Adventures in half-baked thinking

Another year, another push by the UK’s Office of Students to “promote the very best in teaching”. Regular readers will know that I have struggled with the OfS’ approach to learning and teaching for some time now, mainly because its goals are partial and its operationalisation is deeply dubious.

Essentially, the proposals want to impose minimum levels of progression and completion of degrees, as well as targets for graduate employment post-study, because as you’ll know the sole factor in determining whether you get a well-paid job is the quality of the teaching you received. And there’ll be fines for not meeting these thresholds, to really make sure us lecturers get the point.

But let’s spread the love around a bit more and drag in the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan:

“When consumers buy a product in a shop, they expect two things when it comes to quality: firstly, that the product has satisfied minimum standards and secondly, that the product has proper labelling to inform them of the quality of what goes into it. So working with the universities regulator, the OfS, my new quality assurance plan follows similar principles.”


Since others have pulled apart the OfS’s plans with more incision than I could, I’ll just focus for now on Donelan’s comments.

Hopefully the category error between buying something in a shop and paying for your university degree should be clear, but just in case let’s run through it once more.

If I buy a book from my local bookstore, then indeed I expect that book to not fall apart when I pick it up and that it’s not made through exploitative practices. However, I don’t – can’t – expect that just because I bought that book that I will enjoy it, understand it or even that I’ll read it. The bookstore don’t let me stand there and read the whole thing, so I have to buy it on the basis of the cover blurb and/or anything I’ve heard about it. In short, buying something that’s safe and made with care doesn’t mean it gives me what I need.

With a degree, you buy access to an opportunity, rather than a completed product. I assume the minister would be horrified if a university just cut out the middleman and sold qualifications without any need for study. The point of studying is precisely that it’s about the student and their learning.

For most, that study works. They learn and it helps them to move onto the next stage of their life. But that next stage doesn’t have to be work (or more precisely, earning the big bucks): it might be that through the development of their critical reflection skills an individual decides they want to volunteer themselves in helping others, or to step out of the whole capitalism thing, or travel, or whatever. Under these proposals, all of these thoughtful choices would count against that person’s university.

Likewise, anyone who found that their personal situation was no longer compatible with studying at some point during their degree and so dropped out would be framed as a signal of their university not delivering good teaching. And as for those who struggle to hit passing grades, well again I’m guessing that the minister would hate for there to be any pressure on staff to go easy on such cases and let them get through on a nod and a wink.

Ultimately, this all speaks to the basic unwillingness of the government to accept the logic of marketisation that its predecessors introduced. The invisible hand was supposed to winnow out the weak and reward the strong, to the collective gain of all involved. But instead we have even growing intervention with metrics and thresholds and targets, all based on highly questionable data, that shift and change all the time. Certainly faster than any changes a university might make can show up in any clear way.

This isn’t a problem specific to English universities, or to the UK, but it requires a firm response if the confused logics and highly perverse incentives are not to become even more deeply embedded in the sector.

Learning is a social good: beneficial to the learner and beneficial to the learner’s society, in all its aspects. A system that commodifies and instrumentalises learning purely as a means of generating wealth not only loses that broader richness, but also undermines the very things it claims to value. The value of a degree is not in the piece of paper you get at the end, but in the process of getting (or even not getting) to it.

I’d write a book about it, but my readers might not understand it. At least they’d not ask for a refund.

Information Hygiene

This post was inspired by the happy-go-lucky coincidences of life that I sometimes experience:

First, my spring semester undergraduate syllabi now include this statement, beneath “This course requires that you know how to do the following” in the section on digital literacy:

  • Verify Canvas submissions. An unreadable, blank, or incorrect file submitted for an assignment earns a grade of zero.

It’s not worth my time chasing down students who accidentally or deliberately upload corrupted or mislabeled files. I am also a firm believer in teaching professional norms. Not caring to check whether one has done what is required isn’t a sound strategy for career advancement.

Second, I just finished the book Sandworm, by Andy Greenberg, about Russian cyberwarfare tactics, which reminded me of the zero-day vulnerabilities that are regularly discovered in Microsoft products.

Third, per my New Year’s penchant for information dieting, I unsubscribed from several mailing lists that had been adding pointless emails to my inbox for the last year.

These three actions led me to a fourth: making sure that current versions of my important files were backed up across different cloud services and physical devices.

Sandworm is filled with examples of digital infrastructure being taken offline, if not permanently destroyed, by hackers. If this can happen to electrical utilities, hospitals, and international shipping companies, it can happen to you. Same situation if you lose your job: you are immediately locked out of your employer’s IT network. Without warning, you have lost access to your office email and file drives. Or perhaps it’s just a fried laptop because your cat projectile vomited into it (no, this didn’t actually happen, but it was a near miss). Whatever the case, redundancy is resiliency.

As for unsubscribing from mailing lists, the fewer emails I receive, the less likely I’m going to fall victim to phishing or malware. I also spend less time and attention hitting the delete key.

Who cares about your teaching?

Also, cats

Last week I got to be part of a training event run by E-NOTE, a EU-funded project to understand and develop teaching excellence. I should also say I’m on their advisory board, but don’t hold that against them.

My session dealt with the question of the difficulties of moving from any theoretical consideration of what makes teaching ‘excellent’ (and yes, that’s a whole big discussion by itself) to a practical operationalisation.

For me, that means working with the constraints you face. That runs from the physical space you have access to, to institutional requirements on accessibility and assessment, to the nature and number of your students, not to mention all the other stuff you yourself have going on. Some of these you can’t really change, while others you can subvert or even push back on, but in all cases they shape what and how you teach.

One of the themes that emerged from the discussion – for me, at least – was the implicit need for someone to be bothered about working towards excellent pedagogy.

Given all the hassles that we face in putting together classes, navigating institutional policies and regulations and committees, trying to make running adjustments to better fit students’ needs, the question does arise of what’s the point? Especially if you just end up with mediocre evaluations at the end and some kind of ‘developmental’ meeting with a line manager to ‘get better’.

And I say this as someone who’s had all of that, right up to now. If fancy stuff doesn’t really seem to be valued, why don’t we just stick to the old fashioned way of doing class and read them a lecture?

At one level is this an easy question, because the kind of people who read this blog care intrinsically about teaching: we do it because we think it’s valuable and important and worth working on, well before anyone else – our employer, for example – suggests it’s also part of your contractual duties to ‘teach good’.

But that self-motivation can be hard to sustain, especially when the demands seem to grow all the time.

And if you’re finding it hard to keep on plugging away, then you might feel no one else is going to help with this either.

However, it is precisely through sharing with colleagues that there is a way forward. Your institution might not really understand what you’re trying to do, or the pressures you face (although they should), but those you work with (inside and outside your uni) will have a pretty good idea.

And because everywhere’s a bit different, everyone’s got a different set of challenges, or a different set of responses to draw on. And that can be a real help to you, to share, to empathise, to get fresh takes, and to give them too.

So reaching out is worth it. Together we can share the load and help us all get to where we want our teaching to be, for our students and for us.

And yes, you can take that as an invitation to drop me a line.

Perusall 2

As I noted in my first post about Perusall and in previous comments about teaching comparative politics, students have not demonstrated a sufficient level of engagement with or understanding of journal articles I’ve assigned. While collaboratively annotating journal articles ought to help solve this problem, I’m hoping to make the learning benefits of the process more transparent to students by connecting each Perusall assignment to one of my traditional reading responses.

Here is the prompt for all of the Persuall assignments:

Annotate the article to answer these questions:

  1. Article’s subject—what is the question, puzzle, or problem examined?
  2. What and where is the thesis?
  3. What are the independent variables (causes) and how are they examined?
  4. How are the independent variables related to the dependent variable (effect)?
  5. What is the conclusion of the author(s)?

Here is an example of a reading response — the journal article in the Perusall assignment is at the top:

Why did the Arab Spring “succeed” in Tunisia but “fail” in Egypt and Libya?

The Perusall annotations and the reading response are due an hour before the start of the class in which the material will be discussed.

In today’s class, the first of the semester, students will be doing an ungraded practice run at using Perusall. The first graded Perusall assignment, along with its associated reading response, is due Wednesday morning. We’ll see how this goes.

Don’t Look Up as possible teaching material

Spoiler alert: Not really, especially as there’s only a couple of ways things could go in a film like this. But if you’re feeling sensitive, then watch it first.

I’ll admit to having been a bit confused about this film, since my timeline had some very divisive opinions about it, when the film itself is about the perils of divisive opinions. Stupid irony.

Anyway, with the time on my hands to invest yet more of it into American cultural products, the obvious question – apart from my daughter’s query about how the hell they got Timothée Chalamet in it – is whether it tells us anything useful for our classes. Since The Matrix or Independence Day are now apparently ‘too dated’.

For the record, I’m on Team “curate’s egg” on the qualities of Don’t Look Up (DLU): it’s got lots of engaging comments to make on The State of Things, but it’s much weaker on any kind of systemic critique of modern American society.

And it is a very American piece: evidently planet-destroying asteroids don’t necessarily produce complex patterns of deep international or global coordination. Or maybe the location budget wasn’t so big.

If there is something that could well be taking into a classroom discussion, then it’s the relationship between science and politics, most obviously with man-made climate change, but also with Covid. Objective facts are one thing, but their representation is another, while their appropriation for other ends is different once again. DLU simplifies this by having one big fact – the big rock thing is going to hit the Earth – that (seemingly) shouldn’t in doubt, and yet is annexed to a number of personal projects by assorted cast members. If students can follow that line, then the path to better engagement with the multiple pathways and dynamics of climate change or the much more conditional and evolving understanding of SARS-CoV-2.

Part of that discussion needs to centre around the disconnect between knowledge of some fact or facts and any question of what to do about that knowledge: DLU has only a limited engagement with this, most obviously when lovely Leo asks the camera how we’ve got to a place where we can’t even agree that a giant asteroid heading to Earth is A Bad Thing, but there’s scope here for debate about one gets from agreeing just that point to doing something.

Ultimately, the issue rests on narratives and interests that are grounding in a range of factors that spread far beyond any objective calculation. The film provides a number of examples of both rational (Bash’s big plans) and less-than-rational (in Bojo Mambo’s) responses to information.

Beyond this major theme, it’s slim pickings, I’d argue.

As a middle-aged, white Professor who does a bit of media, I took rather more note of Leo’s transmutation from hyper-anxious sad-sack to trim Voice of Reason than I should, especially as I’ve never noticed any of the other effects of this change. You might also note the marginalisation of women aspect too. However, as critique of how others see academics it might be of interest to a communication class. That said, the scene of the grad class working on the calculations did stray close to being included in any update of my previous comments on screen representations of teaching.

Similarly, any reflection on the relationship between politics and Big Tech is made difficult by the very personalised relationship between the President and Bash’s Peter. Moreover, Mark Rylance doesn’t seem to have decided if Peter is Steve Jobs or James Halliday or even the BFG, so that’s also a bit frustrating. As is the totally unexplained course of the deflection mission.

So yes, there’s some material here, but it’s not really shaping up to be a classic of the genre. Unlike The Lego Movie.

A Pandemic of Irrelevancy?

Debates over responses to the coronavirus pandemic are being driven by epidemiologists, physicians, economists, and elected politicians. Political scientists, in contrast, have been absent from policymaking and public discourse — as has been the historical pattern. An academic discipline that claims to advance a scientific understanding of politics regularly fails to communicate politically about science. A few possibly non-representative, but illustrative, examples:

The historical analysis of municipal public health interventions and epidemic intensity during the 1918 influenza pandemic, published in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The authors, who were profiled in Michael Lewis’s book The Premonition, were senior officials in several federal agencies.

Editorials (direct links here, here, here, here, and here) on pandemic policy written by former members of the President Biden’s White House transition team, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association on January 6 — and referenced in this New York Times article.

This essay by a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine about how universities are responding to the pandemic.

The common thread among the authors of the above? Not a political scientist among them. Perhaps the situation is different outside the USA. Or maybe I’m just engaging in confirmation bias. But I welcome suggestions on pandemic-related publications written by political scientists for the educated layperson. It’s a bit frustrating having to rely solely on authors from other fields when teaching undergraduates about public policy.

A very educational(ist) Christmas

In other news, we also spent a long time empathising with Vincent about how one turns indistinguishable blobs of paint into art

Welcome back to whatever space you call where you work these days: a shed in my case, which has really benefitted from not being heated during the past fortnight.

My break has been enlivened – if that’s the right word – by finding out more about the Theranos saga and by catching some anti-vax videos. Fun, right?

Theranos came via The Dropout, a podcast from ABC, that explained the unfolding of Elizabeth Holmes’s adventures in bio-tech and the court case that’s just concluded. As an exploration of how Silicon Valley can operate and the power of credentials in rolling out a vast enterprise, it’s highly instructive. If, like me, it’s something that largely passed you by at the time, then do take the time to check it out.

Which brings us to the anti-vaxing. A friend has bought ever more deeply into anti-vax messages over the course of the pandemic and this winter has seen them arrive at a place where their views have become more strident, including the sharing of videos that focus on various concerns. To be clear, the friend seems to want to engage in discussion and want these points debunked, so an effort was made to try do that.

Not very successfully, I should add, given that it would require a very much wider return to first principles about the scientific method and the interplay of science and public policy.

These two activities were brought together for me by some reflections on how people learn and make choices.

Whether you’re a investor trying to decide where to put your money or a suburban family being unsure about your health, you take cognitive shortcuts, just like the rest of us.

Those shortcuts are best explained by people like Daniel Kahneman, rather than me, but the relevant point here is that for both Theranos and anti-vax I see the construction of narratives that seek to create a portrayal of the world that isn’t consistent with the evidence available. In the former case, that took some time to come out, while in the latter it’s been apparent from the start.

Educationally, both cases reminded me of one of the key lessons of teaching negotiation, namely the importance of trying to understand the world as your interlocuter sees it.

Crucially, such empathy is not the same as sympathy, but rather a means to put yourself in their position, so that you can better work towards findings an outcome that works for all involved. For the anti-vax friend, that’s about acknowledging the irreconcilability of positions on vaccination, while keeping the rest of the friendship alive. For Theranos, it has been for a court to decide the extent to which Holmes’ statements had a fraudulent intent, legally speaking.

It’s very easy to fall into a trap of thinking that disagreeing with someone on one point means disagreeing with them on all points, especially with those at some personal distance from you. Yet if you look around at your family members or your very close friends, you’d notice that you don’t cleave to them on every single thing, but rather contextualise and compartmentalise your niggles or disagreements. If we’re in the business of trying to improve our understanding of the world, then simply dropping things and people into boxes marked ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t a good strategy.

For Theranos, legal liability is one aspect of this, but if we’re interested in a broader understanding of how this all came to be then it is not the only aspect: the whole affair speaks to questions about wider cultures, signifiers and values.

Likewise, for the anti-vax friend what they think strikes me as less important than why, especially given how they’ve moved over time. Condemning their position – as seems to be rather common – is likely only to make them more entrenched in their views and close down possibilities of building a constructive way forward.

Maybe you can think of your own examples of how we encounter this, from world events or our views of prominent politicians, right down to that student who emails at 4am about the syllabus. Moving to an understanding of why not everyone does things like you is a gateway to making us more reflective, both for ourselves and for our students.

And with that, I’m off to get out of this black turtleneck: it’s not really my look.


When the spring semester starts, I’ll be using Perusall for the first time, in my comparative politics course. I decided to finally experiment with it for three reasons. First, my previous attempts at getting students to engage in collaborative notetaking have mostly failed. Second, as I mention in that linked post, a couple of my colleagues have raved about Perusall’s ability to turn reading into a social learning process. Third, resiliency is as important as ever when it comes to course design. Given the pandemic and associated mitigation protocols, there is the chance that some or all of my students will be absent from the physical classroom at random points during the semester. Perusall allows students to engage with course content and each other asynchronously online.

I found it easy to set up Perusall by following these basic instructions (on my campus, Perusall has been administratively connected to all Canvas course shells, so there is no need for individual faculty members to install the LTI app). This brief explanatory video was also helpful. Perusall’s user interface is very intuitive. I set up the course’s article library and associated Canvas assignments in only a few minutes. Here is the end result from the Perusall side:

Notice how the layout is exactly what is shown in the video. It is also the same as what students will see.

Perusall uses an algorithm to machine grade student interaction with each document in the course library, and the algorithm’s output can be synced back to the Canvas gradebook. This means readings can become auto-graded Canvas assignments. Details on this and more are in the instructions I linked to above.

I will report on how well all of this has worked once the semester is underway.

Holiday Greetings 2021

Time for another semi-annual update on the financial condition of some U.S. colleges and universities. Standard disclaimer: this is my opinion, based on publicly-available information.

In the interest of holding myself accountable, let’s begin with some of the schools that I’ve profiled here before.* The number to the right of a school’s name refers to the percentage increase in expenses per FTE undergraduate from fiscal years (FY) 2011 through 2020. The higher the number, the worse the situation.

Continue reading “Holiday Greetings 2021”

TLC@ APSA 2022 – and a request

A one-day Teaching and Learning Conference will be held at the 2022 APSA meeting in Montreal. The call for proposals is here.

Young-Im Lee, assistant professor of political science at Cal State University-Sacramento, would like to organize two workshops for the TLC@APSA. Here is her request:

  1. I am curious what other political scientists/their departments do to practice antiracist pedagogy and create antiracist institutions.
  2. I wonder how other political science programs offer career advising for undergraduates, in terms of both graduate school application support and non-academic jobs. I am particularly interested in programs mainly teaching underserved and minoritized students.   

I am not yet in the position to present on these two topics, but I am interested in learning about what others do. I am happy to do the organizing work. Please let me know if you want to share your experience and expertise on either one of the two topics above.

Dr. Lee can be contacted at young-im [dot] lee [at] csus [dot] edu.