Pondering the future of political science education


Guest post by Dr. Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

As political scientists, we often teach students not to speculate about the future in their work and that they should, instead, champion critical analysis based on verifiable trends.

However, I have recently been doing a fair amount of speculation. Specifically, I have been wondering about what the future of teaching and learning in political science will look like – a topic that greatly intrigues me and I’m eager to hear others’ thoughts on.

This came about because I have been recently involved in the work of the Faculty of Social Sciences’s ‘Faculty Futures Group’ at York. The group seeks to get away from the short-term reactivity that we can all be guilty of in Higher Education; focusing on the next week, the next semester, maybe, at a push, the next year, but rarely the proper “long term”. The Faculty Futures Group, therefore, has the mission to ‘Scan the horizon to identify important new directions for social science education and research in the medium to long-term (next 5-15 years)’. 

Whilst the project focuses on the Social Sciences as a whole, I have, of course, been thinking of the future of political science. And, as is fitting with this blog, I have been thinking about the future of political science’s approach to teaching and learning. 

There are a few themes that have struck me as particularly pressing and interesting; themes that I can most imagine significant change in the coming years. There are two that are at the forefront of my mind:

The first is assessment. When I undertook my undergraduate degree in Politics, the exam, the coursework essay, and the dissertation were the only assessment formats. This was not an uncommon experience at all, and still today, these feel like the dominant forms of assessment in our field.

However, it seems that there is some significant change happening now and that there is more on the horizon. Experiments with pass/ fail rather than graded assessment, with assessment optionality, with inclusive assessment design are all big themes that I can see really shaping how we assess political science courses in the coming years. 

Course-level innovations, tailored to the subject matter or to hoped-for employment outcomes, could be a path of potential for future innovation. I have also been thinking about what innovations could be made to champion the potential for fun or enjoyment in the assessment process. It probably won’t be a shock to anyone that, as an academic, I quite like the essay format. But I also totally get that many students might not love it and that we could occasionally vary our approaches in a way that makes students more enthused when it comes round to assessment time. For example, for a while now, I have been considering the potential of using creative writing in our classrooms and expanding that to assessment.

The second is AI. To be honest, I am a bit skeptical when anyone is a bit too enthused about AI and the future of education. This piece from Smolansky et al. has solidified my thoughts that some can be too keen on adopting the use of AI in assessments, whilst students might have genuine concerns about “watering down” the education experience. However, it’s nigh on impossible to turn our backs on AI as an important educational development. As this great ALPS piece from Amanda Rosen shows, there is a clear need for academics to engage with AI in our approach to assessment. It’s already apparent that some students are making quite liberal and not exactly productive use of generative AI as a writing resource.  

But should this mean that we welcome AI into our teaching and learning environment? There are already some in Higher Education that are leading the way on this. Auburn University provides a free, self-paced online course for those interested in employing AI in their teaching, for example. But this might be outpacing what contemporary students want from their education.

Recent conversations I have had with students indicate that there is quite strong opposition to AI replacing traditional forms of student-to-academic communication. Where there is enthusiasm is where AI chatbots might be a quick go-to tool for asking the “embarrassing” questions that students might be afraid to ask but are really important to them, e.g. “I know you’ve mentioned it a dozen times but… how long is the essay meant to be?”. 

That these themes are the ones that seem the most pressing and interesting is almost certainly a result of my own pressing teaching concerns and areas of interest. And so, I’d be very interested to hear from anyone else! What do you think the future holds? What are the pressing, interesting themes that we should all actually be worrying about or embracing? And finally, I would love to know if anyone has a crystal ball I can borrow so I can finally get to the bottom of all this ‘future’ business… 

How to use Powerpoint in your teaching

Good for wallpaper, maybe less so for British Politics 101

The last few weeks have seen me back at the face-to-face teaching thing, with a number of talks, presentations and briefings.

As someone who mostly sits in his shed in his garden, this is a very positive development, especially since all that face-to-face work is happening in warmer spaces than the shed.

However, it has also reminded me about the importance of getting any Powerpoint usage right.

As Amanda has written before, while it’s easy to dunk on Powerpoint, it is ultimately like any tool we use in the classroom: good for some things, bad for others.

Indeed, that I’m writing this nearly a decade after Amanda’s post suggests that both technology and pedagogical practice change more slowly than we might often think.

So let’s run through the key points once again.

First up, focus on your learning objectives. What are you trying to achieve with your teaching? Who needs to learn what?

If you don’t know the answer to this, then everything else falls apart, because it points you towards optimising the opportunities for your audience to learn the things you want them to learn. And the tools you’ll use.

Hence, I didn’t make a Powerpoint for the ‘in discussion’ session I had one evening recently, even though I was asked to make some structured opening comments: I wanted to reduce the distance with the audience, so we discussed, rather than be the guy who turns up with The Answer.

Secondly, tailor your Powerpoint to your audience.

I vividly remember sitting in a panel presentation, years ago, where a guy opened up his 165 page Powerpoint and then jumped around about 15 of those slides to do the presentation of his paper. I did not feel the love and was mostly interested in what else might be in that huge slide deck.

Make a specific Powerpoint for that specific session. Building on your sense of the learning objectives, recognise that each instance that you teach is different and unique, so your materials will be unique too.

Think about how you might present your paper differently to a departmental seminar, a general conference panel, a workshop or to non-academic audiences: all the same source material, but each with different incentives and interests that feed back into what you offer them.

Thirdly, make your Powerpoint functional.

If you ever have to say “you probably can’t read this” or “this isn’t important”, then you’ve failed on this count.

Anything you put on a slide will be paid attention to, read and considered. It’s why lots of text on a slide results in people not paying attention to you speaking: they’re reading.

So only put in what is necessary and nothing more, remembering that your Powerpoint isn’t the only thing that’s going on when you teach.

Personally, it’s why I switched to mostly images for my slides some years back: students are listening to my explanation/interpretation of those images, plus it gives me a degree of freedom and flexibility to adjust to their needs.

Finally, reflect on your practice.

The only time I’ve ever had to break up fisticuffs was when two colleagues argued (very hard) about the Powerpoint that one of them was about to use in their shared class.

Somehow, the upshot was that I spent the next hour in that class, to give some feedback on the offending article (120 slides for a one hour lecture).

Strangely, and even though it’s totally not how I’d have done it, the colleague made pretty good use of that Powerpoint, because it fitted their style of teaching and the needs of the class. But they’d never really had anyone discuss how that worked (and how it might work better) before.

All of us benefit from thinking back on what we’ve done and from getting input from others, including our students. It’s part of why I’ve writing this post: much as I’d like to say I smashed all those face-to-face sessions I’ve been doing, actually I know there’s still room for improvement, improvement that I can take into my next session (which is this weekend).

Generative AI changes teaching and learning: how to protect the integrity of assessment

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our first event on 30 October was on the theme of ‘Using technology to teach politics’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Simon Sweeney (University of York), offers further reflections on the challenges involved in higher education’s embracing generative AI, where tools such as ChatGPT call into question issues of authorship and have profound implications for assessment.

A few years ago, we were worrying about students’ using essay mills, a form of contract cheating that plagiarism detection software struggled to identify. The Covid-19 pandemic and online delivery coincided with a reported increase in academic dishonesty (AD). In late-2022 the arrival of generative artificial intelligence (GAI) chatbots like ChatGPT is a further challenge to the integrity of assessment.

Universities realised that banning chatbots was not feasible, as AI has become an established feature in our lives and graduate employment. As educators, we need to respond positively to the opportunities AI presents, recognising its benefits and assimilating AI into teaching and learning practice.

This means developing strategies that accommodate students’ use of GAI while protecting assessment integrity.

Continue reading “Generative AI changes teaching and learning: how to protect the integrity of assessment”

Podcasting in Class: Course planning for Spring 2024

As the semester winds down and final grading is in progress, I am looking ahead towards the Spring 2024 semester, when I will be teaching International Relations & Popular Culture for the first time. It is both a nerdy interest niche of mine, but I also think that field of popular culture is expanding, gaining more grounds, and operating as something relatable to our students. So, I guess – be prepared to see more of that type of content in the new year.

I have decided to incorporate a semester-long podcasting project as the students’ main research project, in which they will produce a public-facing piece of research. I imagine this is the first time most of my students will be engaging with such a project. But this is also a new assignment for me, and I am both excited and wondering what hurdles I haven’t thought of yet. I am building this on a previous guest post by John McMahon (2021) and his APSA Educate resource. Below, I have outlined the overall premise. What wisdom do you have to turn this project into something that can rival Joe Rogan’s podcasting dominance?

Continue reading “Podcasting in Class: Course planning for Spring 2024”

Online panel event: Using technology to teach politics (30 October, 3.30 – 5.00pm)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you will have enjoyed recent posts by some of my colleagues at the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP), Cathy, JP, and Kalina.

You might also be interested to hear about a series of online panel events UCL CPP is organising this year, each of which will bring together a mix of political scientists and political theorists to discuss their work and thoughts on a particular pedagogical theme.

Our first panel event on the theme of ‘Using technology to teach politics’ is taking place this Monday (30 October) from 3.30-5.00pm (UK time).

Our four panellists are: Dr. Natalie Jester (Gloucestershire), Dr. David Roberts (Loughborough), Prof. Georgina Blakeley (Huddersfield), and Dr. Simon Sweeney (York) .

We hope for a wide-ranging discussion, including reflections on effectively incorporating new tech, concerns about certain uses of tech, and ideas for using older tech in new/better ways, with plenty of time set aside for audience Q&A.

If you would like to attend, you can register beforehand at the following event page, whereupon you will receive access details: UCL CPP panel event: Using technology to teach politics.

We hope to see some of you there for a thought-provoking discussion. If you are unable to attend, fear not – we will be sharing some of the main insights from the events on this blog throughout the year.

Social Annotation: how to look at a cartoon

This week in class I’ve been using the social annotation software Talis Elevate with students to help them understand what ecofascism is and some of its key features. This is a very important thing to do early on in a module about the politics of nature because ecofascist discourses, as well as materials that might draw unknowingly on some ecofascist tropes, are very common when we talk about nature and landscape. I therefore always want this acvitiy to be almost the first thing we do, so students can recognise and critique far-right narratives as soon as they encounter them. Before delving into the specifics of the exercise, though, I want to acknowledge that it was particularly difficult to talk about the antisemitic elements of ecofascism this week because of the unspeakable, horrific violence taking place in Israel and Gaza. Antisemitism is always hard to talk about, as are the other topics we touched on in class including racism more broadly, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and eugenics. But it was particularly tricky at a moment like this. I will try to write about the charged nature of our classroom conversations another time, when I have had chance to sit with them. For now the difficulty is simply worth noting, so I don’t give the impression that technical fixes like Elevate can enable us to avoid the complexity of some of the conversations that we nevertheless must have.

Returning to social annotation, though, what Elevate does is quite simple. It allows students to click anywhere in a text or an image to create a pin, to which they can add a comment. Students can agree and reply to each other and I can see the conversation as well as judiciously replying or agreeing too. Nothing is anonymous, so it has the feel of a classroom conversation, but it enables students to engage with the image together and in conversation outside of the class.

In this instance, I put a cartoon on Elevate that had previously gone viral among nature-lovers and others on social media and asked them to note any key features, discuss what is going on, what political ideas are being advanced and whether the ideology underlying the cartoon has a name. In the previous week’s work, we had done a reading that touched on ecofascism, so it shouldn’t have been a new concept for most students in the group.

You can see the full exercise and how last year’s students did with it in this video:

The beauty of using a cartoon like this is that it is very concrete and students could pull out lots of individual features of the image from the whiteness and size of the family in the foreground to their heteronormativity; from the implicit racism and homophobia of ideas about ‘shrinking cities’ to the eugenicist implications of the anti-vaccine and mask imagery; from the ableist assumptions to the antisemitic coded langauge. Having noted all these individual elements before class on Elevate, the classroom discussion itself then enabled us to bring them together, to understand how ideologies contain lots of disparate ideas, tropes and discourses, that together produce a vision of the world, and to make sure we would be on the alert to any one of these problematic ideas in future by understanding how they link to all the others. In keeping with my overall focus on what I want students to be able to do as a result of the class, I hope they will be able to recognise, describe and challenge ecofascism in future and quickly understand that it’s not a good thing to ‘like’ or ‘share’.

I’ll write more about my adventures in social annotation later in the term, especially if they work out. (As you can see in the video, I haven’t quite cracked when and how to use it, yet.) Let us know if you have used it yourself and have any thoughts about when it is, or isn’t, useful.

Getting on to BlueSky

Some sky

Since we are (once again) in a “Twitter is a hell-hole” period, I thought I’d do a short piece on this year’s contender for Twitter replacement, namely BlueSky.

Readers with any memory will recall I did something similar for Mastodon almost a year ago. While there’s certainly a community there, it never really got enough momentum to build the kind of volume needed to make it a realistic home for everyone.

However, it’s still a really pleasant vibe, so do consider it for your more general well-being.

BlueSky comes in as a more direct Twitter-style platform, partly because it’s created by ex-Twitter employees who miss How Things Used To Be, and partly because as a result their GUI is spookily familiar to any Tweep.

The functionality is very similar (although no GIFs, boo!) and there’s a pretty good flow of people both well-known and less-well-known into the site over the past week. Including me. And this blog.

There are really only two difficulties.

Firstly, all those new users mean it’s a pretty slow site, so don’t go expecting the nippiness of Twitter for now, and probably not until the financing model balances out server capacity. Try accessing via a computer rather than mobile, as that seems to help matters.

Secondly, and more pertinent here, you need to be invited to join.

BlueSky generates invite codes for its members based on engagement: I got my first one the other day based on some tweets and talking with the various people who engaged with it. You put in, you get out; so if you’re a lurker then you’re not going to be able to invite friends/colleagues/that person who does that thing.

As you might have seen on Twitter, invites are often tricky to get hold of, so unless you’ve got lucky with your online buds, what can you do?

Well, several people have set up clearing houses for people to donate codes. I used this one, established to get researchers on the site. You pop in your details and you’ll get an email to confirm it all, with a code following not long after.

Remember that this is being done by people out of their generosity, so patience on the timeline, and you can give your codes as you get them to help others (like I’ve just done with that one I got the other day).

Once you’ve got your code, head to BlueSky and set up your account. Again, capacity issues mean it might take overnight for you to be able to access your profile, but you’re a grown-up, so you’ll manage.

Posting is as you think it is, as is everything else, so no special instructions on this. Look for Feeds to see contribute to particular content.

The thing that’s still a bit tricky is finding your fellow migrants from Twitter: until Mastodon, there’s not a quick, bulk way to find-and-follow, so instead you might use this, or this.

And that’s about it.

We’re still at the ‘hello everyone’/’So-and-so’s just joined too!’/’it’s like old-skool Twitter’ phase, but already I see plenty of Poli-Sci and L&T people there, so the initial signs look promising for being able to stop saying that you should leave Twitter.

“No to E! News red carpet events in the classroom!”

I struggle with technology in the classroom. And not in the “should I allow my students to use laptops or not” way. I am firmly in the camp that allows the use of laptops and tablets in my lectures. There is plenty of debate on this issue: some encourage it; others discourage it. There is no right answer, and ultimately how we handle this “problem” is up to each of us. My choice for laptops is largely based on my feeling like a hypocrite if I insist on pen and paper. I use my laptop/smartphone in my teaching, research, and just general existence. The last time I wrote by hand thank you cards, my hand started aching.

My struggle comes from the “appropriate” use of technology in the classroom. Or better: my students’ changing understanding of what is “appropriate”. Or better-better: What is my role in educating young adults on what is appropriate in the classroom regarding technology? Can I expect certain things? Or are we starting at zero?

I am fully aware that on their lists of priorities, attending my class with 100% devotion ranks relatively low: behind the lunch menu, their friends, weekend plans, and whether somebody texts them back. And yet, in the recent past I have encountered a myriad of strange situations in the classroom that required my intervention because students either forgot where they were or thought they could get lost in the anonymity of the crowd. I had to call out a student who was watching four (!) basketball games at the same time on a split-screen, another one for watching an E! News red carpet event during a group assignment, and another who was so furiously typing while we were watching something as a group that I had to inquire whether they were transcribing the clip (they immediately stopped when I said something). At a guest lecture I gave this week in hybrid form, the inviting professor muted me for a second to admonish two students for playing chess and watching soccer respectively on their screens: they hadn’t noticed that the angle of the zoom cameras in the lecture hall meant that their shenanigans were being projected to the big screen.

A newer contender in the distracting technology game is the rise of Air Pods and other small Bluetooth headphones. They disappear under a student’s hoodie or their hair. A colleague and I recently exchanged thoughts on that, and we both agreed that it is strange to tell students to take out their headphones…in class. And yet, we do it. Has the bar been lowered from “pay attention” to “don’t obstruct your only tool to hear”?

As a teacher I can prepare well for class, make sure the activities are pedagogically sound, and I can set clear boundaries of what the purpose of our classroom is. I do that at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and my laptop guidelines, which I reiterate in person. I encourage responsible and positive use, and I also highlight – hopefully in a not intimidating way – that in our learning community I can see what they do, just like they see what I do.

What I don’t want to do is play whack amole with Air Pods and E! News. This frustration that I harbor over the misuse of technology and the disregard for our shared learning space stands in odds with my aims of creating an open, inclusive, and comfortable learning environment. And I am not even certain if my frustration is appropriate as an educator. Even as I am writing this, I keep going back and forth on whether it is okay to be frustrated, whether I should be more understanding, whether my students need even more guidance on appropriate classroom behavior, whether I am too harsh or not harsh enough, and whether I should retrain my hand to write with a pen and demand the same of my students.

Maybe someone here will know how to fix all my problems. Perhaps cut off the Wi-Fi?