Behold: my newly-reworked module

OR: Some thoughts on teaching and citizenship, and teaching citizenship. And a plea.

Cathy has thrown down the gauntlet, so here I go…

For a few years I’ve been running a second-year module which includes a series of ‘practitioner talks’, rather than being based around your classic lecture-and-seminar format. It was dreamt up when the degree was first put together, and by coincidence the first running of it was in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, so the content was largely shaped by what I could make work at the time. I ran it as was for a two more rounds, and then last summer, following a bunch of conversations with Cathy, decided to overhaul it. This post explains the new structure, and ends with a plea for your thoughts (wisdom of crowds, and all that…).

The module opens with three scene-setting lectures from me. From there, we have a set of talks from people working in public policy: speech writers, think tankers, comms staffers from within government, from the private and third sectors, and researchers from the civil service. Much of that is carried over from ‘version 1.0’ of the module, but the newly-reformatted one now has four building blocks. Two develop themes from a first-year public policy module I teach, one is pedagogical, and one speaks to the ambitions or wider objectives of the module.

The building blocks

The first problematises the role of evidence in the business of policy making. We unpick ‘evidence-based policy making’ to show all the reasons why it’s really just a lofty ideal. This takes us into epistemology (is there such a thing as a ‘hierarchy of evidence’?); into institutional politics (how could we design knowledge exchange processes so that evidence can be provided more efficiently, and with more impact?); into the dirty business of academic research (how much of research is driven by the availability of funding, rather than by any kind of ‘need’?); and into the messiness of politics and policy making (how much of ‘being led by evidence’ is really just the co-opting of convenient information in order to justify a fait accompli?). So far so uncontroversial: there are books aplenty on this, and it’s a hot topic in, for example, the journal Evidence and Policy.

The second pivots away from this and looks at the role of stories and story-telling in shaping policy. I’m taking a very broad view of this, and in practice I mean everything to do with the language used to describe (and create?) a policy problem. Again, this is fairly mainstream: think Deborah Stone or Carol Bacchi, or, for that matter, the narrative policy framework and discursive institutionalist crowds.

The third is where I started to venture into what was, for me, newer territory (or at least, in the classroom – I’ve written here about my earlier dabbling in sports coaching). The module operates through a mode of experiential learning: in the classes the students combine the readings with the insights from the practitioner talk to set about doing something, like writing a speech, or a press release. In the opening week we made a big deal of how different this is compared to other seminars the students have, and we spent the first round of classes establishing a whole new set of norms and ways-of-working which would be more appropriate for this format of learning. The students came up with some really cracking suggestions, like abandoning laptops and using flipcharts / post-its to collate ideas, or bringing coffees to class to simulate a ‘crisis meeting’.

The fourth is where, I’ll happily admit, I feel I’m on shaky ground. The initial inspiration for this block came from a conversation with Simon Usherwood in Bratislava last year (around the margins of a ECPR T&L conference), where he explained how, in his university, they had a view of a politics degree doing three things: teaching students about politics, teaching students how to research about politics, and teaching students to do politics. I worked the third one up into a not-very-well-articulated idea around helping students develop a set of skills to enable them to become active citizens in the world beyond university. ‘Doing politics’, then, is more than voting every now and again, but it’s about being critically-engaged, politically-savvy citizens capable of parsing through the various bits of policy communications that come their way in the public domain (speeches they see, op-eds they read, the think-tank summaries that either of these draw on, and so on) and understand how evidence and narrative devices were consciously used by the original authors in order to achieve some political end. 

Bringing it all together in the assessment

To bring this all together, the assessment has the students do a piece of creative writing and an accompanying essay. The students imagine their future selves being disgruntled about some aspect of public policy in their local area or in the country, or working in some part of the policy system, and then set about writing something which will (hopefully!) bring about some change. They have pretty wide-ranging creative freedom in this regard: they could write a campaign speech for a local MP, or an op-ed intended to swing public opinion, or a Tweet thread (or whatever it is that we call them nowadays), or a podcast script, or a memo for a minister, or the executive summary of a think tank report. In the essay component they explain their choices of medium, audience, content, style, tone, evidence, framing, and so on, linking back to the underlying literatures on political communication.

Now, back to the part I’m unsure of. I think the reason I’m unsure of it is that I’ve picked up the message from somewhere that we shouldn’t talk about our educational mission in any terms that might approximate this ‘citizenship training.’ We certainly talk about ‘critical thinking’, and the importance of teaching students to question – but this is generally framed in academic, scholarly language: students should think critically because that’s what good academics do, rather than because that would help become ‘better citizens’ in the future. To shore this building block up, I drew on some Deweyian thinking (sp?) about the role of education in supporting a healthy and vibrant democracy, but I’m curious to hear what other readers of this site think about the ‘citizenship training’ aspect of a politics degree – and, for that matter, about the broader educational mission of a politics department beyond just ‘teaching students about politics.’

Let there be music!

The sight of a piece whose authors include an erstwhile ALPS colleague on the use of music in teaching politics neatly coincides with the past week’s European extravaganza of music/politics: Eurovision.

I’ll assume that a good number of you know about this, but for the culturally-void here’s a quick run-down.

Each member of the European Broadcast Union gets to submit a song for a competition, where everyone gets to vote, but not for their country. Someone wins.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that.

‘Each member’ obviously doesn’t mean each member does submit, or is allowed to submit. And Australia (very much neither an EBU member nor in (or near) Europe) get to submit for, well, reasons.

And the whole voting thing is quite involved. and occasionally corrupt. Pardon, ‘irregular‘.

Throw in a revolution-triggering song, landmarks on clipboards and opening of borders and you see why it’s catnip to the passing academic.

A quick squizz on Google Scholar throws up thousands of results, from imagery to regional voting blocks, LGBT+ identities to governance. This year you’ve also had a Zelensky dimension too.

Someone’s even made a lovely dataset of voting for you to play with. To help with things like analysis of the popular v. jury voting.

Throw in the wildly varying conceptions of what might constitute a popular song and if you struggle to make a class out of some aspect of this, then you are really not trying.

And since you didn’t ask, here’s my personal favourite of recent years:

Do we want universities?

Source: IfS (https://ifs.org.uk/publications/15953)

Amidst rather a lot of other things, the British government put out its plans for higher education reforms last week. Understandably, these haven’t had as much attention as would otherwise be the case. Fortunately, I’m both not an IR scholar and not tied up in work meetings, since there’s a strike going on, so I’ve got a bit of time to tell you about it all.

The plans are a much-belated response to a 2019 review of funding arrangements, which were in turn a result of a dodged shift towards a graduate tax about a decade ago. That system has cost more than planned, just as the current government (which was also the same government that dodged it all up in the first place) has come down firmly on the side of ‘driving up standards’ as its mantra for universities.

A priori, there’s nothing wrong with wanting better universities: the issue is that the way the government is going about it doesn’t really seem to stack up.

The model (as far as I can tell) is essentially one of stopping universities taking in students who won’t benefit, then using piles of metrics to identify courses/institutions that don’t do a good job with the students they have, then trying to pull back more of the funding cost from graduates.

All three steps suffer some basic problems.

Continue reading “Do we want universities?”

Adventures in half-baked thinking

Another year, another push by the UK’s Office of Students to “promote the very best in teaching”. Regular readers will know that I have struggled with the OfS’ approach to learning and teaching for some time now, mainly because its goals are partial and its operationalisation is deeply dubious.

Essentially, the proposals want to impose minimum levels of progression and completion of degrees, as well as targets for graduate employment post-study, because as you’ll know the sole factor in determining whether you get a well-paid job is the quality of the teaching you received. And there’ll be fines for not meeting these thresholds, to really make sure us lecturers get the point.

But let’s spread the love around a bit more and drag in the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan:

“When consumers buy a product in a shop, they expect two things when it comes to quality: firstly, that the product has satisfied minimum standards and secondly, that the product has proper labelling to inform them of the quality of what goes into it. So working with the universities regulator, the OfS, my new quality assurance plan follows similar principles.”

(Source)

Since others have pulled apart the OfS’s plans with more incision than I could, I’ll just focus for now on Donelan’s comments.

Hopefully the category error between buying something in a shop and paying for your university degree should be clear, but just in case let’s run through it once more.

If I buy a book from my local bookstore, then indeed I expect that book to not fall apart when I pick it up and that it’s not made through exploitative practices. However, I don’t – can’t – expect that just because I bought that book that I will enjoy it, understand it or even that I’ll read it. The bookstore don’t let me stand there and read the whole thing, so I have to buy it on the basis of the cover blurb and/or anything I’ve heard about it. In short, buying something that’s safe and made with care doesn’t mean it gives me what I need.

With a degree, you buy access to an opportunity, rather than a completed product. I assume the minister would be horrified if a university just cut out the middleman and sold qualifications without any need for study. The point of studying is precisely that it’s about the student and their learning.

For most, that study works. They learn and it helps them to move onto the next stage of their life. But that next stage doesn’t have to be work (or more precisely, earning the big bucks): it might be that through the development of their critical reflection skills an individual decides they want to volunteer themselves in helping others, or to step out of the whole capitalism thing, or travel, or whatever. Under these proposals, all of these thoughtful choices would count against that person’s university.

Likewise, anyone who found that their personal situation was no longer compatible with studying at some point during their degree and so dropped out would be framed as a signal of their university not delivering good teaching. And as for those who struggle to hit passing grades, well again I’m guessing that the minister would hate for there to be any pressure on staff to go easy on such cases and let them get through on a nod and a wink.

Ultimately, this all speaks to the basic unwillingness of the government to accept the logic of marketisation that its predecessors introduced. The invisible hand was supposed to winnow out the weak and reward the strong, to the collective gain of all involved. But instead we have even growing intervention with metrics and thresholds and targets, all based on highly questionable data, that shift and change all the time. Certainly faster than any changes a university might make can show up in any clear way.

This isn’t a problem specific to English universities, or to the UK, but it requires a firm response if the confused logics and highly perverse incentives are not to become even more deeply embedded in the sector.

Learning is a social good: beneficial to the learner and beneficial to the learner’s society, in all its aspects. A system that commodifies and instrumentalises learning purely as a means of generating wealth not only loses that broader richness, but also undermines the very things it claims to value. The value of a degree is not in the piece of paper you get at the end, but in the process of getting (or even not getting) to it.

I’d write a book about it, but my readers might not understand it. At least they’d not ask for a refund.

Virtual Public Policy Simulation on Tackling Covid-19

Today we have a guest post from Daniela Irrera, associate professor of International Relations and Global Civil Society at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania. She can be reached at dirrera [at] unict [dot] it.

During Italy’s pandemic-induced lockdown, I found myself having to teach an entirely virtual course on European foreign policy, part of the MA programme on Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (GLOPEM)  at the University of Catania. I usually include simulations in my courses, and given the policy implications of the Covid-19 outbreak, I decided to create Tackling Covid-19 in a Global Perspective—a simulated emergency G20 meeting in Geneva, called to plan a global strategy for managing the pandemic’s health, political, social, and economic effects. Students represented panels of experts for the following policy areas: public health emergency; economic consequences; infrastructure and human mobility; impact on refugees, migrants and non-nationals; and impact on the conflict in Syria.

Continue reading “Virtual Public Policy Simulation on Tackling Covid-19”

Interviewing the EU in Brussels

Today we have a guest post by Jamal Shahin and Claske Vos, faculty in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Jamal also works at the Institute for University Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. They can be reached at shahin[at]uva[dot]nl and C[dot]Vos[at]uva[dot]nl.

Students in our one-year M.A. programme at the University of Amerstam needed to simultaneously gain knowledge of the EU and develop research skills, all in a four-week ‘skills seminar’ that runs every January. We decided to address this challenge by having students research policy by gathering data
 first-hand from EU policymakers.

We start by inviting the students to consider their ‘burning question’—what they really want to explore—in their MA theses. In the seminar’s second week, they identify methods and theoretical approaches, with a specific focus on the relationship between policy fields and research methods. Students draft deliverables, which are then peer reviewed at this stage. In the fourth week, students learn more about the practice of European policymaking by interacting with EU officials and other ‘experts’ in Brussels. To prepare for this stage, students must first:

  • Arrange the interviews.
  • Create an interview protocol—semi-structured interview guide.
  • Present a literature and policy review in written form.

These tasks are intended to give students a clearer view of the topics they wish to raise with their interviewees. At the end of the entire process, the students are expected to write up a thesis proposal to submit to their thesis supervisor.

From first contact to first meeting

Many students are daunted by the prospect of interviewing experts in fields that they feel that they are only just starting to understand. It therefore takes some effort to assure them that their requests for information will not go unheard. We help the students write the initial emails that request an interview, and provide them with a rough template that describes the etiquette to use when presenting oneself to the potential informant. Our multidisciplinary faculty, which includes anthropologists, historians, political economists, and political scientists, can help the students express themselves to their interviewees. We hold a half-day workshop with the students, in which a range of lecturers from different departments present their own interview experiences.

Bursting the ‘Brussels bubble’

‘Brussels’ is seen by many as a distant place, remote from the realities of daily life, even for students of European policymaking. This course helps students break through this perceived bubble by allowing them to engage directly with the policymakers themselves, rather than studying the policy process only through literature. It also occurs after an intensive eight-week course on European integration theories, and thus helps bring this knowledge ‘to life’—something that for students is frequently an unexpected benefit.

Open Source Public Policy Research Reports

Courtesy of the Human Security Studies Group at the Naval War College, I recently learned about EveryCRSReport.com, a non-profit project that has the goal of making every report written by the U.S. Congressional Research Service freely available online. This is unclassified, taxpayer-funded research on a huge variety of topics, produced for the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The Congressional Research Service itself refuses to supply these reports directly to the public, so a third party has taken up the task.

If you’re teaching an undergraduate course on U.S. domestic or foreign policy, or on the U.S. Congress, the website could be a useful resource for students.

This article on Medium explains more about the mission and history of EveryCRSReport.com.

Fixing Health Care? A Simulation in American Government

Today we have a guest post from Josiah Marineau, an assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University. He can be contacted at josiah [dot] marineau [at] gmail [dot] com.

For my Introduction to American Government course, I designed a simulation of the legislative process in which students are tasked with debating different policy options for the U.S. healthcare system. The simulation is intended to  familiarize students to a key policy debate in contemporary U.S. politics.

The simulation will last two weeks. The first week will be preparation:  explaining the politics of the U.S. health care system, the main options for policymakers, and how the simulation  will work. Students will be introduced to the rules used in Model United Nations to govern debate and voting on bills. Students will use materials I provide to write policy position papers that advocate for a given policy solution to the challenges facing the U.S. health care system.

The simulation itself will run in the second week, over two class periods. Students will use their policy papers as the basis for debate and will give speeches in class in favor of or in opposition to proposed legislation. I expect them to form coalitions with other, like-minded students, and draft a bill that is amenable to a majority of the class.

As part of the debriefing, students will write a two-page memo reflecting on what they learned, what surprised them, what worked and what did not, and why. This memo will be due in the week after the simulation concludes.

I will grade the simulation as follows:

  • Quality of the policy position papers — 40%
  • Level of engagement in the simulation — 30%
  • Two-page reflection memo — 30%.

I will share the results of the simulation in a future post.

The Social Security Game

Today we have a guest post from Tyler Chance, a doctoral student and instructor at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He can be reached at  trc6df [at] mail [dot] umsl [dot] edu.

social-security-cardsSocial Security and its financial problems is one important policy issue that is probably not on the minds of most U.S. college students. The Social Security Game (http://socialsecuritygame.actuary.org/#make-your-choice-now ), created by the American Academy of Actuaries, is a fun activity that I use to teach my students about policy choices. The game’s goal is simple: fix Social Security so that Americans can receive retiree benefits after the year 2034. You can choose to reduce benefits, increase revenues, or apply a combination of both.  The game provides quick videos that explain the different viewpoints behind each policy alternative. After each decision you make the game uses estimates from the Social Security Office of the Chief Actuary to calculate how close you are to fixing the problem.

I like to use the game in my Introduction to American Government course, as well as in my Congressional Politics course, but it has wider applications. When I teach Introduction to American Government, the game demonstrates why paying attention to this policy issue is important and how it can be messy and hard to fix. I first have the class vote on whether we should reduce benefits or increase revenues. From there we vote on subcategories; for instance, if we voted to reduce benefits, we would then need to choose from a range of options provided by the game, such as increasing the full retirement age, reducing Cost-of-Living-Adjustments, and lowering benefits for future high-income retirees. A class in which students have diverse political ideologies quickly illustrates just how complicated the Social Security reform can become.

When I teach Congressional Politics, the game functions as a mock legislature. In this project, I play the role of a newly-elected president acting on a mandate to reform Social Security. I assign each student a specific legislator and have them research their stance on the issue and the demographics of their constituency (or you can provide students with that information on index cards).  I then encourage the students to work through the game with their constituencies in my mind.  So far, solving the problem of Social Security has been close to impossible for my classes, which allows me to show institutionalized gridlock and constituent-based constraints in practice.

The game can also be effective as an individual homework assignment. Have the students play the game and share experiences. Were they able to solve the problem? What route did they take—benefit reductions, increased revenues, or a mix of the two? Why did they choose a particular strategy?

Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia: http://veconlab.econ.virginia.edu/admin.htm.