Welcoming New Regular Columnist, Dr. Jeremy Moulton!

Jeremy has contributed so many guest posts that we invited him to join us as a regular columnist!

Dr. Moulton has been working at the University of York since 2017. He has previously taught at York’s Department of Environment & Geography and at the University of Hull’s School of Politics and International Studies. His teaching practice centres on comparative politics, environmental politics, European Union studies, and the politics of the UK, across Undergraduate and Postgraduate programmes in the Department of Politics and International Relations. He has published peer-reviewed work on EU climate action, urban ecological modernisation, political myth, UK politics and renewables policy, and teaching and learning in Politics and International Relations.

Jeremy is deeply involved in enhancing the teaching and learning environment at York University. He has been awarded funding for and completed research projects on first-generation students’ experiences within Higher Education, student conceptions of teaching innovation, and the experiences of students that study abroad or undertake a year-in-industry placement. He is currently undertaking funded work on the identification of achievement gaps in the Department, the pedagogy of degrowth, and assessment optionality. As well as undertaking teaching and research, Jeremy currently works as the Department’s Admissions Tutor, a role in which he has centred widening participation into Higher Education. In 2020, Jeremy received the ‘Supporting the Student Voice’ award at the University.

Jeremy holds a PhD from the University of Hull, supervised by Prof. Rüdiger Wurzel (School of Politics and International Studies) and Prof. David Gibbs (School of Environmental Sciences), for a thesis entitled ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Climate Action and Political Myth in the European Union.’

In 2023, Jeremy became a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (Advance HE).

Welcome, Jeremy!

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

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

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

Credit: classsizematters.org

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

Anxiety, excellence, and reflexivity in the classroom

Today we have a new guest post. Last month Roxani Krystalli published an article on teaching and learning reflexivity in the world politics classroom. In this blog post, she discusses some of the anxieties that arise when embracing reflexive pedagogies and articulates her hopes for what reflexive inquiry with and about the natural world may make possible.

A few weeks ago I gave three lectures as part of the required introductory module to international relations that all 500+ students who study this subject must enrol in during their first year. Colleagues in the department, which draws together scholars from a range of disciplines, co-teach this module, meaning that we are each responsible for a themed week every semester. My lectures centred on the theme of ‘the environment,’ prompting students to reflect on what counts as environmental knowledge, what forms this knowledge takes, how we can meaningfully get to know our environments, and what all these forms of knowledge might have to do with political action.

I find it difficult to teach—not just ‘about’ the environment, but about anything at all—in the abstract. I prefer teaching ‘with,’ rather than ‘about.’ Teaching with the environment, in this instance, involved making offerings of different ways to ground ourselves in place as teachers, students, and learners. My favourite offerings are questions, each paving one path for engaging with the world. I asked the students to recall how they began to learn the trees, birds, or clouds near their home when they were children. I asked them to consider whether they would recognise the geese that regularly fly over St Andrews, or how they might get to know the flowers that bloom here, even if they did not know that the birds honking overhead were pink-footed geese and even if they could not name the specific flowers.

The birds honking overhead were pink-footed geese

Beyond recalling and considering, I invited students to spend some time outside, noticing, wondering, paying attention. They could, if they wanted, download an app that helps them identify birdsong, or name plants, or they could take a walk with someone who knows this environment well. They could focus on one sense over others: What does West Sands beach smell like? I encouraged them to think about the environments that are dear to them here in St Andrews and then to focus on getting to know one aspect of those environments. What would getting to know the trees look like, and how might that change their—our—education and experience of politics?

Many students are at once intrigued and overwhelmed by these offerings, which I consider to be part of an approach to teaching and learning that encourages reflexivity, though I am more interested in the practice than the label. The fascination with the world beyond the classroom is perhaps obvious, and the overwhelm stems from realising how little knowledge (let alone language) some of us have for the features of that world. How did a politics and international relations education come to be devoid of geese honking, and where might we begin to put the honks back in?

When I consider this question, I bump up against the anxieties of performance. It helps, yet again, to be specific. Much inquiry – in the Q&A following lectures, in tutorials, in Office Hours – begins and ends with assessments: “Can you help us answer the set essay question for the team-taught module?” “If I want to argue X, would that be okay? Would that be enough?” The question at the heart of such inquiry is “how can I do this well?”

This is a question I know intimately, and one I simultaneously worry about. I worry about the questions that this form of inquiry displaces, the birds we do not hear when we direct anxiety towards the essay instead. The anxieties of excellence were drilled into my own encounters with educational expectations, starting at too young an age. When teaching students for whom the question of “how can I do this well?” is an urgent one, I feel a sense of empathy—and a simultaneous desire to set this question aside, or at least to consider it alongside the other questions that make so many of these students (and their teachers) anxious in this era: How can we live together and enable life amidst so many sources of violence, grief, and threat to life?

It is possible to carry the overwhelming (there is that word again!) magnitude of this question alongside worries about performance. (Telling someone not to worry about performance or excellence is akin to telling a distressed person to “calm down,” a plea that rarely has the desired effect). My hope is that reflexive offerings in the classroom—invitations that ground people in their environments, in their bodies and senses and relations—widen the scope of what we notice and direct attention and care towards. Locating ourselves in place and in the body, in the senses and in the world, may actually broaden, than relieve, sources of anxiety. But it also offers us potential forms of companionship and ways of sense-making that can make it possible to imagine different ways of living and relating in an aching world.

Roxani Krystalli is a Lecturer at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. She is currently the co-Principal Investigator of a research project on the politics of love and care in the wake of loss.

The Politics of Nature in the UCL Art Museum

We did more experiential learning this week, this time in the UCL Art Museum. We are incredibly lucky to have an impressive art collection at UCL, related to the Slade School of Art. And we are even luckier that it is staffed by deeply knowledgeable curators who helped me put together an exhibition of artworks that helped us think about various aspects of how nature is, and has been, depicted.

Students in the UCL Art Museum with a work by Winifred Knights in the foreground

I’ve been working with the Art Museum to deliver teaching using its collection for a few years. Before that, I used to take students to the many free exhibitions in London and it was a chance conversation with a student who put me in touch with the UCL curators and made me realise that I could do the teaching I wanted to on our very own campus! This is a huge privilege (in our exhibition we had a Turner!), but wherever you are, there is probably an art gallery or museum in your town that would fit the bill, depending on what you want to teach.

What I want to do in these sessions is enable students to understand artworks as political objects: to become critical readers of the visual, to see through the facticity of images and understand the ways in which pictures are often generic and repeat familiar ideas, thereby reproducing and relegitimising them. The reason we take them for granted as reflections of reality is more to do with the way they repeat key narratives that we are used to and take to be commonsensical than any actual correspondence to an independent world. This is quite different from an approach that might, for example, focus on how works are made, or what their deeper meaning is, or an appreciation of their aesthetic qualities as such. You can read more about how and why I teach in art galleries here.

#teaching

If you want to have a go at getting out of the classroom and doing some teaching with artworks, here are a few tips and ideas.

  • Be clear about your purpose: there are lots of different reasons why you might want students to engage with artworks, but make sure you are clear in your own mind about it, so they and you understand the purpose of the exercise. Otherwise, you will have a nice time, but it might be a bit aimless. In my case, for my politics of nature class this year, I wanted students to understand that the ways landscapes and the rural have been depicted for centuries is often generic. Works in the pastoral tradition prettify the hardships and difficulty of rural lives, whilst images of the sublime invite rugged individualism and mastery. One of this year’s students – herself a student of the Slade Art School! (I am very excited to see her portfolio!) –  explained decolonial readings of the idea of the sublime reminding us of earlier reading about the dangers of narratives about the ‘lone, enraptured male‘. A range of different works, on the face of it all different, all lent themselves to making these points which reinforced work we are doing throughout the module.
  • Relatedly, be clear about how the work in the gallery relates to the rest of your module: I included artworks that depicted colonialism and enslavement, building on last week’s work at Kew, helping students see how pastoral, sublime and picturesque artworks legitimised enslavement and glorified adventurers like Captain Cook (depicted heroically at his death in a work by Bartolozzi), whilst depicting indigenous people as ‘savage’ and ‘close to nature’ in ways that deprive them of political agency. The works also picked up other themes in the module, for example, returning to ideas we encountered in our week of queer ecologies about how parks and beaches have been celebrated in art for certain sorts of leisure and relationships (the courting heterosexual couple, for example) and not others.
  • Provide context through reading and other materials: For this week, we read a chapter by Nomi Lazar on discourses of ‘primitivism’ and an article by Jennifer Peebles on the ‘toxic sublime‘ to support students in noticing these discourses in the artworks. I also provided short ‘flipped classroom’ materials on how we can look at artworks as political objects and on the genres of ‘pastoral’, ‘sublime’ and ‘picturesque’. I did my best to relate the discussion back to these materials as we discussed the works.
  • Teach students how to look: Tate Modern’s studies show that visitors on average spend about eight seconds looking at each picture! By creating an exhibition of just a few works (I used ten, which was probably too many if I’m honest), you can get students to look at bit more closely. Encourage them to stay with a few works that interest them rather than trying to look at every one. I always suggest that they spend time sketching. No-one actually did that this year, but in the past students have stayed in the gallery for longer than the allotted time to look and draw. This is the best way of getting them to notice all the details, especially in complex works. It’s also worth spending a bit more time getting them to describe the key features of a work before launching into questions about what political work it is doing. That way, students often help me notice things that I hadn’t seen myself!
  • Work with curators: The way I have always put my exhibitions in the UCL Art Museum together is to ask advice from the curators. I tell them the broad themes and concepts from the module and then they pull out a range of artworks. I always want to use them all, but with painful difficulty they help me whittle it down to a manageable exhibition. Their deep and extensive knowledge of the collection makes this easy and fun work – whereas slogging through the catalogue myself would have taken much longer. Two curators also kindly helped me by circulating among the students and talking to them about the histories of the works, how they were made and what other interpretations have been made of them, drawing on in-depth knowledge that I just don’t have. This is gold dust, and much appreciated by the students! Curators and education teams at public galleries have always been equally helpful.
  • Make it fun: attending an exhibition is a pleasurable experience. Bringing that enjoyment of art and being together in a different sort of space into an encounter with close looking and critical thought leads to a different kind of embodied learning that will hopefully stay with students as they encounter more works of art in future. I usually encourage the students to wander round as if they were in any other exhibition, as well as giving them encouragement to look closely and sketch. I give them a few questions about each artwork, some of which require some close and slow looking. I give them a chance to do all this before I start circulating round and helping them. Unfortunately, this year, every time I started talking to a small group of students about a particular artwork, the whole class gathered round to hear my wisdom. This is probably because the Art Museum is a small space and I was using my teacher voice, but it did take away from the joy of individual discovery a bit, as well as depriving them of chances to chat with the curators, who were also on hand. I need to think about how I avoid this next year. There is probably a bit of me that enjoys being the centre of an attentive crowd a bit too much that I need to keep an eye on….
  • Don’t be scared of difficulty: Some of the questions we asked in the Art Museum were confronting, particularly when looking at a picture of a Jamaican plantation with enslaved people in the foreground, using the tradition of the pastoral to make this scene look pretty and ‘natural’, or the way that Captain Cook is portrayed as a saintly, Christ-like figure being brutally murdered by Indigenous people. Looking at the exquisite Turner watercolour depicting the first steamer on Lake Lucerne, we asked ourselves whether it would have been better if the Industrial Revolution had never happened – delving into how even if we wanted to disentangle it from dispossession, capitalism and colonialism, it is hard to see how we ever could, despite wanting to keep a lot of the benefits that have accrued to the lucky ones like us. The discussion was difficult and sometimes faltered, but in some ways that is easier in a space like an art gallery than it is in a classroom. This is partly because we were not staring right at each other but looking at an object and partly because silence in a gallery is ordinary and expected, as we let the questions sit, and not awkward or embarrasssing. It is also fine just to wander off and look at something else when in an exhibition, and therefore easy enough to exit a conversation if it’s getting a bit intense.
  • Think about assessment: For my class’s portfolio assessment, students may (but do not have to) write labels for the artworks in the gallery to help visitors understand the key ideas we have discussed or write an entry for an exhibition catalogue. Last year, lots of students did this to good effect, with some particularly beautiful catalogue essays. Students can also make their own artworks and are encouraged to reflect on how they reproduce or disrupt the discourses we see in the exhibition. The UCL curators would love to hold an exhibition of the same works for the public with labels written by my students plus responses from members of the UCL community and visitors. Subscribe to this blog if you want updates on this, if and when it happens!

I hope this might give you a few ideas about teaching with art. Artworks also aren’t by any means the only types of objects you can teach with and I love to hear other people’s ideas about object-based learning and how we can make it work in our discipline. Let us know in the comments if you have an approach that really works well.

Outdoor learning

Last week was probably the highlight of my and everyone’s term in the Politics of Nature module: I took the class to Kew Gardens. We had a wonderful time, great weather and a brilliant learning experience. Unsurprisingly, the students love getting out of our dingy classroom at UCL, travelling to Kew and having the chance to explore on their own as well as talk together, with me, about the politics of botanical gardens past and present.

Students in the Palm House at Kew

It isn’t all fun, fun, fun though…. Nonsense, it is, but we are there to do a job and that job is learning. The theme of the week is Colonialism and Nature and ahead of the class we have read about the politics of native plant advocacy and a short article by the current Director of Science about Kew’s involvement in colonialism and how decolonisation of botanical gardens might work in practice. The flipped classroom materials for the week include short histories of three ‘plant hunters’ (Hans Sloane, Joseph Banks and Marianne North) as well as some interactive opportunities to reflect on the nature of ‘weeds’. This sets us up to talk about what it might mean to move plants around the world and what the consequences have been, including the spread of invasive species and monocultures, and the production of gardening trends that have led to the persecution of useful and beautiful plants like dandelions.

When we arrive at Kew, we go straight to the imposing Palm House and contemplate its size, beauty and majesty from outside. The activities we do next were suggested by the brilliant Dr Caroline Cornish, who also facilitated our entry to the garden (for free!). I send the students on a bit of a treasure hunt, asking them to have a wander round for 20 minutes or so and look particularly at the signage, to consider what Kew is telling us about the garden and who they are as an organsation, as well as what we might like to know but is not there on the signs. They love having a good explore and the phone cameras all come out. We come back together and students have usually noticed that the signage tells us the plants’ names and area of origin, some scientific facts about them, their usefulness for medical or technological purposes, and perhaps any work that Kew is doing to conserve them, particularly if they are rare. What is not usually explained is how or why the plants came to be here in London.

The imposing Palm House at Kew

We then report to the rubber tree, and with a bit of interactive discussion – particularly from students who might come from countries where rubber plantations have been a feature of the landscape or who can make an educated guess about what the consequences of rubber monocultures might have been – we discuss its history and how that links to the history of Kew. Whilst now a delightful day out for tourists and keen gardeners, as well as hub for scientific enquiry and conservation, Kew was deeply involved not only in technical work of figuring out how to propagate and grow rubber on an industrial scale for industrial purposes, but also in commisssioning ‘explorers’ to take the seeds from Brazil (illegally!) in the first place. This is usually an interesting surprise to the students… which leads of course to some questions about why the signage doesn’t mention any of this fascinating and dark history. We also think again about how imposing and impressive that glass house is, considering that it was built as early as 1848, and how its magnificence and technological sophistication would have legitimised and celebrated the imperial endeavour. (‘How do you think they heated it?’ I ask. ‘No,’ I say, ‘Don’t look up…. look down!’) We talk about what Kew might want to do now to make repairs for this involvement in colonialism, including supporting botanical science and biodiversity in formerly colonised countries as well as providing an honest reckoning with its past to its visitors. We also talk a bit about why the latter might not be happening, a theme we will pick up later in the term when we discuss the National Trust’s work to tell truthful stories about their collections and the backlash they have experienced as a result. In their portfolios for this week, they are invited to writen new signage or guides for Kew, which many do, often to great effect, and last year a student wrote an impassioned letter to the Director entreating him to lead Kew towards new decolonisation projects in order to attract new audiences.

I also ask the students to write, if they want to, about what the experience of learning in the garden was like. After all, we could learn about the history of the rubber plant, the grandeur of the Palm House and look at examples of Kew’s signage back in the dingy classroom, using slides. They generally write about how actually being there helps them translates theory into practice. They also write a lot about enjoyment and pleasure, the joy of exploration and the feel and smells of being in a glasshouse. They definitely relate the week’s learning to new topics of their own discovery, too: one student spent some free time in the garden up on the treetop walkway, where she saw a huge flock of parakeets, leading her to research these birds and reflect on the nature of ‘invasive species’ and which get controlled, and how, building on our reading about native plants.

I think there is an intriguing epistemological dimension to outdoor learning that I haven’t quite yet put my finger on. It seems that standing in the very place that the rubber tree is growing at Kew, in the very glasshouse where it was originally propagated, and engaging in the history and present of that incredible building whilst enjoying its heat and humidity, its lushness and earthy smells, is epistemologically significant. That is, that the very knowledge we are engaging in and developing as a class is different from what we could know from a dry old, cold old Powerpoint. If, as I tend to argue, knowledge is the emergent property of sets of relationships within communities who know how to do certain sorts of things, then being there is a different way to being in relationship with Kew and its past and present practices. The very familiar pleasure that we feel on a day out at a nice garden is complicated by bringing it experientially into contact with some of difficulty of straightforwardly enjoying these places with these histories. The act of hunting out and really looking closely at the signage puts students in charge of their learning – in a sense they are engaging with primary data here – whilst also reminding them that there are many ways to read, and write, these signs, of the sort that they will often encounter in their role as consumers of pleasurable days out. Perhaps the bodily association of learning and critiquing with the pleasures of being a tourist and visitor, will engender a lifelong criticality that nevertheless won’t ruin the real and evident enjoyment that such places offer. Perhaps by having conversations and building relationships among ourselves in beautiful places, we will be closer as a group, with all that shared, emotional, embodied experience, and this will enable more, deeper, critical and analytical conversations for the future with each other and to other people we might spend time with in gardens and glasshouses.

I’m still thinking about it. But somehow, in my bones, I know that something happens to a class when we escape the bonds of the classroom and all the norms that come with them. We will be doing more outdoor and out-of-classroom learning as the term goes on.

Using the “World Climate Simulation” in Class

When teaching International Relations, the issue of climate change is unavoidable. I found myself a couple of semesters ago in a position where I got frustrated about my stale lecture on this issue. Climate change is man-made, the world is one fire, and our students are experiencing it daily. How can I add to this in class without just shouting “look at the data”?

The internet came to the rescue: I found the “World Climate Simulation”, a role-playing game from Climate Interactive (MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative; UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative). I will forego, explaining the simulation in detail, because the simulation’s website is exhaustive enough, and I would end up simply copying what they already explain. Instead, I will briefly go through some key points and considerations that I have, after conducting the simulation now three times in different learning environments.

C-Roads Interactive Climate Change Simulation Dashboard

  1. The purpose of the simulation is that country and region representatives (i.e., the United States or Other Developing Nations) come to an agreement to lower and slow down the warming of the globe. The simulation illustrates that if all countries around the world won’t change any of their behavior by 2100, the global temperature will increase by 3.3 C, which will have detrimental and irreversible effects on human existence and the global biodiversity. Negotiations and discussions between the global players aim to bring the rate to below 2 C.
    1. The simulation provides character sheets for each country/region. They are adaptable to class size (I use six; but that is not necessary).Students must make decisions on when their country/region will reach peak emission rates, when/if they will reduce emission levels, by how much, and whether they will support afforestation and prevent deforestation (and at what rate).
    1. The simulation also provides great slides that allow you, as the educator, to set the scene.
  2. I pair the simulation with two readings/media:
    1. Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”An episode of the New York Times Daily Podcast (“Who pays the bill for climate change?”, 2022).
    1. With both of these, students are exposed to both the ideas of free riding, collective action, and inherent conflicts regarding the responsibility to tackle climate change.
      1. Based on these readings, I add two specific incentives for the students throughout the simulation:
        1. If they can change the trajectory of climate warming by 2100 to below 2 C, the entire class gets 1 Extra Credit Point.
        1. The group that commits the least will get an additional Extra Credit Point.
  3. Depending on how long your class sessions are, you can easily adapt and change the simulation to your needs.
    1. My broad structure is:
      1. I email character sheets out prior to meeting, urging them not to share their sheets with others.Class begins with a first initial meeting within the groups to establish who they are, what their country is doing, and what is feasible in terms of their own commitments to slow down climate change.As a group we collect in the interactive dashboard (see picture above) all of our countries/regions initial commitments, assessing by how much/if at all we were able to change the trajectory of climate warming.Then, the student groups briefly strategize, and then they disperse to speak to other groups to move the needle in any direction.
        1. Depending on how much time you have, you can do multiple negotiation rounds.
        After the negotiations, we collect again in the dashboard feasible commitments, and evaluate where we are.
      1. We debrief. This includes asking questions about how they felt getting the initial tasks, how the negotiations went, and discussing why it is difficult to make any global agreements on climate change.
  4. Thoughts on how the simulations have gone so far:
    1. The more time you can dedicate to it the better. I have played around with different structures anywhere between 60 minutes to 2 hours, and obviously, the longer session had better discussions/negotiations.
    1. In most cases, students will find that balancing national interests vs. global commitments is quite difficult. Countries tend to be selfish, and no one wants to make the biggest contributions right away. The debrief is key here, because it allows you to combine the students’ experiences with the readings and illustrate the thinking/obstacles that exist in global politics to overcome transnational problems.
    1. Take the time to walk around while the students are negotiating. They take it seriously, and the things they say to one another are both profound and amusing at times!

Writing the future? Creative writing in the classroom

This guest post is by Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

Writing the future? Creative writing in the classroom

This semester, I finally dared a teaching exercise that I had been considering using for some time – asking my third-year Green Politics students to complete a piece of creative writing in their seminars.

I say that I “dared” to do this exercise, because it is one that I have been putting off over concerns about its potential reception. There is a small, active English-Politics cohort on the course, but I had concerns that outside that group, the Politics students might be less than enthusiastic about engaging in creative writing. I worried that I could have a revolt on my hands.

However, the timing seemed fortuitous. All the classes were on the same day as the UK’s National Poetry Day and the announcement of the Nobel Literature Prize. I was hoping that would be a suitable backdrop to asking students to stray into what likely felt like alien territory in their political studies, embracing the chance to explore their creativity.

The subject is also one that I felt lent itself to this type of creative endeavour. Environmental politics is a subject that, to some degree, asks students to engage with potential utopian “what ifs” when considering changes in the human-environment relationship. While the 1975 novel Ecotopia is a well-referenced example of this engagement of environmental-alternatives-through-literature, the growing interest in climate fiction (“cli-fi”) shows how important fiction is in developing our understanding of that relationship.

The topic we were discussing in these particular seminars is a pronounced example of the importance of developing one’s imagination about potential futures – degrowth. Degrowth, the notion of reducing production and consumption norms to bring both environmental and human benefits, is at a marked remove from many of our core assumptions in politics. In today’s political landscape, where governments and politicians are primarily assessed based on their capacity to maintain steady economic expansion, the idea of degrowth may appear unconventional, controversial, or, at the very least, a somewhat abstract notion. Therefore, it is a concept that can be challenging for students to critically engage with.

My idea for the exercise was a simple one – at the end of the seminar, after discussing the academic readings on the environment and different political economies (with one reading focused on degrowth), students were given around 15 minutes to write about a ‘degrowth future’. What that future looked like; I left entirely up to them. I gave a short briefing that it might be “a utopia, a dystopia, or something in between” and then left them to it.

To help calm any creative nerves, I assured the students that they didn’t need to read their piece aloud, nor share it with any classmates, but I did ask that they email them to me after class so I could read them. In the seminar itself, I asked only that they discuss the experience: how did they picture that degrowth future? Was there a theme from that reading that they brought more to their creative piece? And (importantly) did they find this a useful exercise to do?

I ran the class three times on the same day and am extremely relieved to report that there was no revolt! In fact, the students largely jumped at the chance of doing something creative. Of the 50-ish students on the module only one expressed dismay at having to do creative writing on a Politics course – an outcome that pleasantly exceeded my expectations.

The quality of the work that was sent to me was outstanding. I read all the pieces between meetings the following day and was amazed. In the limited time they had been given, the students created intricate and insightful worlds that spanned a range of possible ‘degrowth futures’.  They did so in a way that drew on the reading and showed what features of the concept had stood out to them.

So, as we navigate the uncertain terrain of our environmental future, there’s one future I can predict with confidence – I’ll be running this exercise again!

Have a post you want to share? Send it to alps@activelearningps.com!

Social Annotation: how to look at a cartoon

This week in class I’ve been using the social annotation software Talis Elevate with students to help them understand what ecofascism is and some of its key features. This is a very important thing to do early on in a module about the politics of nature because ecofascist discourses, as well as materials that might draw unknowingly on some ecofascist tropes, are very common when we talk about nature and landscape. I therefore always want this acvitiy to be almost the first thing we do, so students can recognise and critique far-right narratives as soon as they encounter them. Before delving into the specifics of the exercise, though, I want to acknowledge that it was particularly difficult to talk about the antisemitic elements of ecofascism this week because of the unspeakable, horrific violence taking place in Israel and Gaza. Antisemitism is always hard to talk about, as are the other topics we touched on in class including racism more broadly, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and eugenics. But it was particularly tricky at a moment like this. I will try to write about the charged nature of our classroom conversations another time, when I have had chance to sit with them. For now the difficulty is simply worth noting, so I don’t give the impression that technical fixes like Elevate can enable us to avoid the complexity of some of the conversations that we nevertheless must have.

Returning to social annotation, though, what Elevate does is quite simple. It allows students to click anywhere in a text or an image to create a pin, to which they can add a comment. Students can agree and reply to each other and I can see the conversation as well as judiciously replying or agreeing too. Nothing is anonymous, so it has the feel of a classroom conversation, but it enables students to engage with the image together and in conversation outside of the class.

In this instance, I put a cartoon on Elevate that had previously gone viral among nature-lovers and others on social media and asked them to note any key features, discuss what is going on, what political ideas are being advanced and whether the ideology underlying the cartoon has a name. In the previous week’s work, we had done a reading that touched on ecofascism, so it shouldn’t have been a new concept for most students in the group.

You can see the full exercise and how last year’s students did with it in this video:

The beauty of using a cartoon like this is that it is very concrete and students could pull out lots of individual features of the image from the whiteness and size of the family in the foreground to their heteronormativity; from the implicit racism and homophobia of ideas about ‘shrinking cities’ to the eugenicist implications of the anti-vaccine and mask imagery; from the ableist assumptions to the antisemitic coded langauge. Having noted all these individual elements before class on Elevate, the classroom discussion itself then enabled us to bring them together, to understand how ideologies contain lots of disparate ideas, tropes and discourses, that together produce a vision of the world, and to make sure we would be on the alert to any one of these problematic ideas in future by understanding how they link to all the others. In keeping with my overall focus on what I want students to be able to do as a result of the class, I hope they will be able to recognise, describe and challenge ecofascism in future and quickly understand that it’s not a good thing to ‘like’ or ‘share’.

I’ll write more about my adventures in social annotation later in the term, especially if they work out. (As you can see in the video, I haven’t quite cracked when and how to use it, yet.) Let us know if you have used it yourself and have any thoughts about when it is, or isn’t, useful.

New Contributors (and request for readers’ advice)

Hello, I’m Cathy Elliott and I am joining the ALPS blog as a regular contributor along with my friends and co-conspirators – JP, Kalina and John – from the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics. I’ve written for ALPS once before, which led to some really interesting conversations, so I’m very excited to be blogging more regularly about my favourite subject: active learning (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘learning’, since I very much doubt that passive learning is actually a thing.)

Student in Chelsea Physic Garden for my class last year

Despite that first post on simulations – which was very on-brand for ALPS – I don’t do so much with games and simulations in my teaching at the moment, though there is a always the chance that I might come back to them. However, with the start of the UK autumn term fast approaching, I have lots of exciting plans for my Politics of Nature module this term, which I hope to write about every week or two. In this class, we do outdoor learning, object-based learning, portfolio-based assessment with a strong focus on optionality and choice, and we make lots of use of technology including flipped classrooms, eportfolios and social annotation. So, there will be lots to say!

I’m also a Vice Dean Education at the moment, so it’s quite possible that I will stray into questions of policy and strategy every now and again. However, my heart will always be in the classrom and with my undergraduate students. I’m very happy to hear your thoughts if there’s anything you’d particularly like to read about.

Meanwhile, I have a new and hitherto unexpected problem. I am of an age where I have just acquired my first ever pair of glasses! This is all good news as it’s a miraculous treat to realise that I can see again! However, they are only for reading and everything from the middle distance outwards is hopelessly blurred when I wear them. So, how do I teach now? Luckily, I avoid lecturing as much as possible, but I have to do it sometimes. How will I look at my notes and my slides and the students’ faces? And in the seminar room or other settings, how will I switch from my notes to look at the students? Seasoned spectacle wearers, give me your best tips!

Climate Defense Game

Credit for this goes to the economist Richard Thaler, who mentioned the game’s basic premise in a Freakonomics Radio podcast.

I created this game for an admissions office event designed to persuade admitted applicants — high school students — to enroll. There were eight participants in the room. I placed a folded paper placard with the name of a country on it in front of each participant. The countries had varying GDP levels; e.g., El Salvador and China. I used poker chips instead of real money. I introduced the game by asking the group if they thought it was important for all countries to work toward mitigating climate change; everyone agreed. I then announced that we would simulate an international fund for climate defense. Countries could contribute to the fund that would be used to slow climate change and benefit everyone.

The game unfolds in three phases. Since my time was limited to about 35 minutes, I did two rounds for each phase. Probably more rounds per phase would work better. Here are the game’s rules:

Phase 1: Each player begins the game with 5 chips. For each round, a player can contribute 0 to 5 chips to the fund. At the end of the round, the number of chips in the fund doubles and this amount is divided equally among all players.

Phase 2: Players retain any chips acquired in Phase 1. Rules from Phase 1 still apply, plus: You can spend 1 chip to penalize another country. The country that is penalized loses 2 chips. To do this, write the name of the country on a piece of paper and give it to me along with 1 of your chips.

Phase 3: Each player starts with an amount of chips that reflects his or her country’s GDP. All other rules from Phases 1 and 2 still apply.

After six rounds, I led a short discussion, and it was evident that the high school students had picked up on the collective action problem that exists in the provision of international public goods.