Critical thinking and the Ukraine invasion

I’m not an IR person, and I know it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the people I follow on social media do think they are now specialists in warfare, diplomacy or the operations of civil nuclear facilities. These people were also once ‘experts’ in epidemiology, Brexit, macroeconomics, US presidential politics, populism, immigration and many other things besides.

I have my doubts.

This is probably also a problem you face as you try to make sense of the world around us: yes, you know some people who do actually really know stuff, but they get buried in a big pile of hot takes, motivated reasoning and even propaganda.

So what to do?

I’m guessing that Ukraine is an easier case for the readership of ALPS blog to handle, since it’s closer to many of our research interests: even if we don’t work on relevant topics ourselves, then we know the people who do and tap into their expertise.

Of course, as the whole Mearsheimer thing has shown in the past week, even very competent people come up with dubious positions, although you at least get lots of material for your next IR theory class.

(For my part, I’ve limited myself to working up the one element I do feel competent to speak on).

However, for your students this might still be at the edge of their knowledge, abilities and confidence, so how can we help them parse the situation?

For me, task number one has be a strong refresher on how to evaluate information (and it’ll be a refresher, because of course you teach this as a matter of course, right?).

That means making sure they understand the importance of verification, of triangulation, of expertise and of all the other things that we have probably internalised over the years. If we running a class that needed to engage with this I’d be asking students to locate good guides to how to do this, then pulling them together into a master document that they can all use for their subsequent research.

For as fluid as case as an active conflict, information is incomplete and often contradictory, so giving students the tools to determine what they know and what it means is essential. The growing OSINT community is a really good starting point for looking at the operational end of things, while the more strategic reasoning requires engagement with those working in a number of different domains, including Russian politics, military doctrine and sanctions.

As we’ve seen in recent years with whatever crisis you care to imagine, there is a huge potential to access properly informed and well-evidenced specialists on any given topic. But that means cutting through the guff and being able to contextualise what we read.

And that’s a great life-skill to be developing in our students, regardless.

Do we want universities?

Source: IfS (

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?”

The moral hazard of taking everyone with you

Class yesterday (credit: Urban List)

A common dilemma that I encounter when talking with colleagues about teaching is what to do if students don’t pull their weight.

That might include not doing the reading, not participating, not engaging with opportunities you put out there and all the other ways that students can simply not fit your plans.

As we know all too well from the past couple of years, there are often some very valid reasons about why this is, that have nothing to do with your class, but the effect is the same: they aren’t doing what you think is necessary to succeed and, quite possibly, they are compromising the learning opportunities for their fellow students.

One frequent reaction is to say “well, there are reasons, and we’ve got to be understanding, so I’ve got fallbacks in place.” That might mean access to annotated PowerPoints, or remedial 1-2-1s or whatever.

The difficulty with this is that is creates a strong potential moral hazard: if students know you’ve got their back when they can’t/don’t do the work you ideally intend, then why bother doing that work?

A classic small example of this is asking a class for answers to a question you pose, you getting nothing back, and then telling them the answers you’d like.

Of course, the flipside of this is to say “it’s their call and if they decide not to work for it, then I will just fail them.” No moral hazard, but also no accounting for circumstances that might not be the student’s fault. You might have had a teacher like this in your past, and you probably thought this wasn’t a great approach even then.

So what to do?

Firstly, you need to separate out the general from the specific. If a student has a problematic situation, then you need to have efficient and effective institutional mitigation and tutoring systems: this goes beyond what any one class leader can or should handle. Your institution has specialist support services for precisely this kind of thing, so use them.

But that doesn’t deal with the specific situation of your class, with students who might have other circumstances and students who might not; again, the effect is much the same.

How is where it’s important to think about how you design your class.

At every step, consider what you need students to do and how you can design it so that individual points of failure to do that don’t compromise outcomes any more than they have to.

A couple of examples might help here.

When you flip your class, don’t simply treat it as a case of moving all the knowledge-transmission into a video that can then run directly into an in-person seminar. A student who didn’t, or couldn’t, watch the video will find it very difficult to engage with the discussion, and so lose out on not one, but two sessions.

Instead, see the in-person element as sitting across the flipped content: it recasts ideas and content and opens up different perspectives. If you create your in-person session with lower entry costs and showcase some key ideas, then you not only make it easier for the student to pick up something from that session but you also – because you’re flagging it all the time – give them a good reason to watch the video, to enrich what they have just done.

For that reason, I often run no-prep activities in class. For negotiations, that means a pick-up-and-play scenario, rather than one with lots of pre-reading. For other classes, it might be a small group exercise to identify an example on the relevant topic and then pull together materials from research to present to class. The latter example does various things: it lets students learn from each other and validate the value of their contribution; it promotes cooperation; it means web-enabled devices get used for the class, not chat; it allows me to give instant feedback on data collection, analysis and presentation; and it gives everyone a useful resource for assessment (I take a record of the outputs and share them).

Moreover, these kinds of techniques can help to avoid the “there’s no point now” feeling that students who have missed some of your class often get. The class shouldn’t be a expressway where if you pause for even a bit you get left behind; instead it should be more like one of those giant inflatable play spaces that kids have at their parties, with lots of ways to get back on if you bounce off*.

The choice here isn’t between spoon-feeding or utter indifference, but rather about creating multiple opportunities for students to join in the process of learning, whatever their situation. And yes, that means acknowledging that more engagement is likely to drive more reflection and deeper knowledge that in turn leads to better grades, but it’s not an on-off choice.

* You’ll be relieved to hear I’ve never organised one of these for my kids. Or anyone else’s.

[Turns on Twitter] Seriously…?: Dealing with high-tempo topics

You what?

Next week I’m giving a community class about the situation in Ukraine. Aside from my “that’s not my specialism” queries, my main issue is the obvious one of “what’s the situation in Ukraine going to be next week?”

Of course, as a specialist on EU-UK relations, I have plenty of techniques to hand to deal with subject matter that flies along, faster than any journal article publication timeline. So let’s lay them out, for your benefit and mine.

First up: don’t teach just about today’s events, or even particular much about them.

Any political events happen within a set of contexts and those don’t move so fast. Yes, the flashing headline in your feed is exciting and NOW, but it’s part of a bigger picture. And that bigger picture is going to be more valuable to your students than your hot take, precisely because it’s more durable and gives them the skills to understand what happens the day (or week, or year) after your lesson.

So keeping the contexts and underlying dynamics clear is route one for handling these topics. For Brexit, that meant unpacking British European policy in the post-war, the changing nature of the EU’s operation and the legal and economic logics that might bound action. For Ukraine, I’m reading up on Russian foreign policy, European security architectures and a bit of contemporary military doctrine.

Communicating a framework for understanding is going to be much more useful to students than a narrow explanation of why this event happened right now.

Second: check your feed, but not too much.

While the here and now shouldn’t be the primary focus, you still want (and need) to be able to talk about it: if nothing else, students often want your take on it all and that can be a good way to pull them into the framework of analysis you’re offering.

That means you do need to be abreast of what’s going on, so make sure you have a sense of it all.

In the case of Brexit, I had several classes where important things happened literally as I spoke: then we used that to try and test our framework, as a kind of proof of concept. For Ukraine, the pace is less hectic, but I will need to have answers should someone decide that a Thursday lunchtime is a good moment to launch a cyberattack or a ground invasion.

Finally: don’t panic.

This is always good advice, for all teaching.

Don’t panic, because you’ve done your prep [right?] and you have a analytical framework to soak up surprises.

Don’t panic, because surprises will be as surprising for your students as they are for you, so any response you can articulate is going to be impressive.

And don’t panic, because everyone should understand that things move on. Worst case, you don’t have an answer, and that’s fine: you’re a teacher, not a talk radio pundit. Explain what you can and can’t say, on the basis of the evidence there is and point to what you’d need to know to be able to make a further determination. It’s basically the framework point, narrowed down to the specific thing.

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.”


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.

Who cares about your teaching?

Also, cats

Last week I got to be part of a training event run by E-NOTE, a EU-funded project to understand and develop teaching excellence. I should also say I’m on their advisory board, but don’t hold that against them.

My session dealt with the question of the difficulties of moving from any theoretical consideration of what makes teaching ‘excellent’ (and yes, that’s a whole big discussion by itself) to a practical operationalisation.

For me, that means working with the constraints you face. That runs from the physical space you have access to, to institutional requirements on accessibility and assessment, to the nature and number of your students, not to mention all the other stuff you yourself have going on. Some of these you can’t really change, while others you can subvert or even push back on, but in all cases they shape what and how you teach.

One of the themes that emerged from the discussion – for me, at least – was the implicit need for someone to be bothered about working towards excellent pedagogy.

Given all the hassles that we face in putting together classes, navigating institutional policies and regulations and committees, trying to make running adjustments to better fit students’ needs, the question does arise of what’s the point? Especially if you just end up with mediocre evaluations at the end and some kind of ‘developmental’ meeting with a line manager to ‘get better’.

And I say this as someone who’s had all of that, right up to now. If fancy stuff doesn’t really seem to be valued, why don’t we just stick to the old fashioned way of doing class and read them a lecture?

At one level is this an easy question, because the kind of people who read this blog care intrinsically about teaching: we do it because we think it’s valuable and important and worth working on, well before anyone else – our employer, for example – suggests it’s also part of your contractual duties to ‘teach good’.

But that self-motivation can be hard to sustain, especially when the demands seem to grow all the time.

And if you’re finding it hard to keep on plugging away, then you might feel no one else is going to help with this either.

However, it is precisely through sharing with colleagues that there is a way forward. Your institution might not really understand what you’re trying to do, or the pressures you face (although they should), but those you work with (inside and outside your uni) will have a pretty good idea.

And because everywhere’s a bit different, everyone’s got a different set of challenges, or a different set of responses to draw on. And that can be a real help to you, to share, to empathise, to get fresh takes, and to give them too.

So reaching out is worth it. Together we can share the load and help us all get to where we want our teaching to be, for our students and for us.

And yes, you can take that as an invitation to drop me a line.

Don’t Look Up as possible teaching material

Spoiler alert: Not really, especially as there’s only a couple of ways things could go in a film like this. But if you’re feeling sensitive, then watch it first.

I’ll admit to having been a bit confused about this film, since my timeline had some very divisive opinions about it, when the film itself is about the perils of divisive opinions. Stupid irony.

Anyway, with the time on my hands to invest yet more of it into American cultural products, the obvious question – apart from my daughter’s query about how the hell they got Timothée Chalamet in it – is whether it tells us anything useful for our classes. Since The Matrix or Independence Day are now apparently ‘too dated’.

For the record, I’m on Team “curate’s egg” on the qualities of Don’t Look Up (DLU): it’s got lots of engaging comments to make on The State of Things, but it’s much weaker on any kind of systemic critique of modern American society.

And it is a very American piece: evidently planet-destroying asteroids don’t necessarily produce complex patterns of deep international or global coordination. Or maybe the location budget wasn’t so big.

If there is something that could well be taking into a classroom discussion, then it’s the relationship between science and politics, most obviously with man-made climate change, but also with Covid. Objective facts are one thing, but their representation is another, while their appropriation for other ends is different once again. DLU simplifies this by having one big fact – the big rock thing is going to hit the Earth – that (seemingly) shouldn’t in doubt, and yet is annexed to a number of personal projects by assorted cast members. If students can follow that line, then the path to better engagement with the multiple pathways and dynamics of climate change or the much more conditional and evolving understanding of SARS-CoV-2.

Part of that discussion needs to centre around the disconnect between knowledge of some fact or facts and any question of what to do about that knowledge: DLU has only a limited engagement with this, most obviously when lovely Leo asks the camera how we’ve got to a place where we can’t even agree that a giant asteroid heading to Earth is A Bad Thing, but there’s scope here for debate about one gets from agreeing just that point to doing something.

Ultimately, the issue rests on narratives and interests that are grounding in a range of factors that spread far beyond any objective calculation. The film provides a number of examples of both rational (Bash’s big plans) and less-than-rational (in Bojo Mambo’s) responses to information.

Beyond this major theme, it’s slim pickings, I’d argue.

As a middle-aged, white Professor who does a bit of media, I took rather more note of Leo’s transmutation from hyper-anxious sad-sack to trim Voice of Reason than I should, especially as I’ve never noticed any of the other effects of this change. You might also note the marginalisation of women aspect too. However, as critique of how others see academics it might be of interest to a communication class. That said, the scene of the grad class working on the calculations did stray close to being included in any update of my previous comments on screen representations of teaching.

Similarly, any reflection on the relationship between politics and Big Tech is made difficult by the very personalised relationship between the President and Bash’s Peter. Moreover, Mark Rylance doesn’t seem to have decided if Peter is Steve Jobs or James Halliday or even the BFG, so that’s also a bit frustrating. As is the totally unexplained course of the deflection mission.

So yes, there’s some material here, but it’s not really shaping up to be a classic of the genre. Unlike The Lego Movie.

A very educational(ist) Christmas

In other news, we also spent a long time empathising with Vincent about how one turns indistinguishable blobs of paint into art

Welcome back to whatever space you call where you work these days: a shed in my case, which has really benefitted from not being heated during the past fortnight.

My break has been enlivened – if that’s the right word – by finding out more about the Theranos saga and by catching some anti-vax videos. Fun, right?

Theranos came via The Dropout, a podcast from ABC, that explained the unfolding of Elizabeth Holmes’s adventures in bio-tech and the court case that’s just concluded. As an exploration of how Silicon Valley can operate and the power of credentials in rolling out a vast enterprise, it’s highly instructive. If, like me, it’s something that largely passed you by at the time, then do take the time to check it out.

Which brings us to the anti-vaxing. A friend has bought ever more deeply into anti-vax messages over the course of the pandemic and this winter has seen them arrive at a place where their views have become more strident, including the sharing of videos that focus on various concerns. To be clear, the friend seems to want to engage in discussion and want these points debunked, so an effort was made to try do that.

Not very successfully, I should add, given that it would require a very much wider return to first principles about the scientific method and the interplay of science and public policy.

These two activities were brought together for me by some reflections on how people learn and make choices.

Whether you’re a investor trying to decide where to put your money or a suburban family being unsure about your health, you take cognitive shortcuts, just like the rest of us.

Those shortcuts are best explained by people like Daniel Kahneman, rather than me, but the relevant point here is that for both Theranos and anti-vax I see the construction of narratives that seek to create a portrayal of the world that isn’t consistent with the evidence available. In the former case, that took some time to come out, while in the latter it’s been apparent from the start.

Educationally, both cases reminded me of one of the key lessons of teaching negotiation, namely the importance of trying to understand the world as your interlocuter sees it.

Crucially, such empathy is not the same as sympathy, but rather a means to put yourself in their position, so that you can better work towards findings an outcome that works for all involved. For the anti-vax friend, that’s about acknowledging the irreconcilability of positions on vaccination, while keeping the rest of the friendship alive. For Theranos, it has been for a court to decide the extent to which Holmes’ statements had a fraudulent intent, legally speaking.

It’s very easy to fall into a trap of thinking that disagreeing with someone on one point means disagreeing with them on all points, especially with those at some personal distance from you. Yet if you look around at your family members or your very close friends, you’d notice that you don’t cleave to them on every single thing, but rather contextualise and compartmentalise your niggles or disagreements. If we’re in the business of trying to improve our understanding of the world, then simply dropping things and people into boxes marked ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t a good strategy.

For Theranos, legal liability is one aspect of this, but if we’re interested in a broader understanding of how this all came to be then it is not the only aspect: the whole affair speaks to questions about wider cultures, signifiers and values.

Likewise, for the anti-vax friend what they think strikes me as less important than why, especially given how they’ve moved over time. Condemning their position – as seems to be rather common – is likely only to make them more entrenched in their views and close down possibilities of building a constructive way forward.

Maybe you can think of your own examples of how we encounter this, from world events or our views of prominent politicians, right down to that student who emails at 4am about the syllabus. Moving to an understanding of why not everyone does things like you is a gateway to making us more reflective, both for ourselves and for our students.

And with that, I’m off to get out of this black turtleneck: it’s not really my look.

Not a pretty picture

Since we’re all (hopefully) winding up for the winter break, just a quick post this week, to offer once again my graphics on Brexit and EU-UK relations.

As you’ll know, the topic is a bit of a live one and things move pretty fast; even now that it’s been ‘done’. So I hope that my summaries of key points, and trackers of developments will prove of some use for your classes.

You’re welcome to use them as you will, and if you’ve got something you think I might help with, then do ask as I’m always looking for new ways to put my amazing PowerPoint skills to use. Seriously.

More generally, you might find this all of use in thinking about your own area of work: since starting with these, I’ve found they’ve been picked up by a wide range of people, including many practitioners and non-academics, which has been good for the public engagement side of my work. Think of it as leaning into the whole ‘a picture is worth…’ thing, which works very well for social media.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a personal favourite, which highlights why I’m confident that I’ve got a long time yet on this subject. And the value of taking input from colleagues. And the need to date your work. And include creative commons info. And thinking about legibility. And much more.

PDF version:

Empathy isn’t sympathy

My youngest is currently getting stuck into her school’s debating society. Weekly topics range from getting rid of the monarchy to pushing vaccine mandates, with pupils getting dropped into a side at random, and at short notice.

You might well have done the same yourself when you were younger; I didn’t, mainly as I was too busy being awkward and gangly.

The orthodontist has terrible/disturbing taste in art. Discuss.

My daughter really likes the approach, both for the range of topics (which we often end up discussing over the dinner table) and for the reflection it promotes about how to make an effective case.

The other day as we sat at the orthodontist, waiting for a replacement retainer (hers, not mine), we were deep into whether a technocracy was better than a democracy when she raised a concern.

The format of debates requires you to defend a position, regardless of what you believe. So far, she’s not found herself pushing something she strongly disagrees with, but she felt uncomfortable about the thought of it.

Indeed, your beliefs – and any objective facts – count for nothing in formal debating. Yes, you can bring evidence, but it is in compelling presentation and investment in the logic of ‘your’ side that you can usually prevail. Put differently, debating seems to care more for what is convincing than for what is grounded in evidence.

At which point we wave from our PoliSci benches and give a big ‘hello’.

I noted that when I allocate students into my negotiations, I often like to put people in roles that don’t fit their own views, on the grounds that it’s a good exercise in learning to empathise. You might find it axiomatically true that X is right, but there are others out there who (strongly) disagree, so perhaps by trying to put yourself in their shoes for a bit you might better understand where they’re coming from.

But you see already the potential for a replication of the same dynamic as that debating society: maybe everyone focuses on ‘winning’ rather than the empathy.

In the debating society the format is very much focused on that competition, so it’s a real issue. For negotiations, I hope we have more latitude to limit the problem.

Most obviously, I never judge negotiation exercises on who ‘wins’, and often there is no clear ‘win’ available in basic structural terms. Secondly, the debrief that always follows is about process and substance, with consideration of the differing value judgments, how they arise and their impact. And finally there is often a degree of integration: progress towards agreements is usually about finding common ground rather than domination.

However, the orthodontist discussion did give serious pause for thought. In an age when politicians sometimes seem to be willing/able to say anything to gain support/profile, there is a danger that simply giving students rhetorical skills breeds a false impression that all truths are equal and find their value only in how well you speak of them.

Yes, the scientific method does point us towards the essential need for evidence, but maybe this isn’t enough. Empathy cannot be presented as a equivalent of sympathy or of equivalence, but as a tool for improving our understanding of contested spaces and topics, with which we can then work to find more inclusive ways forward, working together.

Maybe I’ll suggest that as a future topic for someone’s debating society.