From research to learning to dissemination

About 9 months ago, I had a reasonably good idea.

As in-coming chair of UACES, the UK’s European studies association, I wanted to improve the opportunities for my colleagues to share their work with the wider world. Fortunately, I also had/have good links with UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE), who do exactly that kind of work.

So I suggested to the latter that my network in the former might be able to offer a useful package of materials.

And last week, we got that out to the world.

24 short (1,000 word) pieces on all aspects of the European Union, each written by an expert in their field, for a public/practitioner audience.

It’s a model that UKICE had refined over the past seven years of their existence, so there’s a robust editing process to stop authors dropping back into academic modes of presenting things.

Yes, we had to completely rework things (and delay publication) because of the war in Ukraine, and yes, some authors found the style less easy to adjust to, but I hope you’d agree it’s a good final product and one that you find useful for thinking about how you get your work out there.

For me, it once again highlights how we need to think about the links between research, teaching and dissemination.

Just as we spend time and effort on making our teaching materials work for our students’ needs, so too should we do the same for our dissemination work: very few civil servants or politicians want (or have time) to trawl through a journal article or a monograph.

I know that one of the most useful things I’ve understood in disseminating and in engaging in public-facing work is that lesson: think about your audience.

In this case, the step from ‘academic’ to ‘readable stuff’ isn’t big, which is why I offer it to you. Coupled to an active social media and media presence, we’re able to reach a lot more (and different) people than we could with the same material in conventional publications.

For that reason, I’m planning to do this again and again, as long as I can get people to join me on doing it. And if I can help you do the same, then just drop me a line.

Perusall 5

I’ve begun integrating Perusall into my online, asynchronous graduate international relations courses. First up is a course in our master’s degree program that starts next month. I’ve chosen to start with this one because I typically assign an analysis of a peer-reviewed journal article in lieu of a midterm exam, and the questions in my Perusall assignments for undergraduates mirror my instructions for the article analysis. Regular Perusall assignments will give them opportunities to develop skills they will need for the article analysis.

While practice improves performance generally, in this case I see it as particularly important. A growing proportion of our M.A. students are undergrads who have opted for a fifth-year master’s degree. They begin taking graduate courses in their fourth year of college. My four-person department only has about ten political science majors per year, but given the organization of the department’s curriculum, I encounter only about half of these majors in the classroom prior to their graduation. This means a wide variation in content knowledge and writing ability among the majors who enter the five-year program and first pop up in my M.A. courses. Making the situation even more complicated: the two-year M.A. students are often mid-career military officers who have first-hand international experience and are very academically talented.

These courses are seven weeks long. Previously I assigned an extensive list of readings, two writing prompts, and discussion board participation each week. I’ve replaced one of the writing prompts with two Perusall assignments in each week. I’m hoping that this change will help build a sense of community among the students, which is more difficult to achieve in an asynchronous online environment than it is in a physical classroom. At minimum the use of Perusall should cause students to notice the superior skills of some of their classmates and stimulate them to increase their own efforts.

What does new normal conferencing look like?

Given that I was speaking at EuroTLC in Bratislava about the importance of visualisations in teaching, it’s appropriate that I write now about this photo.

It’s the delicious lunch I enjoyed on the day after the conference, in Vienna’s Naschmarkt. If you’re wondering it’s sabish, Israeli street food, with falafel, humus, pitta, egg and some amazing deep-fried aubergine.

Sitting there, in the heat of a Viennese afternoon after some revisiting of places that I’ve not seen since interrailing 30 years ago, I thought about how great it was to be doing in-person events again.

EuroTLC was even better than the sabish, as I got to catch up with some long-standing colleagues and to meet a bunch of really exciting new colleagues. We did practical sessions, we talked pedagogy, we built community: we did all the stuff you’d hope a conference would do.

But equally, the sabish got me thinking about the flipside.

I was only in Vienna because my university travel agent – which I have to use – couldn’t get me on a flight back any sooner unless I wanted another 4am start (like the one I’d had to get out there). Four long days to do a two-day conference, while I had a pile of urgent admin to do, wasn’t an easy option.

Factor in the hassles of travel and accommodation (especially if you don’t work out the duvet is folded in half [cough]) and a less-than optimal diet and sleep regime and in-person becomes more of a balanced proposition. If the event hadn’t had been as good as it was, then I might well be more dubious about it all.

And this is reflected in what I see others saying too. It’s great to be back to face-to-face, but remembering the hassle was less great. Plus online did have some pretty useful stuff.

One of the questions we tossed around at EuroTLC was “why are you here?”; what do you hope to achieve by being present at this event?

It’s an odd question, we found, especially if we think about it in a more abstracted way (why go to any conference?). The answers varied quite a lot, which also matters because what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another.

The opening up of online spaces has had an impact. In particular, it’s made many of us see that moving people around the place isn’t the only way to generate interactions, even if it is a very good way of doing that in unstructured ways (the chat over coffee, the reflection over a pint).

All of which left me with my sabish, thinking that we do need to find a new balance for conferences and indeed all academic events. Even if a return to Before Times were possible – which it’s not, because of finances and environmental considerations – is it desirable?

Unfortunately, lunch was so delicious that I finished up before I had found a solution to this, a way to combine the best parts of online and face-to-face into a package of activity. But it will be a package, possibly with some things that we have still yet to do.

The conference isn’t dead, but it is going to have to become something rather different from before.

Food for thought, indeed.

American Autogolpe

A brief post this week about the televised hearings of the U.S. House of Representatives’ January 6 committee.*

Republic

I teach democracy from a comparative perspective, a challenge when students have had the ideology of American exceptionalism drilled into them since birth.

When watching the second installment of the hearings, it occurred to me that they could serve as a reality check for students who tend to see “democracy” as a purely American phenomenon and whose culminating undergraduate achievement is a legalistic rehash of a 19th century Supreme Court opinion on the U.S. constitution’s Establishment Clause.

In my opinion, a much more meaningful exercise would be for students to research forms of democracy and threats to it globally. A class could be divided into teams with each team analyzing a different country in relation to the USA. Testimony from the hearings could be used to identify pivotal events that might or might not parallel what has happened in, for example, Venezuela.**

It just so happens that there are plenty of people who already thought of this kind of project — the folks at Democratic Erosion. Check out their sample syllabus for a semester-long course.

* full name: Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol

** with readings such as Javier Corrales, “Authoritarian Survival: Why Maduro Hasn’t Fallen,” and Milan W. Svolik, “Polarization versus Democracy,” which appeared in Journal of Democracy in 2020 and 2019, respectively.

“Oh. You’re ‘Simon’…”: EuroTLC2022

Banner!

As the blistering sun relentlessly beat down on us, a hardy band of L&T colleagues gathered in the fine city of Bratislava for the 5th EuroTLC.

As those of you who have already gone back to face-to-face conferences, it’s an absolute delight to be able to see people and interact with them, especially if you can do that over an ice cream, some street food or even a local brew (all three of which I managed in a hectic hour the other evening).

There is another piece to be written about how much we can even go back to ‘how conferences used to be’, but when you’re there it’s clear there’s still a lot of value to be secured.

Crucially, a lot of that comes in the liminal, informal spaces. This might just be a thought about how to address a very specific and small issue, or a very high-level reflection about how we work.

Since I appear to have become an old hand, I’ve found myself both recognised by reputation (hence the post title) and reflective about how we make teaching work.

The mark of the pandemic has been deep and broad: during the first day I didn’t see a single contribution of have a single conversation that did not mention Covid in some way, from delivery to assessment, student engagement to programme design.

But as we have talked, I’ve also found myself abstracting.

The change forced by Covid was radical and sudden, but it also mirrored the longer-run evolution of practice that has been taking place. The mainstreaming of IT, the increasing centrality of the student experience, the pushback against ‘tradition’: all these things were there before spring 2020.

Covid is thus both a shock and a process: necessity has meant we have to reformulate our work and our practice. Which is a good thing, in the end.

Even if it didn’t really feel like it at the time.

This equivalence has also been striking in a different dimension too. With several excellent papers on internationalisation and how it affects learning, we’ve had time to think about how it sensitises us to factors that were previously inconsequential or ignored.

In that, it is much like our developing work around equality, diversity and inclusion: the working assumptions we all make in creating learning environments are political, in the sense of carrying implications and privileging particular groups or ideas.

Work to bridge gaps to our overseas students is – in that sense – no different from work to bridge to any other student who is outside the dominant mode.

Unlike Covid, this is a slow-moving process and it will require the kind of generational shift of attitudes that brought us to the halfway-house of today. To speak to early career researchers of the kind attending EuroTLC, that is something definitely advancing, but it will take all of us to help make that change.

A Tempting Experiment

You’re not trained for that

I recently listened to this episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, on using audible clickers to train humans how to throw a frisbee and perform surgery. Clickers seem to be very effective in part because they substitute for other, possibly emotion-laden reactions from the trainer.

I wondered how I might use clickers as a teaching tool, and had an email conversation with a psychology colleague who specializes in behavioral training. Here is the gist of the conversation:

Clickers provide immediate positive feedback for a specific, discrete action within a complex chain of behaviors, without the need to interrupt the chain as it unfolds.

Any process that is composed of multiple, discrete behaviors is amenable to clicker training, as long as the process can be observed by the teacher and the clicks can be delivered within a second or two of observing the targeted response. An activity like writing is probably not suitable for clickers, because the writing process can’t easily be separated into a series of precisely-defined behaviors, and it would require that the teacher continuously observe the student perform the writing task from start to finish.

However, the technique could be applied to something like class presentations — with clicks delivered when students complete important components of the presentation, such as using terminology correctly, answering an important question, speaking at an adequate volume, or making eye contact with the audience.

Clicks should initially be delivered each time the targeted behavior is displayed, but then systematically delivered less often as the behavior becomes more frequent. Likewise, they should only be used to indicate support for a desirable behavior rather than to signal disapproval of an undesirable behavior.

Last, teachers should obtain consent or buy-in from students about the process and its goals.

I know it’s beguiling, but it’s not what we’re looking at…

Via GIPHY

Another week, another big pile of British politics news (find your own links).

This made me a) weary, and b) think again about the whole “teaching fast-moving topic” issue that we’ve covered before.

Usually when we talk about this, we try to focus on giving students tools to make sense of not just today’s headlines, but of political processes more generally. The hot news becomes a way into Big Questions of Academic Interest.

But what if the hot news isn’t really all that important or doesn’t open up those Big Questions?

Despite my country’s best efforts to convince otherwise, most of its politics is still pretty mundane, so another leadership crisis/vote isn’t necessarily the key to opening those door for enquiry (although I’m sure you can find links if you want).

The basic dilemma here is that while the news can be your friend in building student engagement, it can also be your foe, distracting rather than illustrating.

Of course, since everyone loves a good dumpster fire, and since dumpster fires aren’t that hard to find, this is a problem.

Two strategies here. Note that ‘don’t mention it’ isn’t likely to work, since it’ll pop up at some point, so you should really own that discussion before it happens.

One: acknowledge and contain. Note the elephant as you arrive in the room, but then clearly mark it off-limits for the rest of the class. If it’s something really contentious and still really not linked to your class, then maybe make time for a discussion at the end of the session, or after.

Two: contextualise. Assuming the overlap to your class is minimal, get the class to mark out the overlap they see, then highlight how the ways it doesn’t map to your subject.

Neither is great, and neither is very clear-cut, mainly because so much depends on what the news is and what you do, so take every case as it comes.

Key point is that hoping it’ll work out by itself is probably not the best choice. That’s as true for your classroom as it is for politicians…

Running in-class presentations

My daughter reminds me that the last presentation I made, I ended up sobbing, so maybe take that into account

Absent an in-person class of my own to run these days, I’ve been interested in my children’s educations once more. Last week, this included a discussion about how to chose who had to do their English presentation in class.

Talking about it with the kids, it’s clear they had as many ideas as I did about the way(s) we go about this, shaped by their understanding of the exercise. And since it’s something that most of us have to do at some point, I thought it’d be handy to run through some ideas once again, ahead of your autumn/fall commitments.

Note, I’m going to put to one side presenting of work done in class, even if it involves presenting. I assume here that we’re really only looking at presentations that students have had to prepare beforehand.

First things first: what are you trying to achieve with a class presentation?

For my kids, there’s a requirement that they all do a short talk to class, to develop speaking and research skills. That’s really clear and defining; it’s also very unlikely to be your situation, if only because you don’t teach an English (or any other language) class, but a PoliSci one. Plus you probably set most of the curriculum.

So you probably had some other objectives in mind. What those might be is up to you, but you need to be clear to yourself about them, since it will shape whether and how a student presentation is used. So do you need everyone to do a presentation, or do you need all the presentation topics to be covered? What happens with the stuff that’s presented: do we never really hear of it again (please say no to this one BTW) or is it pulled back into other content (and if so, how)? Does it need to be individual presentations or can groups do it?

Once you have this clear, you can work on formats.

Continue reading “Running in-class presentations”

Can Students Predict the Future?

I like each of my undergraduate courses to have at least one authentic skill-based deliverable; for example, historical timelines or ArcGIS storymaps. I’m teaching the Middle East in the fall semester, and, having recently read books like Superforecasting by Tetlock and Noise by Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein, I hit upon students trying to predict events in the region.

I’ll have students assign percentage probabilities to a list of potential events and give them opportunities to periodically adjust these probabilities. At the end of the semester, students will earn points if the events have happened and lose points if they haven’t, with point amounts weighted against the associated percentages. My formula:

((Sum of the percentage probabilities student chose for each of his or her correct forecasts) – (Sum of the percentage probabilities student chose for each of his or her incorrect forecasts ))*50.

A hypothetical example:

% ProbabilityEventOutcome
100The sun rises in the eastern skyCorrect
30The capital of Turkey changes from Ankara to IstanbulIncorrect
70Barham Sali remains president of IraqCorrect
50Iran fires an ICBM with a nuclear warhead at Saudi ArabiaIncorrect

The points earned by this student would be: ((1.0 + 0.7) – (0.3 + 0.5)) * 50 = 45.

The negative effect of incorrect predictions should prevent students from trying to game the process by blindly assigning 100% probability to every event on the list. But they won’t actually suffer from incorrect predictions, since the scale for the final course grade tops out at 950 and more than 1,000 points will be available from all assignments, quizzes, and exams. If an event on the list happens before the semester ends, I will simply use each student’s most recent forecast to calculate point values.

Since forecasting accuracy improves when estimates are averaged, I will show the class the aggregate results of students’ forecasts each time they are updated. I’m also going to divide the class into teams, with the members each team taking the lead — through additional research and class presentations — on becoming more expert on one topic from the list. Potential events that I might put on the list:

  • The value of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar decreases to less than 22:1.
  • In Iran, the Assembly of Experts names a new Supreme Leader.
  • An anti-government protest in Cairo results in at least twenty demonstrators arrested, injured, and/or killed.
  • The president or prime minister of Lebanon is assassinated.
  • Turkey ends its occupation of Syrian territory.

I’m still working out more of the details on this idea, but I think it could be interesting for me and the students.

Content currency

Not like it used to be

A couple of months ago, I had to update some materials on one of our courses. Written in 2015, it dealt with the UK’s relationship with the EU.

We can leave the extent of the rewrite by noting that I was just happy to have something material to contribute.

Obviously, this is an extreme example – a function of our distance learning model and material revision cycle – but it highlights a long-standing challenge of how to address the ever-changing landscape of politics and international relations in our classes.

This has been brought home once again by this weekend’s election of a new Australian government.

Normally, it’s not somewhere that much crosses my path, but I’ve been working on a climate policy negotiation for our new IR programme and have spent some time of late working up country information sheets for the various roles. Including, well, you get the idea.

Continue reading “Content currency”