Do you need to be a specialist in the things that you teach?


This is something that’s been a question for me for a very long time and I’m still not sure that I know what the answer is.

On the one hand, you would reasonably expect those you teach to know what they’re teaching about; otherwise how could you feel confident that what they teach you is correct?

But on the other, given the wide range of transferable knowledge and skills that those who teach typically have, are we really saying that you need to have direct and intimate knowledge of an area before you can instruct?

This might feel like semantics about the gap between ‘knowing’ and ‘being a specialist’ but it’s a challenge that programme leaders and university departments regularly have to juggle.

In my case, I have taught a surprisingly wide range of course – from terrorism studies to research methods to theory of knowledge to German politics – about which I knew little more than the basics before I started. Conversely, I’ve never run a course on euroscepticism, on which I’ve written my PhD and published extensively, nor on Brexit, even though I’ve done a big pile of work helping non-student audiences to understand issues and dynamics.

There are good reasons for that: as part of what was a small department, we all needed to chip into covering particular subjects at particular points, because it was necessary for the overall needs of the programme. In the case of my research specialisations, there wasn’t enough student interest to justify running a course when other options were available.

Personally, I was quite happy not to send even more of my life talking about Brexit in recent years than I already was, but that might just be me.

But we come back to the dilemma: how much do you need to know to teach?

In the most extreme case I had, the terrorism course, I embraced my limitations by placing students in a very central role in the class. After a couple of weeks of introductory debates, they each picked topics of interest to them, I grouped them into cogent areas and then the rest of the semester was spent with student-led sessions, with all of us reflecting and developing our understanding as we went. I was very open about how much I knew, and flagged up useful readings as we went, allowing everyone to get meaningful feedback on their topic before using it to produce a final paper on that subject.

For the two years I ran that, it worked. The external examiner (who did know more about the subject) was very positive about both approach and content; the students gave positive formal and informal feedback; and I didn’t see any significant problems. But still the doubt about whether it was acceptable lingers: Certainly it wasn’t as rich an experience as could have been offered by someone with more of a background in the subject.

The tension here is between knowledge and teaching.

Yes, one needs to know your way around a subject, to understand the connections within it and beyond it. But you also need to be willing and able to share that with students.

I’m guessing we’ve all encountered the great name of a field in person, giving a plenary or out in the world, clearly highly knowledgeable but unable to communicate that in terms that are accessible. I still have vivid memories of a 2-hour (!) plenary speech by a highly eminent authority at a conference that told me (and probably any one else, to judge from the slumped forms around me) nothing of any use, even though it touched on several relevant areas.

This is not at all a call for enthusiasm/drive over ability – there’s more than enough bullshit out there as it is – but it is to ask for recognition that effective teaching cannot be reduced down to ‘just knowing stuff’: pedagogy matters, especially the willingness to understand learners’ needs.

That’s a big part of why I really like active learning in all its variety: rather than me talking about what interests me, I get to talk about what interests them, contextualising and developing it into a broader set of knowledge and skills that can be of use down the line.

But I’d like to read your views on this, because it still leaves a lot very open to discuss.

Writing for others

I had my first writing workshop last week. We were sharing bits of text as part of our work towards a new Masters programme in IR, mainly to make sure we were on the same page on how we go about communicating with our students.

To recap, our programmes are distance-learning only, so it’s a mixture of textbook-like text, online activities, audio and video elements, all bundled up on an online platform. The textbook-type elements are pretty central to all this, as the main location of content delivery, so having a style and structure that is accessible and appropriate is really important.

Obviously, I struggled.

As much as I write a lot of text, it’s for rather different contexts. Here I’m essentially writing to myself and an imagined community of colleagues: it’s very informal and variable in its structuring and content, not least because I can always write another piece next week to unpack anything that didn’t work out now.

Both journal articles and practitioner documents like briefings are pretty well-specified audiences too, so it’s relatively easy to slip into the conventions of those genres.

But here I’m trying to think about creating text that sits within a broader package of content, co-authored with half-a-dozen other people, all going out to a very diverse student body, who’ll be consuming it at distance.

Part of the challenge is finding a voice that works not only for yourself and the student, but also for the other authors. A striking outcome of the workshop was thus having to think about both the substantive content and the register you adopt.

Right now, it’s the latter that is going me pause for thought, since I’m towards the more relaxed end of the spectrum. Yes, I can communicate the content clearly enough and at a level that is felt appropriate, but the way I do that sits rather awkwardly with others’ texts.

Of course, some of this is down to preference. Some people don’t like ‘you’s and ‘I’s in their academic writing, others can’t stand slang (or oblique references to memes). My personal preference has always been to try to keep things as simple as possible and to draw people in with things that might not be the most obvious ways in.

That’s all legitimate, but still doesn’t get to an answer about how to draw that together with other approaches, so that students aren’t experiencing radical changes in voice and style. Which is why the programme leaders are now writing author guidelines about just such questions for us to discuss and agree.

And this is another example of where this method of teaching is perhaps more rigorous than in-person equivalents: all programmes taught by more than one person have this multiplicity within them, but it’s very rare that we explicitly sit down to discuss whether and how that works for students.

In-person teaching tends to leave the question at the point of the value of diversity, when we might usefully think more about the challenges it creates too.

Something that’d need more than the one workshop, I’m guessing.

But really: how?

Should we sign up Bean for an FHEA-accredited course too?

Exciting times here, as the second family member undertakes training in Learning & Teaching. No, not the kids (although maybe it’d make a nice birthday present for them), but my very talented SO.

After many years working in pure research roles, she’s now starting to take on some teaching, so she’s picking up her institution’s introductory package, which is prompting some really good conversations at the dinner table.

One issue that’s coming up – for me probably more than for her – is the question of how one gets from the L&T training session to the on-the-ground experience in your classroom.

This was started by a discussion of assessment and its central role within the learning process. As my SO noted, assessment is always formative and should be always linked to the feedback and adaptation process.

For her, one practical problem with that much of her opportunity to teach comes from giving guest lectures on modules run by other people: we’re talking here about specialised Masters programmes with lots of such input from research experts, teaching to their particular expertise.

Obviously, that can be great for students as they get to interact with a wide range of leading People, but it’s pretty rubbish for any formative development using assessment, per the training session. My SO might only be spending a couple of hours with the group, leaving little or no time to adapt content or pedagogy to their specific needs or interests.

That raised the more general problem of the translation from theory to practice that I’ve mentioned.

As someone working on simulations and other forms of active learning, I’ve always been rather sensitive to this, since the restraints under which I work have been rather obvious. The shape of the teaching spaces I’m in; the number of students I’ve got; the flexibility of the timetable: all of these impose some really consequential limits on what I can do.

And beyond that there is the entire process of Quality Assurance. My old negotiation module ended up using a reflective writing assessment partly because it aligned well with my learning objectives, but also because it worked for our second marking/external marking regime. My initial thoughts about something much more immaterial – me marking what they did in negotiations, or getting them to negotiate with me for their grade – might have made as much sense pedagogically, but they would have fallen at the hurdle of our L&T committee, who would (reasonably) have asked me how we could be confident about the equity and consistency of such approaches.

Yes, QA has flexibility in it, just as one can find flexibility on capping numbers or working with your timetabler*, but there are ultimately going to be limits to this, as well as paths that are better-trodden than others. As I’m guessing you’re finding with the Great Jump Online, there’s an institutionalised tendency to regularise our offerings to students, be that in terms of contact time or format or assessment or whatever.

And this is where I recognise that this is something that I got relatively little training, just as I suspect most of us got little training. L&T development understandably has to make sure it concentrates on the fundamentals of good pedagogic practice, often matched up with a bunch of ‘handy hints’ on stuff to do in the classroom. But that misses the discussion about the articulation between those two levels.

How do we move a model of alignment or of rolling assessment/feedback into our class, when that class is not a blank sheet (even when it might not yet exist)?

I’ve tangled with this before, and even made a simulation-simulation to try and work through some key steps. It’s not great, but it does suggest a way forward.

The central concern has to be the learning objectives that we establish, be they within the context of a programme, or a module, or even just a session. From that, we then have to be willing to flex practice around our constraints to find a way that meets those objectives.

To do that, we need not only a good sense of our purpose, but also of the range of options that are open to us, coupled to a willingness to try them out. Which all sounds a bit daunting.

But this is maybe a good point to remember that students are generally willing to follow us where we want to go (pedagogically), as long as we can show that we’ve got a logic behind it. Bringing them into our design and delivery process – in part through that continuous feedback loop – can help to edge out the edges and make it work better for everyone.

Whether and how that pans out for my SO, I’ll let you know.

And one more time


When it comes to culture (and work), I’m a neophile.

The lure of the new is understandable: pushing into experiences you’ve not had before, discovering things that engage in their novelty, making you reconsider what you already know.

That doesn’t need to be anything particularly radical (as those who’ve met me can attest, I’m scarcely living on the bleeding edge of existence), but a willingness to make steps into new territory can open so much of value.

Which is why this past week has been something of a oddity for me.

First, my ‘move’ in my new home office has stuck some old favourites from the book shelves back in my line of sight, reminding me to re-read them. Which I’ve been doing.

And now, a first family weekend break away from home in 18 months has resulted in a day of watching (re-watching for the adults) a couple of seasons of Line of Duty with the kids as the rain pelted down.

In both cases, the experience of revisiting these materials has been a very positive one.

Partly, it’s the rediscovery of things that I’ve consumed and internalised over the years, but haven’t necessarily focused on too hard. That comes with an understanding that I’ve taken elements or narratives from that and fed it into the general morass of ‘stuff’ that fills my head. The sharp images of distinctive moments or examples might be relatively clear and (usually) accurate, be that the reformulation of the notion of time or the panicked chase to the flyover.

But much more it’s been about the realisation of what I had forget or just never noticed first time around.

Yes, for a TV series that’s had several more series since, the revisiting of older episodes benefits from hindsight (you know much better where to look), but so too with academic literature.

The last time I read many of these books was maybe 20 years ago, when the world – and my world – looked rather different. The things I’m interested in academically might have some similarity to back then, but pretty obviously things have moved on. Re-reading sources comes with that different lens and opens up new points of understanding.

This is, I know, somewhat mundane, especially if you’ve been in the habit of doing this already. But for me it has been a reminder that part of moving forward and exploring new things is the necessity to also check back in with what’s already been done. If nothing else, it helps to reduce the chances of having to reinvent the wheel; something that’s as common in popular culture as it is in academia.

Migration migraines

More orderly (source)

The great thing about being a historical institutionalist is that – for the vast majority of the time – one’s assumption that things aren’t going to change pays off.

How it was yesterday is how it is today is how it’ll be tomorrow. Simple.

Until it’s not.

And right now I’m in the middle of a big rupture which, even though I’ve known about it and planned for it for some months, is turning out to be more of a pain than I’d thought.

Moving jobs is hardly the most unusual of life events, but it has underlined to me the need to plan carefully in managing your digital footprint. After a decade of blogging not here on ALPS but also on my departmental pages (where I seem to have left a less-than ideal last post that I now can’t delete), there’s a question about how to (re)make a place for me to share my ideas.

And this is the central point: social media is about sharing and discussing, so you need to be able to make contributions and others need to find them and respond.

In the case of ALPS that’s been a long process of building up an audience over 10 years, to point that we have a pretty good profile within our community (if still far short of that of professional associations), mainly through word-of-mouth as we’ve passed through endless conferences and talks. And as long as Chad keeps on bringing in the support to pay for the hosting, we’ve got a long-term proposition.

Universities are long-term propositions too (pace Chad’s regular posts to the contrary), but unless you’ve got a very particular arrangement with your VC/Provost/whatever, your relationship with that university might turn out to be rather short. So are institutional blogs the best bet?

Continue reading “Migration migraines”

Judson College: Dead

Yesterday Judson College’s board of trustees voted to close the institution.

I briefly profiled Judson’s financial woes back in February.

My advice? If you are working at a college with fewer than 1,000 students and an endowment of less than a billion dollars, find employment elsewhere.

The Mysteries

It’s what I hope is my last day in the office, doing more push to make sure the email account transfer worked, and to parse the big pile of books I left for colleagues for any hidden gems that I actually do want to keep.

Walking in, I was reflecting on my time here. It’s made all the more poignant by ending up in the same building that I had my first office in, and indeed my interview (which I recall was marked by uncharacteristic bullishness). Circle of life, and all that.

And because it’s the same building, I was confronted with the acrobat sculpture that has dangled here for at least 18 years.

For me, it’s one of the mysteries of this place.

I have no idea why it was chosen, given the building has no obvious links with either gymnastics or visual arts.

I also doubt that it’s ever been cleaned, given the build-up of dust on the (few) flat surfaces.

And I never got to the bottom of the semiotics of the piece, a topic of numerous discussions in the mid-2000s with my colleagues specialising in gender.

Those queries and unknowns now pass into the big pile of stuff that I’ve never got round to addressing during my time here: they might not have been that important at all, but it is now my movement away that makes me think it would have been good to find out.

Which is the more general point: in a perspective of being in a role or a situation for an indefinite period of time, it’s easy to leave things for later.

Just as I did a lot more sightseeing around London after I stopped living there, so too with work: curiosity often gets trampled by familiarity.

Which is a shame, since curiosity is perhaps one of the most valuable attributes to bring to pedagogy. If you can get someone genuinely interested in a subject, then they will bring themselves a long way in the process of learning about it.

So why not take some time to explore the mysteries of your place of work and your situation: maybe you’ll find some enlightenment and open some doors.

Active Learning is More than Just Simulations

I’ve been in a few sessions recently where well-meaning faculty point out how important active learning is—true!—and then immediately mention ‘simulations and games’ as key examples of active learning (AL). Also true! But let’s be clear, simulations and games aren’t the only kind of active learning. They aren’t the most common kind, the easiest to do, or even what I would recommend that most faculty start with. When the right simulation or game is chosen, executed well, and debriefed effectively, it can be a great learning tool. But games and simulations are neither necessary nor sufficient for active learning, and I want to encourage everyone to think more broadly about how to increase AL in their classes.

Active learning is any tool, technique, or approach that calls on learners to actively engage in the learning process. The point is not the tool itself, but adopting a learner-centric approach that ensures that students are not simply passive recipients of information. ‘Activating’ the students, then, is about asking them to think, process, and make connections about the material, rather than just listen, read, or write down information. In some cases, a passive approach makes sense! Sometimes you really do just have to transmit information. The problem arises when we consistently turn to passive approaches without considering and experimenting with active approaches, which have a solid record of producing better engagement and learning. See for example Deslauriers et al 2019, where even students who thought they learned more from a more passive approach actually learned more from an active one.

Simulations and games, then, can be active or passive, depending on whether everyone has the tools to effectively participate or actively watch and listen. Watching others play a game is only active if the observers are prompted to provide comments and input based on their observations. In such cases, they are active observers. Even participation doesn’t necessarily make the experience ‘active’. A simulation or role-play exercise where a student is too anxious about their performance or grade to pay attention and fully participate is not active for that student. So AL is not just about the activity you do, but how you use it and help students learn from it.

Moreover, AL encompasses so much more than simulations and games. Structuring a lecture around a provocative question, where students are encouraged to think through the steps as you go along, can be active. So can asking good discussion questions that lead to dynamic student to student debates. Asking students at the end of class to reflect on what they learned that day (or what was still confusing) is a method of active learning, and in can be done in one minute at the end of class, or as a written, audio, or video journal they create throughout the term. 

When you consider that active learning can really be just small interventions in teaching (as Jim Lang puts it in his book,Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning), it suddenly becomes achievable for everyone. Simulations and games are sometimes a tough sell—they can seem juvenile or take too much time away from other content. But active learning? The benefits are clear and centering such techniques doesn’t actually require much work or time.

Even this blog makes this mistake—we are Active Learning in Political Science, and yet most of our coverage is on games and simulations. So consider this a call for a broader approach, one that brings legions more faculty into the world of active learning, without requiring a conversion to the gaming world. Let’s look for the small interventions that anyone can use—from a great discussion question to a good group activity to great reflective prompts—and be more careful with how we define and explain what active learning really is.

Over and out

The real reason I’ve been drinking quite so much

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time with cardboard. Mainly because I’m moving jobs, partly because that’s how the booze arrives.

As I walked back yesterday with another box of ‘stuff that will probably end up in the new office’, I bumped into a friend who was asking about the move. He reflected that 17 years was a very long time to be in a post, to which I could only agree.

That got me thinking about what I might learn from that experience and what might be worth sharing from it. True, it’s a much less common one than the precariat have to endure, moving every year and never settling, but it still comes with its challenges.

So, in no particular order, some thoughts:

1. Make the most of the opportunities your position offers. Yes, I’ve been at the same institution since 2003, but in that time I’ve held a slightly-ridiculous range of roles. Some years have been all about teaching, others about research, still others about managerial roles, and a couple about public engagement. I’ve been on pretty much every committee going, and done every single role within my Department bar one (we’ll come back to that).

In short, I’ve tried to explore what’s been available. Part of that is just my own curiousity: the breadth of my ignorance about how things work remains a key driver of my entire life. But also it’s about seeing what you can make of your situation and how you can tackle issues in different ways.

Certainly, if I’d not had so many opportunities here, I’d not have stuck it out so long.

2.Think about what comes after what you’re doing. This was possibly the only piece of good advice I got from a particular manager: their point was that if you take on a similar role to the one you’re doing now, then you start to bake in a trajectory for your career. In my particular case, it was a significant administrative post and I didn’t really fancy doing that for a job.

Of course, this is a counterpiece to the first point, in that if you’re keen to mix it up, then you have to keep mixing. Certainly, I’ve noticed how people’s views of me within the institution have shifted around over the years, as I take on new activities. So if you don’t want to become type-cast, don’t let yourself become type-case.

3.Lemons, lemonade. I could lie to you and pretend that the heart of my long stay here has been because it’s always been so hunky-dory, but I won’t. Yes, I have valued my immediate colleagues very much indeed throughout, but that hasn’t meant the wider environment hasn’t been difficult at times.

And by ‘difficult’ I’m being polite. Let’s just say that I’m still very grateful to colleagues across the discipline for their support six years ago when the institution had some very unfavourable plans for us.

That did knock us and we did suffer for it, but it also produced some opportunities to advance some agendas and move things along.

Hopefully you never have to go through such a thing, but the message here is just that no position is perfect and durable, so rolling with the punches (within reason) can be a way to getting more out of it all.

4.Use your leave. It turns out that in all my time there will have been only two years when I’ve used all my leave: the year after I joined (because I got married and had decent length honeymoon) and this year (because, well, because I’m leaving). That’s stupid.

I know we feel the pressure of our commitments, and we also often enjoy the work we do, but breaks matter. Doubtless your institution (like mine) offers the opportunity to roll over some days of leave, but I’d say it’s probably safe to assume that the mythical period of ‘a quiet time’ when you might take that leave will never arrive.

So use it.

If nothing else, some places are talking of cutting back leave allowances because they don’t get used.

5.Get out more. I’ve always had good cause to make connections outside my department and university, mainly because we’ve been a very small group and so the networking opportunities lay outside. But it’s also a good thing to be doing in any case.

External networks provide intellectual stimulus, useful correctives to institutional groupthink and a counterweight to your ‘day job’. Frankly, they’ll also remind you that everyone’s got some kind of problem with their work, so you’re not alone.

Again, a big reason for sticking here was that I got to benefit for building some great collaborations (like this one) while also getting a sense-check that the deal here was working for me. So even though I always kept half-an-eye on opportunities elsewhere, I’ve very rarely found something that looked clearly better.

6.Don’t become a cog. All of which leads me to this last point. I hope that throughout my time here, I’ve kept my priorities in sight. Yes, I’ve had to do some duties that haven’t been my first choice, but I’ve used those to help me get to where I want to be. And yes, I’ve had to toe the line on some decisions that I didn’t particularly agree with, but that was part of the trade-off for getting to move some other things on.

The big danger in staying somewhere, anywhere, for a long time is institutionalisation. Walking yesterday through the campus that I’ve know for so long I can see that it’ll be a process to move on (possibly one helped by the IT people’s efforts to help me migrate my account), but I look forward to something new and different at my new employers.

And with that, back to the cardboard.

How can we help?

No-one’s asked about the wine yet. Or the model kit

In keeping with pretty much every adult I know, imposter syndrome is an ever-present menace. Yesterday’s manifestation for me was the announcement that I are going to be the next Chair of UACES, the UK’s European Studies association (and the world’s largest such, by membership), from this September.

My anxiety over this stems from the confidence that numerous colleagues seem to put in my hands, which doesn’t really fit with my self-image as someone who is barely in control of even the basics of social niceties, let alone leading a big study association.

This feeling was heightened by my simultaneous clearing-out of my office, ahead of my move to the Open University. The clear-out is necessitated by the twin forces of a much-reduced shelf space in my home office and the despair that I still have my undergraduate lecture notes. Or rather, did, until yesterday.

But all this is an aside to the main topic here, namely how I might best use my time as UACES Chair to support colleagues’ work on Learning & Teaching.

I ask this because I’m not sure that I know what the answer might be here.

Already, we have a proliferation of L&T groups, plus a number of national, European and international events, so doing more of that feels rather marginal for the effort. Likewise, the past year has demonstrated that it takes a global pandemic to get a significant number of those who aren’t usually interested in the matter to participate, and then for only a couple of months, as the panic of new delivery modes sets in.

Perhaps we have to think about what the issue is, before the solutions.

All through my career, teaching has been treated as secondary to research in the sector. My own trajectory of maintaining an active interest in, and work on, pedagogy is still very much the exception. And this despite the intellectual benefits of seeing as a co-equal, not to mention the financial logics of higher education these days.

So perhaps it’s less about doing more events, and instead trying to work on changing the debate about L&T’s role in academia.

That might include working on framing research and teaching as co-constitutive: we use our research to inform our teaching, but we also can use our teaching to advance our research. The skills of effective teaching – dialogue, clear communication, responsiveness – are also essentials of research and getting it out to the world.

I’m still thinking this one through, but I’d love to hear your ideas about what might work for you, so that as I pick up my new role I can be of use to you and to all of us: if I can do that, then maybe I’ll feel like a bit less of an imposter.