Diversifying the Politics Curriculum: Lessons Learned and Possibilities for Progress

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our second event in the series was on the theme of ‘Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Helen McCabe, together with Helen Williams and Andy Fisher, offer reflections on findings from a project at the University of Nottingham, led together with colleagues in Politics and IR and Philosophy.

Questions around why Politics curricula are so often “male”, “pale” and – consequently – “stale” have abounded in the last few years, often linked to wider calls to “decolonise” Higher Education, research, and teaching. As well as this, there has been increasing recognition of, and concern about, the award gap between white undergraduate students and those from Black and minoritised ethnic backgrounds. Closing this gap needs a multifaceted and multidimensional approach, much (though not all!) of which is out of individual academics’ control. However, some elements of a curriculum-based approach are in our control – for instance, as educators we could make significant efforts towards regularising ethnic presence on the curriculum (and diversifying it in other ways).

Making politics curricular more diverse in a variety of ways is a positive pedagogical aim, but efforts in this direction face several challenges. Many of these are practical, as we found when investigating this issue. Sharing best practice can save time, but overall, a balance needs to be found between securing sufficient institutional “buy-in” to succeed, and the whole endeavour appearing to be something being inauthentically imposed from above, causing resistance.

One reason diversifying the curricula is an important thing to try and do is that descriptive representation matters to students and for student outcomes. If we care about diversity and the attainment of all our students, we should be mainstreaming perspectives that are not the traditional white, European, middle-class, male ones. What is more, these diverse perspectives should not be an “add-on” treated in one special week. Nor should authors from specific minoritised groups be treated only as experts on issues seen to affect that group (e.g. female authors included on reading lists for the one week on feminism in a political theory course, but not in other weeks on other topics).

However, there are several barriers for engagement, which might be termed: principled, implacable and practical.

Principled challenges and how to address them. People may be put off by the terminology around “decolonising”, feeling it is either an attack on their current practice (implicating them in colonialism), or that it is not a term which ought to be used in a UK context. That is, decolonising the curriculum is a laudable endeavour in countries which were colonised (e.g. South Africa, where the movement began). But it is not appropriate in countries which were colonisers (such as the UK). These principled reasons for not engaging can be at least somewhat overcome through careful use of – and discussion around – terminology (see our collection of Useful Resources) and awareness around the internal and external politics of this kind of project.

Implacable barriers are harder to overcome. Some people do simply reject the pedagogical bases for diversifying the curriculum along ethnic (or gendered) lines. One version of this view holds that students should be introduced to a range of views, but it is the ideological spectrum which should be diverse, not authors’ demographic data. Another version sees these kinds of efforts as “gimmicky”, and does not want to engage. These barriers may simply need recognising, with related decisions taken about which battles to fight.

A different version relates to some academics’ deep-seated aversion to teaching anything on which they do not themselves feel “expert”, which limits their flexibility around what they teach. (And damages their well-being when they feel forced to teach something on which they are not, in their view, “an expert”.) Although for some this might be an excuse not to develop their teaching year-on-year, it is easy to understand why academics may be very risk-averse in terms of changing their teaching such that they feel they are teaching topics or texts for which they do not have a deep understanding, not least given student expectations to be taught “by experts”, and the negative impacts on career progression and staff well-being from negative or low student evaluations. This may be increasingly an issue as lectures are more routinely recorded, and the likelihood of one slip or apparent revelation of ignorance “going viral”, with potentially wide, and severe, consequences. (This may also underpin reluctance to “diversify” reading lists and include writers who may be seen as controversial.) For these reasons, academics may appear implacably opposed to changing their teaching in any significant way, but this position may be softened by the same sorts of solutions which also aid academics who are positive towards the idea of diversifying, but face practical challenges.

Indeed, practical barriers to are the ones most commonly cited and experienced by academics. These include: lack of relevant decision-making power; lack of time; and lack of space.

The first is most commonly experienced by early-career colleagues (including PhD students) who might be able to introduce more diverse readings into seminars, but have no control over the content of lectures, modes of assessment, or the aims and objectives of a module. The second and third are more commonly experienced by those who have the relevant power, but lack the capacity to make use of it. Academics generally do not get as much time as is really needed to update reading lists; re-design assessments, lecture slides, reading lists and other resources; or gain the required expertise on new content. Even where these efforts are recognised in an official workload planner, the time allocated is not generally sufficient. And even where there are helpful resources which might be used, there is concern about garnering satisfactory expertise to bring something into the curriculum (as noted). There is also often as concern about what has to be taken out in order to fit in something new, given the limited time available for a module (e.g. 10-12 weeks). Escaping from that problem probably takes a significant module re-design and re-think: and colleagues are already suffering from a lack of time.

All these practical concerns are significant issues, which need to be taken seriously if curricula are to be diversified in a meaningful and sustainable way. Staff need time and resources to make significant change and feel confident in delivering new material, and this in turn necessitates buy-in from people with power within the University. However, if the move to diversify the curriculum feels imposed in a “top-down” and/or “gimmicky” fashion, this is likely to be counter-productive. Indeed, power structures in academia may need to be “decolonised” before the curriculum can be.

Useful Resources:

All our resources here hosted here

This includes some “top tips” available here

And a toolkit for thinking about terms and terminology

There is also some great advice from colleagues at Sheffield Hallam available here

A Crowdsourced IR Playlist

A new guest post by Dr. Summer Marion from Bentley University, Waltham, MA:

Since Fall 2022, I have taught ten sections of Internationals Relations at Bentley University. Each semester, I experiment with integrating music into my curriculum as a means of both encouraging my students to apply abstract concepts in their everyday lives, and better understanding what IR means to them. Inspired by others’ impressive IR playlists, I take a slightly different approach from faculty who have curated their own lists to share with students in class. I challenge students to: 1) expand and improve my taste in music, and more importantly 2) contribute to making IR more relevant to their generation by proposing songs of their own for a small amount of extra credit on the final exam. Students brainstorm songs that they enjoy listening to and find relevant to a topic covered in class over the course of the semester. They then share their songs alongside a brief explanation in our class discussion forum. I encourage students to submit songs as we cover each topic, but final submissions are not due until the end of the semester. I occasionally play a student submission to kick off a new topic at the beginning of class, inviting students to discuss and share their thinking.

Continue reading “A Crowdsourced IR Playlist”

Generative AI changes teaching and learning: how to protect the integrity of assessment

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our first event on 30 October was on the theme of ‘Using technology to teach politics’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Simon Sweeney (University of York), offers further reflections on the challenges involved in higher education’s embracing generative AI, where tools such as ChatGPT call into question issues of authorship and have profound implications for assessment.

A few years ago, we were worrying about students’ using essay mills, a form of contract cheating that plagiarism detection software struggled to identify. The Covid-19 pandemic and online delivery coincided with a reported increase in academic dishonesty (AD). In late-2022 the arrival of generative artificial intelligence (GAI) chatbots like ChatGPT is a further challenge to the integrity of assessment.

Universities realised that banning chatbots was not feasible, as AI has become an established feature in our lives and graduate employment. As educators, we need to respond positively to the opportunities AI presents, recognising its benefits and assimilating AI into teaching and learning practice.

This means developing strategies that accommodate students’ use of GAI while protecting assessment integrity.

Continue reading “Generative AI changes teaching and learning: how to protect the integrity of assessment”

(Not) teaching employability: One case for inactive learning?

Another great guest post by Dr. Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

(As for this Pigeon, I just finished teaching a voluntary overload semester: 5 courses, plus developed a 6th course for CSU Online. It’s a workload I’m not in a hurry to repeat. Now back to Jeremy!)

I read with interest Amanda Rosen’s recent blog post on why it is not necessary to choose a ‘side’ in the debate between lecturing or active learning. 

Rather than choosing to be loyal only to one approach, Rosen notes that ‘we should choose our teaching techniques based on our learning goals and the demand of the questions, concepts, cases, and other material that we are teaching’. 

This is something that I have been thinking over a lot in the last year in relation to the subject of employability. Usually, I am someone who prefers to lean slightly towards a more ‘active’ form of learning. Whilst I do see the benefits of the lecture format, I also love experimenting with new modes of engagement in seminars, workshops, and in online learning environments. 

However, employability has stuck in my mind over the last year as one area where there seems to be a strong case for relative inactivity.

Continue reading “(Not) teaching employability: One case for inactive learning?”

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.

Little by little: Challenging awarding gaps in UK higher education

We have another great guest post by Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

The Financial Times recently published an analysis of data from HESA (the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency) which revealed a troubling trend in UK universities. As the analysis’s headline read: ‘Non-EU international students at UK universities less likely to get top grades’. The data was clear – undergraduates from outside the EU were twice as likely as UK students to receive a lower-second or third-class degree in 2021-22 (and therefore missing out on the upper-second or first-class degrees that employers most favour).

This trend is especially concerning given the significant growth in the number of non-EU international students studying at UK universities in recent years, with almost three times as many studying in the UK today than in 2007. With these students making up a larger proportion of those within our classrooms, there is a need to ensure that universities are not providing them with a second-class education.

The problem with awarding gaps is not, however, limited to the difference in degree outcomes between non-EU international students and EU and “home” students. There is a wealth of data already covering racialised awarding gaps, socio-economic awarding gaps, and disability awarding gaps, for example. 

The question is – what can be done to help challenge these trends?

I work at an institution which has the ambition of ‘eradicating’ awarding gaps by 2030. This has given those working on teaching and learning a serious opportunity to engage with the issue, to understand the challenges, and to make some early steps to address those gaps.

Of course, there are many factors that shape awarding outcomes where we have limited power to respond. Structural issues will often be the deciding factor on, for instance, whether students will have to take on part-time work to fill the increasing gulf between the costs of student life and the student loans provided. 

This is not a niche issue, over half of undergraduates in the UK are now in part-time employment. Some universities are already experimenting with compacting students’ timetables so classes only cover three days of the week. This gives students clear days for paid work and, hopefully, ensures that they don’t miss any teaching. This compartmentalisation of the week might also be of benefit to academics by providing set days for research, writing, and tackling that ever-growing pile of emails. 

However, there are also opportunities for individual, course-level initiatives to achieve the ambition of combatting awarding gaps.

The first opportunity is to reflect on how we are assessing our students. In particular,  optionality could be one particularly effective path forward. Letting students select from a range of assessment formats, tailored for respective modules, would allow students the choice of assessment to best suit their learning style and the skills that they are seeking to develop through their studies. A recent report on optionality in assessment highlighted its potential to limit awarding gaps, making the recommendation that ‘Educational institutions should prioritise the introduction of diverse assessment formats to explicitly address accessibility and concerns about fairness, ensuring access to necessary resources and skills development to prevent the unintentional widening of awarding gaps’. 

The second opportunity is to take the time to consider the range of cultures and approaches to learning that are present in our increasingly diverse classrooms, and to engage students on these matters. It is easy to take for granted that the approaches to teaching and learning that have been taught or socialised to us are in some way the ‘standard’ but this is a practice that risks alienating some students. 

For example, research on students from China’s learning styles has highlighted that they often do not have experience in or enjoy some of the norms of active learning that are the mark of much of the teaching and learning in Western institutions. Therefore, engaging all students at the start of courses about the hows and whys of the approaches to learning that will be utilised will provide at least some shared understanding of the expectations and benefits of getting involved in seminar discussions. 

Finally, taking the opportunity to support students’ confidence in engaging with learning should never be missed. Learning students’ names; encouraging students to interact and learn with each other outside of the classroom; giving students the chance to speak individually (ending teaching sessions a few minutes early but sticking around can give students the chance to ask questions that they might be self-conscious about asking in front of a group) – these are all relatively easy ways to try and give students more confidence in themselves, as well as the learning process. This, in turn, has the potential for increasing engagement and attainment. 

In sum, these above suggestions boil down to one simple but key idea – that we should find space for empathy in our teaching. Certainly, there are a host of other pathways to begin combatting awarding gaps. Whilst sector- and institution-level data is vital in identifying problematic trends, it will take a more granular approach to understand the specific, course-level issues and responses. This is a big issue but it is also one that academics can begin engaging with and combatting by instituting small changes.

Project Citizen: Building Citizenship Skills in an Introductory American Government Course

Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Brooklyn Walker at Hutchinson Community College, Kansas!


This semester, on the first day of class, I asked my introductory American Government class to generate a list, in teams, of how they come across American government and politics. They couldn’t think of a single example. I concluded that many of my students haven’t thought about themselves in terms of politics. They lack political efficacy. They are turned off by polarization and negative affect. And they don’t notice the role government and politics play in their everyday lives. 

But years after they graduate, I want my students to be aware of their political environment and equipped to engage it. I wasn’t convinced that exposing students to interesting information or ideas would address the problems I was seeing. Instead, I wanted to help my students learn about themselves as citizens, develop citizenship skills, and see government in action. I developed Project Citizen to advance these three goals, and to create a bridge for my students between the classroom and the ‘real world.  

Project Citizen is the overarching title for a set of five assignments distributed throughout the semester. It comprises approximately a third of the semester’s total points, signaling that that civic engagement is a priority in the class.

Students begin the semester by writing a brief introductory essay (400-500 words). This essay reflects on a class reading making the case for civic engagement, and they describe what an ideal citizen does and knows. Then they detail their own civic engagement and the hurdles they face in becoming the ideal citizen they described. This essay forms the foundation for the remainder of the projects and marks the baseline of each student’s civic engagement.

Students then select three projects from a menu, each of which results in a 500-word essay. Each prompt is linked to a topic we cover in class, and the prompts are intended to advance the three main goals. Giving students choices is a core feature of Project Citizen. Some of the prompts may be triggering for students. For example, a Black male in my class asked if he had to talk to a law enforcement officer, and another student with social anxiety was worried about contacting a local civil rights group. Project Citizen encourages students to choose prompts that take them out of their comfort zone but gives students space to avoid prompts that they feel could be harmful. Finally, choice promotes equity. Many students, especially those with lower socioeconomic statuses, do not have easy access to someone who’s running for office or reliable transportation to civic meeting spaces.

ProblemGoalRelevant Prompts (course topic in parentheses)
“Don’t know who they are as citizens” Learn about self as citizenTake a survey to identify your party identification and ideology (Public Opinion); Make your voting plan (Participation); Develop a media diet plan after comparing news articles (Media)
“No efficacy, intimidated by polarization”Practice political skills, including political  discussionsTalk to a police officer about the role of civil liberties in their work (Civil Liberties);Talk to a local civil rights group about their work (Civil Rights); Interview someone who’s run for office about the role of money in politics (Elections); Complete an action recommended by an interest group (Interest Groups); Contact a member of Congress (Congress)
“Don’t know how government actually pops up in their lives”See politics / government in actionAttend a local meeting (Constitution and Federalism); Identify party linkage strategies via party communications (Political Parties); Analyze presidential communications via inaugural addresses (Presidency); Observe a courtroom (Judiciary);Evaluate bureaucracies after speaking with a recipient of state or federal services (Bureaucracy)

Finally, at the end of the semester, students revisit their initial essay. They annotate that essay with 8 comments, reflecting on what they learned from class readings, lecture, discussion, and their projects. Their comments can introduce new information or examples to support or refute their initial points, reflect on how they have changed through the semester, or describe their next steps for developing their citizenship skills.

While most of the students’ Project Citizen work occurs independently, projects are woven into class periods. I mention project prompts during lectures, pointing out information that may be relevant or questions the project may help them answer. Students learn from each other during a peer review session (for which they also earn Project Citizen points). I print copies of the assignment rubric and students provide feedback on two peers’ essays, using the rubric as a framework. After projects are submitted, we dedicate class time to discussing student experiences and connecting those experiences to course material.  

Some semesters I’ve integrated badges, which are essentially extra credit opportunities, into Project Citizen. Badges encourage students to take more ownership of their learning experience. Some of the badges I’d used include:

  • Jack-of-all-Trades Badge: complete one project for each of the three goals 
  • Design Your Own Adventure Badge: create your own project prompt (in consultation with me)
  • 10,000 Foot View Badge: complete a meta-learning worksheet about a project
  • Second Chances Badge: revise and resubmit a project
  • Collaborator Badge: complete a Project Learning prompt with a co-author

Ultimately, students have reported positive experiences with Project Citizen. One student said that Project Citizen “let me build up my ideas about who I am and about my beliefs. I got to explore what my point of view is and I learned things about myself I never knew.” Another appreciated seeing the government in action. After attending a local meeting, they commented that, “Normally people wouldn’t go out of their way, but Project Citizen gave me exposure to see how my community is run.” 

Project Citizen is constantly evolving, so I look forward to your reflections and comments.  

Tools for Discussion: An Interpersonal Growth Toolkit

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Allison Anoll at Vanderbilt University!

Classroom discussion is a common pedagogical tool, but many instructors and students alike find themselves lost with the lack of structure.  Equally problematic, standard approaches to grading participation that simply count how often students speak can (re)produce racial and gender disparities.

How can we, as instructors, lead effective discussions? How can we help students grow in their interpersonal skills while also ensuring classrooms are inclusive spaces?

In my small, seminar classes I use a tool for structuring and assessing participation I call the Interpersonal Growth Toolkit.This tool relies heavily on a framework developed by Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher, where he argues that classroom discussion skills need to be taught just like any other learning goal. The Interpersonal Growth Toolkit provides students with learning goals for classroom discussion, tools for achieving these goals, and regular sources of feedback from the instructor about progress.

Here’s how it works. I start by identifying skills I want students to learn and practice in the discussion setting. In my classes, that’s: 1) humility; 2) confidence; and 3) social science thinking. I provide students with a detailed list of tools for how they can practice each of these themes. For instance, to practice humility, students can,

  • Provide credit to classmates for ideas and inspiration by using their name in comments.
  • Ask the group for a moment of silence to slow the pace of discussion and allow you (and others) time to gather your thoughts.
  • Find a way to express appreciation for what is new, interesting, or challenging in the discussion. Be specific about what has helped you understand something new.
  • Make a comment or ask questions that encourages others to elaborate on their ideas.

I then ask my students to identify which of the three areas—humility, confidence, or social science thinking— they are weakest in as a discussion participant.  My students then develop an individualized growth plan by identifying 2-3 skills in their area of weakness they want to try out in class. They write these skills on an index card that I hand back to them at the beginning of each class for the first two weeks. At mid-term, they write a brief reflection on how they think they are doing in their area of growth and what they want to work on for the rest of the semester. In combination with my own notes, I prepare mid-term feedback for each student about their performance in the three areas and tools to try in the second half of the semester. Students receive a final grade for their participation based on their growth and performance in each of the three areas.

This approach increases the quality of classroom discussions immensely. Not only do students and the instructor have a clear sense of what people are supposed to be doing during discussion time, but students themselves can become advocates of inclusivity in the classroom. Students who lean towards dominating a discussion are asked to think about how they can use their skills to draw others in; students who are nervous speaking up are provided with skills for finding their space and ways into a discussion. Using this technique, I have seen students grow immensely over the course of a semester with quieter students getting bolder and more dominant students using their skills to build bridges between other’s ideas. In my seminar courses, it is the norm to hear from every student multiple times over the course of a discussion.

This approach and assessment are well-suited for relatively small classes (less than 20 students). In larger classes, it is more difficult to build a community of trust that fosters vulnerability and to find enough time for all the students to practice their skills. However, this tool is suitable for any level of instruction: I use it with freshman, seniors, and even new graduate students. Instructors should feel empowered to adapt the skills they want students to learn in the discussion as long as they also provide specific tools to complement these skills. Want students to practice intellectual curiosity as a core skill instead of humility? Develop a list of tools that students can practice in a discussion to build this skill. You can look at chapter 8 of Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher for more tools to consider.

To implement this assessment, remember to include a learning objective in your syllabus that highlights interpersonal growth as a key goal of the course.  I use, “By the end of the course, you will be able to:demonstrate growth in discussion techniques including close listening, speaking with evidence, challenging with respect, and summarizing others’ contributions.’’

Keeping track of student contributions and how they fit into each assessment category can be difficult to do on your own while also leading the discussion. When I use this tool, I hire an advanced undergraduate or graduate student to sit in class with me and keep track of student contributions. I use these notes to develop feedback and grades for my students.

You can find details about The Interpersonal Growth Tool Kit here. The document also includes a rubric. (In general, I’m a big fan of rubrics, but that’s a topic for another day.) Happy discussing!

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!

Let’s play together! Takeaways from five collaborative online simulations

This guest post is by Simon Fink at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Peter Bursens at the University of Antwerp, and Lars Harzem at Planpolitik!

Online simulations are an attractive tool for active learning because they allow student groups to collaborate over long distances, exploiting their diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. As students don’t need to be in one place, teachers can merge groups from different universities for a joint simulation experience. Having supervised five online simulations between the Universities of Antwerp and Göttingen using Planpolitk’s Senaryon platform, we report on some lessons we have learned.

Background

Using the platform Senaryon offered by Planpolitik, we performed a simulation of policymaking and lobbying in the sphere of EU environmental policy. The participants were approximately 40 students from Antwerp (Master of political science) and Göttingen (mostly BA of political science). While both programmes have an international student body by themselves, the joint online game further enhanced the international experience, involving intensive collaboration among students from all over the world.

The simulation is divided into two consecutive parts, with each part lasting one week. In the first week, half of the participants play members of different services of the European Commission. Their task is to draft measures to combat climate change through a decrease of CO2 emissions by cars. They start with vague tasks (develop overarching goals) and work towards concrete policy proposals. In doing this, they have to coordinate within the Commission, reconciling the interests of trade, industry, and climate services, while at the same time interacting with lobbyists representing green, consumer, and industrial interests.

The lobbyists are played by the other half of the participants. Their job is to also work from broad principles towards concrete policy advice, and try to communicate their positions to the Commission. Both sets of roles work in small teams, e.g. DG Environment, Greenpeace, Airlines for Europe, etc. The participants´ tasks are split up into small sub-tasks that are immediately commented on by the supervisors, so that participants can use concise, hands-on feedback to guide them through the next steps of the simulation.

All the interactions between the participants happen online, using joint text pads and a chat system, allowing us to staff all simulated teams with students from both Antwerp and Göttingen.

The final product of the first simulation week is a Commission proposal for legislation on climate change, taking into account the input by the lobbyists to underpin the legislation with facts and arguments, and support for the implementation.

In the second week, the legislative proposal proceeds to the next legislative phase in the European Parliament. At this point, participants switch roles: The former members of the Commission become lobbyists, while the former lobbyists now are Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), organised along political groups. The team logic also applies to the latter: if, for example, the European People’s Party has five MEPs in the simulation, this will be a mixed Göttingen-Antwerp group.

The participants’ job is similar to the first part of the simulation: The MEPs work on the legislative proposal, trying to turn their broad ideological backgrounds into concrete amendments; the lobbyists try to influence the MEP using good arguments. The outcome of the second week is a resolution of the EP, reflecting the amendments of the EP to the Commission proposal of the first stage of the game.

The simulation ends with an encompassing reflection essay, in which students reflect upon the outcome and what they have learned from the game.

What have we learned?

A couple of conclusions are clear. The online simulation is an excellent format for mixing student groups from different universities. Asynchronous communication between the participants is key: students need to devote sufficient time to monitor and digest posts from their colleagues, draft reactions and post contributions themselves. It is crucial to keep all participants active throughout the entire trajectory, ensuring collaboration within and across groups that embody the actors in the game.

While there have been critical comments by students on nearly all aspects of the simulation – students find the time pressure and the word limits for the tasks too restrictive – mixing groups was always the part of the simulation that the students liked. The tasks of the simulation force them to work together in small teams and divide up the work, e.g. one lobby team member doing the research, another team member reaching out to Commissioners, and a third member communicating with other lobby groups.

The asynchronous chat system supported this kind of work-sharing between Antwerp and Göttingen. Crucially, students were not in the same place, and they did not need to be “in the simulation” at the same time. Instead, typical conversations were “Have contacted Commissioner – now I need to go to class – can you make the follow-up? – I´ll be back at 4pm to work on the press release.” Due to the tight deadlines, we did not have the common problem that asynchronous online simulations are sometimes slow. Instead, the deadlines generate a fast-paced simulation. And due to the clear and small tasks the teams had to work on, we also had lively online discussions.

When instructions in the online platform are clear and precise, supervisors can take the back seat during the game and restrict themselves to troubleshooting and providing feedback on students’ input. 

It is important to acknowledge that students are used to working in online environments and on small tasks. If simulation instructions are given in small and intuitive chunks, the simulation is nearly running by itself. Students got clear deadlines, clear tasks, and an online environment in which everything was in one place. They could work from task to task, deadline to deadline, and get feedback from the instructors at fixed intervals (after completing the tasks). Senaryon includes a chat system to request supervisors’ help, but this was seldom used.

We also noticed that the usability of the system is paramount. The fact that students are used to working in online environments also implies that they have specific and outspoken ideas about how such an online environment should look: students’ expectations are formed by user experiences established by large-scale internet companies. This means that the look and feel of an online simulation needs to evolve along with these expectations. If not, there is a risk that students will “leave” the simulation environment and outsource their bilateral and informal interaction to other platforms. This would undermine one of the main benefits of the online simulation, which is that supervisors can monitor how students interact with each other within their teams. Students must have the impression that the communication tools within the platform are the most effective and pleasant way to coordinate. In this respect, quick and responsive technical support from Planpolitik in case of platform issues was very important.

In addition, offline instructions are vital for managing expectations. The online simulation is demanding: Students have tight deadlines, they have to work on complicated policy issues, and they have to coordinate team efforts over two universities. The two simulation weeks are demanding and stressful. Although the simulation itself is self-explanatory once it has started, good offline instructions before the start are vital to set the expectations. On top of a joint introductory session, including a recording, we therefore made sure to extensively brief our respective student groups about the learning objectives, the potential challenges (coordination within the groups, tight deadlines), the topic of the simulation, and the functioning of the platform.

Finally, the teaching staff responsible for the evaluation needs to have user-friendly access to all the content the students have submitted during the game. A valid evaluation of students’ performance, both in terms of skills and knowledge, cannot be done without a clear view of their input, including the conversations that led to positions, amendments, and policy proposals.

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