Studying contemporary events

A staple of Politics and IR classes is the drawing in of real-world events, allowing us to illustrate our theoretical points with practical examples (as Amanda showed last week). Of all academic study, it is arguable the one that is best disposed for such a link and that offers the greatest potential rewards.

However, this comes with a certain cost. While it is wonderful that we can teach our students about how to use media sources in a critical way, to build a more-rounded understanding of the facts (and the interpretation), but media suffer from their ephemerality: they serve short-term use, not long-term analysis and reflection. Moreover, they typically have very narrow focuses (this thing happened; this person said this, with this reaction), rather than providing a fuller package. One might argue that Sunday or weekly newspapers might cover some of this function, with their more review-style pieces, but even here there are limits.

This can be a problem for students, especially when the event is relatively complex, or more than a few days in length, both of which will fracture media coverage. This, in turn, can make it hard for students to get into the event, particularly if they haven’t been following the news previously (that’s another blog, I fear).

All of this was brought home to me by the current protests in Kiev, which I find very interesting both for its European dimension and for its mode of political negotiation.

We’re not leaving until you’ve written a blog about us…

There are some conventional media summaries available, but not for the level of detail that would be needed for any classroom discussion. This then raises the question of how to proceed.

Two options present themselves.

First, is the wonderful world of Wikipedia. I stumbled upon this impressively well-linked page during last week, built mainly by a Canadian user, Lvivske, previously more interested in sport than street protests, to judge by their entries.

I’ll spare us the ‘is Wikipedia a force for good or evil’ debate that usually ensues here, by simply saying that if handled with appropriate caution, the site can provide a helpful gateway to other sources, and its tendency to accrete information works well in this context. Moreover, the ability to change that information offers additional potential to create learning opportunities for students. The difficulty comes from Wikipedia’s uneven nature: it’s been quite some time since I’ve seen such a resource: to take another example, the page on Nelson Mandela’s death is still very sparse, at an interpretative level.

The second option is the proliferation of blogs, both journalistic and academic. As a half-way house between conventional media and academic publishing, they can generate useful ideas and framing for contemporary issues. Thus, one can find informed comment and analysis from Foreign Affairs and The Conversation to university blogs (including that of my own School). As a way into classroom debate, these offer both argument and information in a relatively brief package.

The main difficulty here is the actual knowing of their existence, since blogs have proliferated massively. Either you need to have auto-alerts set up (from the blog or via Google Alerts), or a list of sites that you regularly check, or follow through links from Twitter/Facebook users who are specialists in that field. Identifying authors in who you have confidence to produce such material in short order is also important, and extends that principle from use of conventional media.

Of course, one final option is to start producing blog-type materials yourself: you can produce what you need for your local usage, but which can in turn reach out to a wider audience. It’s how this blog started – because of a dearth of writing on the issues we’re interested in – but it has developed far beyond that, into research projects and invited contributions of various kinds.

I’m not to suggest that you need to go quite that far, but there are plenty of platforms that will let you produce the occasional piece. That has to be something to consider when bringing in the real world to your classroom.