What’s your point?

Source: Giphy

I was listening to the radio the other day, to a big news show, when a colleague I know came on to talk about a thing that’s in the news. Apparently politics still makes the news.

I think this colleague is a good person, doing good work and is very personable. Unfortunately, I was a bit underwhelmed by their interview. Mainly because I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say.

With that in mind, and very much in a constructive spirit for all of us (since I can be as bad as anyone on this), I thought it might be helpful to run through some key points of ‘doing media’.

The main take home is that it’s like teaching, inasmuch as you need to focus on your learning objectives.

When you teach, you’re trying to get your students to learn something. When you do media, you’re trying to get the interviewer and the audience to learn something.

So the big question for you with any media interview should be: “what am I trying to say here?”

The answer to that should be a short sentence of the kind spoken by non-academics. In the case of this post, it’s “make sure you say what you are trying to say”.

Three ways to achieve this.

First, make sure you literally say the thing that is your main point. At some point in the interview, use the actual wording of your point. You can paraphrase it elsewhere as you talk, but just say it as bluntly as you can.

That seems really basic, but it’s oddly tricky when you’re stressed, when someone’s lobbing questions at you, when you might be just focusing on getting any response out of your mouth. If it helps, write your point down and fix on it for a moment just before you kick off.

I’d suggest you get your point out as soon as politely practical, mainly because you always have less time than you think you do and you might get cut off mid-flow (like my colleague on the radio): get in early, then it’s done.

Second, remember your ABC: acknowledge the question, bridge to your point, continue.

Assuming we’re talking about you inputting to some news story of public interest, remember that journalists aren’t necessarily all that deeply invested in the details as you might be. That’s kind of why you’re being interviewed. But it means the questions you get asked might not be the ‘right’ questions to ask, stopping you from saying what you want to say.

So handle that by landing the question with a metaphorical nod to show you’ve understood it, then redirect it towards the thing you think needs to be understood here (which might well be your main point). You might have noticed this feels a bit like how politicians talk, because they’ve had their training, but it’s still a good way of ensuring you’ve got an opportunity to make your point, even if not directly asked about it.

Finally, remember that journalists are (almost always) on your side. They want you to say interesting and useful things, so trust they are trying to help you get to do that.

If you have a chat pre-interview (as often happens for radio and TV), make sure you get your main point across once more and most times that will lead to them asking questions that allow you to directly make your main point on-air. And if not, there’s almost always opportunity by pivoting as just mentioned.

Of course, that still needs you to say what you want to say.

Call for Proposals: In-Class Active Learning Exercises

The editorial team behind the recently-published Simulations in the Political Science Classroom:  Games without Frontiers are seeking chapter proposals for a new volume on in-class games and activities that are useful for teaching any subfield of political science. This book is intended to be a catalog of dozens of active learning exercises that an instructor can select from to teach a particular topic in less than a single class period. Ideally, the activities should be flexibly applicable to high school classrooms or introductory, upper level university, or perhaps even graduate courses.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter proposal, the editors need your name, institutional affiliation, potential chapter title, the subfield and subject, and a description of the activity that is 150 words or less. Because the editors want to include a variety of exercises that cover a breadth of subfields, multiple submissions on different activities by the same author are welcome.

The deadline for proposals is October 15, 2022.

To submit a proposal or get additional information, please contact one of the book proposal’s editors:

Mark Harvey: mark [dot] harvey [at] stmary [dot] edu.

James Fielder: james [dot] fielder [at] colostate [dot] edu.

Ryan Gibb: Ryan [dot] Gibb [at] bakeru [dot] edu.

Derek Glasgow: derek [dot] john [dot] glasgow [at] gmail.com.

…the more they stay the same?

On the back of Chad’s post – which I take to be more in disappointment than in anger – it’s worth considering why we still get (and I paraphrase here) crappy conference presentations.

At one level, this is about the cues that organisers (don’t) put out to delegates. Yes, there’s a bunch of stuff on the website about ‘roles’ at conferences, but I’ll hazard a guess that most people don’t read this. So where’s the follow-up by organisers? Do they push out info direct to individuals? Do they provide extra instruction to chairs on management of panels?

More broadly, do they encourage variety in panel formats? Having lots of different ways you can run a panel (as a roundtable, workshop, activity-based session, etc.) partly allows people to find a structure that works for them, partly creates incentives for everyone to check on the format guidance.

At a second level, this is about colleagues being mindful. In Chad’s case, it looks like someone made an assumption and ran with it, without checking that assumption was correct (which it wasn’t). If we all took some time to consider what others are doing and what others (the audience especially) might want, then we’d probably be able to run things pretty smoothly and sensibly by ourselves. Which is rather the idea.

Of course, that we’re even having this discussion points up the problem: not everyone is mindful.

So maybe the third level is that we all might need to help colleagues be mindful. Calling out bad practice is something we should all be doing: people spend a lot of time and money to get to conferences, so we should respect the effort by making sure we’re giving everyone a fair crack.

In short, these kinds of things are on all of us to shift: if we all played our part then we’d hopefully find less and less of this, as colleagues started to see the benefits.

Looking forward to seeing you at the next panel!

The More Things Change . . .

The 2022 TLC @ APSA is in the can, to use an early 20th century metaphor about a now-obsolete analog technology. Because of the pandemic, I had not attended an in-person conference since the Albuquerque TLC in February 2020. I was hoping for something new and perhaps revitalizing after the hiatus.

I got something new, but not in a good way.

conference attendee

No one wants to sit through a 15 minute recitation of comments from student evaluations, especially when those comments are simultaneously displayed on a projector screen as part of a 45 minute presentation that was actually supposed to run for only 20 minutes. In our work as teachers, we hold students to certain standards and demonstrate how they can meet those standards. This was a numbing example of “do as I say not as I do” that ran completely counter to effective pedagogical practice. It was also disrespectful to the audience and other panelists.

The problem was compounded by a moderator who failed to properly execute the duties of the role, and not just by letting one presenter consume half of the session’s allotted time. The moderator incorrectly assumed that most of the presenters scheduled for the subsequent panel were absent. He unilaterally decided that people who no longer had time to present in the panel that was in session could do so in next one. He announced this decision more than an hour into the session, which prompted exclamations from the audience of “But I’m here and part of the next panel!” and “What’s going on?”

I contrast the above events with what I witnessed in Montreal’s Time Out Market while eating lunch earlier in the day: a clown making balloon animals for a cavernous room full of rapt children. He’s the one to learn from.

Should I do that talk?

Probably the furthest I’ve got

Oddly, seeing Chad’s post about writing reference letters made me think of this current topic. In both cases, it’s work that’s obviously linked to our ‘day job’ (whatever the hell that might be), but also feels like an add-on, and certainly one with resource implications.

Before you switch off from this because you don’t get asked to give talks, stick with it, because all of us used to be in that position and a big part of getting past that was precisely about working out what to do.

So, some context here. Right now, I get asked to give a talk outside my home institution about a couple of times a month, which sounds not too bad until I re-present it as possibly 24 talks a year. This includes speaking to local study groups, research seminars and keynotes, briefings to practitioners and the occasional request to run a workshop on L&T. If we chuck in media interviews (which is slightly different), then I’ve got maybe another hundred queries to handle.

I do not do 24 talks a year. So how do I decide?

Continue reading “Should I do that talk?”

Recommendation Letter Requests: The Standardized Email Reply

If you are like me, you regularly receive recommendation letter requests from current or prior students. I’ve created a standardized reply to such requests, and it has simplified my work life. I’ve pasted the text below. Feel free to copy, alter , or ignore it.


I can usually provide a recommendation or reference letter under the following conditions:

  • The deadline for me to submit the letter is at least two weeks from the time I receive the information requested below.
  • You were a student in at least one of my courses or interacted with me in some other significant academic capacity.
  • You have waived your right to view the letter that I submit. If you do not believe that I will write an accurate letter of recommendation, you should not be asking me for one.

For me to write an effective letter, I need you to provide me with the following information:

  • What is the letter for, how do I send it, and to whom do I send it?
  • Copies of your resume and cover letter/personal statement essay that explains how this opportunity fits into your academic/career goals and the benefits you expect to gain from it.
  • A brief description of two or three experiences that were especially meaningful to you in the course(s) you took with me.

Once I have the information listed above, I will try to email you within two business days to let you know if I can write the letter. Please send a second email if you don’t hear back from me after two business days.

Should we have to say this?

Local saying (I’m guessing): “don’t be the pumpkin head with the spade”

It’s just like the before days: I’m waking up in an unfamiliar bedroom, very early, after an evening of wandering around a city I don’t know, looking for a meal, after a day of chatting to colleagues, listening to presentations and making some (hopefully) insightful contributions of my own.

Yep: it’s conference time.

In my case, it’s also do-the-things-that-association-chairs-do time, as UACES holds its annual conference in Lille.

One of those things at yesterday’s opening plenary was to remind colleagues that they’ve all signed up to our Code of Conduct, which is a new thing for us and for study associations in general.

The aim of the Code is – in terms I didn’t quite use yesterday – to reinforce the message that you shouldn’t be a dick. If you are – if you treat colleagues unprofessionally, or harass them, or bully them – then you can expect others to call that out and sanctions to follow from us.

At one level, none of this should be controversial. It’s an academic conference, not Fight Club, and our expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable shouldn’t cause anyone difficulties.

And yet, we find ourselves hearing more stories of colleagues behaving in ways that might make for colourful gossip at the coffee break, but which really have no place in the modern workplace. You can insert the example you heard about here, which might well involve someone confusing their fancy job title for the right to treat someone else without respect, or someone else being less than thoughtful about the language they use.

I’ll note here that it’s not something that I’m aware of particularly in our association, but equally I don’t doubt that some colleagues will have crossed at some point the line our Code now sets: just because I’ve not seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

And so we made explicit what had been implicit. As a field, European Studies contains plenty of controversial topics and the world continues to provide plenty of events that aggrieve and inflame tensions: the war in Ukraine and how we discuss and describe is only the latest (non-random) example in a long list.

Moreover, if we are sincere in our desire to support colleagues – especially those earlier on in their academic careers – then we have to make sure that the words on a page are also make material in our actions. If we want to spread values of equality, diversity and inclusion then we do that much more effectively through what we do than through what we say.

So I’d encourage all of you to live the values we profess [sic] to: treating others with respect; being mindful of how others might see things; acting after thinking; not letting poor behaviour by others just slide.

The more we do that, the more we can embed and make real the constructive and collegiate community of scholars that we all gain from. Something to think about next time you wake up in an unfamiliar bedroom in a new city.

Follow-up To Another Note On Graduate Education

Continuing a topic that I wrote about a few weeks ago . . .

APSA has built a repository of working papers that discuss strategies for “navigating graduate school and beyond.” Subjects include concerns for first-generation graduate students, internships, and adjunct/visiting positions. Several of the papers contain information that I wish I had received when I was a doctoral student. But so far, there is only one that discusses the scarcity of full-time faculty positions and career opportunities outside of academia.*

The paper notes that graduate school can be an opportunity to learn how to synthesize large amounts of information, evaluate arguments, conduct research, communicate to non-specialist audiences, and manage projects. Similarly, as mentioned in an online discussion I recently read, graduate students can learn how to work with people of different backgrounds and develop solutions to important social problems.

The problem with this argument? None of these skills require a Ph.D.

As I’ve written before, the working environment for many people in academia has been deteriorating for much longer than the coronavirus pandemic. Eighteen years ago, before the current crop of undergraduates had even entered kindergarten, Frank Donoghue concluded in The Last Professors that tenure-track faculty no longer had a place in the USA’s system of higher education.

In sum, doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences are built on training people for careers that either no longer exist or that have an insufficient return on investment. These programs need to completely retool to credential people in skills that can’t be learned more efficiently elsewhere. If they don’t, they will eventually disappear.

*”Pushing the Boundaries of Your PhD: Exploring Careers Outside of the Ivory Tower,” by Danielle Gilbert, S.G. Gubitz, Jennifer Kavanaugh, and Kelly Piazza.

Specialist the lifeboats!

Appositely, my daughter decided to round out the summer holidays by watching Titanic the other night. Obviously, she did this by herself, as her parents had already lost several hours of their lives seeing it when it first came out and as even the meagre charm of watching (oh so young) Leo drop through the icy waters wasn’t going to make up for the late night.

However, its apposite-ness came from an earlier moment in the summer, when we were coming back from a trip on our holiday in Croatia.

While enjoying another sunset, my eye was caught by this:

As you’ll easily observe, it’s the instruction for lowering the lifeboat. This one:

My distraction came not because I was in any immediate danger of needing to use the facility, but because it passingly struck me that if the need did arise, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to turn those instructions into the necessary action.

Let’s look again at those instructions.

There are at least six technical terms that I couldn’t confidently tell you what they mean.

There are processes that kind of make sense, but the proliferation of cables and of stages might well see me drop a big lifeboat into the sea from a height in a manner that might be very detrimental to anyone ‘lucky’ enough to be inside at the time.

Also, not pictured are at least two other escape/rescue systems, also with specific and not-that-helpful instructions, but there’s nothing to tell me what’s the optimal way for me to off-ship in an emergency.

So the sunset wasn’t that gripping?

The point of this isn’t some attempt to show you some holiday snaps, but to get us thinking about how we communicate key information. For many of us, now is the time of year we are making handbooks/syllabi and when we start with the grousing about why students never read them.

That’s like this.

Those documents are intended as baseline repositories of key information, to be referred to through the course/module and to be a way of avoiding multiple repetition of the same information.

Likewise, the usage instructions for the lifeboat are there should a member of crew not be around to lower and load the boat for you.

But in both cases, the information needs to be not only useful but useable.

The tannoy might well be saying to check out the safety protocols when we boarded, but you’ll be unsurprised that I was the only person reading that poster. Likewise, your students might not have sat down to work through the syllabus when you told them to in the first class.

Should a problem arise, in either case, then you might imagine more engagement would ensue.

Just like sailors, we use a lot of technical language and our institutions have a lot of weirdly-named processes and organisations. Just like sailors, we can get more caught up in our own world than we realise. Just like sailors, we swear a lot.

So when we’re producing student-facing materials, we need to remember that what makes sense to us might not make sense to them.

That means double-checking they have got the information they need in a form they can understand without you lowering the metaphorical winch (bowser?): should disaster strike, they have enough on their plate without having to also work out what they need to do.

Any way, that was (part of) my holiday. I hope you had a good one too.

Perusall 7

A tip about using Perusall:

For a fall semester course assignment, I scanned a book chapter and uploaded the resulting pdf to Perusall. I discovered that I could not accurately highlight any portion of the pdf using Perusall’s Annotate Text tool. I could, however, highlight rectangular areas of text using the Annotate Figure tool, shown below with the green underline. Apparently Perusall reads the pdf of the scanned document as an image file. I created a note in the assignment to inform students about which annotation tool they would need to use.

Previous posts in this series:


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