How do you make sense of a country’s politics?

I spent a few days this New Year in Berlin with my family, seeing the sights and eating the food and avoiding the fireworks.

It’s a fabulous city, for so many reasons, not least because the last time I was there was when I interrailed around Europe in 1992 and it’s changed a bit.

But you don’t care about my holidays, I assume. You’re here for the question in the title.

Since there was only the one person in the group who’d studied German history at university and he “kept using his teaching voice” [fine. whatever.], we decided it would be good to sample some of the numerous museums in the city, including the DDR Museum.

This is a private venture, telling people about the life and nature of East Germany.

Aside from the obligatory Trabant and a bit of Wall, that included a mocked-up flat, multimedia resources and – oddly – a diorama of nude sunbathers on the Baltic coast.

It’s maybe best summarised by the fridge magnets in the shop (pictured above): the reduction of forty year’s to a set of atomised images and memories, packaged for your convenience.

We all found it underwhelming. Me because it left out so much; everyone else because they didn’t know how it fitted together at all.

And this is a frequent problem when teaching comparative politics, both in strictly comparative terms and when doing the “politics of X” course. Where do you start? Where do you go? How do you hang it all together?

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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.