So last week was our final teaching week before the Easter break. For reasons we don’t need to go into here, it’s not the end of our teaching block for the semester, so it’s a bit of a breather.
As such, my usual expectation is that class attendance takes a bit of a hit.
However, my lecture of 120 students only saw 15 turn up, which – even by my standards – isn’t good. At all.
Obviously those who came didn’t have the answers for their fellow students’ absence, so I decided to gather some data.
Using a quick SurveyMonkey poll, I offered students a range of options to choose from. As you can see, I got about 40% of the class (including a couple who had come) to respond, so reasonable enough to make some observations.
The first is that timing does matter. My lecture is 1000 on a Thursday, and the night before had been a big sports night, so there was certainly a bunch of students incapacitated by that. Also, a couple of students noted that Thursdays are solid with classes for them, abetted by some deadlines for other modules due at the same time.
However, while those factors explain part of it, I was also rather curious about whether our experiment in flipping plays a role.
My module is a first-year introduction to European integration, and I’ve been trying out a flipped format. This involves a pre-recorded lecture online, with the conventional lecture time being given over to Q&A on the recording and elaboration of key themes: there’s also a seminar session, which runs on more conventional lines.
So far, that Q&A part has not been running as well as I would like: only a small number of students ask questions and there’s evidently a block who haven’t watched the lecture beforehand, so can’t ask.
Part of my concern in trying out flipping was that students might see it as a way to disengage with the face-to-face element of the module. My efforts to tackle this including highlighting that the recording doesn’t have enough in itself to give all the material and framing students need to do well in the module: the Q&A always includes stuff that relates much more directly to the final exam (and I say as much).
Clearly, the survey highlights that this isn’t resonating with the students.
Even if we allow for a degree of “what might look like the answer least likely to cause offence”, there’s a big block covering the lack of utility of the (Q&A) lecture element.
Certainly, I can see that if you’ve not watched the video, then the lecture isn’t that useful, but I’m more concerned about those who feel that the recording suffices.
All of which leaves me in a quandry.
Part of me wants to rework the remaining sessions after Easter to be much more explicit in leaving material out of the online stuff, with the lecture picking it up instead.
But another part of me wants to stick with my approach to date and then we see how it goes with the exam.
Right now, I don’t have the answers to this one. I need to explore some more to see if attendance was similarly down in other modules, to better triangulate what’s happening here.
Below is an example of a recent in-class exercise that I used in my comparative politics course, created in collaboration with our crack staff of librarians. The exercise is designed to teach students that the scholarly journal articles they are reading represent an ongoing conversation between experts. I have included the information students were supposed to locate in italics. Feel free to modify the activity to meet your own needs.
Which former president of the American Political Science Association was one of Dr. Raymond’s professors? (Lucian Pye) First person to submit the correct answer before time expires earns 10 points toward their final course grade.
Locate this article: Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy 21, 1 (January 2010): 93-112.
In this article, find citations for academic journal articles about democracy in the Arab world. Locate these articles. Write their citations:
Alfred Stepan and Graeme B. Robertson, “An ‘Arab’ More Than a ‘Muslim’ Democracy Gap,” Journal of Democracy 14 (July 2003): 30–44.
Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao, “Gauging Arab Support for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 16 (July 2005): 82–97.
Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler, “The Democracy Barometers: Attitudes in the Arab World,” Journal of Democracy 19 (January 2008): 97–110.
One of the above articles (Jamal and Tessler) contains a citation for an academic journal article written by another former president of the American Political Science Association. Locate this article. Write the citation:
Samuel Huntington, “Will More Countries Become Democratic?” Political Science Quarterly 99, 2 (Summer 1984): 193-218
In the above article, find citations for these two works: the original version of an academic journal article that you have read for this course, and a book that you have read about for this course. What are the citations for the two works?
Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (1959): 75.
Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 418.
How do the ideas contained in the scholarly works listed above relate to the ideas presented by Diamond in the initial article?
Your Own Research
Choose a research topic of interest (does not have to be related to this course). On the back of this paper, track citations of academic journal articles about the topic through time. What do the authors of these articles say about the topic? How do their ideas correspond or differ?
This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Maxine David.
In her chapter Life after academia: preparing students for successful collaboration, Kovačević talks us through her 2017 experiences teaching a course on EU Enlargement at the University of Economics in Bratislava (EUBA). We are first given a little insight into teaching practices at EUBA and into Slovak Higher Education legislation, before moving on to the detail regarding the problems she felt needed remedying, the method she employed, the rationale for it and expected results. Data collection and results are then discussed, albeit the latter more comprehensively than the former. The chapter ends with Kovačević’s reflections on the application of group presentations and the challenges involved in devising a reliable research design to generate data on applied teaching methods.
academics who have been teaching for a good number of years will recognise
their own early teaching days in the experiences Kovačević describes. At one
level, this is rather depressing; I, for instance, have assessed students
through group presentations for a decade and more. Even at the beginning, I did
not consider it as terribly innovative given it was what I had encountered on
my own Bachelor’s degree back in the 1990s. The chapter therefore raised
questions for me about what might really be called innovative. In turn, that
suggests the real value in Kovačević’s chapter: first, that it adds to our
knowledge of other contexts; second that it highlights the wider failure of
many academics to engage sufficiently in an exchange of pedagogical knowledge
is therefore to be commended for the degree to which she has problematised the
learning process, thinking about impediments to learning and how to overcome
them at this early stage in her career. She grounds her thinking in the
literature explaining the benefits of group work and presentations, especially
in respect of developing transferable skills and enhancing employability. Based
on that literature and her prior experience in teaching the course, she comes
up with three hypotheses. The first of these is somewhat unclear: “The
innovation—i.e. group work—takes place in a classroom environment that is
supportive of learning via collaboration”. Does she mean that she is
hypothesising groupwork is innovative, that groupwork is learning by collaboration,
or something else? The other two hypotheses are clearer: students’ interest in
the subject matter will be increased as a result of the process of creating a
group presentation; and there will be a noticeable increase in subject-specific
knowledge, as well as related skills.
for many teaching in environments that regularly apply such methods, these will
be self-evident: as Kovačević herself acknowledges, the benefits of
student-centred learning are already well-recognised. Clearly, however, whether
as a whole or just in pockets, methods that put the student at the centre of
the learning process are not the norm for EUBA (and many another institutions).
her course, working with seminar groups of around 13 students, Kovačević began by
having students collaborate to produce a poster on Turkey in the EU’s
enlargement process before moving on to the creation of a Powerpoint
presentation. She is keen to point out the support that was offered throughout
the process, including instructor and peer feedback. It is a shame,
incidentally, that we did not hear more about this peer feedback, a notably
tricky area (see, for instance: Liu and Carless).
chapter is weakest on talking us through definitions and in the section on data
collection and methods, though the latter aspects are partly addressed in the
conclusions. On definitions, it is not entirely clear what is meant by
“presentation”. Presumably, it is confined to a Powerpoint presentation but it
could be more (role plays) or less (students acting as rapporteurs) extensively
construed. The question is an important one for those thinking about adaptions
to the method Kovačević applies.
about measurement and comparison are also insufficiently considered. For
example, the third hypothesis (“Student learning, including knowledge and
skills after collaborative group work, is noticeable”) begs questions about how
levels of learning can be measured, and compared to what. If we accept group
presentations as innovative, we must accept also that others need to be
persuaded of the relative benefits of
such innovative teaching, otherwise, why change? As such, the persuasive
potential of the chapter is reduced. Methodologically, it would have been
useful to know how Kovačević recorded and evaluated the “student activity and
behaviour” she observed.
the number of unanswered questions, the chapter is an important one. It
functions as a reminder that there is still much to be done to convince others
of the benefits of changing ways of thinking and doing because innovation is
not contagious. It is a reminder too that rigorous and reliable evidence is
sometimes difficult to generate and that without that, it becomes all the more
difficult to overcome resistance to change. Finally, the chapter is important
because it raises implicitly the question of whose responsibility it is to
bring about change. Should it be contingent on young scholars, under pressure
in so many other ways, to undertake all this work? I think we all know the
answer to that question, what we are doing to address it is another matter.
My first-year module this semester has been a real training ground for me. Not only am I going all-in on flipping, but I’m also trialing the new assessment software that the University is thinking of using.
By extension, that also means it’s a training ground for my students, something that I’ve been very open about with them.
The flipping seems to be working and I’ll be writing up my thoughts on that later in the semester, but having coming through the first use of the software I need to make some decisions now.
In part, my situation arises from wanting to push how we used the software past a conventional approach. Not only did students submit a literature review to it, but they then had to review someone else’s using the system, all in aid of a final piece of self-reflection (which we’re marking now).
Using the marking function is a bit more involved than just submitting work and a couple of people did get a bit lost on that. But the bigger problem was that not everyone submitted work.
In the good old days (i.e. last year and before) we did all this in-class, so it was much simpler to cover (the exceptionally few) missing pieces. However, because we’d pre-selected peer reviewers, we ended up with some students having nothing to review and others not getting their work reviewed.
That’s a failing on my part: next time, I’d leave allocation until after the first submission was in, so everyone who submitted got allocated and reviewed.
But that’s next time. What about now?
Already, I’ve indicated to everyone that not getting peer feedback won’t count against them in marking, but a couple of students have felt that absent such comments they’re not in a position to complete the self-reflection.
To that, I’ve had to underline that it’s self-reflection, so peer feedback was only ever one component of that: indeed, the whole purpose of the somewhat-convoluted exercise is to get students becoming more independent and critical about their learning.
All that said, peer review was added in here to help prompt everyone to think more about what they’ve done and what they could do.
As we sit down to mark, the question will be much we can, and should, take the circumstances into account. Until we’ve seen the full range of work, that’s going to be a tricky call to make.
However, it all highlights an important point in such situations: do we have fall-backs?
Trying new things is inherently risky – that’s why many colleagues stick with what they know – but with some risk management, that need not be a barrier to moving practice forward.
Annoying through our situation here is, it’s not fatally-compromising to the endeavour: we know who’s affected and how; they’re still able to submit work; and the assessment is relatively small in the overall scheme of things.
Yes, we’ll be using the system again for the final exam, but without the aspects that have proved problematic. Indeed, the exam has already been trialled elsewhere in the University, so that’s well-understood.
So, on balance, I feel comfortable that we can manage the situation and implement the necessary changes next time around to remove the problems identified.
Which is, of course, a big part of the reason for trying it out in the first place.
A few years back I wrote about the The Lego Movie and how it captured the operation of fascism in a form that was both accessible and about as enjoyable as fascism ever can be.
Some readers of this blog were unhappy that I’d ruined that film for them, so it’s only right I try to do that for another generation of scholars and young parents.
The Lego Movie 2 isn’t as good as the first one (confine discussion of whether this is ever possible to yourself, away from me), but obviously I watched it, because, well, Lego.
This aside, there’s still plenty of politics going on in the film., which I’ll write about now with some mild spoilers (because you’re not 9 years old and because you’re a serious scholar).
For the IR types among you, there’s a whole bunch of realism going on, with security dilemmas, anarchy and the brutishness that this engenders in actors. The collapse of the (ultimately benign) dictatorship in the first movie produces a literal and metaphorical wasteland in which actions are guarded and security is everything. The final reconciliation of the actors this time occurs when they identify a common external threat and work together to overcome it.
As a musing on power in its various forms, the movie offers a useful way to conceptualise how actors operate under uncertainty and the tension between collaborative and conflictual action, as captured in the notions of being a ‘master builder’ or a ‘master smasher’.
For the gender scholars, there’s a bunch of gendered roles, paternalism (and maternalism), as well as how children ‘become’ adults going on in all this too. It’s also a classic of the ‘absent father’ trope and all that implies.
But for my purposes, the film is all about constructivism.
The logic of appropriateness runs through the entire piece, as individuals strive and struggle to either fit into their environment or communicate their intentions.
If Emmet’s arc is one of finding a persona and an attitude that works from him (puberty alert!), then Bianca’s is one of learning to signal intentions less ambiguously.
As someone who teaches negotiation, I recognised a lot of these tensions from my classroom, where students are apt to adopt personae as ‘negotiators’ that don’t always sit comfortably with their more general sense of being.
In both classroom and the film, individuals try out different gambits, with varying degrees of sincerity and of success. But ultimately, as the film suggests, it is when there is a more open exchange of views that progress is made, clearing up the confusions and misunderstandings and realigning how we view other’s actions.
Indeed, the whole film turns on how individuals perceive one another and themselves: Finn misunderstands Bianca; Emmet is misled by Rex; Lucy struggles (as in the first film) with her sense of identity; Batman has to learn about living with light as well as dark; and Superman has to find accommodation with the Green Lantern.
Identity here is thus not purely about being true to yourself, but also about being true to others. Whether you accept that being doing both you end up with a happy society – as the movie argues (as movies are wont to do) – is another matter.
But however you take it, this case highlights how we can use cultural products to illustrate and illuminate our teaching: the beauty of politics is that it is pervasive, so we can find it pretty much anywhere we look, if we choose to see.
Another post on changes this year in my comparative politics course:
As usual, students are reading a lot of academic journal articles, especially from the Journal of Democracy. Although the writing in this journal is very user-friendly — concise sentences, little jargon — students lack the kind of familiarity with the genre that I do. Identifying and evaluating the elements of the author’s argument is a skill that gets better with practice, and the undergraduate students that I see need a lot of practice.
I regularly assign journal article analyses in my graduate courses. My original instructions for this assignment were too long so I simplified them. But I can’t assume that the process of analyzing the argument made in a text is immediately understandable to the average undergraduate. Years ago, I used an in-class exercise in textual analysis in an attempt to give undergrads some training in this skill. An actual example of the exercise can be found here. But I was never quite satisfied with the results.
On the first day of class this semester, I tried a new exercise, in part to prepare students for Seymour Martin Lipset’s “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address,” from American Sociological Review 59, 1. This article includes an abstract that handily functions as a summary for the reader. Journal of Democracy articles don’t have abstracts, so I redacted it. I projected the article’s introduction on the wall screen and asked the class to examine each paragraph in sequence to identify Lipset’s subject (which is stated at end of the first page and beginning of the second page).
I then divided the class into groups of two or three students each, and gave each group copies of a different section of the article. Each section presents a particular set of characteristics that, in Lipset’s opinion, facilitates the institutionalization of democracy. I asked students in each group to identify the characteristics discussed in the section that group had been given. Each group then reported its findings to the class, which I wrote on the board.
The exercise seem to work well in terms of demonstrating how to pull apart a journal article’s argument, and it made the first day of class a lot more productive than it usually is. The challenge will be to engage students in this type of exercise using articles that have a more complex structure.
Yesterday I found myself on the campus of another university, attending an advisory board of a research project.
One of the key topics was about impact – taking the work into the community of users.
As we talked about this, I was struck by the way in which there are a lot of parallels between this and teaching.
Most importantly, both impact and teaching need to be focused on the needs of your audience from the outset: it cannot simply be a function of what you want to do.
That means understanding your audiences, reflecting on their needs and tailoring what you have to offer. It’s easy to do the most convenient thing, but that might not be the most useful thing you can do.
Secondly, there has to be a recognition that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat and that your choice of activity is not pre-determined.
This implies a willingness to explore options and to try out new things that might work better. In the case of this project, we talked a lot about blogging and the options it might open, both in of itself and as a gateway to other activity, but the principle is the same for any other form of working.
Finally, there needs to be a tolerance of failure. Just as not every single student responds positively to our teaching, so not every person targeted for impact work demonstrates interest.
Failing in these cases obviously requires adjustment and different approaches, but it is not intrinsically a problem: there are always limits to what we can achieve in working with others. What matters is our response and adaptation.
Seen together, both teaching and impact work should remind us that we operate in collective environments: we alone cannot – and should not – take everything on our own shoulders, but rather rather need to work with others to find common cause.
I’m on a train, heading into London, where I’ve got a meeting.
I’m not planning to do any teaching today, nor even to give a presentation or a briefing.
And yet, on a quick check through my bag, I’ve got the following on me:
My laptop, including the power cord and the adaptor for connecting to output devices;
My voice recorder, should I want to record a podcast;
My workbook, where I keep notes on what I’m doing;
Post-it notes; and,
Board marker pens
In short, I’m ready and poised to do a whole bunch of teaching-type activity.
Partly, this is because I hate re-packing my bag each time I leave the house, but much more it’s because I’ve found myself in situations too often when I don’t have the things I would like to have on me.
I do wonder if this is because I’ve had my professional development during a period of rapid technological change, when resilience really mattered.
When I started out, it was all acetates and overhead projectors, unless they were broken, in which case it was the blackboard.
And then data projectors arrived, if you could get the computer booked out and then get it to connect to the projector.
I spent several years working with a dual system: a computer with powerpoints and a bag full of acetate (plus some chalk, just in case, because, well, I’m me).
(and yes, I do still have those acetates filed away, somewhere in my office)
Nowadays, even though I’ve not had a tech problem for several years, I still try to be prepared should one occur. In fact, the last time it did happen, I was giving a keynote at a conference, and I just had to wing my talk without my slides for the first half: unpleasant, but not fatal.
The message here is that your teaching can be delivered in more than one way, but to make that possible, you need to be ready and able to use those different ways when needed.
If you don’t want to learn by bitter practical experience (ahem), then I offer this technique: sit down and consider what you do and what could go wrong. That might include technology problems, or problems with the room you’re in, or too many/few people turning up, or not having the time you thought you did, or any of that.
Now think about what you can do about it.
In pretty much every case, there’s plenty you can do, adaptations you can make. I’ve not yet had a class that had one of these problems that I could get something useful out of, from the time only one person turned up to the time when none of the lights worked. Or the time my train got really delayed (like now).
And before you worry too much, just remember that most of the time things work just fine.
And that’ll be in part because you’re ready for anything.