Podcasting in Class: Course planning for Spring 2024

As the semester winds down and final grading is in progress, I am looking ahead towards the Spring 2024 semester, when I will be teaching International Relations & Popular Culture for the first time. It is both a nerdy interest niche of mine, but I also think that field of popular culture is expanding, gaining more grounds, and operating as something relatable to our students. So, I guess – be prepared to see more of that type of content in the new year.

I have decided to incorporate a semester-long podcasting project as the students’ main research project, in which they will produce a public-facing piece of research. I imagine this is the first time most of my students will be engaging with such a project. But this is also a new assignment for me, and I am both excited and wondering what hurdles I haven’t thought of yet. I am building this on a previous guest post by John McMahon (2021) and his APSA Educate resource. Below, I have outlined the overall premise. What wisdom do you have to turn this project into something that can rival Joe Rogan’s podcasting dominance?

Continue reading “Podcasting in Class: Course planning for Spring 2024”

Reflecting on the “World Climate Simulation”: Extra Credit? Bueller? Bueller?

I am following up on an exercise I introduced a few weeks ago (see this post from Nov 3, 2023). Strangely enough, for the first time ever, it did not go entirely as I thought it would. To remind you, I provide two incentives for the classroom while they try to stop climate warming and get it below a 2-degree temperature increase by the year 2100.

  1. If the whole class manages to get below the desired temperature increase, everybody receives an extra credit point.
  2. The group with the least amount of commitments receives an additional extra credit point.

Based on prior experiences, what usually happens is that students are initially confused by the exercise, the numbers, and the task at hand. Through two rounds of thinking, talking to their teammates, and then later negotiating with the other countries’ team members, they eventually manage to figure out a way to slow down climate warming. Largely, this happens because they realize that if they do not manage to find some compromise and agreement, no one will receive an extra credit point. They eventually accept that not everybody can commit the least, and they are willing to take that hit in exchange for everyone at least receiving one extra credit point on their final grade.

Image: Media for Literacy Blog, Reggie Grant

Not this time. Although after two rounds of negotiations, my students were stating that an agreement had been reached, when the first group provided their new commitments on carbon emission, deforestation, and afforestation they apparently provided not the numbers that had been agreed upon. This in turn prompted ALL the other groups to renege on their climate commitments, and the class did not manage to decrease climate warming below the desired temperature point. And this outcome genuinely surprised me.

Granted, simulations are never guaranteed to provide a desired outcome. I operate in a realm of unpredictable actors (aka my students) who do not live in my head and know what is “best”. I know that when I provide these two types of incentives, I pour fuel in the fire. But I incorporate them to simulate more clearly the need to overcome a collective action problem. In the case of “solving” climate warming, the countries represented harbor historical, economic, and cultural tensions that require taking the high road to address this transnational problem, which will ultimately affect all countries around the world.

I was comforted in the past by the students’ realization that the breaking of the fourth wall in the simulation was necessary (overcoming their obstacles and motivations to receive all the extra credit points) to receive at least some of the carrot that I was dangling in front of them. One extra credit point –in the past – was better than no extra credit point.  This semester, though, that realization never materialized. This is truly strange to me. A debrief after the exercise showed that the students did not consider the fact that they would not get any extra credit at all. They were largely motivated by the second additional extra credit point, without realizing that they came together. There was just a lot of frustration going around on how the first team reneged on the initial agreement. It surely was an interesting lesson in the trust component in international agreements.

Although I want to continue this exercise next semester, I wonder if this was a fluke, a fault in the set-up, or a changing understanding of what it means to cooperate transnationally.

Project Citizen: Building Citizenship Skills in an Introductory American Government Course

Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Brooklyn Walker at Hutchinson Community College, Kansas!


This semester, on the first day of class, I asked my introductory American Government class to generate a list, in teams, of how they come across American government and politics. They couldn’t think of a single example. I concluded that many of my students haven’t thought about themselves in terms of politics. They lack political efficacy. They are turned off by polarization and negative affect. And they don’t notice the role government and politics play in their everyday lives. 

But years after they graduate, I want my students to be aware of their political environment and equipped to engage it. I wasn’t convinced that exposing students to interesting information or ideas would address the problems I was seeing. Instead, I wanted to help my students learn about themselves as citizens, develop citizenship skills, and see government in action. I developed Project Citizen to advance these three goals, and to create a bridge for my students between the classroom and the ‘real world.  

Project Citizen is the overarching title for a set of five assignments distributed throughout the semester. It comprises approximately a third of the semester’s total points, signaling that that civic engagement is a priority in the class.

Students begin the semester by writing a brief introductory essay (400-500 words). This essay reflects on a class reading making the case for civic engagement, and they describe what an ideal citizen does and knows. Then they detail their own civic engagement and the hurdles they face in becoming the ideal citizen they described. This essay forms the foundation for the remainder of the projects and marks the baseline of each student’s civic engagement.

Students then select three projects from a menu, each of which results in a 500-word essay. Each prompt is linked to a topic we cover in class, and the prompts are intended to advance the three main goals. Giving students choices is a core feature of Project Citizen. Some of the prompts may be triggering for students. For example, a Black male in my class asked if he had to talk to a law enforcement officer, and another student with social anxiety was worried about contacting a local civil rights group. Project Citizen encourages students to choose prompts that take them out of their comfort zone but gives students space to avoid prompts that they feel could be harmful. Finally, choice promotes equity. Many students, especially those with lower socioeconomic statuses, do not have easy access to someone who’s running for office or reliable transportation to civic meeting spaces.

ProblemGoalRelevant Prompts (course topic in parentheses)
“Don’t know who they are as citizens” Learn about self as citizenTake a survey to identify your party identification and ideology (Public Opinion); Make your voting plan (Participation); Develop a media diet plan after comparing news articles (Media)
“No efficacy, intimidated by polarization”Practice political skills, including political  discussionsTalk to a police officer about the role of civil liberties in their work (Civil Liberties);Talk to a local civil rights group about their work (Civil Rights); Interview someone who’s run for office about the role of money in politics (Elections); Complete an action recommended by an interest group (Interest Groups); Contact a member of Congress (Congress)
“Don’t know how government actually pops up in their lives”See politics / government in actionAttend a local meeting (Constitution and Federalism); Identify party linkage strategies via party communications (Political Parties); Analyze presidential communications via inaugural addresses (Presidency); Observe a courtroom (Judiciary);Evaluate bureaucracies after speaking with a recipient of state or federal services (Bureaucracy)

Finally, at the end of the semester, students revisit their initial essay. They annotate that essay with 8 comments, reflecting on what they learned from class readings, lecture, discussion, and their projects. Their comments can introduce new information or examples to support or refute their initial points, reflect on how they have changed through the semester, or describe their next steps for developing their citizenship skills.

While most of the students’ Project Citizen work occurs independently, projects are woven into class periods. I mention project prompts during lectures, pointing out information that may be relevant or questions the project may help them answer. Students learn from each other during a peer review session (for which they also earn Project Citizen points). I print copies of the assignment rubric and students provide feedback on two peers’ essays, using the rubric as a framework. After projects are submitted, we dedicate class time to discussing student experiences and connecting those experiences to course material.  

Some semesters I’ve integrated badges, which are essentially extra credit opportunities, into Project Citizen. Badges encourage students to take more ownership of their learning experience. Some of the badges I’d used include:

  • Jack-of-all-Trades Badge: complete one project for each of the three goals 
  • Design Your Own Adventure Badge: create your own project prompt (in consultation with me)
  • 10,000 Foot View Badge: complete a meta-learning worksheet about a project
  • Second Chances Badge: revise and resubmit a project
  • Collaborator Badge: complete a Project Learning prompt with a co-author

Ultimately, students have reported positive experiences with Project Citizen. One student said that Project Citizen “let me build up my ideas about who I am and about my beliefs. I got to explore what my point of view is and I learned things about myself I never knew.” Another appreciated seeing the government in action. After attending a local meeting, they commented that, “Normally people wouldn’t go out of their way, but Project Citizen gave me exposure to see how my community is run.” 

Project Citizen is constantly evolving, so I look forward to your reflections and comments.  

Using the “World Climate Simulation” in Class

When teaching International Relations, the issue of climate change is unavoidable. I found myself a couple of semesters ago in a position where I got frustrated about my stale lecture on this issue. Climate change is man-made, the world is one fire, and our students are experiencing it daily. How can I add to this in class without just shouting “look at the data”?

The internet came to the rescue: I found the “World Climate Simulation”, a role-playing game from Climate Interactive (MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative; UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative). I will forego, explaining the simulation in detail, because the simulation’s website is exhaustive enough, and I would end up simply copying what they already explain. Instead, I will briefly go through some key points and considerations that I have, after conducting the simulation now three times in different learning environments.

C-Roads Interactive Climate Change Simulation Dashboard

  1. The purpose of the simulation is that country and region representatives (i.e., the United States or Other Developing Nations) come to an agreement to lower and slow down the warming of the globe. The simulation illustrates that if all countries around the world won’t change any of their behavior by 2100, the global temperature will increase by 3.3 C, which will have detrimental and irreversible effects on human existence and the global biodiversity. Negotiations and discussions between the global players aim to bring the rate to below 2 C.
    1. The simulation provides character sheets for each country/region. They are adaptable to class size (I use six; but that is not necessary).Students must make decisions on when their country/region will reach peak emission rates, when/if they will reduce emission levels, by how much, and whether they will support afforestation and prevent deforestation (and at what rate).
    1. The simulation also provides great slides that allow you, as the educator, to set the scene.
  2. I pair the simulation with two readings/media:
    1. Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”An episode of the New York Times Daily Podcast (“Who pays the bill for climate change?”, 2022).
    1. With both of these, students are exposed to both the ideas of free riding, collective action, and inherent conflicts regarding the responsibility to tackle climate change.
      1. Based on these readings, I add two specific incentives for the students throughout the simulation:
        1. If they can change the trajectory of climate warming by 2100 to below 2 C, the entire class gets 1 Extra Credit Point.
        1. The group that commits the least will get an additional Extra Credit Point.
  3. Depending on how long your class sessions are, you can easily adapt and change the simulation to your needs.
    1. My broad structure is:
      1. I email character sheets out prior to meeting, urging them not to share their sheets with others.Class begins with a first initial meeting within the groups to establish who they are, what their country is doing, and what is feasible in terms of their own commitments to slow down climate change.As a group we collect in the interactive dashboard (see picture above) all of our countries/regions initial commitments, assessing by how much/if at all we were able to change the trajectory of climate warming.Then, the student groups briefly strategize, and then they disperse to speak to other groups to move the needle in any direction.
        1. Depending on how much time you have, you can do multiple negotiation rounds.
        After the negotiations, we collect again in the dashboard feasible commitments, and evaluate where we are.
      1. We debrief. This includes asking questions about how they felt getting the initial tasks, how the negotiations went, and discussing why it is difficult to make any global agreements on climate change.
  4. Thoughts on how the simulations have gone so far:
    1. The more time you can dedicate to it the better. I have played around with different structures anywhere between 60 minutes to 2 hours, and obviously, the longer session had better discussions/negotiations.
    1. In most cases, students will find that balancing national interests vs. global commitments is quite difficult. Countries tend to be selfish, and no one wants to make the biggest contributions right away. The debrief is key here, because it allows you to combine the students’ experiences with the readings and illustrate the thinking/obstacles that exist in global politics to overcome transnational problems.
    1. Take the time to walk around while the students are negotiating. They take it seriously, and the things they say to one another are both profound and amusing at times!

Tools for Discussion: An Interpersonal Growth Toolkit

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Allison Anoll at Vanderbilt University!

Classroom discussion is a common pedagogical tool, but many instructors and students alike find themselves lost with the lack of structure.  Equally problematic, standard approaches to grading participation that simply count how often students speak can (re)produce racial and gender disparities.

How can we, as instructors, lead effective discussions? How can we help students grow in their interpersonal skills while also ensuring classrooms are inclusive spaces?

In my small, seminar classes I use a tool for structuring and assessing participation I call the Interpersonal Growth Toolkit.This tool relies heavily on a framework developed by Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher, where he argues that classroom discussion skills need to be taught just like any other learning goal. The Interpersonal Growth Toolkit provides students with learning goals for classroom discussion, tools for achieving these goals, and regular sources of feedback from the instructor about progress.

Here’s how it works. I start by identifying skills I want students to learn and practice in the discussion setting. In my classes, that’s: 1) humility; 2) confidence; and 3) social science thinking. I provide students with a detailed list of tools for how they can practice each of these themes. For instance, to practice humility, students can,

  • Provide credit to classmates for ideas and inspiration by using their name in comments.
  • Ask the group for a moment of silence to slow the pace of discussion and allow you (and others) time to gather your thoughts.
  • Find a way to express appreciation for what is new, interesting, or challenging in the discussion. Be specific about what has helped you understand something new.
  • Make a comment or ask questions that encourages others to elaborate on their ideas.

I then ask my students to identify which of the three areas—humility, confidence, or social science thinking— they are weakest in as a discussion participant.  My students then develop an individualized growth plan by identifying 2-3 skills in their area of weakness they want to try out in class. They write these skills on an index card that I hand back to them at the beginning of each class for the first two weeks. At mid-term, they write a brief reflection on how they think they are doing in their area of growth and what they want to work on for the rest of the semester. In combination with my own notes, I prepare mid-term feedback for each student about their performance in the three areas and tools to try in the second half of the semester. Students receive a final grade for their participation based on their growth and performance in each of the three areas.

This approach increases the quality of classroom discussions immensely. Not only do students and the instructor have a clear sense of what people are supposed to be doing during discussion time, but students themselves can become advocates of inclusivity in the classroom. Students who lean towards dominating a discussion are asked to think about how they can use their skills to draw others in; students who are nervous speaking up are provided with skills for finding their space and ways into a discussion. Using this technique, I have seen students grow immensely over the course of a semester with quieter students getting bolder and more dominant students using their skills to build bridges between other’s ideas. In my seminar courses, it is the norm to hear from every student multiple times over the course of a discussion.

This approach and assessment are well-suited for relatively small classes (less than 20 students). In larger classes, it is more difficult to build a community of trust that fosters vulnerability and to find enough time for all the students to practice their skills. However, this tool is suitable for any level of instruction: I use it with freshman, seniors, and even new graduate students. Instructors should feel empowered to adapt the skills they want students to learn in the discussion as long as they also provide specific tools to complement these skills. Want students to practice intellectual curiosity as a core skill instead of humility? Develop a list of tools that students can practice in a discussion to build this skill. You can look at chapter 8 of Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher for more tools to consider.

To implement this assessment, remember to include a learning objective in your syllabus that highlights interpersonal growth as a key goal of the course.  I use, “By the end of the course, you will be able to:demonstrate growth in discussion techniques including close listening, speaking with evidence, challenging with respect, and summarizing others’ contributions.’’

Keeping track of student contributions and how they fit into each assessment category can be difficult to do on your own while also leading the discussion. When I use this tool, I hire an advanced undergraduate or graduate student to sit in class with me and keep track of student contributions. I use these notes to develop feedback and grades for my students.

You can find details about The Interpersonal Growth Tool Kit here. The document also includes a rubric. (In general, I’m a big fan of rubrics, but that’s a topic for another day.) Happy discussing!

“The Joy of Asking for Help: Getting students to read (anything?)”

I found myself in an all too well-known situation this week: my students didn’t read the assigned readings. In my opinion, I had set up the most fascinating set of readings to address an important issue in one of my classes. Every should want to gobble that knowledge up, said my hybris. But nada. Maybe a handful had read; the rest of the class became experts at looking straight ahead or down to their screens. I am not rediscovering the wheel with this not-reading problem, but the wheel certainly ran me over this week.  

Credit: Mercy Pilkington (Good E Reader)

I left the classroom after the lecture, wondering how I had created this environment, and how I could pivot away from this mid-way through our semester. Frustrated at myself, but knowing that somehow it had to change, I reached out for help on social media and in real life to people in academia.  I was in awe of the number of helpful responses I received. Although, I did not plan to write about it for ALPS (see Chad’s earlier work on that here), I decided to at least have – for the record – a collection of thoughts and ideas for others, who might find themselves in a similar situation at any point in their academic lives.

  1. Clarify for yourself and the students why we are reading (anything); what the purpose of the readings are; how they aid us in or learning process; and – importantly – do not assume that a one-time explanation covers that. Frequent reminders are helpful and necessary to the learning environment.
    • Here, I also received some online and offline advice about having a session at the beginning to demonstrate how to read articles. Folks have developed different techniques on how to guide students through a sample reading, including developing key questions students should keep in mind when reading (as guiding posts).
  2. I noticed an interesting debate regarding the use of reading quizzes or some sort of grading mechanism regarding doing the readings (or not).
    • I am not in favor of reading quizzes. For one, selfishly I do not want to have more grading work throughout the semester, and I am not sure how effective these quizzes are in motivating the students to read for understanding. And two, I do not want to create this sort of potentially punitive environment in our shared learning space.
  3. Nonetheless, there were some interesting grading mechanisms for readings: 
      1. This includes several recommendations for Perusall, which encourages more a communal reading practice, in which students engage with one another and can annotate readings. I am certainly not sponsored by them, and it also depends on whether your institution has a subscription to the service, but I like the idea.
        1. See similar thoughts on CritiqueIT by Dr. Colin Brown at ALPS.
      • Some faculty structure their entire lesson plan based on students’ reading reactions (required prior to class), focusing on things students did not understand or want to know more about. My planning anxiety stands in the way of this method.
  4. Similarly, the idea of cold calling was brought up. I have fallen to these temptations in the classroom, but at the same time, that does not really solve – for me at least – the reading issue. Then, I am just embarrassing folks in the classroom (if they haven’t done the readings).
    • Folks have suggested to use tools such as Menti, PollEv, or JamBoard (even though the last one is being phased out). They are interactive online boards, that you can project in the classroom. You can pose a question about the reading, and students can (anonymously) respond to that. The collection of the answers as well as the anonymity can overcome social anxiety and the fear of saying “something wrong”.
      • Anecdotally, I already tried a PollEv exercises in one of my classes this week, and I received responses from approx. 2/3 of the class vs. the usual 2-3 hands that shoot up when I start talking about the readings. I did not ask specific questions but rather focused on what stood out to them in the reading or if they had any questions (as the mind-hive suggested). Given my mid-semester pivot, I will stick with that for now.  

The beauty of having a problem with anything in this day and age is that none of us are special enough/unique enough to encounter it for the first time in all of human history. I realized relatively quickly that my problem is not just about “why aren’t they reading” but more importantly “what can I (!) do about this to improve our shared learning space”. And I think that is a better motivator than frustration. Reaching out and asking for help was probably the best way to handle this problem for myself. Aside from the fact that people provided advice/technique, what stood out to me what the fact that there are folks who care and that they care enough to help me out. Thank you!

“The Great Veggie Burger Debate”

Last week I conducted a simulation in my European Union Politics class, which is an upper-level undergraduate course with 18 students. The simulation is called “The Great Veggie Burger Debate”, building on the European Union’s 2019 Amendment 165, which proposed to ban the use of meat-related terms, such as “sausage” or “burgers”, for products such as “veggie burgers” or “veggie steaks” which did not contain any animal meat in them. In 2020, this Amendment was blocked by the European Parliament. In my simulation, the Amendment is back on the board, the European Parliament is leaning towards yes, and the Council of the European Union, meaning the body of nation-state ministers responsible for this policy area, has to vote on this issue (again).

This is my second time running this simulation, and I think it is a useful teaching tool to illustrate parts of the policy making cycle in the European Union and the weighing of nation-state interests vs. European-wide interests in said cycle. This time around, though, I decided against really prepping my students for the simulation week. Luckily, I teach the class three times a week, and I utilized each of these days for concrete steps to have a fruitful conversation on the last day.

Advertising Agency: Ruf Lanz, Zurich, Switzerland

Monday:

At the top of the class I handed out the text of Amendment 165, putting into context its blocking in 2020, outlining key interest groups (environmentalists vs. farmers/agricultural workers), and providing a step-by-step guide on how to proceed. I briefly talked about the instructions, let me students chose which of the 27 countries they would like to represent (I only have 18 students, so I grouped some of the closer aligned countries together), and reminded them of qualified majority voting numbers (pass: 55% of countries, 65% of population; block: at least 4 countries, 35% of population).

My students spent the rest of the class (approx. 30mins) researching their country, looking specifically at the strength of interest groups, what sort of industries dominate, vegan/vegetarian populations, government statements, how their country had voted earlier, and whether their countries already had similar legislation on the books (i.e., France). I instructed them to have a 1-minute speech ready for the next class (no requirement for free speaking, bullet points encouraged).

Wednesday:

On the second day, each of my students positioned themselves/their country regarding the amendment. Some of them were well thought out; some not so much. But ultimately, we almost had a half and half situation of yeses and nos. I then allotted time for the groups to come together, think through their arguments, and approach the other group for conversations. We encountered an interesting situation, because the no-group, those pushing for a blocking of this amendment, realized quite quickly that they had the numbers to block it. Even though I tried to stir the pot a bit, the group stonewalled any attempts of my attempts to create disunion or attempts by the other group to converse. As a heads up for the third day, I instructed each group to determine a speaker to summarize their position at the top of the class. The yes-group spent the remainder of their class conducting research, strengthening their arguments for the last day. The no-group sat around, avoiding eye contact with me.

Friday:

On the last day, each group’s speaker summarized their position. The yes-group, as the “losing group”, had a well-prepared speech and more evidence. The no-group quite briefly just reiterated their stance and emphasized that they have the numbers to “win”. I positioned myself as a mediator, taking notes during the statements, and then invited my country representatives to engage in debate. It was interesting to see how well-formulated the yes-arguments were, touching upon citizen representation, consumer protection, and environmental concerns. The no-group, in the debate at least, did not have convincing arguments, disregarding any environmental concerns, and harping largely on the idea that consumers can distinguish between veggie burgers and real burgers and do not need more guidance. We voted after about 20minutes of issue debate. One no-student decided to switch his vote to the yest group, stating that their arguments were stronger. The vote, nonetheless, was moot, given the qualified majority voting rules and the strong hold the no-group had on a block of the bill.

A couple of thoughts:

  1. I do not think the lack of preparation prior to the presentation really affected the quality of the simulation. The students were “prepared” through 4 weeks of lectures/activities on the European history, institutions, and the way policymaking works in the European Union.
  2. Using an actual policy that has been debated and voted on was beneficial because it allowed students to immediately have research material readily available.  
  3. I made it a point to debrief after the simulation with concrete questions, allowing the students to reflect on their behaviors and positions. Here, we discussed the strength of arguments vs. qualified majority voting, the meaning of stonewalling on one vs. reiterative occasions with their fellow member-states, and most importantly the weighing of nation-state interests vs. European-wide concerns in the Council of the European Union.
  4. It was interesting to see this immediate adopting of winner and loser mentalities. Some no-students later stated that the yes-group’s arguments were quite convincing, but they “didn’t want to lose”.

“No to E! News red carpet events in the classroom!”

I struggle with technology in the classroom. And not in the “should I allow my students to use laptops or not” way. I am firmly in the camp that allows the use of laptops and tablets in my lectures. There is plenty of debate on this issue: some encourage it; others discourage it. There is no right answer, and ultimately how we handle this “problem” is up to each of us. My choice for laptops is largely based on my feeling like a hypocrite if I insist on pen and paper. I use my laptop/smartphone in my teaching, research, and just general existence. The last time I wrote by hand thank you cards, my hand started aching.

My struggle comes from the “appropriate” use of technology in the classroom. Or better: my students’ changing understanding of what is “appropriate”. Or better-better: What is my role in educating young adults on what is appropriate in the classroom regarding technology? Can I expect certain things? Or are we starting at zero?

I am fully aware that on their lists of priorities, attending my class with 100% devotion ranks relatively low: behind the lunch menu, their friends, weekend plans, and whether somebody texts them back. And yet, in the recent past I have encountered a myriad of strange situations in the classroom that required my intervention because students either forgot where they were or thought they could get lost in the anonymity of the crowd. I had to call out a student who was watching four (!) basketball games at the same time on a split-screen, another one for watching an E! News red carpet event during a group assignment, and another who was so furiously typing while we were watching something as a group that I had to inquire whether they were transcribing the clip (they immediately stopped when I said something). At a guest lecture I gave this week in hybrid form, the inviting professor muted me for a second to admonish two students for playing chess and watching soccer respectively on their screens: they hadn’t noticed that the angle of the zoom cameras in the lecture hall meant that their shenanigans were being projected to the big screen.

A newer contender in the distracting technology game is the rise of Air Pods and other small Bluetooth headphones. They disappear under a student’s hoodie or their hair. A colleague and I recently exchanged thoughts on that, and we both agreed that it is strange to tell students to take out their headphones…in class. And yet, we do it. Has the bar been lowered from “pay attention” to “don’t obstruct your only tool to hear”?

As a teacher I can prepare well for class, make sure the activities are pedagogically sound, and I can set clear boundaries of what the purpose of our classroom is. I do that at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and my laptop guidelines, which I reiterate in person. I encourage responsible and positive use, and I also highlight – hopefully in a not intimidating way – that in our learning community I can see what they do, just like they see what I do.

What I don’t want to do is play whack amole with Air Pods and E! News. This frustration that I harbor over the misuse of technology and the disregard for our shared learning space stands in odds with my aims of creating an open, inclusive, and comfortable learning environment. And I am not even certain if my frustration is appropriate as an educator. Even as I am writing this, I keep going back and forth on whether it is okay to be frustrated, whether I should be more understanding, whether my students need even more guidance on appropriate classroom behavior, whether I am too harsh or not harsh enough, and whether I should retrain my hand to write with a pen and demand the same of my students.

Maybe someone here will know how to fix all my problems. Perhaps cut off the Wi-Fi?

“How to spark curiosity”

Hi everyone, my name is Jennifer Ostojski. I am a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at Colgate University. In August 2022, I defended my dissertation on European identity. I recently joined the ALPS team, handling some of the day-to-day stuff, contributing weekly (on Fridays) my thoughts on teaching, and also soliciting guest posts to present new and exciting teaching tools. Looking forward to our time together!

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What is it that we do in Political Science? That’s a question a faculty member prompted us to think about in a department meeting I recently attended. The Geology department “produces” geologists”. The Physics department “produces” physicists. But what do we mean by “producing” political scientists? I could give you the old spiel of pre-law tracks and policy-oriented folks. They have clearer expectations of what happens in the great beyond when they leave their undergraduate institutions. But what about my students, who focus on International Relations or Comparative Politics, who have internships in consulting firms, architectural firms, or even on the stock market? I don’t know about you, but I am not producing consulters, architects, and stock market experts in class.

Reflecting on this question, I realized that the “what I do” in class is to try just genuinely spark curiosity and excitement for everything that politics is (see Chad’s three-part series on the Death of Curiosity here, here, and here). I find that when students come to class, their perception of politics is much more limited to distant actors, processes, and things they think they have no power over. Missing from their radar is the consciousness that ultimately everything they do, engage with, and consume is and can be tied to politics. And more importantly, they are not passive observants but actors in the political world. This realization does not happen organically, but when achieved it can create a curious mind about the world around them – maybe not in perpetuity but at least for the length of the semester.

Over time this transformation and realization can take place when prompted by the instructor (you and me!). Over the last couple semesters, I have put more emphasis on creating activities and classroom designs to elicit this realization in my students and involve them and their ideas more strongly in our classroom environment. Below, I outline some of examples that I am currently doing in my two courses.

1. Participation now makes up 20% of my students’ grade. It is a lot – I think – compared to other courses, but ultimately I decided that I need to motivate my students to speak up in any capacity, share their ideas, and allow themselves to play around with concepts without necessarily feeling the need to say the “right” or “correct” thing.

  • Caveat: I have seen an uptick in participation. But the hurdle of “saying the right thing” is ever present. I had a student recently apologize to me after class for not knowing the answer.

Assuring and reminding my students about the opportunity the classroom provides to freely exchange ideas has worked so far only in parts for me. 

2. I begin every class session with a 5-minute news recap session. It wakes up the students (especially those pesky early Monday morning sessions), and it allows students to share news stories that peaked their interests about domestic or international issues.

  • Caveat: If students don’t read, and I come across that a bunch (maybe you too?), it can become an exercise in cricket sounds. I counter that by keeping in my metaphorical back pocket a couple of stories when students are not sharing anything on their own. They can then at least respond to that and communicate their thoughts.
    • The cynic in me is a bit baffled when I encounter folks who just don’t read anything. But that is beside the point here.

3. A core assignment in my class, which I have done now for a couple of semesters, is a short in-person presentation, in which each student picks their own topic in relation to the class theme (this semester it is broadly “International Relations”). For me, it is Important that they are free to choose the topic and put their own mark on our class. Often, they contribute fresh new case studies that enrich our understanding of core concepts. Also, if they choose on their own, they are more likely to genuinely like the topic, which can be felt in the way they approach the presentation research itself. Students in the past have talked about Princess Diana as an international diplomat, the efforts of the NBA to start an African basketball league, the emerging norm of returning stolen artifacts to former colonized states, and the rise and fall of the Adani Group.

  • Caveat: I have found that when first confronted with the assignment, some students “get it”, while other students are a bit overwhelmed. Two reasons stand out: (1) the freedom of choice is almost too much, but providing examples helps quite a lot for students to be able to narrow down; and (2) a lack of interest in seemingly a lot of things, which then transpires into not knowing where to start and how to proceed. In the case of the second option, I have found that it takes a lot of probing and pulling to define half-heartedly some “interesting” topic.

These three are by no means perfect, but they have created a warmer and more engaged back-and-forth that I appreciate and prefer over my monologues. I try and improve upon that regularly. No empirical evidence exists on the effects of my efforts (yet), but I see it as my responsibility of “what I do” to instill – especially in introductory courses – a sense of curiosity and ownership by our students over politics. Maybe in twenty years one of them will reach out about their international political efforts in architectural design.