What does new normal conferencing look like?

Given that I was speaking at EuroTLC in Bratislava about the importance of visualisations in teaching, it’s appropriate that I write now about this photo.

It’s the delicious lunch I enjoyed on the day after the conference, in Vienna’s Naschmarkt. If you’re wondering it’s sabish, Israeli street food, with falafel, humus, pitta, egg and some amazing deep-fried aubergine.

Sitting there, in the heat of a Viennese afternoon after some revisiting of places that I’ve not seen since interrailing 30 years ago, I thought about how great it was to be doing in-person events again.

EuroTLC was even better than the sabish, as I got to catch up with some long-standing colleagues and to meet a bunch of really exciting new colleagues. We did practical sessions, we talked pedagogy, we built community: we did all the stuff you’d hope a conference would do.

But equally, the sabish got me thinking about the flipside.

I was only in Vienna because my university travel agent – which I have to use – couldn’t get me on a flight back any sooner unless I wanted another 4am start (like the one I’d had to get out there). Four long days to do a two-day conference, while I had a pile of urgent admin to do, wasn’t an easy option.

Factor in the hassles of travel and accommodation (especially if you don’t work out the duvet is folded in half [cough]) and a less-than optimal diet and sleep regime and in-person becomes more of a balanced proposition. If the event hadn’t had been as good as it was, then I might well be more dubious about it all.

And this is reflected in what I see others saying too. It’s great to be back to face-to-face, but remembering the hassle was less great. Plus online did have some pretty useful stuff.

One of the questions we tossed around at EuroTLC was “why are you here?”; what do you hope to achieve by being present at this event?

It’s an odd question, we found, especially if we think about it in a more abstracted way (why go to any conference?). The answers varied quite a lot, which also matters because what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another.

The opening up of online spaces has had an impact. In particular, it’s made many of us see that moving people around the place isn’t the only way to generate interactions, even if it is a very good way of doing that in unstructured ways (the chat over coffee, the reflection over a pint).

All of which left me with my sabish, thinking that we do need to find a new balance for conferences and indeed all academic events. Even if a return to Before Times were possible – which it’s not, because of finances and environmental considerations – is it desirable?

Unfortunately, lunch was so delicious that I finished up before I had found a solution to this, a way to combine the best parts of online and face-to-face into a package of activity. But it will be a package, possibly with some things that we have still yet to do.

The conference isn’t dead, but it is going to have to become something rather different from before.

Food for thought, indeed.

“Oh. You’re ‘Simon’…”: EuroTLC2022

Banner!

As the blistering sun relentlessly beat down on us, a hardy band of L&T colleagues gathered in the fine city of Bratislava for the 5th EuroTLC.

As those of you who have already gone back to face-to-face conferences, it’s an absolute delight to be able to see people and interact with them, especially if you can do that over an ice cream, some street food or even a local brew (all three of which I managed in a hectic hour the other evening).

There is another piece to be written about how much we can even go back to ‘how conferences used to be’, but when you’re there it’s clear there’s still a lot of value to be secured.

Crucially, a lot of that comes in the liminal, informal spaces. This might just be a thought about how to address a very specific and small issue, or a very high-level reflection about how we work.

Since I appear to have become an old hand, I’ve found myself both recognised by reputation (hence the post title) and reflective about how we make teaching work.

The mark of the pandemic has been deep and broad: during the first day I didn’t see a single contribution of have a single conversation that did not mention Covid in some way, from delivery to assessment, student engagement to programme design.

But as we have talked, I’ve also found myself abstracting.

The change forced by Covid was radical and sudden, but it also mirrored the longer-run evolution of practice that has been taking place. The mainstreaming of IT, the increasing centrality of the student experience, the pushback against ‘tradition’: all these things were there before spring 2020.

Covid is thus both a shock and a process: necessity has meant we have to reformulate our work and our practice. Which is a good thing, in the end.

Even if it didn’t really feel like it at the time.

This equivalence has also been striking in a different dimension too. With several excellent papers on internationalisation and how it affects learning, we’ve had time to think about how it sensitises us to factors that were previously inconsequential or ignored.

In that, it is much like our developing work around equality, diversity and inclusion: the working assumptions we all make in creating learning environments are political, in the sense of carrying implications and privileging particular groups or ideas.

Work to bridge gaps to our overseas students is – in that sense – no different from work to bridge to any other student who is outside the dominant mode.

Unlike Covid, this is a slow-moving process and it will require the kind of generational shift of attitudes that brought us to the halfway-house of today. To speak to early career researchers of the kind attending EuroTLC, that is something definitely advancing, but it will take all of us to help make that change.

I know it’s beguiling, but it’s not what we’re looking at…

Via GIPHY

Another week, another big pile of British politics news (find your own links).

This made me a) weary, and b) think again about the whole “teaching fast-moving topic” issue that we’ve covered before.

Usually when we talk about this, we try to focus on giving students tools to make sense of not just today’s headlines, but of political processes more generally. The hot news becomes a way into Big Questions of Academic Interest.

But what if the hot news isn’t really all that important or doesn’t open up those Big Questions?

Despite my country’s best efforts to convince otherwise, most of its politics is still pretty mundane, so another leadership crisis/vote isn’t necessarily the key to opening those door for enquiry (although I’m sure you can find links if you want).

The basic dilemma here is that while the news can be your friend in building student engagement, it can also be your foe, distracting rather than illustrating.

Of course, since everyone loves a good dumpster fire, and since dumpster fires aren’t that hard to find, this is a problem.

Two strategies here. Note that ‘don’t mention it’ isn’t likely to work, since it’ll pop up at some point, so you should really own that discussion before it happens.

One: acknowledge and contain. Note the elephant as you arrive in the room, but then clearly mark it off-limits for the rest of the class. If it’s something really contentious and still really not linked to your class, then maybe make time for a discussion at the end of the session, or after.

Two: contextualise. Assuming the overlap to your class is minimal, get the class to mark out the overlap they see, then highlight how the ways it doesn’t map to your subject.

Neither is great, and neither is very clear-cut, mainly because so much depends on what the news is and what you do, so take every case as it comes.

Key point is that hoping it’ll work out by itself is probably not the best choice. That’s as true for your classroom as it is for politicians…

Running in-class presentations

My daughter reminds me that the last presentation I made, I ended up sobbing, so maybe take that into account

Absent an in-person class of my own to run these days, I’ve been interested in my children’s educations once more. Last week, this included a discussion about how to chose who had to do their English presentation in class.

Talking about it with the kids, it’s clear they had as many ideas as I did about the way(s) we go about this, shaped by their understanding of the exercise. And since it’s something that most of us have to do at some point, I thought it’d be handy to run through some ideas once again, ahead of your autumn/fall commitments.

Note, I’m going to put to one side presenting of work done in class, even if it involves presenting. I assume here that we’re really only looking at presentations that students have had to prepare beforehand.

First things first: what are you trying to achieve with a class presentation?

For my kids, there’s a requirement that they all do a short talk to class, to develop speaking and research skills. That’s really clear and defining; it’s also very unlikely to be your situation, if only because you don’t teach an English (or any other language) class, but a PoliSci one. Plus you probably set most of the curriculum.

So you probably had some other objectives in mind. What those might be is up to you, but you need to be clear to yourself about them, since it will shape whether and how a student presentation is used. So do you need everyone to do a presentation, or do you need all the presentation topics to be covered? What happens with the stuff that’s presented: do we never really hear of it again (please say no to this one BTW) or is it pulled back into other content (and if so, how)? Does it need to be individual presentations or can groups do it?

Once you have this clear, you can work on formats.

Continue reading “Running in-class presentations”

Content currency

Not like it used to be

A couple of months ago, I had to update some materials on one of our courses. Written in 2015, it dealt with the UK’s relationship with the EU.

We can leave the extent of the rewrite by noting that I was just happy to have something material to contribute.

Obviously, this is an extreme example – a function of our distance learning model and material revision cycle – but it highlights a long-standing challenge of how to address the ever-changing landscape of politics and international relations in our classes.

This has been brought home once again by this weekend’s election of a new Australian government.

Normally, it’s not somewhere that much crosses my path, but I’ve been working on a climate policy negotiation for our new IR programme and have spent some time of late working up country information sheets for the various roles. Including, well, you get the idea.

Continue reading “Content currency”

More than a metric: REF2021

Those of you outside the UK might be unfamiliar with REF, the Research Excellence Framework.

Lucky you.

This is the periodic evaluation of how good British-based academics are at research. With all the obvious issues about what they might mean and how you measure it.

It’s not as errantly stupid as TEF, its newer teaching equivalent, since outputs – articles, books, etc. – actually get read by people working in the field and there’s acknowledgement of the various different aspects of research and dissemination (‘impact’) involved.

The most recent cycle – REF2021 – just reported its results last week, to a fanfare of, well, of not much, other than many, many tweets by over-excited marketing units. No media coverage, no government statement, nothing to reflect on either the significant effort that went into making it happen, or the breadth and depth of high-quality research that it found.

(Oh, some institutions have got in early in using REF as a moment for restructuring, doubtless to be followed by others, to which I can only ask you to sign the petition to help the excellent colleagues at DMU).

But enough prelude: let’s look at the results for Politics and IR. The Times Higher have a more accessible datasheet here, with Strathcylde and Royal Holloway both jumping a long way up the rankings from 2014 to top off the list on a GPA of the three main elements: outputs, impact and environment (funding, doctoral students and a descriptive statement of activities). LSE round out the top three.

Several points are notable at this early stage.

Firstly, there has been a strong trend up in overall GPAs (out of 4). That might sound unsurprising, given that the general optimising that everyone does in such situations, but there has been a big change in methodology from last time.

In 2014, universities could chose who to submit, and so often cherry-picked staff to bump up GPAs: the calculation was that the central government money they’d get from all this (calculated by multiplying GPA by staff numbers returned, with a marked weighting on higher-evaluated results) would be higher this way, plus everyone loves to do well in a ranking list. However, not only was this rather exclusive, but some universities felt their true worth was being hidden by this, so there was a (successful) push to return all research-active staff this time.

So you’d expect the inclusion of staff who’d not previously been returned might drag down GPAs.

Nope.

As you can see here, almost all those units returned in 2014 (51 out of 56) out-performed this time around: only two dropped. The overall GPA went from 2.83 in 2014 to 3.10 this year.

What that rise reflects is moot. It’s reflected in the overall performance by institutions, so it’s not just a Politics/IR thing, certainly.

Second notable outcome was that, as in 2014, results in this panel reflected a stronger performance by larger units.

If we log-plot number of staff (by Full Time Equivalent) against overall GPA, then the tendency is clear: very few units below 20FTE got over 3.0 GPA, while a similar proportion over that size got below 3.0

The reasons for this aren’t so clear, especially as it’s not a pattern found in all other panels. Moreover, the size effect is found in all three elements of the assessment. This might be more understandable in impact and environment, where size allows for more capacity to target these activities than is possible in a smaller unit where the division of labour is a theory rather than a practical possibility. But it’s also found in outputs, which seems more odd.

Outputs are read individually and nominally without reference to the ‘quality’ of the outlet they are published in. In addition, units had to return an average of 2.5 outputs per FTE, so a bit less than the equivalent of 1 article every other year, so the time-scarcity in smaller units might have been expected to attenuate. However, you can still see the correlation in the graphs below.

It’s still early days in the post-result process and doubtless I’ll be coming back to this again, but comments are always welcome, not least as the nature of the next REF exercise is still open for discussion, so insights now might be of use further down the line.

Scenario modelling

One of the more regular questions we get from students of Politics/IR is ‘what’s going to happen on X?’

We study political events, they see political events and not unreasonably assume we know how it will all play out.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. As my own track record on assorted elections, referendums and scandals has demonstrated.

But the question still remains a good one, because it’s an opportunity to apply theory to practice, and to appreciate where the uncertainties lie.

Of course, right now the invasion of Ukraine is the big example on many peoples’ minds in Europe, but you could add in the looming SCOTUS decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, or the renewed tensions in North Korea, or Taiwan’s situation, or pretty much anything else really.

Each of this political situations has a wide range of possible outcomes, so working through what those might be and the factors that might weigh in deciding between is a useful exercise, for students and colleagues.

This reminds me of the excellent work done by Jon Worth during the hot phase of Brexit, where lots of uncertainty existed and everybody had a hot take to share.

His approach was to work through necessary decision points and allocate weightings to the likelihood of various outcomes, ultimately producing a summary set of overall results of varying probabilities. You can find his last set of diagrams here.

Crucially, Jon did this in a very transparent way, gathering input from social media contacts on both the steps involved and the probabilities to attribute. As you’ll see, this made each diagram an iterative process.

Jon used open-source software for this and put in a lot of time. He’ll freely discuss how getting feedback proved harder and harder over time, so this isn’t something to be done more than once by students, but certainly you can see how a small group could produce a diagram within a session and then work to refine it among themselves: for many topics you could return to those diagrams the next time you ran the class, a year later, to see how they stood up.

The value here is in the unpacking of assumptions and the explicit consideration of how things fit together. Whether students make the right call on what happens or not, they learn – through debriefing – why things turned out the way they did.

Ungrading

A short one today, to encourage you to read this thread from C Thi Ngiuyen on how he’s challenging students’ understanding of grading:

Suffice to say here that his ideas resonate a lot with my own, but he’s in a position to do more about it with his class. For those of you who are bound to your institutional requirements on grading and assessment, this is still a really useful discussion to have, with both students and colleagues.

That’s a great question

Not this (source)

As someone who’s be listening to a lot of US-based podcasts during the Covid era, the title of this post is very familiar to me, since it’s the first thing that a guest says when asked any question on said podcasts.

Even – and hear me out on this one – when it’s not a great question.

It is, of course, more a linguistic tic and and a means getting a couple of seconds longer to work out a reply (maybe even a great reply) to the great question.

Which is fine, but it’s also had me thinking about how we handle questions in our classes.

For many starting out in teaching, questions figure large in the pantheon of ‘shit that can go wrong’. What if I get asked something I don’t know the answer to? What if I get muddled up? What if the student disagrees with me? What if my colleagues find out?

So let’s try to map out some strategies and things to remember.

Firstly, recognise that the key reason questions from students in class seem daunting is that you don’t know what they’re going to ask. If you’re approaching teaching as an exercise in ‘I must do my thing’, then you likely had decided rather closely what your thing is, and anything else is at best a distraction and at worst a sandtrap.

Start by thinking through what teaching is trying to do: it’s about helping students to learn, not about you getting stuff out there. So it’s about them, not you. Which means you have to accept that there is always likely to be a gap between what you’re trying to communicate and what they understand of your communication.

[Small aside: I once spent 15 minutes discussing with students what ‘iterated’ means, because they’d not heard of the word before.]

This leads into a second point: students almost always are asking about something because they’re trying to understand. Just like journalists, almost none of them are out to get you when they ask a question.

Indeed, think about the shift you experienced from before your first ever class and after it: before, you probably worried about ‘all the difficult questions’, but after you more likely worried about whether you’d ever get any communication out of your class. Most students won’t ask stuff, and they ones that do are the ones who are interested in what you have to say.

Thirdly, the classroom isn’t a quiz show. There isn’t a prize for answering quickly and you don’t just move after your answer. Instead see questions as part of a dialogue with students. You can ask them to explain or expand on their question if you think that might help. You can say that you don’t have the answer to hand, but you’ll come back to them with it (and then you must totally do that). You can ask the rest of the class if they have any ideas.

[Another small aside from my first month of teaching: I got asked to explain voluntary export restraints, and got no further than that rearranging the three words and shrugging. This was not good.]

In short, see questions not as a threat, but an opportunity.

Yes, you should think about what students might ask about – the stuff that you know people find tricky, the application to a contemporary case – but more important is treating a question as a way to valorise the student in the learning process (that’s what ‘there are no stupid questions’ really means BTW), to give them a stake in your class. The more you respond constructively to questions, the more comfortable students will be in asking, and the better the chances that they will understand what you want them to be learning.

Maybe all those guest on those American podcasts might actually be on to something after all.

Say what you see

As part of the package of materials I’m building for our new Masters in IR, I’ve been trying out some different ways of stimulating reflection and discussion with our students.

As a reminder, we run a fully distance-learning model, with weekly asynchronous bundles of written, audio and visual elements, with a lot of our students doing this around work or other commitments.

The mix of elements is an important point for us, both because it maintains interest for students and because it opens up different ways of looking at key questions when opportunities for face-to-face discussion with peers are limited: sometimes just trying to approach an issue in a different manner can help things to click together.

As such, while I’ve been putting a lot of effort into an asynchronous negotiation exercise, I’ve also been looking at ways of tackling other elements in an interesting and engaging way.

So I’ve been exploring some visual analysis of a table.

You’ll know the table, since it launched a thousand memes, back before the visuals from Ukraine became a lot more visceral (in all senses).

Source: DW

We’re written before about getting students to produce memes on subjects, but this time I’m more interested in the image as originally presented.

Strange as the table might be, it’s also evidently a conscious choice (given that Putin met other world leaders in different settings and around different furniture), so the question we might ask of students is: “what impression is Putin trying to convey here?”

That’s partly about the impression on Macron, but also (and more importantly) the impression on other audiences, both within Russia and beyond.

In my exercise, I ask students to write about what they think of these different communications, with some prompts for reflection once they’ve done. These prompts are important because they remind the student that what they see is not necessarily what others see.

This is a key part of this activity, since the polysemic nature of political communication is not always so obvious in other media, whereas visuals set up much more space for multiple interpretations. To make the obvious point here; this table set-up looks so odd to me that it must have some other set of meanings that I have missed.

Moreover, precisely because this image got so reworked for memes and mockery, there’s a follow-up exercise here to ask students to consider what those memes try to do and how they try to do it.

For my students, this will be a 15 minute exercise in total, but if you ran this in class you could easily make an hour of it, through exchanging ideas and grounding it back into wider patterns of Putin’s (self-)representation and communication. Plus how our view of it changes with all that has followed.