Teaching ‘difficult’ subjects

As I mentioned last week, I was in Germany for a European Studies conference, including panels on L&T. A common theme which emerged was the notion of the European Union as a ‘difficult’ subject, both for students and teachers.

The former think of it as complicated and dull, while the latter are too often complicit in this, frequently focusing on the intricacies and so raising more barriers to students’ learning. Even when lecturers are positive, this generates suspicion about normative and political agendas on the part of students, who may not be as pro-EU as the typical academic. Thus the EU joins research methods towards the bottom of the pile of preferences for all involved.

This is clearly problematic, since both these areas are integral parts of contemporary political studies in Europe. Regardless of one’s attitude to them, it is essential to have a working understanding of methods and European governance.

The panels suggested two paths towards doing this.  The first (which I have long subscribed to) is that teachers need to start talking about the subject in a positive manner. This doesn’t mean proselytising, but rather focusing on the simplicity of underlying concepts that can act as heuristics to learning. Thus, EU isn’t any more complicated than a national political system, just as the relationship between EU and national institutions is a classic two-level game. Likewise, talking about referencing as transparency of sources can often illuminate much more than a bevy of rules on plagiarism.

The second path is to reframe the subjects much more radically. One colleague talked about how presenting the EU as a site for politics allowed students much easier access to the internal dynamics. In research methods, this is equivalent to problem-based learning, where students will need to use various methods to reach conclusions.

As our discussion went on, I realised that I have actually been doing this, largely without realising, in my negotiating politics module.  Here, several of the exercises are very generic political set-ups, often with no reference to any actual case, but can be applied to the EU very simply. From a two-level game on budget cuts (see here) to an exercise on the formation of political parties within a parliament, there is scope to approach the subject in a fresh way.

All of this should remind us that even the most ‘difficult’ of subjects (and perhaps, especially these ones) can be amenable to new approaches: we just need to step back and try again.