Learning about the EU through cultural products

I’m back in Antwerp for my regular visit to discuss L&T (and to get pushed on my thinking in this field).

Brussels: famous for its explosions…

One of the discussions yesterday was about trying to teach European integration through cultural products.

We see it often for IR, where there are a bunch of films and TV shows to be used to illustrate theory and other aspects of (not) bashing each other about.

But it’s not so easy for European studies, because there’s much less available.

A quick tour of the table (and some thought after) produced the following:

Robert Menasse’s The Capital, a novel set in Brussels and based on extensive embedding among the civil servants.

Yes Minister’s episode about the Eurosausage, dated (shown in 1984), but funny and shorter than a film.

The John Hurt movie The Commissioner (1998), which you’ve not heard of, because it’s rubbish and not really about the EU.

Series 4 of the The New Statesman (1992), where Alan B’stard becomes an MEP after pushing his German challenger down a mineshaft. Silly.

The episode of Danish series Borgen on selecting a new Commissioner, which is interesting for the interface of European and national politics.

There’s the recent Uncivil War, a dramatisation about the UK’s 2016 referendum, but it’s not really about the EU at all.

And that was about it: the recent (and excellent) BBC series 10 Years of Turmoil isn’t fiction, and isn’t available outside the UK.

In short, a dearth of materials, which partly reflects the position of the EU in popular life (i.e. it doesn’t really have one).

Any more suggestions? Post them below and if we get enough we can talk about making a module for delivering them somewhere.

UPDATE 12/2/19:

It seems there are some problems with posting comments, apologies, so I’m adding in some more suggestions here. Email me s.usherwoodATsurrey.ac.uk if you want to join the carnival of fun!

From Patrick Bijsmans:

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/16/middle-england-by-jonathan-coe-review). Reading it now.

Did David Hasselhoff end the Cold War?, by Emma Hartley (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/19/david-hasselhoff-berlin-wall-fall). Read this some years ago and it’s really funny, but with a serious twist.

Pinning you down

There’s not much that separates PoliSci academics from others in most aspects of pedagogy, but one that is quite notable is the question of “what’s your politics?”

The reasons for this should be pretty clear, so I’ll not get into that, but instead will offer some thoughts, because we get this kind of thing on our side of the Atlantic too.

As the various respondents to Carolyn’s tweet suggest, the very question speaks to a set of assumptions, which can be usefully exposed and explored.

However, that can be a deflection, rather than an answer, so it still behoves us to consider what answers we can give.

It’s something I’ve had to chew on a lot in recent years, given my work on Brexit: “how did you vote?” is now getting overtaken by “what do you think we should do?”

The fact that I genuinely don’t know what we should do is neither here nor there, because the rest of what I’m offering people is what I claim to be impartial and fair insight into assorted issues, so if I’m seen as speaking for any one party then my whole work is compromised.

This is, of course, the problem we all face: politics gets seen as a clash of interests with no objective truth to be defended, thus meaning we must all be on one side or another.

Without wishing to get lost down an ontological or epistemological hole on this one, I think it’s possible to mark out a more segmented view of politics: we have our own views, but the consequence of those is limited, especially if we are reflective about these.

Thus I can acknowledge how I voted in the referendum, while also stressing that my interest now is in helping others to reach an informed and considered set of decisions about what comes next. It helps that this is my heartfelt belief – process matters much more than outcome to me right now.

But we can also communicate such messages in different ways in our classroom.

Promoting and defending a range of perspectives on contentious issues; fostering a space in which different views can be discussed with respect and tolerance; acknowledging the limits of what evidence (and anecdote, for that matter) can tell us.

These elements often prove to be much more meaningful in conveying the values of academic inquiry and debate and the interplay between facts and opinions than any “what’s your politics?” discussion.

Still doesn’t make it that much easier when you get asked, though.

From formative feedback to assessment outcomes

For reasons best known to others, it’s the end of our first semester here, so that means coursework grades are going back to students.

I was even more interested than usual in this event this time around because something unusual happened with my class: they came to talk with me about their assessment.

I know that might seem mundane, but despite my best efforts my office hours have often resembled one of the remoter oases in a desert: potentially of use, but rarely visited by anyone.

I’d love to tell you what was different this semester, but I genuinely have no idea: I did the things I usually did, so maybe it was a cohort effect. Or not.

In any case, I reckon I sat down for discussions with most of the students and emailed with several others. In those exchanges we typically covered both generic guidance on what was required and specific discussion on students’ plans.

Of course, the big question is whether that helped the students to do better.

At this point, I’ll note that my class had about 35 students and it’s a one-off event so far, so I’m alive to not over-reading the outcomes. Against that, the marking has been confirmed by the second marker.

That said, the main positive outcome was that the bottom half of the class moved up quite markedly. In previous years, I’ve always had a cluster of students who simply didn’t ‘get’ the assessment – a reflective essay – and thus came out with poor marks. This time, I had only a couple of students in that situation, and they appeared (from my records) to have not attended most of the classes, and hadn’t come to talk.

Put differently, the tail was severely trimmed and the large bulk of students secured a decent grade.

What didn’t appear to happen was an overall shift upwards though: the top end remaining where it had been previously.

Again, I’m not sure why this might be. Without another cohort I’m not even sure if my guidance actually did anything for anything.

Quite aside from the specific instance, it does underline for me how little me know about the ways in which our teaching practice does and doesn’t impact on student learning.

In this case, I don’t really know how one could ethically test the impact of formative feedback and support, given the multiple variables at play. If you have an idea, I’d love to hear it.

The links between teaching and impact

Yesterday I found myself on the campus of another university, attending an advisory board of a research project.

One of the key topics was about impact – taking the work into the community of users.

As we talked about this, I was struck by the way in which there are a lot of parallels between this and teaching.

Most importantly, both impact and teaching need to be focused on the needs of your audience from the outset: it cannot simply be a function of what you want to do.

That means understanding your audiences, reflecting on their needs and tailoring what you have to offer. It’s easy to do the most convenient thing, but that might not be the most useful thing you can do.

Secondly, there has to be a recognition that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat and that your choice of activity is not pre-determined.

This implies a willingness to explore options and to try out new things that might work better. In the case of this project, we talked a lot about blogging and the options it might open, both in of itself and as a gateway to other activity, but the principle is the same for any other form of working.

Finally, there needs to be a tolerance of failure. Just as not every single student responds positively to our teaching, so not every person targeted for impact work demonstrates interest.

Failing in these cases obviously requires adjustment and different approaches, but it is not intrinsically a problem: there are always limits to what we can achieve in working with others. What matters is our response and adaptation.

Seen together, both teaching and impact work should remind us that we operate in collective environments: we alone cannot – and should not – take everything on our own shoulders, but rather rather need to work with others to find common cause.

Teaching and the day job

Today’s one of the biggest in British politics and UK-EU relations for a long time (and given recent history, that’s a pretty high bar), and I’ve got lots to be doing on that.

But I’m writing this blog.

At the end of the week, I’m putting in my paperwork for promotion, where I know that I’m going to be judged primarily on my ‘proper research’ outputs.

But I’ve spent a week putting together L&T panels for conferences.

I’ve got a draft paper on Brexit that needs me to sit down and do some more work on it, to get it closer to submission.

But I also need to do some reading for the supervision of my doctoral student, working on pedagogy.

Why?

Victor put it nicely here: L&T scholarship matters, whether or not others realise it.

On my (purely anecdotal) evidence, I have given a lot more people direct help and advice on L&T than on anything else I’ve done, and through the wonder of teaching, that has shaped a stack of lives.

So even when there’s a lot of other stuff to be getting on with, don’t not get on with this too.

New year, new me. Not

You’ll be happy to know that I have no recommendations to offer this new year, except to say that January is an absolutely awful time to start changing your life.

That’s true for most people, but it’s very much so for academics.

Our year doesn’t run from January, and the past few weeks have been a brief pause in the gallop from semester to semester.

I have my ‘to-do’ list sat in front of my monitors in the office and it’s not a pretty sight. Plus, I notice, it doesn’t even include all the stuff I need to do.

Plus, everyone else is back at work now, so that email inbox is filling up nicely.

So what can we do?

This shouldn’t be cause for getting down though.

In these days, before it really gets going again, there’s still some space to take stock and to look ahead across the coming months.

It’s like standing on a little hillock, looking across the plain and trying not to get too concerned about the marshalling armies preparing for battle on the land you are about to tread.

Key point to remember here is that you’ve made it through the first semester and through the start of the academic year.

Semester two is more of the same, not whole-new-ballgame territory. Plus you probably also get it broken up by Easter. Plus the days are getting longer again.

So keep your chin up and think about what’s been good so far and about how you’ve avoid/manage the bad stuff.

And for that alone, it’s a happy new year.

Dib, dib, dib

I promise to not panic

I’m on a train, heading into London, where I’ve got a meeting.

I’m not planning to do any teaching today, nor even to give a presentation or a briefing.

And yet, on a quick check through my bag, I’ve got the following on me:

  • My laptop, including the power cord and the adaptor for connecting to output devices;
  • My voice recorder, should I want to record a podcast;
  • My workbook, where I keep notes on what I’m doing;
  • Post-it notes; and,
  • Board marker pens

In short, I’m ready and poised to do a whole bunch of teaching-type activity.

Partly, this is because I hate re-packing my bag each time I leave the house, but much more it’s because I’ve found myself in situations too often when I don’t have the things I would like to have on me.

I do wonder if this is because I’ve had my professional development during a period of rapid technological change, when resilience really mattered.

When I started out, it was all acetates and overhead projectors, unless they were broken, in which case it was the blackboard.

And then data projectors arrived, if you could get the computer booked out and then get it to connect to the projector.

I spent several years working with a dual system: a computer with powerpoints and a bag full of acetate (plus some chalk, just in case, because, well, I’m me).

(and yes, I do still have those acetates filed away, somewhere in my office)

Nowadays, even though I’ve not had a tech problem for several years, I still try to be prepared should one occur. In fact, the last time it did happen, I was giving a keynote at a conference, and I just had to wing my talk without my slides for the first half: unpleasant, but not fatal.

The message here is that your teaching can be delivered in more than one way, but to make that possible, you need to be ready and able to use those different ways when needed.

If you don’t want to learn by bitter practical experience (ahem), then I offer this technique: sit down and consider what you do and what could go wrong. That might include technology problems, or problems with the room you’re in, or too many/few people turning up, or not having the time you thought you did, or any of that.

Now think about what you can do about it.

In pretty much every case, there’s plenty you can do, adaptations you can make. I’ve not yet had a class that had one of these problems that I could get something useful out of, from the time only one person turned up to the time when none of the lights worked. Or the time my train got really delayed (like now).

And before you worry too much, just remember that most of the time things work just fine.

And that’ll be in part because you’re ready for anything.

Is this the real life?

Is this just fantasy?

As my day-job stumbles from one bizarre episode to the next, it’s been great to have the relative stability of my teaching.

Yesterday was our last class of the semester, so we spent a bunch of time on wrapping things up.

In so doing, it occurred to me that I’ve not been particularly systematic about this, so I tried this time to make sure I went around the houses.

First element was to try and draw out the overarching learning outcomes from the module: the stuff that’s been there most of the time, but which hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront of any one session.

When we focus on individual sessions, it’s easy to also focus our attention on the specific outcomes, without making the connections up to the higher-level points.

That fed into the two major part, namely the assessment.

In my case, students have a single piece of work to do for assessment, which requires them to integrate their reflection and learning from the whole module, so talking about those kind of things is doubly-useful.

In both cases, I tried to start from students’ questions and concerns: I’ve been touching on key points throughout the module, but I know from long experience that often that’s not enough. Just because you think you’re clear, doesn’t mean you are.

That’s particularly relevant here, as the assessment is a personal reflection, so I want to emphasise that only each student can determine what is central in that, since they known themselves better than I can.

Finally, I encourage students to give feedback.

No session is perfect – or even close – but the more feedback you can get from students, the better. That can be through the formal channels your institution uses, or more informally in class.

I didn’t use it this time, but the ABC system can also work well for generating ideas.

They don’t know it yet, but as I bump into students in the coming period of time, I’ll be asking for their views on how it all went.

Which just leaves the last task: putting my paperwork in order now, so that I have less to scrabble through next autumn. Much as there’s a temptation to just park your stuff on a shelf somewhere and forget it, it’s hugely more efficient and effective to sort it all out now, while it’s still fresh in your mind.

In short, practise what you preach to your students.

Path dependency in class

A few years ago, I had a student who kept walking out of class.

He did this because he’d decided that, in several of the various negotiation scenarios into which I had placed him, his optimal strategy was to literally walk away from the table.

During the semester, he did this about four times, usually to snippy comments from his classmates.

We talked about it a fair bit, as a group, because I felt it was really useful to unpack the merits and demerits of this approach, which I’d not seen before (or since, for that matter).

I was remembering this case the other day, as my current group of negotiation students once again decided to hold a closed door meeting of principals, kicking out most of the class to the corridor outside.

As one student noted in the debrief: “why does this keep happening? Every time it does, it just really alienates people and makes it harder to reach an agreement”.

And that’s my question here: how and why do cohorts get stuck in patterns of behaviour?

Continue reading

Getting into blogging

The magic of blogging

Hilariously, on a day when I find myself suddenly confronting my self-imposing deadline for posting here, I find that both time and inspiration are in short supply.

Fortunately, this weekend saw a meeting of the UACES graduate forum, talking about how to get into, and make use of, social media.

Rather than re-hash the various content, I’ll direct you to the #UACESdta hashtag for inputs from various people who know (and me) on things to think about and deal with.

Reassuringly, the main message was a positive one, stressing the value of connecting to new and diverse audiences, generating ideas and debate, and the personal value of writing more regularly.

At the same time, the costs of ‘doing’ social media have to be recognised: I’ve certainly encountered some of those, but I’m going to be seeing if I can get some guest posts together on this.

And as I sign off, from the floor of the train carriage heading into an event, I’ll note that opportunity costs cut both ways.