Online panel event: Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory (14 May, 11:00 – 12:30)

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) are co-hosting an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory‘ on 14 May from 11:00-12:30 (UK time).

The event will include contributions from the following panellists on the following topics, alongside audience Q&A:

Diana Popescu-Sarry (University of Nottingham): The least we can do: trigger warnings and teaching the political theory canon.

Matthias Heil (Ruprecht Karls University Heidelberg): Taking teaching seriously.

Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon): Dramatic Encounters: Overcoming the barriers to the study of Political Theory for first-generational students using a drama based Pedagogy.

This event follows on from the inaugural conference of the Teaching Political Theory Network at the University of York in June 2023. Contributions to both events are intended to form the basis of an upcoming edited volume on Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory.

This event is open to all and is aimed at political theorists who have an interest in pedagogical scholarship and/or who teach and are interested in more practical insights. 

If you would like to attend, please register beforehand on the following event page, whereupon you will receive access details: Panel event: Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory.

Many thanks to the Teaching Political Theory Network’s Adam Fusco and Sara Van Goozen (University of York) for helping to organise this panel event and leading on the wider suite of activities surrounding it.

Diversifying the Politics Curriculum: Lessons Learned and Possibilities for Progress

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our second event in the series was on the theme of ‘Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Helen McCabe, together with Helen Williams and Andy Fisher, offer reflections on findings from a project at the University of Nottingham, led together with colleagues in Politics and IR and Philosophy.

Questions around why Politics curricula are so often “male”, “pale” and – consequently – “stale” have abounded in the last few years, often linked to wider calls to “decolonise” Higher Education, research, and teaching. As well as this, there has been increasing recognition of, and concern about, the award gap between white undergraduate students and those from Black and minoritised ethnic backgrounds. Closing this gap needs a multifaceted and multidimensional approach, much (though not all!) of which is out of individual academics’ control. However, some elements of a curriculum-based approach are in our control – for instance, as educators we could make significant efforts towards regularising ethnic presence on the curriculum (and diversifying it in other ways).

Making politics curricular more diverse in a variety of ways is a positive pedagogical aim, but efforts in this direction face several challenges. Many of these are practical, as we found when investigating this issue. Sharing best practice can save time, but overall, a balance needs to be found between securing sufficient institutional “buy-in” to succeed, and the whole endeavour appearing to be something being inauthentically imposed from above, causing resistance.

One reason diversifying the curricula is an important thing to try and do is that descriptive representation matters to students and for student outcomes. If we care about diversity and the attainment of all our students, we should be mainstreaming perspectives that are not the traditional white, European, middle-class, male ones. What is more, these diverse perspectives should not be an “add-on” treated in one special week. Nor should authors from specific minoritised groups be treated only as experts on issues seen to affect that group (e.g. female authors included on reading lists for the one week on feminism in a political theory course, but not in other weeks on other topics).

However, there are several barriers for engagement, which might be termed: principled, implacable and practical.

Principled challenges and how to address them. People may be put off by the terminology around “decolonising”, feeling it is either an attack on their current practice (implicating them in colonialism), or that it is not a term which ought to be used in a UK context. That is, decolonising the curriculum is a laudable endeavour in countries which were colonised (e.g. South Africa, where the movement began). But it is not appropriate in countries which were colonisers (such as the UK). These principled reasons for not engaging can be at least somewhat overcome through careful use of – and discussion around – terminology (see our collection of Useful Resources) and awareness around the internal and external politics of this kind of project.

Implacable barriers are harder to overcome. Some people do simply reject the pedagogical bases for diversifying the curriculum along ethnic (or gendered) lines. One version of this view holds that students should be introduced to a range of views, but it is the ideological spectrum which should be diverse, not authors’ demographic data. Another version sees these kinds of efforts as “gimmicky”, and does not want to engage. These barriers may simply need recognising, with related decisions taken about which battles to fight.

A different version relates to some academics’ deep-seated aversion to teaching anything on which they do not themselves feel “expert”, which limits their flexibility around what they teach. (And damages their well-being when they feel forced to teach something on which they are not, in their view, “an expert”.) Although for some this might be an excuse not to develop their teaching year-on-year, it is easy to understand why academics may be very risk-averse in terms of changing their teaching such that they feel they are teaching topics or texts for which they do not have a deep understanding, not least given student expectations to be taught “by experts”, and the negative impacts on career progression and staff well-being from negative or low student evaluations. This may be increasingly an issue as lectures are more routinely recorded, and the likelihood of one slip or apparent revelation of ignorance “going viral”, with potentially wide, and severe, consequences. (This may also underpin reluctance to “diversify” reading lists and include writers who may be seen as controversial.) For these reasons, academics may appear implacably opposed to changing their teaching in any significant way, but this position may be softened by the same sorts of solutions which also aid academics who are positive towards the idea of diversifying, but face practical challenges.

Indeed, practical barriers to are the ones most commonly cited and experienced by academics. These include: lack of relevant decision-making power; lack of time; and lack of space.

The first is most commonly experienced by early-career colleagues (including PhD students) who might be able to introduce more diverse readings into seminars, but have no control over the content of lectures, modes of assessment, or the aims and objectives of a module. The second and third are more commonly experienced by those who have the relevant power, but lack the capacity to make use of it. Academics generally do not get as much time as is really needed to update reading lists; re-design assessments, lecture slides, reading lists and other resources; or gain the required expertise on new content. Even where these efforts are recognised in an official workload planner, the time allocated is not generally sufficient. And even where there are helpful resources which might be used, there is concern about garnering satisfactory expertise to bring something into the curriculum (as noted). There is also often as concern about what has to be taken out in order to fit in something new, given the limited time available for a module (e.g. 10-12 weeks). Escaping from that problem probably takes a significant module re-design and re-think: and colleagues are already suffering from a lack of time.

All these practical concerns are significant issues, which need to be taken seriously if curricula are to be diversified in a meaningful and sustainable way. Staff need time and resources to make significant change and feel confident in delivering new material, and this in turn necessitates buy-in from people with power within the University. However, if the move to diversify the curriculum feels imposed in a “top-down” and/or “gimmicky” fashion, this is likely to be counter-productive. Indeed, power structures in academia may need to be “decolonised” before the curriculum can be.

Useful Resources:

All our resources here hosted here

This includes some “top tips” available here

And a toolkit for thinking about terms and terminology

There is also some great advice from colleagues at Sheffield Hallam available here

Online panel event: Teaching politics through games and simulations (1 May, 3.30 – 5.00pm)

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events that bring together a mix of political scientists and political theorists to discuss their work and thoughts on a particular pedagogical theme.

So far, we have held events on ‘Using technology to teach politics’ and ‘Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice’. 

Our next panel event is on the theme of ‘Teaching politics through games and simulations’ and is taking place on Wednesday 1 May, 3.30-5.00pm (UK time). The panel includes some ALPS stalwarts:

Simon Usherwood (Professor in Politics & International Studies, Open University) 

Amanda Rosen (Associate Professor & Interim Director, Writing and Teaching Excellence Center, US Naval War College) 

Frands Pedersen (Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Westminster) 

Tomer Perry (Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Philosophy, Minerva University) 

We hope for a wide-ranging discussion on the use (and abuse) of games and simulations for the teaching of political science and political theory with plenty of time for audience Q&A.

The event is aimed at political scientists and political theorists who have an interest in pedagogical scholarship and/or who teach and are interested in more practical tips and insights. 

If you would like to attend, please register beforehand on the following event page, whereupon you will receive access details: UCL CPP panel event: Teaching politics through games and simulations.

Workshop Preparation: The ISA Version!

Next Tuesday, I’m teaching an International Studies Association pre-conference workshop on designing political science classroom games (there’s still room in the workshop if you read this post by 29 March!). My objective: deliver a 4-hour course that includes a block of instruction and hands-on ideation for no more than 30 participants.

I’ve taught numerous classroom game design courses and have developed a stock list of questions to ask before each, as well as a packing list containing dice, playing cards, poker chips, a bag of glow-in-the-dark zombie figures, and other useful game ideation tools. There are few things worse than that clammy, pit-in-the-stomach feeling that haunts the unrehearsed and ill-prepared.

  • What is the maximum number of participants?
  • Who is my point of contact?
  • Am I allowed to email them ahead of time?
  • Where is the room located?
  • How will the tables be arranged?
  • Can I adjust the room arrangement if necessary?
  • Will I have a podium and A/V access?
  • Do I use my own laptop, or is a laptop provided?
  • Can I request locally sourced office supplies, within reason and with my best imploring smile?
  • Did I account for and check off each packing list item?
  • No, seriously… did I account for and check off each packing list item?
  • How early can I access the room before class starts?
  • Who do I contact on-site if I need technical support (if different than the point of contact)?

The better I plan for what I want my workshop to look like, the better I can handle contingencies while still looking cool and collected doing so. 🙂

Talking to Others About Teaching

Inherently, the premise of this blog is to bring like-minded folks together who care about teaching in the social sciences. We share tools, ideas, events, and musings. And I have come to appreciate the people who reach out in comments, mitigating the one-sided way in which this blog-writing largely takes place.

Recently, though, I took my musings into the real world and joined a three-week long pedagogy book club run through my institutions center for teaching and learning. We all (re)read James M. Lang’s “Small Teaching”, and then discussed its parts over three meetings. This post is brief (because not everything has to be a magnus opus), but it is, nonetheless, an appreciation post for 1) talking in real life to others about teaching and 2) going back to the basics.

Continue reading “Talking to Others About Teaching”

Fungalovid-2025: Global Health Politics in IR

Inspired by Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies as well as too much TV watching, I have designed for my International Relations  and Popular Culture (IRPC) course a game called Fungalovid-2025. The scholarship of IRPC understands the role of popular culture as both a reflection of international politics but also as a learning device that informs our expectations of political crises.  Fungalovid-2025 confronts my students with a global pandemic and demands of them to formulate in country groups a 2-month and a 12-month plan on how their country will proceed with handling the outbreak. Their choices and behaviors are informed by reading World War Z by Max Brooks, by our previous class discussions, living through their own pandemic, and in varying degrees their personal engagement with zombie-themed popular culture goods. This game is not only great for IRPC, probably a niche area for many, but it also works in introductory classes on international relations to illustrate socially constructed realities, international cooperation, and self-interested policymaking.

Continue reading “Fungalovid-2025: Global Health Politics in IR”

Chance, Skill, and Grading Classroom Games

An academic hill I die on periodically is being adamantly opposed to assigning grades to classroom games.

A game’s win conditions are based on varying blends of chance versus skill. Pure chance games (such as roulette) are simply bets against which players cannot build effective long-term strategies. Monopoly, for example, is almost pure chance–stripped of the optional auction rules, the most effective strategy for winning Monopoly is consistently rolling a dice score of 7. Barring weighted dice or building a dice-rolling wrist over 10,000 hours, winning or losing Monopoly comes down to the luck of the dice. It might be a good game for illustrating wealth inequality in the classroom (which was the original designer’s intent), but if you grade students based on winning rounds of Monopoly, then you’re grading them based on almost pure, uncut chance.

On the other end are games of pure skill: think Go or Chess. In a game of pure skill, masters will almost always defeat amateurs (note that I said “almost always”). In classroom games based on pure skill–especially without repeat play opportunities–your most prepared students will not just almost always defeat your least prepared students, they will almost always crush them.

A well-designed classroom game leans heavily towards skill, as the game presents students with an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. But to avoid the “crush them through pure skill” problem, the game should include elements of chance. Students should feel as if they can win all the way up to the last minute of class. However, the key remains chance. Students can also still lose at the last minute to a close competitor, even with well-prepared and overall effective strategies. If you grade them based on even a fraction of chance, it has a chilling effect on students taking risks and diminishes their sense of course mastery. Losing without a grade penalty encourages students to reflect on future strategies and thus remain engaged with the material. But with a grade applied? All the students might remember is that they received a B- for the course because “they lost a stupid game.”

Instead, I have my students write short reflection essays (say, 2-3 pages) about the course learning objective that was measured in the game: what the game’s win condition was, their processes for crafting a strategy to achieve it, and how they either overcame obstacles to succeed or what they would change if they failed. You can also use reflection essays for pure chance games, such as the above-mentioned Monopoly, for students to reflect on what the game was intended to illustrate (or ask, “what would you have done differently if you could have applied a viable strategy?”). I’ll do a longer post in the future on debriefings and after-action reports.

All that said, I do know educators who place small point values on their games: negligible for the student’s overall course grade–think 10 points in a 1,000-point course–yet enough to inspire a sense of meaningful competition (particularly useful in games with more than one winner or multiple proportional win-conditions, which encourages students to scrap over every last point. They might lose but still walk away with 5/10 points). Even knowing that, however, I want me student to remember the game’s lesson points, not the game’s grade points.

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 can you make your online forum flourish?

You’ve got… a mail

I’m guessing that most of you teaching have some kind of online space, where you post materials like the coursework handbook, Powerpoints and the rest.

I’m also guessing you have a forum, quite possibly with a hopeful message from you from Week 1 encouraging students to share thoughts and ideas.

It might well be the only message.

I know it usually was in my modules, when I taught in-person.

Even now, working at a distance-learning institution, our modules are typically desolate wastelands, where maybe a couple of people post once, maybe twice, before shuffling off.

Students aren’t impressed, we’re not impressed, yet we press on.

What to do about it?

Continue reading “How can you make your online forum flourish?”

What does a good Politics/IR degree look like? Event: 26 Feb, 15.30 UK time

Regular readers will probably remember Stephen’s great blog on this topic last year.

Following a great response to his questions, we decided to set up this panel event to talk more about the issues and help Stephen as he wrestles with the task of revalidation. We will go into some of the issues at stake, including skills, employability, pedagogy, content and assessment in changing times. We will be hearing from panellists with a wide range of different experience including senior University leaders from our discipline. We are also keen to hear from attendees and have a real discussion on the issues. Hopefully by the end, Stephen will be able to validate his degree and we will all be the wiser.

The panellists are:

Dr Stephen Thorton, University of Cardiff

Dr Shuk Ying Chan, UCL

Professor Simon Lightfoot, University of Leeds

Dr Victoria Honeyman, University of Leeds

Professor Adam Fagan, King’s College London

Professor Lisa Harrison, University of the West of Scotland

Please sign up here to join us!