Reflections on my Spring 2024 Podcasting Project

In Spring 2024, I conducted a semester-long podcasting project with my students in my “International Relations and Popular Culture” class. I wrote about this idea last December if you want to get a broader overview of what I did. I want to use this post to provide some reflections on how it went, and what sort of changes I will be making in the Fall 2024 semester in two sections of the same course. I think podcasting projects are a fantastic way to have students conduct traditional research. But then they get to write podcast scripts and record episodes which ask them to translate more academic based research  into forward-facing publicly engaging content.

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Rousseau in the Gallowgate:

Using drama-based pedagogies with first-generational political theory students

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) recently co-hosted an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon), offers further reflections on using drama-based pedagogies to overcome barriers to the study of political theory facing first-generational students.

“Well, I would like to see Mr Rousseau come down and do a shift with me in the Gallowgate; soon see how long he holds on to those views.”

The Gallowgate is a street in Glasgow known both for its association with Celtic football club and for its reputation as one of the roughest streets in the city. It was where the student quoted worked as a barman when not studying for his politics degree. He was a mature student, older indeed than I was at time of teaching, and had disclosed over our seminars a hardened pessimism cultivated over many years serving pints in Glasgow’s roughest bars.

It was no surprise he had found Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s claim that ‘men are naturally good’ ridiculously absurd.

I nevertheless endeavoured to explain Rousseau’s optimism. I related his thought against the backdrop of the French Enlightenment; as reversal of the Christian tradition of original sin; as a seminal moment in revolutionary socialism. He was buying none of it. Whatever framework I placed it in, he insisted such philosophical optimism would collapse at the threshold of his Gallowgate bar.

In truth, the more I gave intellectual context the more I lost him, as the more ‘intellectual’ I made it the less relevant it appeared to him. I needed to change track: reconstructing the world of Rousseau would not help my argument, I needed instead to make it more relatable to the world of my student – I had to bring Rousseau into the Gallowgate.   

The Portal Between Worlds  

We can think of the interpretation of political thought as a portal: the historical world from which the thinker writes at one side, the contemporary reader at the other. The text is what connects them; interpretation taking ideas from one side and translating them into the other. 

The attention we pay to each side is, however, rarely equal. As academics, and teachers, we frequently prioritise the world of the thinker, with emphasis being put on reconstructing their historical context in order to gain accurate interpretation of their meaning.

This is in part the legacy of Quentin Skinner’s Cambridge School, hallmarked by a meticulous dedication to reconstruction of the political and linguistic context in which a past author wrote as to determine exactly what he or she could, and could not, have said.

Political Theory – and especially International Political Theory (IPT), in which my specialism lies – does have its issues with Skinner, especially on how such focus on history can be reductive, eclipsing consideration of contemporary relevance to the point of collapsing the portal between worlds.

Nonetheless, whilst IPT does aim to highlight the relevance of historical thought for the present, it still puts incredible emphasis on the need to reconstruct the historical context first before translation into the present can be attempted. Interpretatively, there is a soundness to this as it prevents us projecting ideas into the past and becoming guilty of anachronism.

Pedagogically, however, this can create a challenging environment for students as they are left with a forest of intellectual, historical, and linguistic context to navigate through before relatable ideas can be located.

The study of Thucydides, the embarking point for most IPT programs, gives clear illustration of this. Before we can even begin discussing ideas, students must quickly orientate themselves in a very strange and alien world: Corcyra and Corinth? Mytilene and Melos? And Lacedaemon, that’s Sparta? And that is before students even get to concepts rooted in the Classical Greek linguistic context, like Nomos and physis. Students’ very first encounter with IPT is thus being thrown into a dark wood of unfamiliar places, people, and words.

Importantly, not all students are thrown in with equal navigational tools. Typically, those who are ‘first-generational’ – those whose parents did not receive higher education; received State education; and/or are from low-income backgrounds – do not have the same background knowledge or tools to quickly reconstruct this historical linguistic context as, say, those who went to private schools with Greek on the curriculum. Nor do they have as much time to dedicate to this reconstruction, often having to work one, or even two, jobs to maintain their studies. They often instead feel alienated by theory classes, failing to see the relevance behind the thick phalanx of contextual tress, and abandon theory for something ‘more relevant’ to their world.

Providing the right machete that will allow the student to cut through these trees and uncover the core relevance needs to be an educator’s primary aim.

Finding Relevance   

Alcohol was the machete that came to mind for my Glasgow barman.

I asked him if alcohol made the behaviour of his clientele worse.

Worse of course, he conceded.

And did poverty and disadvantage turn many to drink?

Yes, indeed, it was intergenerational.

We were thus able to turn our conversation into a discussion about the ‘nature’ of his customers versus the structural factors that led them to behave this way (though admittedly I was borrowing a lot from T.H. Green here, inspired as he was by Rousseau, rather than explicitly the Genevan himself).  

Turning to J.S. Mill the next week, we centred the liberty principle on a debate over minimum pricing, not only as it was a current hot topic amongst my students at the time, but also as we could build on the entry point of alcohol and responsibility from the previous week.

For the following week on freedom of speech, I let the class identify and vote on a topic. They voted for the controversy over a planned Orange March in a neighbouring town. I created a role play for that week, where they simulated the local council deciding whether to let the march go ahead or not.

I found this approach resulted in greater participation amongst my students. The Glasgow barman notably had a lot to say on these subjects, but I also found students who had up to that time been largely silent get more involved; for, whilst they may have struggled to grasp aspects of the philosophy, they often had views on these local issues and, from these, I could introduce the main points of theory on more familiar and accessible ground.

The Most Simple Encounters

I have since then endeavoured to make my students’ first encounters with thinkers occur on more familiar ground. This often involves drama-based learning, where I reconstruct a relatable scenario in which they can first discover ideas.

This can of course be challenging and intensive work, as it requires changing classes according to students’ concerns and having some knowledge of these concerns. This arguably worked well with a largely homogenous Scottish audience, whose concerns I had a degree of familiarity with as a fellow Scot. This can be more difficult, if not impossible, in more heterogenous classrooms or with demographics more distant from the teacher – as I would learn when I left Scotland to teach in mainland China.

Nonetheless, one does not always need an elaborate pedagogy or classroom plan based on familiarity with students’ present concerns to learn from this. It simply requires one to be more sensitive to the situation in which the students are encountering these works. This can be achieved, I have found, by simply distilling a concept to its simplest and most relatable articulation for that audience – our machete to make first cuts into the forest of ideas.

Participatory research as active learning

Over the last semester, I have been running a research project, funded by the University of York’s Learning and Teaching Fund, exploring assessment norms and innovations utilised on Politics and International Relations degrees.

The project has been my first foray into participatory research with students. Throughout the project, six students took on the role of ‘Student Partners’ to help design, deliver, and conclude the research activities – activities that included running focus groups with other students. It made sense from a methodological standpoint to have this level of student involvement – after all, I was hoping to gain a student-centred understanding of the challenges and opportunities with innovating assessment practices.

Last week, we had our final research activity – a half-day workshop with the Student Partners to discuss research findings and to conclude the project. We also had some time to discuss the experiences of the students in collaborating with staff and each other on the research project. That discussion was an eye-opening one and made me keenly aware of how beneficial this kind of hands-on research experience can be for students as a form of active learning.

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The Idea of a World Government

In my Introduction to International Relations class, I have been running for the past few semesters a last-day exercise with my students, in which I ask them to envision a genuine World Government (not the United Nations in its current form). This serves four purposes: 1) It gets their creative juices flowing; 2) it allows for a stand alone exercise without having to do much prep; 3) it provides an outlet for “global problems need a global response”; and 4) it asks of them to challenge a core premise in international relations: anarchy, as the absence of world government, on the international stage, and subsequent assumed state behaviors. What would a world government look like to “make away” with anarchy?

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Guest Post: Feminist Pedagogy within Constraints: Teaching Reflective Writing in a UK Higher Education Institution

Dr Cherry Miller
Dr Jenny Morrison

Today’s guest post is by Cherry Miller from University of Helsinki and Jenny Morrison from University of Glasgow.

Assessments are a core area for feminist teaching. Traditional assessments such as the essay or exam can reinforce gendered or other hierarchies in education through favouring ‘masculine’ forms of learning that prioritise disimpassioned objective expression. Thus, feminists have called for greater diversity of assessments in general, and assessments that value the personal alongside the ‘objective’ political in particular. While feminists engage with a range of assessments, the reflective journal (RJ) has become commonplace on feminist courses. 

Nonetheless, research cautions against the assumption that ‘alternative’ assessment automatically fosters more effective learning and teaching. Rather, all academic assessments include implicit expectations and exist within the constraints of the academy. That the reflective journal remains a less familiar – albeit growing – format in higher education means there can be greater uncertainty regarding the expectations of such an assessment. Therefore, we believe the drive to diversify assessments leads to certain tensions for feminist pedagogy.

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When the table turns: Experiencing active learning from the other side

In between a day packed with meetings, I had an enjoyable break booked in yesterday – Prof. Violeta Orlovic Lovren, from the University of Belgrade, was at the University of York to deliver a workshop entitled ‘Designing Ideal Learning Spaces with Sustainability in Mind’. It was a session pitched as using ideas of utopia and sustainable development to explore what it is that we desire from our learning environments – which sounded fantastic. All good so far.

However, fifteen minutes into the workshop, something surprising happened. Violeta invited us, the attendees, to take some drawing paper and a fineliner pen and to draw what we pictured as our ideal, sustainable learning space. This itself wasn’t the surprise. What surprised me was the sudden pang of resistance I felt to this idea.

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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

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Workshop Preparation: The ISA Version!

Next Tuesday, I’m teaching an International Studies Association pre-conference workshop on designing political science classroom games (there’s still room in the workshop if you read this post by 29 March!). My objective: deliver a 4-hour course that includes a block of instruction and hands-on ideation for no more than 30 participants.

I’ve taught numerous classroom game design courses and have developed a stock list of questions to ask before each, as well as a packing list containing dice, playing cards, poker chips, a bag of glow-in-the-dark zombie figures, and other useful game ideation tools. There are few things worse than that clammy, pit-in-the-stomach feeling that haunts the unrehearsed and ill-prepared.

  • What is the maximum number of participants?
  • Who is my point of contact?
  • Am I allowed to email them ahead of time?
  • Where is the room located?
  • How will the tables be arranged?
  • Can I adjust the room arrangement if necessary?
  • Will I have a podium and A/V access?
  • Do I use my own laptop, or is a laptop provided?
  • Can I request locally sourced office supplies, within reason and with my best imploring smile?
  • Did I account for and check off each packing list item?
  • No, seriously… did I account for and check off each packing list item?
  • How early can I access the room before class starts?
  • Who do I contact on-site if I need technical support (if different than the point of contact)?

The better I plan for what I want my workshop to look like, the better I can handle contingencies while still looking cool and collected doing so. 🙂

Fungalovid-2025: Global Health Politics in IR

Inspired by Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies as well as too much TV watching, I have designed for my International Relations  and Popular Culture (IRPC) course a game called Fungalovid-2025. The scholarship of IRPC understands the role of popular culture as both a reflection of international politics but also as a learning device that informs our expectations of political crises.  Fungalovid-2025 confronts my students with a global pandemic and demands of them to formulate in country groups a 2-month and a 12-month plan on how their country will proceed with handling the outbreak. Their choices and behaviors are informed by reading World War Z by Max Brooks, by our previous class discussions, living through their own pandemic, and in varying degrees their personal engagement with zombie-themed popular culture goods. This game is not only great for IRPC, probably a niche area for many, but it also works in introductory classes on international relations to illustrate socially constructed realities, international cooperation, and self-interested policymaking.

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Chance, Skill, and Grading Classroom Games

An academic hill I die on periodically is being adamantly opposed to assigning grades to classroom games.

A game’s win conditions are based on varying blends of chance versus skill. Pure chance games (such as roulette) are simply bets against which players cannot build effective long-term strategies. Monopoly, for example, is almost pure chance–stripped of the optional auction rules, the most effective strategy for winning Monopoly is consistently rolling a dice score of 7. Barring weighted dice or building a dice-rolling wrist over 10,000 hours, winning or losing Monopoly comes down to the luck of the dice. It might be a good game for illustrating wealth inequality in the classroom (which was the original designer’s intent), but if you grade students based on winning rounds of Monopoly, then you’re grading them based on almost pure, uncut chance.

On the other end are games of pure skill: think Go or Chess. In a game of pure skill, masters will almost always defeat amateurs (note that I said “almost always”). In classroom games based on pure skill–especially without repeat play opportunities–your most prepared students will not just almost always defeat your least prepared students, they will almost always crush them.

A well-designed classroom game leans heavily towards skill, as the game presents students with an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. But to avoid the “crush them through pure skill” problem, the game should include elements of chance. Students should feel as if they can win all the way up to the last minute of class. However, the key remains chance. Students can also still lose at the last minute to a close competitor, even with well-prepared and overall effective strategies. If you grade them based on even a fraction of chance, it has a chilling effect on students taking risks and diminishes their sense of course mastery. Losing without a grade penalty encourages students to reflect on future strategies and thus remain engaged with the material. But with a grade applied? All the students might remember is that they received a B- for the course because “they lost a stupid game.”

Instead, I have my students write short reflection essays (say, 2-3 pages) about the course learning objective that was measured in the game: what the game’s win condition was, their processes for crafting a strategy to achieve it, and how they either overcame obstacles to succeed or what they would change if they failed. You can also use reflection essays for pure chance games, such as the above-mentioned Monopoly, for students to reflect on what the game was intended to illustrate (or ask, “what would you have done differently if you could have applied a viable strategy?”). I’ll do a longer post in the future on debriefings and after-action reports.

All that said, I do know educators who place small point values on their games: negligible for the student’s overall course grade–think 10 points in a 1,000-point course–yet enough to inspire a sense of meaningful competition (particularly useful in games with more than one winner or multiple proportional win-conditions, which encourages students to scrap over every last point. They might lose but still walk away with 5/10 points). Even knowing that, however, I want me student to remember the game’s lesson points, not the game’s grade points.