“What’s that got to do with anything…?”

One of the constant challenges one faces in teaching is one of relevance.  Curricula are designed by committees of academics, who tend to work on the basis of “what does a student need to know in order to understand our subject?”  However, the number of students who learn a subject just in order to become invested in that subject just for itself is small: that many of those few that do, typically go on to become faculty in the future merely perpetuates the cycle.

Instead, university study is a means to an end, a necessary stopping point to some other putative career.  And this is where relevance really comes in: I have to recognise that very few of my students are going to become either political scientists or politicians.  This means that unless they are able to see that what they are learning has some relation to their lives, it is difficult to engage properly. Obviously, in PolSci this is often a comparative simple task, since the world around us provides ample justification: there’s always something we can draw by way of illustration.  But even then, I get students asking the question of the title: my relevance might not be theirs.

Part of this is timeliness – apposite examples do not always appear just when one is running a class.  With this in mind, I have tried a couple of different technologies that can serve to bridge this time gap.  Firstly, delicious offers a communal bookmarking system, to allow a collection of relevant material to be built up.  However, I have found it just that bit too involved to really get into, so I can’t really comment further.  By contrast, since becoming a twitter user late last year (@usherwood), the ease of posting up links to useful material, and the scope for interaction with other users has proved very good at flagging up timely and relevant content to students (and anyone else who follows).  By tagging tweets with module codes one can further direct people to what is relevant.

Again, twitter isn’t a panacea, but it does help to close some of the gap between what we think is important and relevant and what students think.