Don’t Look Up as possible teaching material

Spoiler alert: Not really, especially as there’s only a couple of ways things could go in a film like this. But if you’re feeling sensitive, then watch it first.

I’ll admit to having been a bit confused about this film, since my timeline had some very divisive opinions about it, when the film itself is about the perils of divisive opinions. Stupid irony.

Anyway, with the time on my hands to invest yet more of it into American cultural products, the obvious question – apart from my daughter’s query about how the hell they got Timothée Chalamet in it – is whether it tells us anything useful for our classes. Since The Matrix or Independence Day are now apparently ‘too dated’.

For the record, I’m on Team “curate’s egg” on the qualities of Don’t Look Up (DLU): it’s got lots of engaging comments to make on The State of Things, but it’s much weaker on any kind of systemic critique of modern American society.

And it is a very American piece: evidently planet-destroying asteroids don’t necessarily produce complex patterns of deep international or global coordination. Or maybe the location budget wasn’t so big.

If there is something that could well be taking into a classroom discussion, then it’s the relationship between science and politics, most obviously with man-made climate change, but also with Covid. Objective facts are one thing, but their representation is another, while their appropriation for other ends is different once again. DLU simplifies this by having one big fact – the big rock thing is going to hit the Earth – that (seemingly) shouldn’t in doubt, and yet is annexed to a number of personal projects by assorted cast members. If students can follow that line, then the path to better engagement with the multiple pathways and dynamics of climate change or the much more conditional and evolving understanding of SARS-CoV-2.

Part of that discussion needs to centre around the disconnect between knowledge of some fact or facts and any question of what to do about that knowledge: DLU has only a limited engagement with this, most obviously when lovely Leo asks the camera how we’ve got to a place where we can’t even agree that a giant asteroid heading to Earth is A Bad Thing, but there’s scope here for debate about one gets from agreeing just that point to doing something.

Ultimately, the issue rests on narratives and interests that are grounding in a range of factors that spread far beyond any objective calculation. The film provides a number of examples of both rational (Bash’s big plans) and less-than-rational (in Bojo Mambo’s) responses to information.

Beyond this major theme, it’s slim pickings, I’d argue.

As a middle-aged, white Professor who does a bit of media, I took rather more note of Leo’s transmutation from hyper-anxious sad-sack to trim Voice of Reason than I should, especially as I’ve never noticed any of the other effects of this change. You might also note the marginalisation of women aspect too. However, as critique of how others see academics it might be of interest to a communication class. That said, the scene of the grad class working on the calculations did stray close to being included in any update of my previous comments on screen representations of teaching.

Similarly, any reflection on the relationship between politics and Big Tech is made difficult by the very personalised relationship between the President and Bash’s Peter. Moreover, Mark Rylance doesn’t seem to have decided if Peter is Steve Jobs or James Halliday or even the BFG, so that’s also a bit frustrating. As is the totally unexplained course of the deflection mission.

So yes, there’s some material here, but it’s not really shaping up to be a classic of the genre. Unlike The Lego Movie.

A Pandemic of Irrelevancy?

Debates over responses to the coronavirus pandemic are being driven by epidemiologists, physicians, economists, and elected politicians. Political scientists, in contrast, have been absent from policymaking and public discourse — as has been the historical pattern. An academic discipline that claims to advance a scientific understanding of politics regularly fails to communicate politically about science. A few possibly non-representative, but illustrative, examples:

The historical analysis of municipal public health interventions and epidemic intensity during the 1918 influenza pandemic, published in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The authors, who were profiled in Michael Lewis’s book The Premonition, were senior officials in several federal agencies.

Editorials (direct links here, here, here, here, and here) on pandemic policy written by former members of the President Biden’s White House transition team, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association on January 6 — and referenced in this New York Times article.

This essay by a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine about how universities are responding to the pandemic.

The common thread among the authors of the above? Not a political scientist among them. Perhaps the situation is different outside the USA. Or maybe I’m just engaging in confirmation bias. But I welcome suggestions on pandemic-related publications written by political scientists for the educated layperson. It’s a bit frustrating having to rely solely on authors from other fields when teaching undergraduates about public policy.

A very educational(ist) Christmas

In other news, we also spent a long time empathising with Vincent about how one turns indistinguishable blobs of paint into art

Welcome back to whatever space you call where you work these days: a shed in my case, which has really benefitted from not being heated during the past fortnight.

My break has been enlivened – if that’s the right word – by finding out more about the Theranos saga and by catching some anti-vax videos. Fun, right?

Theranos came via The Dropout, a podcast from ABC, that explained the unfolding of Elizabeth Holmes’s adventures in bio-tech and the court case that’s just concluded. As an exploration of how Silicon Valley can operate and the power of credentials in rolling out a vast enterprise, it’s highly instructive. If, like me, it’s something that largely passed you by at the time, then do take the time to check it out.

Which brings us to the anti-vaxing. A friend has bought ever more deeply into anti-vax messages over the course of the pandemic and this winter has seen them arrive at a place where their views have become more strident, including the sharing of videos that focus on various concerns. To be clear, the friend seems to want to engage in discussion and want these points debunked, so an effort was made to try do that.

Not very successfully, I should add, given that it would require a very much wider return to first principles about the scientific method and the interplay of science and public policy.

These two activities were brought together for me by some reflections on how people learn and make choices.

Whether you’re a investor trying to decide where to put your money or a suburban family being unsure about your health, you take cognitive shortcuts, just like the rest of us.

Those shortcuts are best explained by people like Daniel Kahneman, rather than me, but the relevant point here is that for both Theranos and anti-vax I see the construction of narratives that seek to create a portrayal of the world that isn’t consistent with the evidence available. In the former case, that took some time to come out, while in the latter it’s been apparent from the start.

Educationally, both cases reminded me of one of the key lessons of teaching negotiation, namely the importance of trying to understand the world as your interlocuter sees it.

Crucially, such empathy is not the same as sympathy, but rather a means to put yourself in their position, so that you can better work towards findings an outcome that works for all involved. For the anti-vax friend, that’s about acknowledging the irreconcilability of positions on vaccination, while keeping the rest of the friendship alive. For Theranos, it has been for a court to decide the extent to which Holmes’ statements had a fraudulent intent, legally speaking.

It’s very easy to fall into a trap of thinking that disagreeing with someone on one point means disagreeing with them on all points, especially with those at some personal distance from you. Yet if you look around at your family members or your very close friends, you’d notice that you don’t cleave to them on every single thing, but rather contextualise and compartmentalise your niggles or disagreements. If we’re in the business of trying to improve our understanding of the world, then simply dropping things and people into boxes marked ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t a good strategy.

For Theranos, legal liability is one aspect of this, but if we’re interested in a broader understanding of how this all came to be then it is not the only aspect: the whole affair speaks to questions about wider cultures, signifiers and values.

Likewise, for the anti-vax friend what they think strikes me as less important than why, especially given how they’ve moved over time. Condemning their position – as seems to be rather common – is likely only to make them more entrenched in their views and close down possibilities of building a constructive way forward.

Maybe you can think of your own examples of how we encounter this, from world events or our views of prominent politicians, right down to that student who emails at 4am about the syllabus. Moving to an understanding of why not everyone does things like you is a gateway to making us more reflective, both for ourselves and for our students.

And with that, I’m off to get out of this black turtleneck: it’s not really my look.

Holiday Greetings 2021

Time for another semi-annual update on the financial condition of some U.S. colleges and universities. Standard disclaimer: this is my opinion, based on publicly-available information.

In the interest of holding myself accountable, let’s begin with some of the schools that I’ve profiled here before.* The number to the right of a school’s name refers to the percentage increase in expenses per FTE undergraduate from fiscal years (FY) 2011 through 2020. The higher the number, the worse the situation.

Continue reading “Holiday Greetings 2021”

The Wheels Are Coming Off

The essay below was written by a tenured professor at a public regional comprehensive university in the USA.

We always say we are a “tuition-dependent” state university, so any enrollment downturn hits us hard. What I didn’t fully appreciate before the Covid-19 pandemic is how dependent we are on revenue from the cafeterias and dorms. We suffered huge losses from going completely online for a year.

But wait, there is more! Even before the pandemic, our athletics department, by which I mean our football team, lost $10-12 million per year. They lie about this and hide it as best they can, but at a state institution with strong public records laws the truth has come out. Athletics at our university reports directly to the president and presents at every board of trustees meeting. To the trustees, the athletics department is the university. Only about 5% of the students ever attend a football game, but they all pay several hundred dollars per year in student fees to athletics.

Last year we hit a $25 million deficit. The administration slashed budgets everywhere. Almost half of our classified staff were laid off in June of 2020. Programs were eliminated, adjuncts all fired, phones taken out of faculty offices. You can’t get anything done on campus anymore; you email people or leave a phone message and there is no one to get back to you. A four-person office I often collaborate with was reduced to one person, the most junior, who was told to do all the work.

But guess what wasn’t cut? Athletics! The administration hired consultants—retired coaches—who decided, without any quantifiable evidence, that football was vital to the character of the institution. Their recommendation? Spend millions more per year on athletics. The administration committed to meeting that goal.

My department was combined with several others to “save money.” Our small but valuable graduate program was eliminated. Three secretaries were laid off and replaced, after a year, with one person working less than full-time to support three dozen faculty. Every faculty meeting is a battle between angry professors and our thin-skinned president who bristles at any criticism.

Enrollment is down another 20% this year. Our region of the state produces fewer high school graduates each year, and that number will drop off a cliff when the 2008 recession’s fast-approaching birth dearth hits us. In the last ten years, we have invested heavily in our physical campus; we are paying bonds on lovely, state-of-the-art buildings that will never be full.

I am less than five years from a possible early retirement. I am a graduate of this institution, and my wife and I met in a classroom where I now sometimes teach. I love this place. But it is never going to recover.

Not a pretty picture

Since we’re all (hopefully) winding up for the winter break, just a quick post this week, to offer once again my graphics on Brexit and EU-UK relations.

As you’ll know, the topic is a bit of a live one and things move pretty fast; even now that it’s been ‘done’. So I hope that my summaries of key points, and trackers of developments will prove of some use for your classes.

You’re welcome to use them as you will, and if you’ve got something you think I might help with, then do ask as I’m always looking for new ways to put my amazing PowerPoint skills to use. Seriously.

More generally, you might find this all of use in thinking about your own area of work: since starting with these, I’ve found they’ve been picked up by a wide range of people, including many practitioners and non-academics, which has been good for the public engagement side of my work. Think of it as leaning into the whole ‘a picture is worth…’ thing, which works very well for social media.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a personal favourite, which highlights why I’m confident that I’ve got a long time yet on this subject. And the value of taking input from colleagues. And the need to date your work. And include creative commons info. And thinking about legibility. And much more.

PDF version:

Empathy isn’t sympathy

My youngest is currently getting stuck into her school’s debating society. Weekly topics range from getting rid of the monarchy to pushing vaccine mandates, with pupils getting dropped into a side at random, and at short notice.

You might well have done the same yourself when you were younger; I didn’t, mainly as I was too busy being awkward and gangly.

The orthodontist has terrible/disturbing taste in art. Discuss.

My daughter really likes the approach, both for the range of topics (which we often end up discussing over the dinner table) and for the reflection it promotes about how to make an effective case.

The other day as we sat at the orthodontist, waiting for a replacement retainer (hers, not mine), we were deep into whether a technocracy was better than a democracy when she raised a concern.

The format of debates requires you to defend a position, regardless of what you believe. So far, she’s not found herself pushing something she strongly disagrees with, but she felt uncomfortable about the thought of it.

Indeed, your beliefs – and any objective facts – count for nothing in formal debating. Yes, you can bring evidence, but it is in compelling presentation and investment in the logic of ‘your’ side that you can usually prevail. Put differently, debating seems to care more for what is convincing than for what is grounded in evidence.

At which point we wave from our PoliSci benches and give a big ‘hello’.

I noted that when I allocate students into my negotiations, I often like to put people in roles that don’t fit their own views, on the grounds that it’s a good exercise in learning to empathise. You might find it axiomatically true that X is right, but there are others out there who (strongly) disagree, so perhaps by trying to put yourself in their shoes for a bit you might better understand where they’re coming from.

But you see already the potential for a replication of the same dynamic as that debating society: maybe everyone focuses on ‘winning’ rather than the empathy.

In the debating society the format is very much focused on that competition, so it’s a real issue. For negotiations, I hope we have more latitude to limit the problem.

Most obviously, I never judge negotiation exercises on who ‘wins’, and often there is no clear ‘win’ available in basic structural terms. Secondly, the debrief that always follows is about process and substance, with consideration of the differing value judgments, how they arise and their impact. And finally there is often a degree of integration: progress towards agreements is usually about finding common ground rather than domination.

However, the orthodontist discussion did give serious pause for thought. In an age when politicians sometimes seem to be willing/able to say anything to gain support/profile, there is a danger that simply giving students rhetorical skills breeds a false impression that all truths are equal and find their value only in how well you speak of them.

Yes, the scientific method does point us towards the essential need for evidence, but maybe this isn’t enough. Empathy cannot be presented as a equivalent of sympathy or of equivalence, but as a tool for improving our understanding of contested spaces and topics, with which we can then work to find more inclusive ways forward, working together.

Maybe I’ll suggest that as a future topic for someone’s debating society.

Reflecting on online formats

How we did Zoom back in the day

It’s been a busy period for me for doing online events of various kinds. That ranges from big conferences to much smaller discussions, some for internal audiences and others for whoever wants to tune in.

That variety is perhaps obscured by the online-ness of it all. Whether I’m on a panel in front of an audience of a couple of hundred people or just discussing a draft paper with a few colleagues, I’m still sat at my desk, staring into a webcam and hoping my headphone earpiece doesn’t fall out again.

At some level that isn’t a problem: the flatness of the variation makes it possibly less daunting to do the big stuff. But at all the other levels it’s something we need to take seriously.

Central in this – for me, at least – is the risk of losing sight of learning objectives. Just as our in-person teaching practice is very varied and needs us to think carefully about design and operation of sessions, so too must we do the same for online work.

This was brought home the other day after a chat with a colleague who’s invited me to speak in the spring on an internal webinar series. Most of our discussion focused on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘would I’ or ‘when’ elements, because the ‘how’ comes with a lot more issues than the other two.

In particular, the discussion centred on who would be attending and what they might need from the session. Aside from what substantive content might they want/need, is there also an agenda of developing skills too (the audience is mostly students on our programmes)? Here, that might mean giving more time to Q&A than to a mini-lecture, or even having something that is closer to a discussion, with back-and-forth.

The chat over this underlined something that’s been on my mind for a while, namely our tendency to just cut-and-paste formats across events, with too little thought about it’s right for that new setting.

Some weeks ago I attended a one-day event, with a mix of academics and practitioners. While our panel had taken a more informal model of some questions from the chair and then Q&A, other panels had stuck to the usual academic format. You’ll be shocked* to hear that the latter typically only just squeezed in their presentations before time ran out and no one got to ask a question of them.

The obvious thing to say here would be something about the chair keeping people to time, but I defy you to find where that ever really works, especially in academic settings, online or in-person.

Instead, it is the format that needs to change, so that people don’t even start to think they can produce 50% more content than the space allows.

Indeed, online has more flexibility – for example, allowing parallel conversations – but we have to notice and grasp that.

So next time you’re running an event, ask yourself whether your format is helping you get your audience to where you want them to get to, or simply a model that you know. The answer is going to be different each time, so you have to keep in asking.

Just like you do when you run a class in a classroom.

* – not actually shocked at all.

Teaching negotiation post-Covid

Last week was the Biennale Roundtables on Negotiation, an event old-school enough for me not to have a website to link to.

Kicks like a (hybrid) mule

The event brings together trainers, educators and practitioners to discuss assorted aspects of negotiation, with a pretty impressive breadth of interests and geographies. Plus me.

Together with colleagues from Europe and the US, I was discussing how Covid had shifted our practice of teaching negotiation, something that obviously speaks to many other areas of our HE lives, but with some added issues.

Most notably, the changed ability to ‘see’ what’s happening in a learning environment when working online has been a major concern for all of us. If we are to provide meaningful and holistic feedback and debrief on students’ activities – as we should be – then moving people into different spaces comes with real difficulties.

Most obviously, even with a single platform, we cannot see into the individual spaces that students operate in, nor any other channels they might be using to interact with their colleagues. Whereas in a class you can move around and spot the verbal and non-verbal actions and interactions, in a virtual environment you are cut off from this. Even asking students to share what else they have done (either immediately or later in a debrief piece) is likely to miss a lot out, especially the things that they don’t even realise they’re doing.

But the issues gone beyond this.

Online negotiation – whether synchronous or asynchronous – is not the same as face-to-face in-person negotiation. There is a disintermediation caused by whatever platform or channel that is being used, plus a removal of some of the constraints on how one acts (think of the last angry social media post you read and ask whether that person would say the same to your face).

At the very least, this difference is one that has to be made explicit to students, before and after. When I’ve run online exercises, I’ve tried to get students to reflect on the impact of the medium and consider how things would have been different in person. It’s not perfect, but it is a starting point for building improved understanding.

If these problems are clear for online work, then they are multiplied many times in hybrid online/in-person scenarios. The most vociferous agreement during the entire event was that hybrid is A Bad Thing and should be avoided at all costs.

If you’ve done hybrid then you’ll have worked all this out within a couple of minutes of doing it. Your ability to integrate the two groups, to give them equivalent and balanced support and to give everyone a decent learning experience is very much impaired, to the point that you have to wonder why anyone does it.

[Finances, obviously, but still]

Again, what’s true for other areas of teaching is particularly true for negotiation, given the already high demands on close engagement with what students are doing, in order to be able to provide debrief and feedback. While there was some suggestion of getting students to provide peer feedback, that’s still a really tricky task in an environment that most students already find tricky.

So the big take-homes from this were the need to be aware of how working online changes how learning works for students (and for you) and the consequent need to make active adjustments and accommodations.

That, and don’t do hybrid.

Benchmarking to debate

A bench, recently

One consequence of my (not so) new job is that I don’t do face-to-face teaching as a regular part of my work. However, I do still get out, to give guest talks for colleagues or to do public-facing sessions for local groups.

With one of the latter heaving into view, I’m thinking again about how best to tackle it.

Absent a curriculum, assessment or very much beyond the title and blurb I wrote some months ago, I like that there’s so much flexibility in what I might cover and how. Typically the group is of a reasonable size (15-20), interested enough to want to attend, and comfortable with talking.

As a result, I’m planning to lean heavily into that, by asking them each to write responses to some questions I’ll ask at the top, to guide what we do and how.

In this case, the nominal topic is ‘Britain and Europe/EU’, so there’s a huge amount that could be covered, so it also makes sense to head to where they want to go. To pick up on the lecture notes discussion, I’ve done enough on this to feel comfortable working from memory, with maybe some slides to unpack some technical aspects that will probably come up.

The idea is that I start by asking three questions:

  • Write one fact that you know about the UK-EU relationship;
  • Write a reason about why the UK-EU relationship is like it is;
  • Write what you think the relationship should be like.

Yes, we’ll be using post-it notes, so I can gather and organise responses on a whiteboard.

The intentions are multiple here. Firstly, it’s a simple and quick way to gather their input, anonymously. Secondly, it helps me gauge their level of knowledge and their general attitude towards the subject. And thirdly, it opens up debate.

The progression of the questions is a logical one of ‘how are things?’, ‘why are things so?’ and then ‘how would you like things to be?’, so moving from static facts through to understanding and engagement. By doing this together at the start, we can also avoid getting stuck in ruts formed by a more fixed approach: this is a subject area where it’s all too easy to end up focused on one approach/element, so having the prompts to step out of it all is very useful.

The questions should also structure the discussion with the participants: checking and sharing knowledge; working through possible explanations and then looking to the future.

The question that is of more interest to you is presumably one of whether this model works for your teaching. On that I have some doubts.

Yes, you could use the same structure of questions to handle a more focused topic, but it probably still leaves you with a class that lacks sufficient direction, especially if it’s fitting within a bigger structure of a module/programme. Moreover, because it’s very accommodating of prior knowledge, there’s no real incentive for students to read or prep beforehand, which feels like a missed opportunity. And finally, if your class is closer to 30 than 20, then it’s going to be harder to cover all the terrain they throw up.

However, it does suggest a way to reconfigure class discussion, and perhaps it triggers something for you that works for your needs. In which case, tell us all about it.