Behold: my newly-reworked module

OR: Some thoughts on teaching and citizenship, and teaching citizenship. And a plea.

Cathy has thrown down the gauntlet, so here I go…

For a few years I’ve been running a second-year module which includes a series of ‘practitioner talks’, rather than being based around your classic lecture-and-seminar format. It was dreamt up when the degree was first put together, and by coincidence the first running of it was in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, so the content was largely shaped by what I could make work at the time. I ran it as was for a two more rounds, and then last summer, following a bunch of conversations with Cathy, decided to overhaul it. This post explains the new structure, and ends with a plea for your thoughts (wisdom of crowds, and all that…).

The module opens with three scene-setting lectures from me. From there, we have a set of talks from people working in public policy: speech writers, think tankers, comms staffers from within government, from the private and third sectors, and researchers from the civil service. Much of that is carried over from ‘version 1.0’ of the module, but the newly-reformatted one now has four building blocks. Two develop themes from a first-year public policy module I teach, one is pedagogical, and one speaks to the ambitions or wider objectives of the module.

The building blocks

The first problematises the role of evidence in the business of policy making. We unpick ‘evidence-based policy making’ to show all the reasons why it’s really just a lofty ideal. This takes us into epistemology (is there such a thing as a ‘hierarchy of evidence’?); into institutional politics (how could we design knowledge exchange processes so that evidence can be provided more efficiently, and with more impact?); into the dirty business of academic research (how much of research is driven by the availability of funding, rather than by any kind of ‘need’?); and into the messiness of politics and policy making (how much of ‘being led by evidence’ is really just the co-opting of convenient information in order to justify a fait accompli?). So far so uncontroversial: there are books aplenty on this, and it’s a hot topic in, for example, the journal Evidence and Policy.

The second pivots away from this and looks at the role of stories and story-telling in shaping policy. I’m taking a very broad view of this, and in practice I mean everything to do with the language used to describe (and create?) a policy problem. Again, this is fairly mainstream: think Deborah Stone or Carol Bacchi, or, for that matter, the narrative policy framework and discursive institutionalist crowds.

The third is where I started to venture into what was, for me, newer territory (or at least, in the classroom – I’ve written here about my earlier dabbling in sports coaching). The module operates through a mode of experiential learning: in the classes the students combine the readings with the insights from the practitioner talk to set about doing something, like writing a speech, or a press release. In the opening week we made a big deal of how different this is compared to other seminars the students have, and we spent the first round of classes establishing a whole new set of norms and ways-of-working which would be more appropriate for this format of learning. The students came up with some really cracking suggestions, like abandoning laptops and using flipcharts / post-its to collate ideas, or bringing coffees to class to simulate a ‘crisis meeting’.

The fourth is where, I’ll happily admit, I feel I’m on shaky ground. The initial inspiration for this block came from a conversation with Simon Usherwood in Bratislava last year (around the margins of a ECPR T&L conference), where he explained how, in his university, they had a view of a politics degree doing three things: teaching students about politics, teaching students how to research about politics, and teaching students to do politics. I worked the third one up into a not-very-well-articulated idea around helping students develop a set of skills to enable them to become active citizens in the world beyond university. ‘Doing politics’, then, is more than voting every now and again, but it’s about being critically-engaged, politically-savvy citizens capable of parsing through the various bits of policy communications that come their way in the public domain (speeches they see, op-eds they read, the think-tank summaries that either of these draw on, and so on) and understand how evidence and narrative devices were consciously used by the original authors in order to achieve some political end. 

Bringing it all together in the assessment

To bring this all together, the assessment has the students do a piece of creative writing and an accompanying essay. The students imagine their future selves being disgruntled about some aspect of public policy in their local area or in the country, or working in some part of the policy system, and then set about writing something which will (hopefully!) bring about some change. They have pretty wide-ranging creative freedom in this regard: they could write a campaign speech for a local MP, or an op-ed intended to swing public opinion, or a Tweet thread (or whatever it is that we call them nowadays), or a podcast script, or a memo for a minister, or the executive summary of a think tank report. In the essay component they explain their choices of medium, audience, content, style, tone, evidence, framing, and so on, linking back to the underlying literatures on political communication.

Now, back to the part I’m unsure of. I think the reason I’m unsure of it is that I’ve picked up the message from somewhere that we shouldn’t talk about our educational mission in any terms that might approximate this ‘citizenship training.’ We certainly talk about ‘critical thinking’, and the importance of teaching students to question – but this is generally framed in academic, scholarly language: students should think critically because that’s what good academics do, rather than because that would help become ‘better citizens’ in the future. To shore this building block up, I drew on some Deweyian thinking (sp?) about the role of education in supporting a healthy and vibrant democracy, but I’m curious to hear what other readers of this site think about the ‘citizenship training’ aspect of a politics degree – and, for that matter, about the broader educational mission of a politics department beyond just ‘teaching students about politics.’