More reflections on the “World Climate Simulation”: Class Size Matters

I am following up once again on the World Climate Simulation exercise which I run in my Introduction to International Relations courses. This semester I am teaching two sections of the class, which meet back-to-back three times a week.

My first section is a group of eight students. In my second section I have 27 students. In the past I have only run the exercise in large groups (approx. 27 to 30 students). I was curious as to how the two different sections would play out as I had never applied it to such a small group. Maybe not to anyone’s surprise, there were some stark differences in the way the games played out.

Credit: classsizematters.org

Continue reading “More reflections on the “World Climate Simulation”: Class Size Matters”

Diversifying the Politics Curriculum: Lessons Learned and Possibilities for Progress

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our second event in the series was on the theme of ‘Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Helen McCabe, together with Helen Williams and Andy Fisher, offer reflections on findings from a project at the University of Nottingham, led together with colleagues in Politics and IR and Philosophy.

Questions around why Politics curricula are so often “male”, “pale” and – consequently – “stale” have abounded in the last few years, often linked to wider calls to “decolonise” Higher Education, research, and teaching. As well as this, there has been increasing recognition of, and concern about, the award gap between white undergraduate students and those from Black and minoritised ethnic backgrounds. Closing this gap needs a multifaceted and multidimensional approach, much (though not all!) of which is out of individual academics’ control. However, some elements of a curriculum-based approach are in our control – for instance, as educators we could make significant efforts towards regularising ethnic presence on the curriculum (and diversifying it in other ways).

Making politics curricular more diverse in a variety of ways is a positive pedagogical aim, but efforts in this direction face several challenges. Many of these are practical, as we found when investigating this issue. Sharing best practice can save time, but overall, a balance needs to be found between securing sufficient institutional “buy-in” to succeed, and the whole endeavour appearing to be something being inauthentically imposed from above, causing resistance.

One reason diversifying the curricula is an important thing to try and do is that descriptive representation matters to students and for student outcomes. If we care about diversity and the attainment of all our students, we should be mainstreaming perspectives that are not the traditional white, European, middle-class, male ones. What is more, these diverse perspectives should not be an “add-on” treated in one special week. Nor should authors from specific minoritised groups be treated only as experts on issues seen to affect that group (e.g. female authors included on reading lists for the one week on feminism in a political theory course, but not in other weeks on other topics).

However, there are several barriers for engagement, which might be termed: principled, implacable and practical.

Principled challenges and how to address them. People may be put off by the terminology around “decolonising”, feeling it is either an attack on their current practice (implicating them in colonialism), or that it is not a term which ought to be used in a UK context. That is, decolonising the curriculum is a laudable endeavour in countries which were colonised (e.g. South Africa, where the movement began). But it is not appropriate in countries which were colonisers (such as the UK). These principled reasons for not engaging can be at least somewhat overcome through careful use of – and discussion around – terminology (see our collection of Useful Resources) and awareness around the internal and external politics of this kind of project.

Implacable barriers are harder to overcome. Some people do simply reject the pedagogical bases for diversifying the curriculum along ethnic (or gendered) lines. One version of this view holds that students should be introduced to a range of views, but it is the ideological spectrum which should be diverse, not authors’ demographic data. Another version sees these kinds of efforts as “gimmicky”, and does not want to engage. These barriers may simply need recognising, with related decisions taken about which battles to fight.

A different version relates to some academics’ deep-seated aversion to teaching anything on which they do not themselves feel “expert”, which limits their flexibility around what they teach. (And damages their well-being when they feel forced to teach something on which they are not, in their view, “an expert”.) Although for some this might be an excuse not to develop their teaching year-on-year, it is easy to understand why academics may be very risk-averse in terms of changing their teaching such that they feel they are teaching topics or texts for which they do not have a deep understanding, not least given student expectations to be taught “by experts”, and the negative impacts on career progression and staff well-being from negative or low student evaluations. This may be increasingly an issue as lectures are more routinely recorded, and the likelihood of one slip or apparent revelation of ignorance “going viral”, with potentially wide, and severe, consequences. (This may also underpin reluctance to “diversify” reading lists and include writers who may be seen as controversial.) For these reasons, academics may appear implacably opposed to changing their teaching in any significant way, but this position may be softened by the same sorts of solutions which also aid academics who are positive towards the idea of diversifying, but face practical challenges.

Indeed, practical barriers to are the ones most commonly cited and experienced by academics. These include: lack of relevant decision-making power; lack of time; and lack of space.

The first is most commonly experienced by early-career colleagues (including PhD students) who might be able to introduce more diverse readings into seminars, but have no control over the content of lectures, modes of assessment, or the aims and objectives of a module. The second and third are more commonly experienced by those who have the relevant power, but lack the capacity to make use of it. Academics generally do not get as much time as is really needed to update reading lists; re-design assessments, lecture slides, reading lists and other resources; or gain the required expertise on new content. Even where these efforts are recognised in an official workload planner, the time allocated is not generally sufficient. And even where there are helpful resources which might be used, there is concern about garnering satisfactory expertise to bring something into the curriculum (as noted). There is also often as concern about what has to be taken out in order to fit in something new, given the limited time available for a module (e.g. 10-12 weeks). Escaping from that problem probably takes a significant module re-design and re-think: and colleagues are already suffering from a lack of time.

All these practical concerns are significant issues, which need to be taken seriously if curricula are to be diversified in a meaningful and sustainable way. Staff need time and resources to make significant change and feel confident in delivering new material, and this in turn necessitates buy-in from people with power within the University. However, if the move to diversify the curriculum feels imposed in a “top-down” and/or “gimmicky” fashion, this is likely to be counter-productive. Indeed, power structures in academia may need to be “decolonised” before the curriculum can be.

Useful Resources:

All our resources here hosted here

This includes some “top tips” available here

And a toolkit for thinking about terms and terminology

There is also some great advice from colleagues at Sheffield Hallam available here

Talking to Others About Teaching

Inherently, the premise of this blog is to bring like-minded folks together who care about teaching in the social sciences. We share tools, ideas, events, and musings. And I have come to appreciate the people who reach out in comments, mitigating the one-sided way in which this blog-writing largely takes place.

Recently, though, I took my musings into the real world and joined a three-week long pedagogy book club run through my institutions center for teaching and learning. We all (re)read James M. Lang’s “Small Teaching”, and then discussed its parts over three meetings. This post is brief (because not everything has to be a magnus opus), but it is, nonetheless, an appreciation post for 1) talking in real life to others about teaching and 2) going back to the basics.

Continue reading “Talking to Others About Teaching”

Student: “Please guide me to all of knowledge”

In a recent post, I spoke about my intention this semester to mandate an office hour visit from all of my students. We are now in Week 3 of the semester, and I am pleased to say that students are fulfilling this requirement already – and even coming back for more conversations. However, a recurring theme is emerging, which I thought I’d seek input for amongst this community. My students are anxious that they don’t know enough. And they want to point me to the magical Google Doc folder we all share as professors, where we store all necessary knowledge about the world and life.

Continue reading “Student: “Please guide me to all of knowledge””

A Crowdsourced IR Playlist

A new guest post by Dr. Summer Marion from Bentley University, Waltham, MA:

Since Fall 2022, I have taught ten sections of Internationals Relations at Bentley University. Each semester, I experiment with integrating music into my curriculum as a means of both encouraging my students to apply abstract concepts in their everyday lives, and better understanding what IR means to them. Inspired by others’ impressive IR playlists, I take a slightly different approach from faculty who have curated their own lists to share with students in class. I challenge students to: 1) expand and improve my taste in music, and more importantly 2) contribute to making IR more relevant to their generation by proposing songs of their own for a small amount of extra credit on the final exam. Students brainstorm songs that they enjoy listening to and find relevant to a topic covered in class over the course of the semester. They then share their songs alongside a brief explanation in our class discussion forum. I encourage students to submit songs as we cover each topic, but final submissions are not due until the end of the semester. I occasionally play a student submission to kick off a new topic at the beginning of class, inviting students to discuss and share their thinking.

Continue reading “A Crowdsourced IR Playlist”

Spring 2024: The Midterm Check-in

I enjoyed Cathy’s post from last week, in which she presented UCL’s approach to engage in student dialogue rather than receive “consumer feedback” at the end of the semester – aka the classic student evaluations. Earlier check-ins regarding our teaching are more useful than reviewing the game tapes over winter break. Our future students will benefit from it, but our past students just had to sit with it. As the new semester approaches rapidly (at least for me, Monday is rapidly approaching), and as I looked over my feedback from last semester, I can’t help to add even more things to my list of new semester resolutions: a midterm check-in with my students on what is working and what is not.

Continue reading “Spring 2024: The Midterm Check-in”

Meet the ALPS Blog team!

As part of our new ALPS set-up, we’re trying to get out more to meet up with colleagues, talking active learning and sustaining our community.

If you’d like to chat with any of us, then you find a handy list of events we’re signed/signing up to this year below. We’re all very pleasant, friendly types, so you’re always welcome to have a chat.

We can help with all your learning & teaching queries, and we’re also happy to advise on getting published (both here at the blog and elsewhere).

And if you’re not at these events, then we’re only an email away.

Looking forward to seeing you in 2024!

EventWho’s there?
PSA, Glasgow, 25-27 MarchCathy
PCA, Chicago, 27 – 30 MarchJennifer
ISA, San Francisco, 3-6 AprilAmanda, Pigeon
Freedom to Learn, London, 5 AprilCathy
UCL Education Conference, 17 AprilCathy, Kalina
ECSA-C, Ottawa, 23 – 25 MayJennifer
CEEISA, Rijeka, 18-21 JuneAmanda, Kalina
ECPR SGEU, Lisbon, 19-21 JuneSimon
Connections Wargaming, Carlisle (PA) , 25-27 JunePigeon
UACES, Trento, 1-4 SeptSimon
APSA, Philadelphia, 5-8 SeptAmanda, Jennifer

How to handle Student Evaluations

Happy New Year! As we all slowly make our way back from the holiday coma, I thought I‘d briefly speak about student evaluations, which I am assuming most of us receive at the end of each semester. There are varying schools of thought that speak to the necessity of these evaluations. I am staying out of this debate.

It‘s hard to separate yourself from these evaluations much – at least that‘s the case for me as an ECR. After all, if you care about how you teach and you put effort in it, then it is a personal thing – to a degree. But it should not be something we measure our entire self-worth by. During my graduate student days our Center for Teaching and Learning held a session on how to handle these evaluations. 

Continue reading “How to handle Student Evaluations”

Academia’s Double Standard

It’s the holiday season, so it is time again to spread some cheer. This post is about Harvard University, its president Claudine Gay, and academic elites. The usual disclaimers apply: this is my opinion, based on a steady drip of news reports (e.g., here and here) rather than a full dissection of everything Gay has gotten published during her career.

Gay’s publications indicate a history of pasting entire paragraphs from other people’s work, making only minor word changes, and not attributing the original authors. In other words, evidence of serial plagiarism. Yet the Harvard Corporation’s investigation into the matter, which it was forced to undertake after its initial threat of litigation failed to bury the story, did not follow the university’s own policy on academic misconduct.

Given Gay’s pedigree — high school at Philips Exeter Academy, freshman year at Princeton, transfer to and graduation from Stanford, PhD at Harvard, hired by Stanford as an assistant professor and tenured, then back to Harvard as dean — she was undoubtedly aware of basic citation standards.

But then so were the dissertation readers, journal editors, reviewers, and hiring committee members who failed to act as a check against intellectual theft — probably because of Gay’s early imprimatur as a member of academia’s uber-elite. Meanwhile, those of us who lack the stamp of a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton must constantly prove that we are worthy of being part of the club, and even when we do, we are relegated to the cheap seats at the back of the auditorium.

Gay is not alone in benefiting, at least for a long while, from this double standard. Cases include Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and her colleague at Duke, Daniel Ariely, who fabricated data according to the third-party investigators at Data Colada. Then there are the lies of former UCLA doctoral student Michael LaCour, brought to light by two graduate students at UC-Berkeley.

As I wrote in the blog post linked above, people like Gay, Gino, Ariely, and LaCour were granted entrée into the small circle that sits atop the academic food chain, in part because the reputations of those with whom they associated put their own actions above reproach. A much stricter standard gets applied to everyone else. 

Course Planning for Spring 2024: A Mandatory Office Hour Visit

On a recent episode of Teaching in Higher Education, “The Ones Too Often Left Behind”, Todd Zakrajsek, PhD, author of many pedagogy books, spoke about his journey uncovering the many different obstacles and challenges students encounter in their learning that make succeeding in class – not because of lack of trying – harder than their peers.

Having taught at various types of higher education institutions, this resonated with me immensely. None of us are omniscient and all-powerful to anticipate all the things, and so when trying our hardest we still encounter each year plenty of unknown unknowns about our students, their lives, and their learning. Here is another attempt of mine to adjust my syllabus accordingly.

This past week, my campus had its finals week, including one review day on which I decided to offer an additional office hour session, providing my students one last opportunity to check in with me face-to-face regarding the final paper that was due at the end of this week. I had a steady flow of students coming and going.  But I realized after that they were my steady “customers”, who had come in frequently throughout the semester. Approximating, I would say they account for maybe 20 – 25% of my students. Where have three quarters of mine students been this semester?

Continue reading “Course Planning for Spring 2024: A Mandatory Office Hour Visit”