#TLC2023 prep time

I open by freely admitting that this post is totally self-serving, but since it’s the first time in ages that I actually wrote the paper ahead of the conference, I’m going to extol the virtues of writing your paper ahead of the conference.

APSA’s TLC is nearly upon us and the heritage it brings of a track model means that pre-written and -circulated papers is still very strong. You can check out the submissions so far here.

As an opportunity to get focused and specific feedback on your work, especially if you’re looking to publish, this is pretty hard to beat: getting a bunch of people working in the same field, in a room for most of two days, sharing ideas, isn’t something you get to do that often in conferences.

And if, cough, one of those people is an editor on a leading L&T journal, then all the better.

Having already started to work my way through the papers on my track, I can see we’ll be having a lot of very productive debate in Baltimore, which we’ll be doing our best to share with you all.

How soon is too soon?

We’re in the process of building some new undergraduate modules for our degrees here and it’s been reminding me of a rather basic dilemma in programme design: when should we start students on the ‘hard stuff’?

The air quotes point to a first issue, namely that there are different kinds of ‘hard stuff’ out there.

Part of it is topics that require more advanced skills or more detailed knowledge, often applied, that seems to rest on a strong foundation of core competences: think advanced quants modelling or very particular policy issues.

But it is also the openly structured, student-led work in general. Obvious case in point: we put the dissertation at the end so the student can explore a subject in their own way, having got a bunch of stuff from us.

You’ll be shocked* to learn that I disagree with many people about this model.

Firstly, we typically get students joining us who’ve been socialised into a particular learning model by schools – much of it learning to hit the ‘right’ elements from the curriculum – that we try to shift towards more critical and self-reflective approaches, so why not work on that from Day One?

Secondly, as the examples above show, you could argue that dropping students straight into more ‘advanced’ work might be a strong incentive for them to buy into different ways of working, plus if you know your students are new to it then you can make some allowances about how far they can go.

Case in point: I’ve been looking at courses with my son and there’s one that involves an independent project every year of study. It’s a good way to highlight the applied value of the other content, practice for more ambitious work down the line and a training ground for thinking and reflection.

Finally, given how most degree classifications put weight on later stages of study, does it make utilitarian sense only to be introducing ‘hard stuff’ in those later stages, instead of early on, when they can iron out the wrinkles?

In practical terms, my experience has been that first years are more willing to do something new (because they don’t know ‘how things are’) and they have more ability than we typically recognise, even if their achievement isn’t the same as a final year student.

If we’re using active learning systems, then that’s all fine, because these aren’t so predicated on prior learning, but instead give space to students to take things as far as they can. Moreover, the applied nature of many such environments also makes it easier for new students to understand the wider value of what they’re doing.

Yes, it also means having a robust system of student support as they make the transition, but that should be something that we provide in any case. Indeed, the values of more advanced study – reflection, criticality, resilience – might ultimately help them to feel better able to support themselves.

None of this is particularly novel (as Amanda could tell you), but it’s still good to be reminded of it as we build new content.

Our confidence in building ambitious learning environments for our students is likely to translate into students who can become more confident about their learning.

* Not shocked

A small communication/adaptability exercise

Some Lego, recently. And yes, I do know the worktop needs varnishing again

My neighbour (and fomer colleague) Roberta came by the other day to borrow my Lego. I’d love to say this kind of thing happens regularly, but it really doesn’t.

She had recalled an activity I’d done with various groups some years ago, to teach them about the importance of communication

The game is super simple (if you (or a neighbour) have the Lego to hand and involves trying to recreate a model, albeit with some restrictions.

Full details here.

For me, the value of the exercise is about getting students to think some more about how well they prepare for activities and how well they can make running adjustments should things turn out to be quite so simple as they thought. Which is of – hopefully – general application, not just for classrooms.

It’s also a nice ice-breaker, especially if you have multiple teams up against each other.

As I say, this isn’t a new exercise, but somehow I never really wrote it up fully. Perhaps I need to go back through my playbook and check there aren’t other things I could be sharing with you.

But do remember, you’ll have to wait for Roberta to return the Lego before you can ask for it.

The robots are coming! And they’re… writing essays!!

It’s a truism that no academic is actually interested in assessment. Sure, there are certainly academics who find assessment stimulating and and engaging as a topic, but none of us has ever met one.

Except you have: me.

I never really understood the antipathy towards assessing: maybe it’s a carryover from being a student, where being tested felt, in very large part, like being punished. And I’m not going to pretend that I really liked sitting down to go through scripts.

One big exception to that was the reflective piece that my negotiation students wrote about their work, exploring and expanding on what they had taken from the course and contextualising it in the wider literature. Every one was a fascinating insight into my students’ heads, in a way that 4,000 words on ‘IR is overly fixated on power’ never is.

Any way. The only point were colleagues do seem to get more interested is when they have a problem with their assessment.

Right now, that problem is ChatGPT.

If you’ve somehow missed this one, this is an AI text generator, capable of creating extensive – and seemingly well-written – responses to minimal prompts. Including to things like essay titles.

To say that colleagues have been concerned is very much an understatement.

Both online and in-person, I’ve seen colleagues describe the system as the death knell of the essay format in assessment. Text is both of a standard that it could satisfy criteria to get a passing grade and that isn’t going to trigger anti-plagiarism software (since it’s not cut-and-paste, but organically created).

For all the rumours that this latter software will become upgraded to pick up on such AI-generated text, the feeling is deeply pessimistic.

My own view is perhaps more measured, mainly because with all the examples I’ve seen I haven’t felt the output is that impressive, especially for any one looking to bypass they way to the kind of higher grade that so many students seek out.

As others have noted, the quality and rigour of such texts isn’t up to much, which means both that it’s possible to pick up on AI generation (even if evidencing a plagiarism case is still a massive pain in the neck) and that students get a dubious amount of return (in grade terms).

But the bigger point is that text is only part of how assessment works.

The choice of questions you ask and the requirements you impose on students also matter massively.

Take that negotiation class I mentioned. Because I knew all the students, saw all they did in class and debriefing them extensively at the time about their learning, I had a very clear idea of what might be in their reflective pieces.

So if someone tried to write about stuff they hadn’t done (and a couple tried), I knew and could mark accordingly.

More generally, this all should be making us think more carefully about what assessment is for. And part of that is acknowledging that the very large majority of students don’t want to cheat on their education: sure it’s less effort (they think), but it screws when they are out in the world, trying to use skills or understanding they don’t actually have.

So I leave you with this example of how we can get students to engage with these challenges. It’s not a whole solution, but it is a recognition that blind panic or utter despair aren’t helpful responses.

We’ll be coming back to this several more times, no doubt, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Return to the source

Is that… America I can see? No. No it’s not.

It’s the new year, which also means it’s that time when several of us go “I really do need to write that TLC paper”.


Yes, next month we have APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference happening in the fine city of Baltimore (better than it’s reputation, I’m reliably told and who am I to argue). TLC is still the premier L&T event for polisci in North America, and is also the place where the people who give you this blog first met up.

Since those discussions back in Albuquerque a dozen years ago, a lot has changed: most of us have changed institutions and all of us have moved our practice on considerably. Indeed, it’s possible that only Victor is as he was, perennially on the verge of writing a post for us 😉

As a case in point, I’ll be attending this year in a number of capacities.

Firstly, I’ve a paper on how I’ve designed the asynchronous online simulation that I’ve mentioned here before: we’re still in the testing stage, but it’s looking good and my yes-still-to-be-written paper will talk through both the specifics and some more general theorising about how to go about such a thing. Links will follow.

Secondly, I’m part of the Journal of Political Science Education workshop on how to publish on L&T. We’ll be running a couple of sessions of this during TLC, so if you’re about do attend: as part of the editorial team and the one with responsibility for simulations submissions, I’m really keen to talk about how we can get the most out of your work for others. My own paper will probably pop up as an example of what I’m talking about, although whether as a good or a bad example remains to be seen.

Finally, I’m there generally as an ALPS blog person. This role is certainly the most enjoyable, not least because it reminds me of the most thing-that-could-be-in-a-film moment of my life.

Our blog has endured because of our excellent readers and contributors: without all you guys then what we do would be just so much hot air. So thank you all.

Chad and I have helmed this ship since the start and we’re both starting to think about the next stages of our glittering careers, so if you’d like to buttonhole me for a chat about becoming a more central and active part of the team here, then I’m all ears.

As in the past, I’ll be trying to live-blog from the event next month, but in the meantime I have a paper to write and a sudden reminder that I need to check out what Kim Kardashian is up to these days.

Keeping your online presence

A few weeks ago, I wrote about moving from Twitter to Mastodon, mainly because the former looked like it might fall over.

While that’s not happened (yet), it has still encouraged me to consider my digital footprint more generally.

It is both the triumph and the tragedy of the emergent technology that is the internet that how we do things is not fixed. The rise (and fall) of social media platforms, the coming and going to various formats, all contribute to needing to avoid falling back on just doing the same old.

Blogging is one area that’s been on a somewhat longer cycle: it’s taken a long decade for the burst of creativity and energy that was partly responsible for us here at ALPS Blog setting ourselves up to start to require serious attention.

Right now, blogging seems to be in an odd place, especially as RSS feeds have turned into more actively push technologies that take new content into your inbox. RSS was never that complicated, but it was both fiddly enough to stop mass uptake and logical enough to stymie innovation for a long while.

But looking around now, it seems like the big blog-ish efforts are going into platforms like Substack, even if WordPress remains a massive presence.

Of course, just because other people are doing something, doesn’t mean you have to too. As my mother likes to tell me.

However, it’s also good to try out new options, so I’ve been setting up a Substack to see what’s what.

As you’d expect, it’s very quick and easy to set up an account and start subscribing to other people’s work, pushed out to you.

It’s also been very quick to create a mirror of my other blog – OUatEU – and even import the podcast I’ve been doing on the EU – A Diet of Brussels. Creating a subscriber button was a piece of cake too.

Right now, I’m still sticking to the original platforms to post, then pulling it through, as and when. Partly that’s about retaining control of content and partly it’s about keeping historic links to content in place.

As for whether it’s worth it, I’m not sure – we’re still far too early in the process to tell. However, the range of tools in Substack is different from those on WordPress (or Audible), that opens up new possibilities, just as soon as I find the time to try them out.

In the meantime, ALPS Blog is sticking to being right here, but if you’d like to share your experiences of other platforms you’re always welcome to share them here.

It’s more complicated than that…

Surveys regularly pop into my inbox, much as I’m sure they do into yours.

I like to complete them whenever possible, partly because well-educated, white men in affluent regions would probably not get represented otherwise*, partly because I like finding out what other people are interested in finding out about.

So when I got a survey about the ‘state of poli sci’ the other day, I was all up for it. The author is someone who I know to do good work and in previous years I recall being asked about things that would be very useful to know about. No names, no pack drill.

And most of the survey was really good, and made me think about things more (always a good sign).

Then I got to a section about the use of virtual formats. I’ve screenshot some of those at the top of this post: you could slide the response scale to one of five points in each.

These feel, well, like less than helpful questions.

Let’s take Q27, for instance. I have lots of preferences in my teaching, for lots of different things, depending on what I’m trying to achieve. Plus I work in an institution that has policy about whether and when I use in-person or virtual formats: you might too.

So even if I could bundle up all my preferences, that’s unlikely to be the determining factor in what I use. Sure, I love doing in-person stuff, but for my current job it would be senseless to work to that, given my student population and profile.

It’s similar for the conference questions: there’s a lot of different things going on with events – in which the national-ness/international-ness is possibly the least of it – that mean your format depends on particular circumstances. What’s good for building up a bid for a specific funding call is probably not good for a one-off presentation or a big multi-day general conference.

On top of this, hybrid formats are not really a half-way house between in-person and virtual, but something different again, as anyone who’s been forced to teach that way can tell you.

Of course, I can see some of the intention of what’s being asked here – I managed to put something down – but all of this confuses abstracted views on format with the practice of teaching (and event organisation).

Central in this is – as ever – the combination of your learning objectives and the constraints under which you operate. I – like you – decide on what I’m trying to do, then work out how to fit that into whatever constraints I have, and use that to design a way of doing it. It’s very rare in teaching environments that those first two steps leave the option of choosing a format of the kind asked about here: even for events there’s often something that limits whether you go on- or off-line.

None of this is to dunk on the survey author, which is why I’ve not named them: the point here is more one of asking you to reflect more on how we understand teaching practice. In particular, recognising that this never happens on a blank page, but within a big pile of factors that push and pull us towards certain things.

And no, I don’t know how you’d measure that in a survey.

* – may not be actually the case.

Getting started with active learning

Maybe I need to use the outdoor facilities for this

This coming weekend I get to travel to the exotic location of… my former place of employment. A full 5 minute walk from my house.

The institution is hosting one of the Doctoral Training Academies run by UACES, the UK’s European Studies association (in which I declare a very big interest as its Chair).

(I’ll tell you now that I played absolutely no part in deciding the location, but your call whether you buy that or not.)

Any way, the DTA this time round is focused on supporting colleagues new to the job in their teaching duties. I’m running a session on using active learning.

Since there’s no good reason not to share my thoughts with you as well as with them, here are the key points I’ll be trying to make.

Top of the list is putting yourself in your students’ shoes. Often when we talk and think about teaching, we focus on ourselves – what are we going to do and how – but teaching is really inseparable from learning and that’s all about students.

Maybe I was fortunate in this regard that as a student I spent a fair amount of time wondering about what my instructors were trying to do and why it was(n’t) working. A lot of that goes back to the kind of points I was making a few weeks ago about presenting, but it’s a more general issue: if your student doesn’t get what you’re doing, then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing because you’ve failed the basic test.

Placing yourself in a student’s position and trying to reflect on how they might encounter your teaching is a cornerstone of active learning, because without this you will really struggle to create an environment that is focused on them (and that’s what makes active learning active).

Next up, practise and reflect.

The beauty of active learning formats is that there are so many of them. The horror is that none of those formats is automatically ‘right’ for any given situation: there is a lot of adaptation and flexibility needed.

In this current case, I have a ballpark idea of what my group this weekend will be like, but until I actually meet them and get more sense of what might be useful for them (it’s that first point again, note), I can’t fully say what I’ll do. As long as I know what message I want to convey (i.e. this blog post), I can try out some things and work from there.

But that also needs me to listen very carefully to what they tell me. You have no monopoly of knowledge as an instructor, just some things you bring to the table that you can use to support students’ learning, so you have to treat them as partners in this endeavour.

And that’s uncomfortable. You have to give up some control over your classroom, because otherwise there’s no space for your students. So you start small, you keep open the lines of communication and you work from there. It’s how I started and it takes time to feel fully comfortable with that, especially as you push into practice that is less familiar.

And finally, enjoy the process. Without wishing to sound like I’ve spent too much time with American colleagues, active learning is really rewarding.

A not-insignificant proportion of the most insightful points of learning in my classes have come from my students.

More than that, almost all the most interesting points of learning have come from my students, precisely because they didn’t come from me. I know what I think about most things, but discovering what others think (and why) is so cool.

And all the stuff I don’t know what I think? Well, that’s often the basis for my active learning sessions. Let’s work it out together.

Again, this is about making students partners in learning, something that they need to become comfortable with as much as you do. Your curiosity (hopefully also your enthusiasm) for that process is one of the most powerful tools in helping them to work with you, because it gives them a sense of your involvement and your openness.

And that’s about it.

Now just to think about how to turn that into a 40 minute session…

Creating audio and video resources

A big part of our work here at The Open University is creating materials for distance learning. Our students don’t come on campus and get their teaching in weekly blocks, usually delivered via our Virtual Learning Environment, to be worked through in their own time.

It’s a highly inclusive model, built for people with other commitments in their life and without many of the additional costs that come from spending years on-site.

But it’s also a model that needs a huge amount of work to deliver those materials, something that I’ve been learning more about over my first 18 months here.

While much of our content is text, there’s a strong desire to use audio and video as much as we can. These elements provide a more diverse and engaging experience for students and let us do things that wouldn’t really work otherwise.

At a technical level, that means professional producers working with academics to create individual pieces, much like a broadcast programme: indeed, that’s one of the reasons the University does so much with the BBC, because we’re all relatively experienced in the demands of the media.

However, as a newbie, it’s also a learning curve for me.

Central in that has been working back from my media experience to applying those insights to a more formally pedagogic setting.

Ironically, that has often meant channeling my inner podcaster when making these resources.

I’m going to guess you listen to podcasts and watch TV news or documentaries. Think about what makes those work as engaging and interesting pieces of work.

Part of it is about a strong message or argument, but part of it is also more personal: you empathise with the presenter(s). And that’s the bit which I think is quite crucial when making pieces for students.

Communicating part of yourself matters in audio and video in a way that it doesn’t in text: precisely because it’s you speaking/acting, there is more for students to fix on and that’s work your time to make as much of as possible.

For me, that might be a relatively conversational tone and an attempt to think about why my audience might be interested in anything I have to say. Your style might well be different, but you have to know how you are and want to be if you’re not to come across as someone rushing to get out of the studio.

Just as your lecturing style is something that takes time to find and refine, so too for these different pedagogies, made more complicated by these not being quite the same as each other.

Something to think about next time you create an audio or video piece for your students.

Pushing back on restructuring

In the spirit of Chad, I’m writing this week about one of the periodic threats to politics research here in the UK.

Birkbeck is both a storied institution and one with a special educational position, delivering most of its programmes through evening classes in London. It reaches a section of society that most universities don’t or can’t.

The plans to restructure have been left rather vague by senior management, but include options to drop significant numbers in a range of departments, including Politics, whose members include names you’ve probably heard of, wherever you’re from.

There are petitions you can sign, and letters you can share, and I’d strongly encourage you to do so.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened, and won’t be the last: the economic downturn and tightening government support for universities have meant a lot of management meetings and opaque comms to staff and students. Despite being relatively cheap courses to run, social sciences and humanities often end up in the firing line, perhaps because there appears to be little sunk cost and because they don’t get the STEM-is-economically-vital style boosterism.

Continue reading “Pushing back on restructuring”