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

What does the ideal Politics/International Relations degree look like?

Today we have a guest post by Dr Stephen Thornton from Cardiff University asking for input from our community on what the ‘ideal’ Politics/International Relations degree looks like. Please do give us your thoughts, ideas, recommended readings and so on in the comments. We would love to publish any guest posts in response to Stephen’s questions – just get in touch if you’re interested. We also had the idea of holding a event to have a conversation about this question in partnership with the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics: let us know if this would be useful to you and if you’d like to take part.

Having shown interest in pedagogic matters, it had to happened. The knock on the door from the head of department, the usual pleasantries, and then the inevitable question/plea: ‘Stephen, you know that the various Politics and International Relations undergraduate degrees are coming up for revalidation next year. So, well, erm, I just wonder if …?’.

All universities will have a similar process, whether it’s called revalidation or major programme/curriculum review or whatever. The general idea is to pick over existing degree programmes to determine that their structure, content and delivery reach an acceptable level of academic quality. The process also calls for evidence that there is some kind of strategy behind the constellation of modules that constitute each degree for which the department is responsible, and that this strategy aligns sufficiently with the published principles of the wider university. There is also expectation that things will change in ways that ensure alignment with the university’s strategic direction and likely improve student experience.  

And so, a challenging bureaucratic adventure awaits the poor soul foolish enough to agree to lead any revalidation process. Yet, for all the inevitable woe that awaits, at least part of me is excited. It will provide an opportunity to reflect on our various degrees and work out whether they can be reconfigured to provide an even better experience for the students.

These are just some of the issues with which I anticipate we’ll be wrestling:

  • No department can teach everything but Politics/International Relations (IR) is a discipline that spreads far and wide, so what is the best balance between general coverage and more specialist focus?
  • What is the best mix of core/optional modules? (Which prompts an extra question about whether there are aspects of the discipline that are fundamental)
  • Where do study skills fit within the curriculum?
  • How best do we incorporate employability (loosely-defined) effectively into the curriculum?
  • What is the best mix of team-taught and sole-taught modules? 
  • Are modules best taught in short, fairly intense bursts, say over just one semester (or shorter), or at a more leisurely pace over the entire academic year?
  • Is there an optimum balance of learning experiences that can arranged in a framework based around the traditional lecture/seminar model?
  • What role should technology play?
  • Is there an ideal mix of assessments (particularly in the age of ChatGPT)?
  • Should an end of degree independent research project and/or capstone project be compulsory?
  • Whither joint honours degrees?

To help with the task of answering these (and other) questions, by providing something to aim for, I’m trying to imagine what the ideal Politics/IR degree would look like. From a UK perspective, the excellent Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) subject benchmark statements for Politics and International Relations provide a useful background sketch for this idealised portrait, and I have some ideas of my own (as will the rest of the revalidation team), but I would welcome opinions, suggestions, ideas and examples from the informed and experienced readers of this fine blog series to help flesh out the picture – and insight about any likely Rumsfeldian ‘unknown unknowns’ about this revalidation process would be handy too.

I am aware, in the brutal boxing match of real life, that any ideal degree programme abstractly constructed will be punched hard and repeatedly in the imaginary face by the constraints that exist within the university environment, but some initial vision – no matter how disfigured by reality it comes to be – is better than none at all.