It’s more complicated than that…

Surveys regularly pop into my inbox, much as I’m sure they do into yours.

I like to complete them whenever possible, partly because well-educated, white men in affluent regions would probably not get represented otherwise*, partly because I like finding out what other people are interested in finding out about.

So when I got a survey about the ‘state of poli sci’ the other day, I was all up for it. The author is someone who I know to do good work and in previous years I recall being asked about things that would be very useful to know about. No names, no pack drill.

And most of the survey was really good, and made me think about things more (always a good sign).

Then I got to a section about the use of virtual formats. I’ve screenshot some of those at the top of this post: you could slide the response scale to one of five points in each.

These feel, well, like less than helpful questions.

Let’s take Q27, for instance. I have lots of preferences in my teaching, for lots of different things, depending on what I’m trying to achieve. Plus I work in an institution that has policy about whether and when I use in-person or virtual formats: you might too.

So even if I could bundle up all my preferences, that’s unlikely to be the determining factor in what I use. Sure, I love doing in-person stuff, but for my current job it would be senseless to work to that, given my student population and profile.

It’s similar for the conference questions: there’s a lot of different things going on with events – in which the national-ness/international-ness is possibly the least of it – that mean your format depends on particular circumstances. What’s good for building up a bid for a specific funding call is probably not good for a one-off presentation or a big multi-day general conference.

On top of this, hybrid formats are not really a half-way house between in-person and virtual, but something different again, as anyone who’s been forced to teach that way can tell you.

Of course, I can see some of the intention of what’s being asked here – I managed to put something down – but all of this confuses abstracted views on format with the practice of teaching (and event organisation).

Central in this is – as ever – the combination of your learning objectives and the constraints under which you operate. I – like you – decide on what I’m trying to do, then work out how to fit that into whatever constraints I have, and use that to design a way of doing it. It’s very rare in teaching environments that those first two steps leave the option of choosing a format of the kind asked about here: even for events there’s often something that limits whether you go on- or off-line.

None of this is to dunk on the survey author, which is why I’ve not named them: the point here is more one of asking you to reflect more on how we understand teaching practice. In particular, recognising that this never happens on a blank page, but within a big pile of factors that push and pull us towards certain things.

And no, I don’t know how you’d measure that in a survey.

* – may not be actually the case.

The Death of Curiosity? Part 1

Our fall semester is nearly done, and I’ve already started mentally reviewing it. Although this might be a consequence of recency bias, the teaching-learning environment feels like it has been below average.

Given their annotations on Perusall, many students seem to still have great difficulty identifying the thesis, independent variables, and dependent variable of assigned readings — despite the accurate comments written by classmates.

Attendance in class has frequently been below fifty percent, and a greater portion than usual of the students who do come to class look like they mentally check out during discussions. For context, see my October series on physical presence in the classroom here, here, and here.

Possible solutions to the above problems? Instituting pop quizzes based on Perusall readings and class discussions, machine-graded in the Canvas LMS, comes to mind. If students don’t want to voluntarily eat the carrot of knowledge, then perhaps I should use the stick of multiple choice questions that directly affect the course grade. Two potential drawbacks to this method: first, the difficulty of guiding in-class discussions toward quiz questions that were created before the discussion occurred, and second, potential complaints about not being allowed to “make up” quizzes that were missed when absent. My general policy is not to complicate my life by scheduling alternative testing dates, granting deadline extensions, etc. As I’ve stated before, I regard students as legal adults capable of setting their own priorities.

Before classes end this week, I’ll be gathering slightly more objective feedback on the “skills” components of my two undergraduate courses via anonymous surveys. I’ll report the results in my next post.

Getting started with active learning

Maybe I need to use the outdoor facilities for this

This coming weekend I get to travel to the exotic location of… my former place of employment. A full 5 minute walk from my house.

The institution is hosting one of the Doctoral Training Academies run by UACES, the UK’s European Studies association (in which I declare a very big interest as its Chair).

(I’ll tell you now that I played absolutely no part in deciding the location, but your call whether you buy that or not.)

Any way, the DTA this time round is focused on supporting colleagues new to the job in their teaching duties. I’m running a session on using active learning.

Since there’s no good reason not to share my thoughts with you as well as with them, here are the key points I’ll be trying to make.

Top of the list is putting yourself in your students’ shoes. Often when we talk and think about teaching, we focus on ourselves – what are we going to do and how – but teaching is really inseparable from learning and that’s all about students.

Maybe I was fortunate in this regard that as a student I spent a fair amount of time wondering about what my instructors were trying to do and why it was(n’t) working. A lot of that goes back to the kind of points I was making a few weeks ago about presenting, but it’s a more general issue: if your student doesn’t get what you’re doing, then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing because you’ve failed the basic test.

Placing yourself in a student’s position and trying to reflect on how they might encounter your teaching is a cornerstone of active learning, because without this you will really struggle to create an environment that is focused on them (and that’s what makes active learning active).

Next up, practise and reflect.

The beauty of active learning formats is that there are so many of them. The horror is that none of those formats is automatically ‘right’ for any given situation: there is a lot of adaptation and flexibility needed.

In this current case, I have a ballpark idea of what my group this weekend will be like, but until I actually meet them and get more sense of what might be useful for them (it’s that first point again, note), I can’t fully say what I’ll do. As long as I know what message I want to convey (i.e. this blog post), I can try out some things and work from there.

But that also needs me to listen very carefully to what they tell me. You have no monopoly of knowledge as an instructor, just some things you bring to the table that you can use to support students’ learning, so you have to treat them as partners in this endeavour.

And that’s uncomfortable. You have to give up some control over your classroom, because otherwise there’s no space for your students. So you start small, you keep open the lines of communication and you work from there. It’s how I started and it takes time to feel fully comfortable with that, especially as you push into practice that is less familiar.

And finally, enjoy the process. Without wishing to sound like I’ve spent too much time with American colleagues, active learning is really rewarding.

A not-insignificant proportion of the most insightful points of learning in my classes have come from my students.

More than that, almost all the most interesting points of learning have come from my students, precisely because they didn’t come from me. I know what I think about most things, but discovering what others think (and why) is so cool.

And all the stuff I don’t know what I think? Well, that’s often the basis for my active learning sessions. Let’s work it out together.

Again, this is about making students partners in learning, something that they need to become comfortable with as much as you do. Your curiosity (hopefully also your enthusiasm) for that process is one of the most powerful tools in helping them to work with you, because it gives them a sense of your involvement and your openness.

And that’s about it.

Now just to think about how to turn that into a 40 minute session…

Creating audio and video resources

A big part of our work here at The Open University is creating materials for distance learning. Our students don’t come on campus and get their teaching in weekly blocks, usually delivered via our Virtual Learning Environment, to be worked through in their own time.

It’s a highly inclusive model, built for people with other commitments in their life and without many of the additional costs that come from spending years on-site.

But it’s also a model that needs a huge amount of work to deliver those materials, something that I’ve been learning more about over my first 18 months here.

While much of our content is text, there’s a strong desire to use audio and video as much as we can. These elements provide a more diverse and engaging experience for students and let us do things that wouldn’t really work otherwise.

At a technical level, that means professional producers working with academics to create individual pieces, much like a broadcast programme: indeed, that’s one of the reasons the University does so much with the BBC, because we’re all relatively experienced in the demands of the media.

However, as a newbie, it’s also a learning curve for me.

Central in that has been working back from my media experience to applying those insights to a more formally pedagogic setting.

Ironically, that has often meant channeling my inner podcaster when making these resources.

I’m going to guess you listen to podcasts and watch TV news or documentaries. Think about what makes those work as engaging and interesting pieces of work.

Part of it is about a strong message or argument, but part of it is also more personal: you empathise with the presenter(s). And that’s the bit which I think is quite crucial when making pieces for students.

Communicating part of yourself matters in audio and video in a way that it doesn’t in text: precisely because it’s you speaking/acting, there is more for students to fix on and that’s work your time to make as much of as possible.

For me, that might be a relatively conversational tone and an attempt to think about why my audience might be interested in anything I have to say. Your style might well be different, but you have to know how you are and want to be if you’re not to come across as someone rushing to get out of the studio.

Just as your lecturing style is something that takes time to find and refine, so too for these different pedagogies, made more complicated by these not being quite the same as each other.

Something to think about next time you create an audio or video piece for your students.

Live From COP 27, Part 2


Another on the spot report from COP 27. Again, the opinions expressed here are solely my own.

The Saudi Green Initiative is housed under two large geodesic domes near COP 27, but is not one of the official conference venues. Its purpose? Elaborately showcasing the environmentally-friendly innovations of companies like Saudi Aramco and SABIC — some of the world’s largest petrochemical firms headquartered in and capitalized by one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. The people explaining the products being brought to market were all men. Same for the staff at the Saudi Arabia pavilion in the Blue Zone.

Green innovation projects are also on display in the Green Zone space dedicated to Egyptian universities. They are much smaller and obviously receive far less government financial support than their Saudi counterparts. But they are explained to conference attendees, if not headed, by women. Thinking like a comparativist:

The columns could also be labeled as regime type, with monarchy for Saudi Arabia and bureaucratic authoritarianism for Egypt. You get the idea. I’m just wondering if data indicates a relationship between a state’s commitment to green technology and gender parity. One might assume the two are positively correlated (e.g., Germany and Sweden), but maybe in the Middle East it’s an inverse relationship.

While Egypt seems to be doing better than some of its neighbors in how women are treated, I wonder who at the U.N. thought it was a good idea to have COP 27 hosted by a military dictatorship. Egyptian civil society organizations have largely been excluded, and it is simply too dangerous for Egyptian human rights activists to participate. To give a very minor example:

No chickens burger for you

The photo shows an eating establishment that has appeared in the Blue Zone, which is in theory a U.N.-governed space. Note the group seated on the roof deck, consisting of a 60s-ish man surrounded by women half his age. The staircase to seating on top of the shipping container is to the rear. When I tried to ascend these stairs to take in the view from above, I was stopped by a man in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt who said the area was “blocked.” I noticed the attention of a few Mukhabarat (the not-so-secret police) wearing suits and earpieces seated at a nearby ground-level table. I backed off to observe, and saw a few other Mukhabarat milling about. Over the next few minutes, five other people, some of whom were ordinary Egyptians, were prevented from climbing the stairs. My guess is that the man at the table was a government bigwig, and the women he was speaking with were representatives of some kind of business venture.

Last, here is the obligatory Egyptian cat photo:

Pushing back on restructuring

In the spirit of Chad, I’m writing this week about one of the periodic threats to politics research here in the UK.

Birkbeck is both a storied institution and one with a special educational position, delivering most of its programmes through evening classes in London. It reaches a section of society that most universities don’t or can’t.

The plans to restructure have been left rather vague by senior management, but include options to drop significant numbers in a range of departments, including Politics, whose members include names you’ve probably heard of, wherever you’re from.

There are petitions you can sign, and letters you can share, and I’d strongly encourage you to do so.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened, and won’t be the last: the economic downturn and tightening government support for universities have meant a lot of management meetings and opaque comms to staff and students. Despite being relatively cheap courses to run, social sciences and humanities often end up in the firing line, perhaps because there appears to be little sunk cost and because they don’t get the STEM-is-economically-vital style boosterism.

Continue reading “Pushing back on restructuring”

Mekong Dam Simulation, Part 2

Today we have a second guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

In our last post, we described our Mekong River crisis simulation. The assessments that we use for this simulation are designed to reward student preparation and engagement (a detailed breakdown is in this appendix).

Students are initially provided with detailed position descriptions for employment in the organisations to which they’ve been assigned. They are asked to prepare for a mock job interview for that position, which requires them to conduct research and think about their role in the simulation. We have offered this scenario in an applied capstone class, so have required students to identify their own readings and research to be able to fulfil their roles.

Once the simulation begins, students write a weekly strategy memo for the lead member of their organization based on independent research they’ve conducted, an opportunity for them to consider the practical, actionable implications of scholarly work in the social sciences. Students also must also document their interaction with other organisations and the media during the simulation in a reflective journal.

The head of each organization in turn relies on his or her team members to regularly provide advice about the best course of action in the unfolding crisis. If a group suggests a questionable course of action, the instructor uses follow-up questions to prompt students to consider possible negative consequences, e.g. how would investors view a decision to cancel the project?

At the end of the course, students analyze their experience of the simulation in a writing assignment.

The simulation is designed to make it difficult for students to upset the status quo. Local and international NGOs usually must settle for limited gains based on a government’s willingness to placate its critics. While this sometimes leads to frustration and disillusionment for students, it allows them to gain a better understanding of the power disparity between governmental and nongovernmental actors. While students sometimes initially attempt to resolve the crisis by reaching a consensus among all parties involved, they quickly realize that this is impossible due to conflicting interests. While students are allowed to make risky decisions if they are well considered and not purposely disruptive, successfully negotiated political and policy changes in the simulation have always been limited and incremental. 

In past iterations of the simulation, the incumbent Thai leadership has usually been able to retain control of the government and dominate issue framing, in some cases solidifying its position in the process. Thai opposition groups have had to navigate between outright rejection of government policies and a more conciliatory and constructive criticism. Students have learned that political change is difficult to accomplish without a broad anti-government bloc that includes civil society organisations.

Changes at the international level have also been limited, accurately reflecting the shortcomings of the Lower Mekong  governance regime and ASEAN’s commitment to the principle of non-interference. Students’ attempts to amend the 1995 Mekong Agreement have been hindered by states’ competing foreign policy objectives and the strict application of sovereignty. At most, parties have agreed on a controlled and gradual extension of the Mekong River Commission’s supervisory apparatus.

We have identified a few ways in which the simulation can be further improved. Students’ concerns about free riding within teams, while partially mitigated through the use of a team member evaluation tool (e.g. CATME or Feedback Fruits, we used one developed for this class by Joel), have continued. A possible solution could be a “divorce option,” where students would be allowed to “fire” a free riding member. We have also observed that students’ insufficient background knowledge can lead to unrealistic behaviour in the simulation. This could be mitigated by an increased redundancy within groups (multiple students being given the same or similar role) and an added criterion of academic performance in determining group allocation (Joel’s tool for the allocation of students into groups for class assignments has also been used to allocate students into roles for this class). 

Live From COP 27

As usual, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

I’m attending the COP 27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh as an observer, courtesy of my university. For the general vibe, read this cheeky article (plus a follow-up!) from The Guardian. In its design and operation, the event models some major international relations and comparative politics concepts.

The Blue Zone, the main conference site, is sprawling and chaotic, yet has only one entrance and one exit where attendees badges are scanned. You’re either in or out. The Blue Zone is dominated by meeting rooms and exhibition spaces for state actors and a few U.N. organizations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, petroleum exporting rentier states, have the largest and most glitzy exhibits. Egypt, military dictatorship and conference host, ranks third in this respect. The U.S. pavilion is good-sized and neatly organized, but extremely loud, as is typical for Americans. Canada? Friendly and free coffee for passersby. The pavilions of African states are quite welcoming, despite their organizers’ histories of exploitation by foreign powers.

Potemkin coffee kiosk

Power hierarchy is apparent in other ways. One Blue Zone area is the preserve of high-ranking officials who meet behind closed doors after arriving in limousines. Occasionally dignitaries stroll through the mass chaos elsewhere in the Blue Zone, flanked by plainclothes protective teams. My compliments to the bodyguard who expertly guided me into a non-threatening position by gently touching my upper arm with only three fingers.

The Green Zone is a smaller space for Egypt’s government ministries and universities, along with international civil society groups, to showcase their environmental sustainability efforts. It is located directly across a road from the Blue Zone, ostensibly allowing attendees to conveniently pass back and forth. But the Blue Zone’s gate that faces this road is closed for the duration of COP 27 because of “security,” and the promised shuttle bus running between the Blue and Green Zones did not materialize until a few days after the conference had started. The conference venue includes a third building, dedicated to public-private partnerships, that also requires a shuttle or taxi to access because of surrounding walls, despite being only a short distance away as the crow flies. My prior international travel experience in authoritarian states leads me to believe that these impediments to movement and communication are a feature, not a bug.

My final comment, more directly pertinent to the subject of this blog: so far, COP 27 has resembled the typical academic conference at which information is dumped onto a passive audience via speeches and panel presentations. I have not yet encountered any Blue Zone events designed with active learning in mind. This is probably not the most effective strategy for teaching about an existential threat.

Self-publishing academic work

This guest post comes from Tim Bale, Queen Mary, University of London.

I can’t be the only person to have experienced this: you’re writing a book and you realise that it’s either getting too long and/or that some of the stuff you thought should go into it doesn’t really fit any more.  So, reluctantly but also with a sigh of relief, you cut it.

But then what do you do?  Bin it completely in spite of all the hard work you put into it?  Really? Sure, that’s the sensible thing to do – the thing you’d be perfectly happy doing if you were a totally rational individual rather than a living, breathing human being prone to practically all the cognitive biases under the sun: in this case the so-called sunk cost fallacy.

In reality, what you often do, if you’re anything like me, is to think whether there’s something you could do with it somewhere else.  I mean, you could always turn it into a journal article, right?

Wrong!  At least in my case.  At 18,000 words and with a whole bunch of endnotes, it was going to be agony trying to cut it in order to make it short enough for a decent journal.  I did explore the possibility of going in the opposite direction and beefing it up to come up with the 25,000 required for those short (and short turn-around) books that a couple of well-known publishers now seem quite keen on.  But two things about that, put me off.

First, I would have been topping and tailing it with ‘theory’ for the sake of it – something I hate doing.  And, second, have you actually seen how much those things cost!?  Only university libraries could possible afford to buy them, and I’m not really sure (morally speaking) that even they should be spaffing forty or fifty quid on such footling things anyway.

In any case, I had the temerity to think that what I’d written might be the sort of thing that people who were simply interested in, rather than formally studying, British politics, contemporary history and the EU might enjoy reading.  I also thought that, since it was originally written to be ‘approachable’, it might come in handy, too, for anyone teaching those subjects – both at post-16 and post-18.

One alternative would have been to stick it up as a post on my blog.  Yet, to be honest, it wouldn’t really have fitted too well because that’s simply where I collect (mostly for my own memory’s sake rather than because many people read it there) the very short-form stuff I write for newspapers and websites.  But no-one else was going to host it, I was sure – so sure I didn’t even ask anyone.

It was only then I thought about self-publishing it.  Initially, I dismissed the idea – I mean, that’s ‘vanity-publishing’, right?  OK for your pseudonymous erotic novel but, for something academic? Surely not?

Continue reading “Self-publishing academic work”

Setting up on Mastodon, JIC

I use Twitter quite a lot. And have done for a long time (since 2008 apparently). So i’m also quite invested in it.

Perhaps I knew this, but the events of the last few months have definitely confirmed it. We don’t need to rehearse the progress of leveraged buyouts by people with galaxy brains here, suffice to say that I’ve been working on alternative platforms, just in case.

Of course the problem is your classic network effect issue: Twitter’s great for me (and for lots of other academics) because lots of other people use it. So while people might want to go elsewhere, they also want to make sure others also go there too, to rebuild the networks.

Sadly, there’s no definitive choice on this front. In the past fortnight, I’ve seen more activity on Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms, especially from those who use those already for work purposes.

Personally, those don’t do what I want to recreate from Twitter, so it’s been an adventure in the wild woods of open-architecture microblogging sites.

The prime destination so far has been Mastodon, a network so decentralised that if you google it, you get the band, not the thing (hence me linking to the Wikipedia page).

This is my quick guide to setting up there, from your Twitter (while still keeping the latter going, which is what I plan to do).

For those of you on Twitter, you’ll have seen much grumbling about Mastodon, mainly because it’s not Twitter. The user interface is not great and because it’s on lots of little servers, there’s bandwidth issues.

However, it’s nothing that a smart person like yourself can’t handle.

First up, you can to create an account.

This needs you to pick a server: it really doesn’t matter which, since you can see all the other servers’ outputs and it’s the same interface, so either follow a colleague’s recommendation (I’m on or pick whatever comes up on a search.

Second, connect it to your Twitter.

The thread below shows you how to really easily scrape Twitter for others on Mastodon, so you can avoid dull searching on the latter, and how to cross-post on both networks simultaneously: this all took me 5 minutes to sort.

And that’s about it. You’re covered for now.

At this stage, I’m taking this as a precautionary move: Twitter remains my (and others’) primary network, so as long as it doesn’t descend into abject chaos, I’ll be sticking there.

That said, having a lifeboat – smaller, less pretty – is a sensible move, especially since we appear to be at the whim of an individual unable to accept either market forces or the power of parody accounts.

So take a bit of time to consider your position on this and if you have any good suggestions, then stick them in the comments below.