Next week I’m giving a community class about the situation in Ukraine. Aside from my “that’s not my specialism” queries, my main issue is the obvious one of “what’s the situation in Ukraine going to be next week?”
Of course, as a specialist on EU-UK relations, I have plenty of techniques to hand to deal with subject matter that flies along, faster than any journal article publication timeline. So let’s lay them out, for your benefit and mine.
First up: don’t teach just about today’s events, or even particular much about them.
Any political events happen within a set of contexts and those don’t move so fast. Yes, the flashing headline in your feed is exciting and NOW, but it’s part of a bigger picture. And that bigger picture is going to be more valuable to your students than your hot take, precisely because it’s more durable and gives them the skills to understand what happens the day (or week, or year) after your lesson.
So keeping the contexts and underlying dynamics clear is route one for handling these topics. For Brexit, that meant unpacking British European policy in the post-war, the changing nature of the EU’s operation and the legal and economic logics that might bound action. For Ukraine, I’m reading up on Russian foreign policy, European security architectures and a bit of contemporary military doctrine.
Communicating a framework for understanding is going to be much more useful to students than a narrow explanation of why this event happened right now.
Second: check your feed, but not too much.
While the here and now shouldn’t be the primary focus, you still want (and need) to be able to talk about it: if nothing else, students often want your take on it all and that can be a good way to pull them into the framework of analysis you’re offering.
That means you do need to be abreast of what’s going on, so make sure you have a sense of it all.
In the case of Brexit, I had several classes where important things happened literally as I spoke: then we used that to try and test our framework, as a kind of proof of concept. For Ukraine, the pace is less hectic, but I will need to have answers should someone decide that a Thursday lunchtime is a good moment to launch a cyberattack or a ground invasion.
Finally: don’t panic.
This is always good advice, for all teaching.
Don’t panic, because you’ve done your prep [right?] and you have a analytical framework to soak up surprises.
Don’t panic, because surprises will be as surprising for your students as they are for you, so any response you can articulate is going to be impressive.
And don’t panic, because everyone should understand that things move on. Worst case, you don’t have an answer, and that’s fine: you’re a teacher, not a talk radio pundit. Explain what you can and can’t say, on the basis of the evidence there is and point to what you’d need to know to be able to make a further determination. It’s basically the framework point, narrowed down to the specific thing.