of warfare and the responsibility to protect? How does the flow of rare earth minerals, microchips and other building blocks for AI impact what we think about political economy? These questions are more interesting and more important than the questions about its pedagogical effectiveness. 

Kehlenbach (2024, 8)

I found Kehlenbach’s paper extremely thought provoking and would really recommend giving it a read. It got me thinking about how, if ChatGPT is providing answers to political questions, it might be shaping political debates in a way that is not yet fully appreciated or engaged with. It also struck me that if we do respond to Kehlenbach’s call and make ChatGPT and other forms of generative AI a subject of study, this might also provide a foundation for students to be more critical in their own use of the tool. 

To start thinking about how generative AI might be used as a subject of study in the political science classroom, I went to ChatGPT and (ironically, I know) asked ‘Should people stop using generative AI because of its negative environmental impacts?’. I’ll post the lengthy response below but it won’t surprise you to learn that the result was a big “no”. The response is one that I can definitely see political science students getting a lot of discussion and analysis out of in a classroom-based exercise. It was a response that, interestingly, struck me as starkly similar to some of the contemporary defences that fossil fuel and other carbon-intensive companies make – that they provide a valuable service, boost the economy, and that it is up to governments to provide regulation.

Having these kinds of critical conversations in first-year political science classes could be a useful way to begin analysing the power of generative AI and to develop a more sceptical approach amongst students to outputs from tools like ChatGPT. Pairing that analysis with a core piece of reading on different understandings and forms of power would allow for these conversations to be analytically rigorous, rather than descending into debates of whether students like/ dislike using generative AI. Terry Hathaway’s ‘Lukes Reloaded: An Actor-Centred Three-Dimensional Power Framework’ is one piece of reading on power that I have found that students really enjoy engaging with and is a useful basis of analysis. 

It’s clear that, whether you love it or hate it, the debate around AI in education is not going away anytime soon – despite the problems that plague tools like ChatGPT. By incorporating generative AI as a subject of study, we can at least prepare students to critically analyse its broader societal impacts and the power structures it influences. This approach will not only enhance their understanding of AI but also equip them with the analytical tools needed to navigate and challenge its role in contemporary politics.

Innocuous answer or example of invisible power at play?

In defence of slides

Yesterday, James Fielder published a blog post here detailing his ‘hate/hate relationship with slides’. I had another piece that I wanted to share today but having read James’s impassioned post I felt an equal surge of emotion – but with a need to defend the slides that make up so much of my working life.

Sigh – life really comes at you fast. One day you’re young and cool and the next you’re dropping everything to write a 600 word blog post defending the use of slides…

But, in my mind at least, slides really are worth defending.

There is an old joke about the (very real) Swiss ‘Anti PowerPoint Party’ that goes something like “Switzerland’s Anti PowerPoint Party has got a cause that could convince millions… just as soon as they find an easy and clear way to communicate their message”. 

Of course, that such a party even exists shows that James is certainly not alone in his hatred of slides. I can see why one might take such offence to them. There are endless examples of people using slides in ways that are wildly off putting, both in terms of design and delivery.

I certainly wouldn’t claim that I am the rare third type of slide-user that James describes as one that ‘builds a New York gallery-esque deck and briefs confidently without superstitiously looking back at their deck like some sort of mythic totem’. I’m fine with the basic templates that come automatically with PowerPoint and don’t want to spend too much time on fancy production. Occasionally, if I feel the content really demands it, I might add a nicely chosen background image but that’s probably as good as it’s going to get.

So, what’s the ‘sell’ with slides? Simply, I think everyone benefits. 

For the instructor, spending time putting together slides for a course means that, next year, when it comes time to teach that course again, you can relax knowing there is something there to turn to and use. Sure, the slides might need a little updating but you are not back to square one. Slides are also a convenient way to pace and structure one’s lectures. It might be great to have the time to rehearse a lecture so slides aren’t necessary but it’s highly unlikely that space will be found in workload models for that.

For the students, the benefits are also clear. Students are often keen to stress some of these reasons – slides are good for taking notes around, they are good for revision, etc. But I also think that there is a benefit of slides that students might not want to fess up to – they are good when the audience stops paying attention. Now, obviously, one hopes that this never happens. But, if and when they do start to daydream about what they’ll be having for lunch, at least they will have the slides to quickly anchor their attention back onto once they’ve decided that it will be beans on toast again today. 

Controversially, I also like using slides in seminars. There aren’t a tonne of them and I don’t rely on them too much. But, again, I find that they are a useful anchor point for discussions. I’ve become even more certain in my use of them in recent years of teaching in mixed-language ability classrooms. I’ve seen that they can be a comfortable point of reference for those that might otherwise feel less confident in their ability to engage. 

So, I’ll put myself proudly in the other faction and declare that I am and shall remain an ardent slidist.

See, what’s not to love?

My Hate/Hate Relationship with Slides

I hate PowerPoint with every fiber of my being, and other slide apps by extension (PPT receives the brunt of my rage thanks to its ubiquity). Slides represent the truncation of critical thinking into pithy bullets and ill-timed animations. Slides are a lesson prep time sink. When people discuss going back in time to change history, I’d make a trip solely to corrupt the original PowerPoint floppy disks and mind-wipe the code from the programmers’ memories.

My 25-year military career exacerbates my animosity–gods, how much time I saw wasted on building perfect decks, only for a colonel to get irritated over an extra space between words despite the otherwise action-packed content.

There is one thing I grudgingly like about slides: ease of embedding multimedia. I do like using figures, images, videos, and audio clips, and a good piece of multimedia says more than any bullet statement.

The problem is that there are only three types of slide writers. The first designs the perfect deck: lush, tactile, sensual, and brimming with effects. But they spend so much time on the deck that they practice neither the material nor the timing, resulting in them reading from the slides and botching their carefully embedded light show masterpieces. If you’re just reading from the slides, I’d rather have an email (albeit I hate email even more than slides, but that’s a story for another time).

The second is clearly a master of the material. They barely need their slides and likely could get by with no slides at all. But society demands slides, so they slap some black Calibri-font words on a white background–perhaps 8-point, full-paragraph excerpts from the source material–and end up giving a TED-worthy talk supported with decrepit slides that look like they were built the night before in a fit of caffeinated madness (and they probably were).

I also lose my mind when bullets wrap to a second line with a single word. 😐

Rarely do you get the third person who builds a New York gallery-esque deck and briefs confidently without superstitiously looking back at their deck like some sort of mythic totem. Yet, just imagine how much time they spent crafting and practicing the slides, time likely better spent on… anything besides slides.

Alas, my students howl every time I attempt teaching without slides. So I meet them less than halfway and under duress by channeling a modified “second presenter” archetype: I first deliver a stage-eating, Sam Kinison rant-worthy version of this post on the third or so day of class, then prepare (let alone reuse) sparse slides with a few key words and illustrations. This pacifies the vast majority of my students, albeit every semester I get at least two feedback notes that say, “I wish he put more on his slides.” That’ll be my grave epitaph.

Even so, I am and shall remain an ardent anti-slidist!

Reflections on my Spring 2024 Podcasting Project

In Spring 2024, I conducted a semester-long podcasting project with my students in my “International Relations and Popular Culture” class. I wrote about this idea last December if you want to get a broader overview of what I did. I want to use this post to provide some reflections on how it went, and what sort of changes I will be making in the Fall 2024 semester in two sections of the same course. I think podcasting projects are a fantastic way to have students conduct traditional research. But then they get to write podcast scripts and record episodes which ask them to translate more academic based research  into forward-facing publicly engaging content.

Continue reading “Reflections on my Spring 2024 Podcasting Project”

Rousseau in the Gallowgate:

Using drama-based pedagogies with first-generational political theory students

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) recently co-hosted an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon), offers further reflections on using drama-based pedagogies to overcome barriers to the study of political theory facing first-generational students.

“Well, I would like to see Mr Rousseau come down and do a shift with me in the Gallowgate; soon see how long he holds on to those views.”

The Gallowgate is a street in Glasgow known both for its association with Celtic football club and for its reputation as one of the roughest streets in the city. It was where the student quoted worked as a barman when not studying for his politics degree. He was a mature student, older indeed than I was at time of teaching, and had disclosed over our seminars a hardened pessimism cultivated over many years serving pints in Glasgow’s roughest bars.

It was no surprise he had found Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s claim that ‘men are naturally good’ ridiculously absurd.

I nevertheless endeavoured to explain Rousseau’s optimism. I related his thought against the backdrop of the French Enlightenment; as reversal of the Christian tradition of original sin; as a seminal moment in revolutionary socialism. He was buying none of it. Whatever framework I placed it in, he insisted such philosophical optimism would collapse at the threshold of his Gallowgate bar.

In truth, the more I gave intellectual context the more I lost him, as the more ‘intellectual’ I made it the less relevant it appeared to him. I needed to change track: reconstructing the world of Rousseau would not help my argument, I needed instead to make it more relatable to the world of my student – I had to bring Rousseau into the Gallowgate.   

The Portal Between Worlds  

We can think of the interpretation of political thought as a portal: the historical world from which the thinker writes at one side, the contemporary reader at the other. The text is what connects them; interpretation taking ideas from one side and translating them into the other. 

The attention we pay to each side is, however, rarely equal. As academics, and teachers, we frequently prioritise the world of the thinker, with emphasis being put on reconstructing their historical context in order to gain accurate interpretation of their meaning.

This is in part the legacy of Quentin Skinner’s Cambridge School, hallmarked by a meticulous dedication to reconstruction of the political and linguistic context in which a past author wrote as to determine exactly what he or she could, and could not, have said.

Political Theory – and especially International Political Theory (IPT), in which my specialism lies – does have its issues with Skinner, especially on how such focus on history can be reductive, eclipsing consideration of contemporary relevance to the point of collapsing the portal between worlds.

Nonetheless, whilst IPT does aim to highlight the relevance of historical thought for the present, it still puts incredible emphasis on the need to reconstruct the historical context first before translation into the present can be attempted. Interpretatively, there is a soundness to this as it prevents us projecting ideas into the past and becoming guilty of anachronism.

Pedagogically, however, this can create a challenging environment for students as they are left with a forest of intellectual, historical, and linguistic context to navigate through before relatable ideas can be located.

The study of Thucydides, the embarking point for most IPT programs, gives clear illustration of this. Before we can even begin discussing ideas, students must quickly orientate themselves in a very strange and alien world: Corcyra and Corinth? Mytilene and Melos? And Lacedaemon, that’s Sparta? And that is before students even get to concepts rooted in the Classical Greek linguistic context, like Nomos and physis. Students’ very first encounter with IPT is thus being thrown into a dark wood of unfamiliar places, people, and words.

Importantly, not all students are thrown in with equal navigational tools. Typically, those who are ‘first-generational’ – those whose parents did not receive higher education; received State education; and/or are from low-income backgrounds – do not have the same background knowledge or tools to quickly reconstruct this historical linguistic context as, say, those who went to private schools with Greek on the curriculum. Nor do they have as much time to dedicate to this reconstruction, often having to work one, or even two, jobs to maintain their studies. They often instead feel alienated by theory classes, failing to see the relevance behind the thick phalanx of contextual tress, and abandon theory for something ‘more relevant’ to their world.

Providing the right machete that will allow the student to cut through these trees and uncover the core relevance needs to be an educator’s primary aim.

Finding Relevance   

Alcohol was the machete that came to mind for my Glasgow barman.

I asked him if alcohol made the behaviour of his clientele worse.

Worse of course, he conceded.

And did poverty and disadvantage turn many to drink?

Yes, indeed, it was intergenerational.

We were thus able to turn our conversation into a discussion about the ‘nature’ of his customers versus the structural factors that led them to behave this way (though admittedly I was borrowing a lot from T.H. Green here, inspired as he was by Rousseau, rather than explicitly the Genevan himself).  

Turning to J.S. Mill the next week, we centred the liberty principle on a debate over minimum pricing, not only as it was a current hot topic amongst my students at the time, but also as we could build on the entry point of alcohol and responsibility from the previous week.

For the following week on freedom of speech, I let the class identify and vote on a topic. They voted for the controversy over a planned Orange March in a neighbouring town. I created a role play for that week, where they simulated the local council deciding whether to let the march go ahead or not.

I found this approach resulted in greater participation amongst my students. The Glasgow barman notably had a lot to say on these subjects, but I also found students who had up to that time been largely silent get more involved; for, whilst they may have struggled to grasp aspects of the philosophy, they often had views on these local issues and, from these, I could introduce the main points of theory on more familiar and accessible ground.

The Most Simple Encounters

I have since then endeavoured to make my students’ first encounters with thinkers occur on more familiar ground. This often involves drama-based learning, where I reconstruct a relatable scenario in which they can first discover ideas.

This can of course be challenging and intensive work, as it requires changing classes according to students’ concerns and having some knowledge of these concerns. This arguably worked well with a largely homogenous Scottish audience, whose concerns I had a degree of familiarity with as a fellow Scot. This can be more difficult, if not impossible, in more heterogenous classrooms or with demographics more distant from the teacher – as I would learn when I left Scotland to teach in mainland China.

Nonetheless, one does not always need an elaborate pedagogy or classroom plan based on familiarity with students’ present concerns to learn from this. It simply requires one to be more sensitive to the situation in which the students are encountering these works. This can be achieved, I have found, by simply distilling a concept to its simplest and most relatable articulation for that audience – our machete to make first cuts into the forest of ideas.

Explain and justify

Students often think that there is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ approach to every aspect of an assignment. This is a thought that can often lead to intense anxiety around an assessment period.

There are, of course, many areas in which this is correct. There are things that are simply ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, depending on the context and form of the assessment. If a department insists that a student submit with Harvard-style referencing, for example, it’s good practice for them to cite in Harvard, rather than footnotes.

However, students often take these concerns to a degree that might limit the potential for going out and exploring exciting and original cases or approaches, as they feel the need to double check every detail before committing – “is it right to use China as a case study for this essay question?”, “is it suitable to use liberal intergovernmentalism as a theory in my essay?”, etc. To students that are worrying about whether their approach, case, method, is the ‘right’ one to employ in completing an assessment, I usually reply with the simple advice to ‘explain and justify’.

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