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: Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice (5 February, 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.

If you are a regular reader of the blog, then you will have enjoyed the recent guest post by one of the panellists from our first event, Simon Sweeney, developing ideas on AI and assessment that he presented at that session.

Our next panel event is on the theme of ‘Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice’ and is taking place on Monday 5 February 3.30-5.00pm (UK time). It will include contributions from the following panellists alongside time for audience Q&A:

Prof. Robbie Shilliam (Professor of International Relations, John Hopkins University)

Dr. Manjeet Ramgotra (Senior Lecturer in Political Thought, SOAS University of London)

Dr. Darcy Leigh (Lecturer (Law), University of Sussex)

Dr. Helen McCabe (Associate Professor in Political Theory, University of Nottingham)

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. We hope for a wide-ranging discussion on liberating/decolonising the curriculum from a variety of perspectives.

If you would like to attend, please register beforehand on the following event page, whereupon you will receive access details: UCL CPP panel event: Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice.

We hope to see some of you there for a thought-provoking discussion!

Does A River Really Run Through It?

Do students experience the curriculum in the manner intended? Probably not. The curriculum in the department that I just finished chairing includes a sequence of courses common to all three of the department’s majors — one course each at the 200-, 300-, and 400-level. All students are supposed to take the 200-level research methods course when they begin their respective majors, in part to identify a topic of interest before doing a semester of study abroad, an internship, or some other field experience in the junior year where the topic is researched. The 400-level course is the senior capstone, where they are supposed to compile the findings of the work they’ve already done and generate a finished report.

The reality? A fair number of seniors start the capstone not having previously selected a topic. They then have a single semester to identify their topic, design and complete the necessary research, and write about it — a situation that promotes a less than ideal final product.

The obvious solution to the problem would be to devote the 200-level course to having each student create their own research design, begin the data collection and analysis in the 300-level course, and tie everything up in a nice little bow in the capstone.

But there are complications. Each of these three courses is taught by a different instructor. Sometimes students don’t take the 300-level course until the senior year. And the university’s general education requirements — a distribution model — reinforce the preconception held by students that knowledge exists in discrete boxes and that courses have little or no connection to each other. While some of this could be prevented by imposing hard prerequisites, such a system would exclude many of the students who enter the department because they’ve changed major or added a double major. Given the small size of these academic programs, we want to encourage, not discourage, enrollment.

The Tyranny of Small Numbers At Intermediate Scale

I have written previously about the negative effects of small class size on how I teach, which I’m noticing again this semester in a class of only ten students. I have also written about low-enrollment institutions like Mills College. If your employer is small, tuition-dependent, and the surrounding area is losing population, it is time for you to worry. But today I am going to explore size effects at the intermediate level by looking at how enrollments affect curricula.

As the chair of a small department that manages three separate majors, none of which graduates more than a dozen students per year, I am hypothetically responsible for balancing two  competing agendas — filling classrooms with students who will likely never again take a course in the same disciplinary area, and offering a sufficiently diverse menu of advanced courses for students majoring in that disciplinary area.

In a recent discussion about one of my department’s programs and the upcoming academic year, I advocated in favor of offering a number of introductory course sections that is similar to the number that has been offered previously. These course sections typically enroll thirty to thirty-five students each, in contrast to upper-level courses that might enroll a dozen or fewer. The higher head count per class reduces overload and adjunct compensation, a cost that has exploded at my university because of a lack of oversight by deans and provosts. It also means more students are exposed to this particular field of study, increasing the chance that some might select it as a first or second major in a future semester.

Someone else instead supported an increase in the number of upper-level courses. This, the person claimed, would better serve students in the major — by giving them more topics to choose from — and perhaps increase the attractiveness of the major to current and potential future students at the university. Continue reading “The Tyranny of Small Numbers At Intermediate Scale”

The Uniformity Imperative

What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.

Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate.  A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.

Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.

What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.

At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.

Advising as Active Learning

This way to commencement.

It’s now advising hell, er, season, at my university. If you are outside of the USA, you might be unfamiliar with this phenomenon — it’s when undergraduates come to faculty for advice about which courses they should register for in the upcoming semester.

Students often approach the process passively  — if I let them, they will simply ask me “What should I take?” Many are also under the misapprehension that a path they believe is “pre-med” or “pre-law” is necessary for gaining entrance into a graduate program (it isn’t). Or they are convinced that a “minor” — a small cluster of courses on some topic — is in and of itself a career credential (it isn’t). Notice that the actual learning that might or might not occur in these pre-packaged bundles of courses is not what the students are worrying about.

To be fair, the underlying purpose of the curriculum — to function as a vehicle for learning — is fairly opaque. For example, at my university sixteen distinct student learning outcomes are assigned to courses that fulfill general education requirements, courses required by academic programs might have an equal number of additional outcomes, and there is now talk about creating a third layer of outcomes at the institutional level. Yet there is no comprehensive, well-tuned effort to capture and evaluate the data necessary for determining whether these outcomes are being met. If faculty are unable to point a student to course X as a reliable means of learning Y, it’s doubtful that students can do it.

In an attempt to work around these problems, I require students to bring to a meeting a draft of a four-year plan in which they’ve listed what courses they think they’ll be taking and when. The document, which gets revised over time, serves as a tool for a much deeper conversation, for two main reasons.

First,  the process of drafting an academic schedule for which the endpoint is graduation illustrates that choices have consequences. For example, playing a sport is the highest priority for some students, and they like to avoid enrolling in courses that conflict with practice sessions or matches. But some courses are often taught only in particular semesters at particular times. With the four-year plan, students see the longer-term effects of their decisions, and that they bear ultimate responsibility for how they choose to invest their time, money, and effort.

Second, the four-year plan is an entry point for a discussion about how the title of a course, the curricular requirements that can be fulfilled by successfully completing it, and the degree to which the student will find the course interesting and challenging are frequently completely independent of each other. Given that people usually learn more when they are both interested in and challenged by what they are studying, I tell students to take people, not courses, whenever possible. While I can make suggestions about this, it is up to the student to actively perform the necessary due diligence.

New Brave New World (again)

A university, yesterday

Like the ticking of a rather slow clock, we’ve just had the publication of a White Paper on Higher Education here in England and Wales. This comes after a long consultation process that stretches back into the previous Parliament and which leaves as many questions open as it addresses.

I’m not going to run through all of it because a) it’s very long, b) not all of it relates to L&T and c) I can’t face it: there’s lots of good pieces here and here. But I will update on the famous Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which I’ve written about before (here, here and here).

For those of you who have managed to avoid this idea so far, firstly my congratulations: essentially, it’s seen as an equivalent of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), trying to provide some judgement on the quality of teaching provision in a way that is comparable across institutions and disciplines. In so doing, it aims to increase transparency for students and to drive up standards.

As with all good ideas, the operationalisation has been the problem: how do you actually do this? Continue reading “New Brave New World (again)”

Horses for courses: why L&T is always problematic

12985592_10154231179959063_2464463777051743496_nI gotta tell ya: Hong Kong is a great place. I’m on the verge of saying it’s the most cosmopolitan city I’ve ever visited, and I’ve lived in (and loved) London. It’s a true melting pot of cultures, where everything seems to be the product of exciting blendings of East and West, North and South.

I’m only able to tell you this because this week I’ve been visiting, in order to run a couple of our ALPS workshops at the City University’s Department of Politics and Public Policy. Just as engaging as the city itself has been the chance to spend some time working with the colleagues there on their situation and interests about developing active learning.

However, rather than just make this a travelogue or an advert for our very-well-received and insightful workshops, I want to unpack a couple of issues that came up in our discussion that have a wider bearing.

Continue reading “Horses for courses: why L&T is always problematic”

Policy failure as an opportunity?

Reading Peter Scott’s piece in the Guardian today, I was struck once again by the continuing failure of policy-makers in the UK to define a clear and consistent approach to British Higher Education. While I don’t think that’s just a UK problem, as Chad’s numerous posts here can attest, it’s one that impacts more directly on my professional experience.

In essence, Scott argues that the nominal drive towards ‘improving standards’ is fatally undermined by the lack of clarity about what ‘standards’ consists of, and about who sets and checks them. Financial implications and the pressures of a globalising market make it hard to gain university-level buy-in.

But while it’s easy to be all doom-and-gloom about this, it’s also worth reflecting on the possible opportunities it brings. Continue reading “Policy failure as an opportunity?”