Stepping in the same river twice?

Not stepped in this river at all: much too cold

I found myself at a dinner with a bunch of academics the other day and we fell, as one goes, into the cultural reference points we use to connect with students.

One colleague had been struck by someone they work using cultural objects from the 1970s; something they felt was a push even for co-workers to understand, let alone the pimply youth in our classrooms.

However, I’ve not let that stop me using an allusion to a saying from the 6th Century BCE as my title. If you don’t get it, then GIYF.

Any way, this saying occurred to me as I continued my exploration of BlueSky, even as Twitter/X/whatever becomes ever more useless.

The immediate prompt was the arrival on the new platform of several of the best Twitter-era politics snark accounts (Berlaymonster and General Boles, if you fancy following them). These are the accounts that helped to make Twitter not simply a great networking site but also an enjoyable one. Doomscrolling is considerably less taxing when you have someone willing and able to skewer it all.

But that was then.

BlueSky isn’t Twitter, for which there are many reasons to be thankful. But that also means recognising that we lose something too. And even if we can frame that as ‘different’, rather than ‘better’ or ‘worse’, it still needs our engagement to recognise and adapt to that.

This is also true for our teaching practice.

Not only do our students change composition over time, but so too do our technological options, our institutional obligations/constraints and we ourselves.

That can be a joy: I love that every time I take a politics-focused class it will be different and unique because of this accumulation of changes. But it’s also rather disorientating.

Central to managing this is our own self-awareness. Just as we want students to be critical learners, so too must we practise this, recognising what the relevant factors and dynamics might be.

That can be understanding that a class late in the semester will have students both more focused on assessment for your class and more distracted by work for other colleagues. It can be reflecting on how recent real-world developments in your field of teaching might impact on how you present cases or theories. It can also be about the lessons you took from the last time you ran the class and where the pinch points of understanding came.

Again, all this falls into a framing of things being different. Hopefully, we all have moments when it all came together and was amazing, but the best way to get that happening again (or for the first time) is to continue flexing and adapting, rather than trying to recreate what is now past.

Remember, the full quote is: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and it’s not the same man.”

Talking about contentious politics, again

Yet again, we find ourselves confronted over the past week by a highly contentious set of political events that simultaneously a) need and require us to analyse and discuss them and b) need and require us to be mindful of how difficult that is to do without people finding and taking offence in the way we do that.

As someone with absolutely no research expertise or teaching activity relating to Israel-Palestine, those challenges are less than they might be for you (although my session on French politics last week did drift more than once onto the topic).

Here at ALPS Blog, we’ve been going long enough to have considered this at various points. As much as each case is specific, we do have some pieces that might prove useful for you to read and draw on.

There’s also a growing literature for you to explore on all of this.

And as always, if you’ve found something else that works – or have found that these ideas don’t work – then we’d love to hear from you, either in the comments or with a guest post.

Getting on to BlueSky

Some sky

Since we are (once again) in a “Twitter is a hell-hole” period, I thought I’d do a short piece on this year’s contender for Twitter replacement, namely BlueSky.

Readers with any memory will recall I did something similar for Mastodon almost a year ago. While there’s certainly a community there, it never really got enough momentum to build the kind of volume needed to make it a realistic home for everyone.

However, it’s still a really pleasant vibe, so do consider it for your more general well-being.

BlueSky comes in as a more direct Twitter-style platform, partly because it’s created by ex-Twitter employees who miss How Things Used To Be, and partly because as a result their GUI is spookily familiar to any Tweep.

The functionality is very similar (although no GIFs, boo!) and there’s a pretty good flow of people both well-known and less-well-known into the site over the past week. Including me. And this blog.

There are really only two difficulties.

Firstly, all those new users mean it’s a pretty slow site, so don’t go expecting the nippiness of Twitter for now, and probably not until the financing model balances out server capacity. Try accessing via a computer rather than mobile, as that seems to help matters.

Secondly, and more pertinent here, you need to be invited to join.

BlueSky generates invite codes for its members based on engagement: I got my first one the other day based on some tweets and talking with the various people who engaged with it. You put in, you get out; so if you’re a lurker then you’re not going to be able to invite friends/colleagues/that person who does that thing.

As you might have seen on Twitter, invites are often tricky to get hold of, so unless you’ve got lucky with your online buds, what can you do?

Well, several people have set up clearing houses for people to donate codes. I used this one, established to get researchers on the site. You pop in your details and you’ll get an email to confirm it all, with a code following not long after.

Remember that this is being done by people out of their generosity, so patience on the timeline, and you can give your codes as you get them to help others (like I’ve just done with that one I got the other day).

Once you’ve got your code, head to BlueSky and set up your account. Again, capacity issues mean it might take overnight for you to be able to access your profile, but you’re a grown-up, so you’ll manage.

Posting is as you think it is, as is everything else, so no special instructions on this. Look for Feeds to see contribute to particular content.

The thing that’s still a bit tricky is finding your fellow migrants from Twitter: until Mastodon, there’s not a quick, bulk way to find-and-follow, so instead you might use this, or this.

And that’s about it.

We’re still at the ‘hello everyone’/’So-and-so’s just joined too!’/’it’s like old-skool Twitter’ phase, but already I see plenty of Poli-Sci and L&T people there, so the initial signs look promising for being able to stop saying that you should leave Twitter.

Breaking: There’s a problem with something

Surely redundant when no one ever takes a phone in the toilets anyway, right?

The discussion that prompted my previous piece also gave me opportunity for more reflection on the long journey back home from the conference: another benefit of using surface transport only.

The position that most of us – I think – would take on AI is that it’s here and we have to live with it. It might be causing our colleagues inconveniences or making us change what we do, but the use-case of the technology is so much broader than university assessment (or applications, for that matter) that the thing will keep on rolling forward.

If that’s so for AI, then it’s also so for other technologies. The noughties cry of “don’t use Wikipedia: it’s trash!” is an obvious example. That site has a lot to condemn it, both in breadth and in ever-more instances depth, as its editorial model has proven its value.

Likewise, we all seem to have accepted students with laptops in our classrooms, after all those years of grumbling that they couldn’t be up to any good and weren’t paying attention. Which they might not be, but again, that say more about what’s happening in class than what’s happening on their screen.

But I’d take it one step further.

There are lots of things about the world that aren’t – how to put this? – helpfully aligned with what we want to happen in our classes. Our students are people, and like people everywhere, they have a bunch of other stuff going on.

Moreover, each of them thinks and acts for themselves. Which is great, but also sets up the possibility that the zone of overlap among the class on How We’ll Be gets smaller.

Often, that’s not an issue, because the range of what a student might have to do in class is itself constrained: drawing down and pulling up knowledge and experience with others.

But as we move towards more active environments, the issue becomes more salient, because we are relying more on the students to create for themselves the space for their learning. At that point, there is a need to have a more engaged approach to Everything That’s Not Directly On The Syllabus.

A case in point was the course on negotiation I used to run at my former institution. Classes were all about students practising their negotiation with each other and then debriefing. My role was to facilitate and support.

A frequent theme was that “So-and-so is an arsehole”. Which, often, they were, in that situation. They didn’t play by the rules, or didn’t know how to, and sometimes they just liked to stir. Like I said, students are people.

The import of this theme was typically that I should stop it happening. Which I understand, but which I always pushed back on.

The course was designed to create a relatively safe place to try out negotiating (none of the behaviours displayed would have merited me seeking disciplinary behaviour under our student code, for clarity), so part of that practice was exactly about handling people who aren’t all conveniently on the same page.

You’ve dealt with arseholes and I’ve dealt with arseholes and it’s not fun, but sometimes you don’t get a choice.

For some of my students, this sounded like just throwing my hands up in the air and saying they had to suck up all the bad things in the world. But that was never the intention.

Debriefings were communal and part of that was about trying to get the arseholes to understand why their actions were counterproductive to their objectives (both academic and personal). Often that did result in them trying out different ways of interacting that were less antagonistic.

Just as important was getting everyone else to reflect on how to manage problems like these. Even if you can’t stop some arseholes being arseholes, you can find ways to limit their impact.

I won’t pretend that everyone came out of the class all on top of such things, but it speaks to the wider point already made that as much as we seek to build agency in our students, that agency will eventually find limits. At those points we want our students to have the self-reflection to make sense of that, the adaptability to continue and the resilience to press on.

We might not be able to stop the world being a problem, but we can work to improve our chances of riding those problems out.

What ChatGPT can never do

It’s a belated summer here in Belfast, where I’m attending the UACES conference. As well as a lot else, we’re running a series of L&T panels, including one on assessment.

The prompt for this was the bruhaha over ChatGPT and Why All Assessment Is Impossible (I paraphrase): while we might understand that the problems lie much more with the assessment design than the scary AI, that’s still not really filtered through to all of our colleagues.

Our discussion was really stimulating, both for its breadth and for its reflection on what we are trying to achieve in our assessment – and, by extension, in our teaching.

A concern that was raised was that if AI can produce more encompassing integration of knowledge than any human, almost instantaneously, does this mean the ‘end of thinking’ for our students? Even if the lurid framing might rile, the idea is not to be dismissed.

For me, this prompted the thought that even in an era of all-knowing technology there is still a clear role for us as teaching, instructors and facilitators: to help emancipate our students by giving them the tools to build their agency in the world.

We frequently talk about building self-reflection and criticality in our students. In an age when the challenge is parsing and navigating through too much information, getting students to make informed choices about what to use and how to use it is essential.

And we do that because it gives them a way of standing more firmly in the world, to achieve what they want to achieve.

We don’t (I think) want to produce reproductions of ourselves, but autonomous individuals who can both define their own purpose in life and find ways to realise that purpose.

In this framing of education-as-emancipation, it becomes irrelevant what AI can do, precisely because it’s AI doing it, not the student. As one colleague noted, almost all our students don’t come to university to cheat, but to learn and to develop themselves.

Put differently, if everyone can just turn to ChatGPT, then what gives you the edge is understanding that that technology can and can’t do and understanding how you can use that to your own purposes.

This points to assessment that valorises reflection and critical engagement with knowledge and with arguments, so that the student is able to apply such tools to other situations. It also suggests that we as instructors have to spend more time on assessment that is grounded in individual experience and that recognises there is as much value in being able to articulate your self-awareness as in nominal achievement of a particular task.

A case in point in our discussion was groupwork. Yes, you can mark how well a group functions together, but we know from our own lives that sometimes we have to work with people who aren’t our optimal partners [cough], so there’s as much value in understanding how to cope with and mitigate that scenario as there is in everything being super-positive.

When we can pick up a device and find out a pretty decent amount about any given subject at the drop of a hat, ‘knowing stuff’ isn’t useful in the way it used to (even if we go to lots of pub quizzes), and we need to recognise that in all of our teaching practice.

Indeed, you might argue this is a great example of being self-aware and self-critical that we should be applying to ourselves, even as we apply it to our students.

Using ‘Oppenheimer’ in the classroom

In other thermonuclear news…

This week, to make up for the end of my holiday, I went to see Oppenheimer. It’s a great piece of film-making and as impressive a movie as I’ve watched for quite some time. Plus the movie theatre was packed, which was nice.

Of course, you can take the pedagogue out of the classroom, etc. etc., so my thoughts now turn to the question of whether and how you might use a film that there’s a pretty good chance your students have actually watched to support their learning.

[Two spoilers: first, I’m thinking Barbie has a lot more potential (and I’ve not yet seen that); second, the rest of this contains some Oppenheimer spoilers, but frankly if you’re not across most of the story already then [shrug emoji]]

Oppenheimer is focused on the internal dilemmas of the titular character, torn between the urgent need to understand the new domain of quantum physics and the clear-eyed calculation of what a nuclear bomb does, both immediately and for human society.

As a discourse on the larger human tension between ‘can we do it’ and ‘should we do it’ it’s highly stimulating and rather emotional.

But that’s not super-easy to fit into a political science/IR programme, because it’s more moral philosophy than anything else.

Yes, we have some rudimentary running-through of the ‘the Bomb will save lives by avoiding a ground invasion of Japan’ argument but precisely because the focus is on Oppenheimer himself, rather than on the political-military calculation to use the weapons, there’s not really enough to hang a full-on discussion on.

However, what was potentially more productive for our present range of needs was the portrayal of institutional logics. More precisely, civil-military relations and the role of individual agency within institutional frameworks.

The illusion of solidity

The film sets up very nicely how an emergent field of science builds international networks and exchanges of ideas, where ideas are tested and re-tested and shared. It highlights how knowledge is constructed and bounded and how we have to meld theory with practice to make advances and understand what we understand.

The arrival of hostilities collapses much of that into a securitised logic, where sharing is A Bad Thing and where it matters more than you beat the Others. Even if the compartmentalisation at Los Alamos is depicted as pretty entry level (even before the arrival of Klaus Fuchs), the difference in basic approach to the endevour is clear to see: do you optimise for progress or for security?

The pervasive anti-communist note throughout the movie is also interesting here, with Nazi Germany frequently treated as less of a threat than the USSR, even at the start of the Manhattan Project. We might see this as a parallel to the levels of scientific progress: the Bomb is one part of a wider project in the tussle between Einsteinian relativity and the quantum world, even as the A Bomb is already being swallowed up by the H Bomb.

The navigation of the two logics is articulated through Oppenheimer, “more politician than scientist” in the words of one colleague, and it bears reflection on how politics is a space in which we repeatedly have to do this.

To take one example, it’s clear that once the scientists have made a working weapon, then they open the door to a more purely industrialised process of producing further weapons. Their success is also their downfall, the punching of the ticket to being kicked out for all the foibles and problems that were overlooked when the war effort needed them. But does that stop them? Of course not, partly for scientific glory, but also partly because they are coopted into the logic of “if we don’t do it to them, then they’ll do it to us”.

“This isn’t a trial”

Which is a good point to swing over to the agency aspect.

Oppenheimer is a film about people with things to prove. Mostly that’s about proving their ideas are right, but it’s not insignificantly about people proving that they’ve not forgotten being humiliated. To call the relationship between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss messed-up would be an understatement, given both men’s resolve to hold deep, deep grudges against each other for many years.

The film explores this at much length and opens up a lot of space for various characters to demonstrate how they work within assorted institutional constraints.

Whether it’s Senate confirmation hearings, or the disciplinary action against Oppenheimer, or the flaunting of directions on compartmentalisation, we repeatedly get the message that while we can build procedures and rules, we still cannot control human agency and the associated need/desire to break out of “what should happen”.

If you want to take that further, then just consider Oppenheimer’s personal life and his disregard for conventionalities about marriage, parenting or killing your teachers.

Yes, the director is also making a point about Oppenheimer’s science as being a revolution and stepping into a new world, but it does illuminate a critical question in institutionalism, namely the limits to institutional power.

18 years later…

As a postscript, I ended up watching Thirteen Days soon after Oppenheimer, partly because I enjoy actors destroying Boston accents and partly because everyone else was out.

Obviously it’s a very different kind of film, at all levels, but it was striking how the nuclear threat and its existential challenges are shifted from the the period covered by Oppenheimer. In less than two decades, the debate moves from one of Oppenheimer’s hope for a “a great peace” to a hair-trigger crisis wherein quite a lot of (military) decision-makers are cool about bouncing into nuclear exchanges.

Yes, the horror of nuclear war still hangs, but it is much more bounded and internalised. I leave it to you to consider how much that is the case today.

Building a community of practice

As you’ll know, we’ve been looking for people to join ALPS blog since Chad has to start thinking about his post-retirement golf swing and I’ve ended up at a university that doesn’t do face-to-face teaching.

That our call got any response is already a big win, a bit for us but much more because it reflects on the community we have been able to build since the blog’s inception in 2011.

I was reflecting on this just the other day, when I was on a call about promoting research culture in my university.

A lot of the discussion was about the difficulty of engaging colleagues in a sustainable way, especially when there are so many other demands on everyone’s time. It’s easy to say we should do stuff together, but someone’s got to organise the stuff and others have to attend the stuff.

It’s not dissimilar to here, except that I know that all of the original crew at ALPS benefited from Albuquerque’s lack of sightseeing options (and its excellent margarita provision) in generating initial interest in each other’s work.

But what sustained us beyond the memory of New Mexico was the realisation of the value of writing about our practice.

For a dozen years, this space has been central to the development of my teaching, both because I’ve read hundreds of insightful posts from others and because I’ve tried to work through what I do in my own writing. Teaching is learning, indeed.

That others have also found the same over the years is a constant source of happiness for me: our guest contributors have added a depth of richness to this blog that I hope you have all found as rewarded as we do.

So as we continue our discussions with the various people who’ve been in touch, I just want to thank you all for being part of this blog, whatever you’ve done and to encourage you all to keep on being very excellent people.

(Obviously, I’m now about to have a bit of a holiday, but the point still stands).

Neo-Colonialism Mini-Card Game UPDATED

Tim (left)

This guest post comes from Tim Ruback, University of Southern Maine.

To introduce neocolonialism and postcolonialism to students in my Intro IR Class, I created a mini-game, which can be run in a single class session. The purpose of the game is to get students to think about the ways that colonial and imperial histories still are relevant, especially when it comes to disparities of power and wealth. It also is meant to encourage them to ask questions about systems and institutions that seem, on the surface, to be fair and equitable — and to explore how systemic inequalities can be hidden within seemingly-neutral approaches to maintaining international order. You can find the complete game and its rules here

The game requires 4 or more visually-distinct decks of cards and a giant bag of candy (I used Jolly Ranchers). Each deck represents a different nation state, with the cards representing resources they have. The decks also reflect three different relationships to colonial power. One was a former imperial power. Two are newly-independent states, former colonies of the imperial power. One was neither.

At the start of class, I put the students into small groups, and invited each group to send a member to the front to select their deck of cards. Students expect each box to contain a full deck of cards. But they are not equivalent. Before class, I ‘stacked the decks’ by taking cards away from the former colonies, and putting them in the former empire’s deck. These cards represent the material wealth extracted during the colonial era.  

In brief, the card game takes us through decolonization and into the present day. The game has two phases, each with multiple rounds, reflecting the two eras. For each round, groups are given a task to complete. Typical tasks include reorganizing the deck, or putting together specific cards to form a hand. Successful completion of each task earns Jolly Ranchers (JRs). I tell them they want to earn as many as possible, but each group needs at least 25 (and should aspire to at least 100) JRs. Groups can trade cards for candy, or borrow candy from the World Bank (the instructor) in order to trade for the cards they need. Having the right cards is essential to earn JRs and win the game.

The first part of the game takes place during decolonization. The purpose of these rounds is to establish the ways in which colonial histories advantage some groups over others during the age of decolonization. In this part, students are told that they are preparing their economies so that they can compete in a global marketplace. The early rounds ask students to display all the jokers in their deck, or to organize their deck by suit, from low to high. The group with the former empire discovers that their deck is already organized. They also find they have extra jokers (and other cards), taken from other decks, which earns them additional JRs. The former colonies discover that their decks are disorganized, and important cards are missing. After the first rounds, the former empire has already won most of the candy they need and the former colonies have only a few candies each. 

Importantly, the extraction of cards happens before the game begins. The students with the imperial deck did not, themselves, take those resources from the other decks; they inherited those resources. Nevertheless, because these early rounds have lasting effects — including penalties and bonuses that carry over throughout the rest of the game — students witness how these early advantages pile up. They must reckon with the consequences of actions which took place before their time.

The last rounds in part I set up the remainder of the game. In these rounds, they’re given two hands of 3 cards each (such as: Red 4 + 6❤️ + J🔸) and are told these hands represent products they can export to the global market. Students earn JRs for each product they create. These initial products are designed with extracted cards so that the former empire can build multiple hands, and the former colonies cannot build all of them. Those who cannot build the products, but have some cards, can earn a lesser amount of Jolly Ranchers for raw materials. 

In part II, each round has the same basic gameplay: groups try to assemble as many products (specific 3 card hands) as possible. They earn candy for each product, and lesser amounts for raw materials. But there’s one big change! The instructor doesn’t dictate the hands that make up the products. That’s up to the groups. Initially, the group with the most Jolly Ranchers will decide which cards will create the round’s products. After that, the group that earns the most JR in the round determines the products for the next round. 

It should be immediately apparent to all that the former empire will be first to set the rules. This group has the opportunity to dictate conditions that will allow them to remain in that role. But soon, agreement is required to set the round’s product combinations. Initially, the group in charge needs to get one group to support their proposed products. Soon, a majority is needed. By the last rounds, products require consensus. 

Ultimately, the last rounds are more egalitarian than the first rounds were. But the advantage that the former empire had in the early rounds carries over, and the net result yields continued inequality — even when all groups are formally equal and consensus is required. 


In the complete game, I include a set of debrief questions which can get the conversation started. These questions start with practical observations about the game and its outcomes. Then they turn to prompts intended to help students develop explanations of why the game unfolded as it did. These include questions like:

  •  What did you discover when you first opened your deck?
  • There is a large disparity between the group with the most candy, and those with the least. How do we explain this?
  • Do groups that possess cards which were originally from another group’s deck have any obligations toward those other groups? Why or why not?
  • Is colonialism a thing of the past?

Here are some ideas that came up in my class debrief discussion:

  1. After consensus was required, the game became fairer. But outcomes were never equitable, primarily due to the extraction of resources prior to when the game began. This opened to a discussion of how closely global political economies need to mirror colonial systems in order to be deemed neo-colonial. Does continued extraction matter? Is perpetuating the gap enough? 
  2. In my class, the former empire became embarrassed about the piles of JRs they amassed. They offered some of their JRs to others. As we discussed this, we noticed:
    1. Every group refused to accept JRs from the former empire. When asked why, the answer was something like  “I don’t want their charity. They only have all those JRs, because they have our cards.”
    2. The former empire offered JRs, but did not offer to give back the cards that they inherited from colonial extraction. When asked why, reasons ranged from “We might need those,” to “It didn’t occur to me.” They didn’t feel responsible for having taken those cards.
    3. When I asked the former colonies if they would have been willing to buy back the cards that were taken from them, they refused. They thought that the cards already rightly belonged to them.
    4. I use the Edkins & Zehfuss Global Politics textbook, and this entire part of the discussion dovetailed with Naeem Inayatullah’s chapter. Discussions about knowledge, difference, and power came to the fore.
  3. The wealthiest group remained in power for the entire second half of the game. They never proposed rules that would have given others the chance to make the rules. They thought the safest thing was to remain in charge — even when consensus was required.
  4. Groups refused loans from the World Bank because of the conditions attached. They had to repay with interest. They were obliged to accept any “reasonable” offers to sell their cards for JRs; the World Bank would decide whether an offer was reasonable. Students’ arguments against these conditions mirrored their readings on underdevelopment.
  5. Overall, the students determined that the game seemed fair. They chose their own decks. The rules were equally applied. Once consensus was required, outcomes improved for the former colonies. But because of the stacked decks and the early rounds, the game systematically advantaged some groups over others. The consequences of colonialism remained with us.

Ultimately, students enjoyed the game, and were able to make strong connections between the gameplay and the important ideas from their readings. But the game can be improved. Please adapt it for your purposes. In the downloadable game, I offer advice about ways you can tailor the game to best meet your needs, such as how to adapt it for a larger class. If you try something that works well, please let me know!

UPDATE 08 Nov 2023. Powerpoint slides with round-by-round rules are now also available here

From knowing what you want to do to actually doing it

It’s that time of year when one’s attention turns to writing. In the past couple of weeks I’ve had several conversations about books; mostly other peoples’, which is also good.

Those conversations have prompted me to think a bit more about how you translate an idea into a thing.

Regular readers will know that I often start with asking ‘what are you trying to achieve?’: it’s good for teaching, for communication, for lots of things. After all, if you don’t know what you’re trying to do, how can you do it?

But that rather ignores the subsequent challenge: even if you know what your goals are, turning that into a plan of practical action is not automatic.

Writing is a case in point, especially if we’re thinking about long-form text, like books.

Case in point is the renewed discussion with a colleague about a new edition of a short introduction to the EU.

Since we’ve not worked together on this project before, we’re taking the opportunity to go for a wholesale reworking, rather than a update-the-graphs-and-examples.

But how to go about that?

It seems to me that there are three main options, each with advantages and disadvantages.

The classic model is the long-run-up approach. You set out all the Things You Need To Know, so the reader knows all the Things, and only towards the back end of the text do you get to more synthetic analysis.

This is comprehensive, but also suffers from the same issue as when we try it in class: it’s not very engaging, mainly because there’s lots of content where’s it’s not evident why it matters.

So we could jump to the opposite model and build out from an engaging vignette. Think Freakonomics.

Yes, the “this weird thing tells us so much” approach is much more stimulating, but if you’re aiming to generate a rounded overview, then unless you get really lucky, your weird thing(s) is/are unlikely to cover all the bases, making it either scrappy or incomplete.

So the third path is the strong analytical frame. Here you’re driven not by A Weird Thing, but a Big Idea. For me, Hix and Hoyland‘s volume is the best example of this, taking the reader around the EU, guided by a very clear theoretical framing. You’re clear from the off about why you’re reading what you’re reading and how it all fits together.

The difficulty here is, obviously, that there’s more than one way to look at things. Any theoretical framing comes with normative agendas of some kind. Even if that’s an inoffensive agenda (as in Hix and Hoyland’s book), it can hinder the development of the reader’s critical engagement, something that matters with political subject matter.

There’s no right answer to this and I’m still turning over options with my co-author. However, as you do your own writing, it’s worth considering whether there’s value in changing approach, not because it’ll be better but because it’ll be different, letting your readers get something they might otherwise have missed out on.

Navigating small groups

“I’ll save you a seat at the back…”

For someone who now runs (distance-learning) courses for hundreds of students, Chad’s post about the perils of small groups hit home, not least because much of my career until now has been very much about those situations.

In a nutshell, small groups are great because you get that much closer to the kind of individual support we all think is most likely to generate and sustain individual learning, but also crappy because you can’t (reliably) do the kinds of things that work with larger groups.

Like many of us, I got into active learning precisely because it worked better for engaging students than a lecture-and-seminar format.

Put like that, I’m suggesting that perhaps we have to just recognise that small (i.e. 10 or fewer) groups aren’t going to be as conducive to these techniques.

One way I’ve dealt with that is building exercises where individual roles are not exercise-critical: someone’s absence then becomes just another obstacle to be navigated by students, rather than cause to grind to a halt.

For negotiation-style exercises that means not allocating roles like chairs until the class itself, or having generic roles that can flex with attendees.

I also tend to avoid multi-student groups, because that increases the chances of someone deciding they aren’t needed.

Plus, I try to align assessment to attendance, for example by saying students have to reflect on what they’ve done in class.

But mainly, I’ve found that in small groups it makes most sense to just not get into such activity in the first place.

10 of you around a table, having an engaged and detailed discussion about the topic is really valuable and something that we tend not to get very often: put it this way, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone present on that as a pedagogic technique and I doubt it’s because it’s so common.

Channeling your inner Socrates (not that one) is something we have floating around, but seldom get to put to full effect.

Yes, it’s a hard sell and I take Chad’s point that students typically want the easy option, but being able to show them that level of close attention is also a very good way to build value for them. Even if they don’t know or get much, you are able to work with that, especially if you can get everyone in the room pulling along too.

It’s active learning, but with an activer you.