The joy of contestation: using technology to scope political ideas

After some big thinking (here and here), I’m back in the office, so it’s world of more mundane matters, mainly revolving around ‘how do we actually do X?’-type questions.

Is there nothing that can’t be done with a post-it note?

In among my trips abroad, I squeezed in a day at our summer school, talking about euroscepticism. Quite aside from any observations that doctoral-level students produce a very different classroom experience to undergrads, it was an opportunity to start trying out an idea that’s been bubbling under since my ERASMUS exchange to Maastricht.

The starting point is the contested nature of much/most* of politics: there is no one ‘right’ answer, but many different interpretations, each dependent on one’s world-view and fundamental assumptions.

For me, that’s a great source of interest and engagement, trying to get into other peoples’ heads to appreciate better how they see things. It’s something that runs all areas of my professional work, from simulations, to negotiation, to euroscepticism.

Sadly, for my students, it’s a source of frustration and confusion: ‘why don’t you just tell us what to write down?’ in the refrain.

A key difficulty is students’ unwillingness to accept that their ideas might be just as valid as those of someone who has written a book or a journal article. Certainly, even when we practice active learning, we often still have the implicit hierarchy of ‘who matters’ behind it, with our reading lists.

So this brings me to the idea I had, which was to embrace the situation and scope the diversity of views.

Very simply put, I was going to ask students to tweet a definition of a key term, with a hashtag, so that they could be collected and discussed.

So in my own case, I planned to do this with the Maastricht students – a couple of hundred – with ‘euroscepticism’, on a hashtag of #scepsis. I’d gather them up with Storify and then maybe make a word cloud with Wordle.

Using Twitter would get students to focus on key elements and be concise. The Storify page would demonstrate the breadth of definitions, while the world cloud would stress common words. And because it’s all driven by a rare hashtag, it could be built upon with subsequent groups of students.

One small problem: Maastricht students don’t really use Twitter. So I did something else with them instead in the class.

But the idea still intrigues me, so at the summer school I ran a low-rent version, using the most important tool in the teaching stationary cupboard, post-it notes. Same deal, but students stick their definition on the whiteboard, we all look at them and we discuss.

I’ve typed up what I’ve got, to get the ball rolling, with a quick page on Google Sites.

In short, we’re using technology to produce communal debates and aggregation of ideas. Obviously, we can do this with any political term, across many individual sites and over time. If you were feeling more ambitious, you could add some extra data to definitions, to see if level of education or location produces differences, although it’s somewhat against I started with, namely the democracy of ideas.

I’m going to come back to this for my word, since it’s actually a pretty good problem for researchers in euroscepticism, but if you use it for your area, then I’d really like to hear about it.

    • this might be just such an example…