Thinking Visually: Assessment via Infographic

I thought I’d tap out a quick blog post on an alternative form of assessment that

a) my students seemed to really enjoy (this was an option for their first assignment and about 90% chose to do this over the other two options)


b) met two of my learning objectives for the course– ensuring students are able to effectively apply critical/theoretical concepts to a case study and also providing them with opportunities to produce work that is accessible to a non-academic audience (whilst still being intellectually rigorous).

It is an assignment that is easily adaptable to a range of topics and fields of study. So as you are all busy working on your course renewal for the upcoming academic year *nudge-nudge-September will be here sooner than we think*, I invite you to consider and adapt this assignment for your own courses.  If you do, I’d love to see the outcome!

The prompt

Below are the guidelines and instructions I provided to students in the syllabus:

For this assignment, you will need to do two things.  First, you will need to choose a concept/theory/debate discussed in the readings or in class and apply it to a case study.  ‘Applying’ can mean many things. It may mean using a concept to help explore a particular element of a conflict or show the conflict in a new light. It might mean using a concept to explain the success or failure of a particular peacebuilding program. These are just two examples. In general, it means that you are using the concept as a ‘lens’ through which you can look at an issue in a way that offers a unique perspective and/or tells a different side of the  ‘story’ than the ones we might see in the popular press or via orthodox theories such as liberalism and realism.

Second, you will need to present your analysis in the form of an infographic.   This means you should present your analysis visually.  You can use words, but these should accompany images—graphs, pictures, charts etc (get creative and use your imagination).  Dr. Peterson has put up some examples of infographics on Connect to give you some ideas but these should not be seen as templates.  The goal is to make complex, critical analytical work more accessible to the public by presenting it visually. By this point in your academic careers you have likely developed excellent writing skills.  However, the written form is only one way of communicating with the public—this assignment aims to offer you another mode of communication.

The Outcomes

Below are two examples that came out of my most recent Critical Peace Studies seminar group.  Many thanks to my students who allowed me to use their work in this blog– the first is a Marxist analysis of the climate change debate with further discussion of how structural violence can also help us highlight a range of impacts of climate change.  The latter also employs Galtung’s discussion of structural violence as a way of understanding the situation in North Korea (in comparison to traditional understandings of direct/ physical violence or inter-state conflict).


Assessment and Other Considerations

Of course, as with any ‘out of the ordinary’ form of assessment, students often get quite anxious about grades.  Whilst I hate contributing to the cult of ‘grades are the be-all-and end-all’ of student worth, I have found that walking the students through how I will read their work helps reduce their stress levels. Incidentally,  it also reduces the number of emails I receive regarding the assignment, thereby reducing my stress levels.  Below is the text I give them ahead of time (also in the syllabus)

You will be graded on the following criteria:

-the infographic is clearly linked to an element of the module (a concept, theory, approach or argument found in the readings or seminars). Please do not choose an orthodox IR concept such as realism, liberalism etc (speak to Jen before you start if you have any concerns over your topic)

-your ability to apply a concept from the course to a case study effectively

-your ability to present this complex/advanced analysis visually and creatively in a form that would be more accessible to a public audience than a traditional research paper.

A few cautionary notes.   Some students will get drawn in by the design side of this assignment and produce something visually striking without much in terms of content, so taking time to emphasize the content/substance element of this assignment will prevent headaches for all parties.  Also, some students will come equipped with a great deal of design expertise which in some regards puts other students at a disadvantage so again, going through examples of infographics related to your topic and highlighting what works and doesn’t work will help students build skills in this area and perform better on the assignment.  I found this website useful on providing students with some good tips for producing their infographic.   Finally, whilst one of the reasons I include assignments such as this and other visual assignments is that I do worry about how we primarily assess students on their writing, which I have written about here, you may want to consider offering this as an optional assignment which can be chosen in place of a more traditional written assignment.

Lest we forget: Teaching, Scholarship and the Travel Ban(s)

Whilst the US Travel Ban (and the new revised 2.0) was hot news for several weeks, it has nearly disappeared from our news screens already. Nonetheless, the ban(s) and current US politics continue to pose difficult questions for universities, scholarly communities, and students around the globe.  Of course, universities in the US are faced with some of the greatest problems and questions.  At ISA 2017  in Baltimore, I acted as discussant on a panel on ‘study abroad programs’ in which the QnA quickly turned to the issue of the travel ban and other immigration ‘moves’ in the US.  I saw how my American colleagues were facing issues that we in Canada do not face– for example, having to counsel and advise students who now fear participating in these valuable programs at the risk of not being able to return home.  There is of course the wider problem of campuses becoming so deeply divided (politically) that teaching (politics in particular, but many other topics) has at the same time become more difficult and ever more important.  Many “teaching in the Trump era” guides, news articles , and editorials have responded to this new challenge.

Here in Canada, the recent Travel Bans and immigration moves in the US have not had  as obvious an impact (though there are many colleagues and students who are directly impacted by recent events– I by no means wish to wash away the many people who are experiencing the real ramifications of recent policies).  However, the problem here is quantitatively and qualitatively different.  The topic has of course come up with students, and we’ve discussed things in class, but it has, in my experience, been very civil and though students are indeed interested in what’s going on south of the 49th, they are (for the most part) not as personally impacted and thus the issues arising are, again, different. Far fewer students have a fear of leaving the country, lest they not be able to return to their studies. Colleagues may need to re-route their flights but are much less at risk of not being able to return to their offices, labs, homes and families in Vancouver (though for some with family in the US there is of course a fear about when/if they will be able to visit loved ones again and their safety).

Still, the recent travel ban and shift towards populist or nationalist governments around the world have ramifications for all of us in the classroom, and for universities around the world.   These events have put the spotlight on issues affecting the academy that have always been there (academic freedom, scholars at risk, lack of equal opportunities for students etc), but have not been talked about widely or enough by administrators, departments or with our students.  In response to all of this, several of us drafted a letter to the UBC administration voicing our concern.  My colleague Prof. Christina Hendricks has written about our motivation for this, and provided a copy of our letter here.  We received a formal reply from the university which noted our concern and detailed a range of actions the university is undertaking.

I am re-posting all of this hear in the hopes that the specific issues raised for our students and colleagues around the world do not fall out of view as the news cycle turns.  The impacts and fears remain real and, as I note above, raise issues that have always existed with in the academy, though often in less publicized ways.  Recent events in both Turkey and Hungary are but two other examples. I also hope that some of my readers will have a look at some of the actions our university is trying to take in response to issues related to (and beyond) the travel bans and consider ways that we can make academic freedom as well as the safety and security of a range of marginalized groups on our campus and in our profession a regular and intentional part of our conversations.  On a more personal level– check in with your students. The ways that recent politics (in the US and abroad) are impacting your students may remain hidden to you.  Invite students to meet with you to discuss concerns they may have regarding their status at your university, their future their well being.  In the same way scholars around the world work to protect each other, so must we protect the most junior scholars among us.

(Teaching) Activist-Scholarship: A reflection on my morning at ISA2017

So, my last post was a reflection on how I often assign ‘alt-assignments’ to students without actually experiencing them myself, so today I will both practice what I preach and also try and put to paper the intense morning I had at ISA2017.

But first, some background. In my 4th year Critical Peace Studies class, we engage in a class project where the goal is some kind of public engagement/activism.  My students get to choose what the project will be, how it will unfold, even the deadlines.  The students also set their own ‘learning outcomes’ for the project and these include some activist goals of engaging with the public, changing (mis)perceptions people have about violence, confronting what they see as dangerous ‘echo chambers’ and a growing lack of civility in public discourse.

Of course, I haven’given complete control of the course over to the students, and I have set a final assignment for the course which requires them to reflect on the class project.  One of the writing prompts they are given is to reflect on the opportunities, benefits, roadblocks and dilemmas of activist-scholarship. I guess what I’m looking for them to think about are issues such as ‘Is there a trade off between academic rigor when trying to make our work public facing?’  ‘Do we lose our objectivity when we engage in activist-scholarship?’ ‘What are the dangers to the scholar, professional or personal, in undertaking activism within their professional life’?

So, in the spirit of walking in my students’ shoes, I’d like to reflect on my morning of activist scholarship.

First up was an 8:15 panel on Everyday Sexism and Allyship in our profession– where female and male scholars discussed sexism, harassment and even assault that many of us face in the carrying out of our professional duties.  The focus, however, was activist— what can and should we do?  Solutions came in two forms.  First, institutionally:  strengthen and contribute to unions within the university; get yourselves into positions of power to change the structure; reach out to your professional associations for support and work to strengthen these as well; the list went on.  Second– we need to change academic culture; scholars who are known to be predatory should not be invited to panels/prestigious speaking engagements (we should not normalize their behavior), we should model healthy networking and mentorship; we should investigate and promote the ‘slow scholarship’ movement, the list went on.

Following this panel, I rushed off to a Flash Mob to show solidarity with scholars who could not or would not attend ISA because of the recent executive order, the problem of getting a visa, fears over personal safety etc.  We stood for 15 minutes in the lobby holding up our passports, which symbolized our privileged mobility which  is not enjoyed by all of our colleagues and is a threat to academic freedom.

So what of my activist morning at what is primarily a conference to showcase your research?  Well, first, it was personally and professionally fulfilling.  The morning has left me feeling energized, connected and empowered to carry on with my academic duties, which (formally)  in my case has at times included serving on an Equity and Diversity Committee, Wellness Committee  and (informally) involves mentoring/supporting colleagues and students as they navigate academic life alongside me.   I also feel, that in regards to the flash mob, I am engaged in academic citizenship that is needed to protect academic freedom. Therefore,  on one level I feel this was ‘all in a days work’.

However, there are of course creeping insecurities that plagued my morning.  Will this roundtable ‘count’ for anything on my CV in terms of tenure and promotion?  Is ‘challenging the system’ really what my institution has in mind when they ask for evidence of ‘academic leadership’ as part of my tenure and promotion file?  Would my time not have been better spent writing up another paper on my research findings on active learning, or pushing myself to produce another paper on pacifism?

Beyond this issue of ‘production/good use of time’, I  found myself strangely worried about reputational issues.  In particular, there are now a good number of photos of me flashmobbing on Twitter.  Yes, we’ve received a lot of support, but does such activism potentially lead to me not being seen as a ‘serious academic’ (to use a phrase popularized and mocked on Twitter recently)? Is my activism welcomed by my colleagues, or will whispers ensue about my activism that paint me as someone who wastes time (and travel funds) to engage in such work?  And then, the human being in me (which does not always agree with the academic in me) scolds myself for being so selfish as to put my concerns about myself above those in need.

Now of course, I haven’t just engaged in activist-scholarship this week.  I did present a research paper and I was a discussant for another panel where I commented on three other research papers (the traditional conference activities).  So, I am left wondering about my insecurities, whether these are legitimate concerns or I am just being hyper-paranoid. Thinking through all of this, I’ll be seeking out guidance and advice from colleagues at my own institution on how (if?) I can be a successful activist-scholar at my institution.  What are my options? How/should I think about balance? What are the costs/are there costs? Being proactive about my concerns of activist scholarship will hopefully leave me in a much stronger position to strengthen my profile on all fronts.  I also hope that my own (brief) working through of some of the dilemmas presented above will also help facilitate my students own thinking on their first foray into activist-scholarship.

Report from ISA2017: When Jen goes walking in her students’ shoes… or why her ‘alt assignments’ need a bit more thought

Day one of my International Studies Association marathon in Baltimore and I attended a full day session on creative teaching.  So much to report and so many ideas for future lectures.  However, in terms of the most impactful moment of the day, the hands down winner was a session I participated in on ‘Authentic Writing Assignments’ (I had to leave early unfortunately, but the first half was incredible).  Run by two scholars who are clearly passionate about teaching, the session was taught in the form of active learning.  The facilitators had the participants (a room full of not-yet-fully functioning-academics due to most of us having spent the day before on long journeys)  actually attempt the writing assignments that they were proposing as useful additions to our courses.  In this case, I had to try my hand at writing an internal memo from the point of view of a managing director of a private company working in a conflict zone and then an editorial for a notable publication on a current human rights issue.

Now, incidentally, I had my students write editorials this year in my Conflict Management/Peacebuilding course.  I thought it was a fantastic idea, and had visions of all the wonderfully engaging yet theoretically informed pieces my students would write.  And of course, many of them did– but not before sending me dozens of emails about ‘what I was expecting’ and ‘how to start’ and ‘how it would be graded’ and ‘did it need a bibliography’ and…….  I recall being a bit frustrated at the time. I thought I’d written a pretty good explanation of what I wanted in the syllabus and I spent a whole 5 minutes (insert sarcasm here)  in class talking about what was expected of them. I then got a fair few complaints about this assignment in my formal and informal teaching evaluations after the fact.  I’ve remained stubborn, sure in my belief that this was a good assignment choice– teaching a different type of writing, for a different type of audience that would sever them well in the future.

So then today, my facilitators made me write an editorial.  I stared at my screen, unsure where to start, growing more frustrated by the second.  I knew the facts of the case, I knew the arguments one side would make, I knew the counter arguments that others would present.  I knew where to find all the facts and figures I needed to support either side.  But, the words simply did not come to the page.  I thought, ‘well, keep it simple’ ‘what are the main points you want to get across’  and ‘no academic jargon either– no isms, ologies or izations’.

The best I managed after 5 minutes of staring at my screen  was the following: ‘diversity is good’ ‘human rights abuses have to stop’ and ‘regional actors have a key role to play’.  Nice. Work. Peterson.

Now of course, my students have had more time than the 10 minutes we were given to get started, but still…. It gave me a real flavor of the confusion, discomfort and frustration that my students must feel when I throw some of my ‘alt assignments’ at them.  They finally come to terms with writing in an academic manner in the form of a formal research paper, and then some prof throws a completely new format at them and asks them to write for a totally different audience. It made me realize how much more work I have to do with them to help them develop the skills I want them to develop through these assignments– otherwise it just becomes busy work.

As a challenge to myself this summer, when I am working on my usual course renewal, I will force myself to at least start each of the types of ‘alt assignments’ that I plan to give to my students.  I will do this not because I feel I need to hold their hand and help them get a good grade, but to ensure that the reason I am assigning these modes of writing, the lessons I hope they draw from them, are not lost and the assignment does not just come to be seen as a ‘barrier to getting an A’ but rather an opportunity to learn new skills and material.  Hopefully I do better than I did on my rather sad editorial from earlier today.

There’s an App for That! My (unexpected) highlight of the term

Just thought I would write a short post on what turned out to be one of my most successful sessions last term—it is an activity that I think can easily be adapted to any class and might be something you could experiment with yourselves.  It is fairly low stakes in terms of prep time, the students really got into it and I believe it reinforced several lessons from the course, simultaneously.

Now, first I should note that I was, initially DREADING this session.  The ever-so-well- thought-out-plan when I wrote my syllabus in the summer was to have a guest speaker run a workshop on technology and peace where students would actually create/map out a piece of technology that could contribute to the aims of peacebuilding.  You know, bring someone in who actually works with technology, and not numpty-me who considers it a major win if she gets her power-point up and running at the start of the class.  I made the mistake of putting this workshop into the syllabus, printing it and circulating it to students before I received confirmation from said guest speaker.  Said guest speaker could not make it.

So, of course I could have cancelled the session or just waxed lyrical even more about the politics and ethics of technology in relation to peace (as I had done in the previous lecture), but me being possibly the most stubborn person in any given room on any given day decided to burn ahead with my workshop idea regardless of my star-luddite credentials.

Working with folks in the humanitarian sector in my previous job, I was well aware of some of the App development going on in that sector, so I thought it might be interesting to have students develop ‘Peace Aps’.  Given that there was no way I could actually teach my students the basics of how to build an app (and trust me I did look into this, but after 8 hours wasted on reading the ins and outs of how to build your own App, I had to admit defeat).

I decided to have them story-board potential Apps.  Their task was to map out and illustrate a landing page and 3 further ‘screens’ for an App.  Groups were given only two prompts to get them started—a very general prompt and an audience (examples included “Audience:  Children 6-10 in Sri Lanka Purpose: Land Mine Awareness; Audience Black Lives Matter/Civil Rights Activists in USA/Canada Purpose:  Support and Facilitate Activist Work;  Audience: Aid Workers in and Around Syria, Purpose: Information and awareness of Non-State Armed Groups).   Each potential App was linked to a concept or theme explored in previous lectures.

Students were given a piece of poster paper to sketch out their initial planning of the App (see picture at bottom of this post– the quality of which I assume will solidify my luddite credentials).  They were encouraged to integrate  ideas, debates and issues from previous lectures (on peacebuilding more generally and technology and peacebuilding specifically).

There is not too much I can say here, except that my classroom came alive.  I was worried that the students would find the activity a waste of time, and maybe focus on the ‘cool technology’ side of the assignment, rather than engage with the issues. However, I saw so much evidence of integration of concepts from previous lectures, that it was both affirming to me (they were listening!), but also reinforced student learning and helped them make connections between classroom learning and the application (no pun intended) of this to the real world.

I think in this day and age we would be hard pressed to not be able to link whatever topic we teach to technology in some way and I really do think that this is something that could be adapted for most classes (my husband agreed to test my crazy active learning pedagogy on this one, and tried it out in his Sociology of the Family.  Another success!).  Of course with all active learning the key is in the pre-amble, prep and debrief of lessons learned.  A lecture on the key debates around technology in relation to the themes of your course sets a valuable foundation for the activity, and time to discuss lessons learned via the activity is essential (I’ll admit I missed the trick on this one and didn’t leave any time for a proper debrief—something I’ll fix for next next year).   app

Dr Critical: Or how I learned to hate the term ‘Thesis Statement’

It is essay season.  A season sometimes dreaded by students and faculty (and most likely always by TAs who often are burdened with the majority of the marking).  Now, I say dreaded because of the marking involved, but actually (because I’m a huge nerd) it also a season that I secretly love as it is one of the few chances I get to meet with students about the research they wish to conduct.  This year I feel particularly spoiled as my 3rd year Peacebuilding students are choosing some truly original case studies, and case studies I know little about.

I know there are a few essays coming down the pipeline (no pun intended) on Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada, the USA and New Zealand.  Another student is writing a paper on memory and forgiveness in relation to Comfort Women, whilst another student is tackling the unique dilemmas of DDR in relation to female ex-combatants.  None of these topics or cases were on my ‘question list’ in the syllabus, but I have been more than happy to approve these topics, encouraged by my students’ passion for these cases and the originality in their approach.

However, in my office hour, the first question I often get is ‘Professor, will you read over my thesis statement’.   Urgh, yes I will.  But also, Urgh, here we go again.

To be clear, a good academic essay needs a clear argument, and if you want to call it a thesis statement, fine by me.  However, I worry that the getting the ‘Thesis Statement Right’ often becomes the first and primary focus of students.  I often feel that they just want to know they’ve got this piece right, they want a simple yes or no and that this approval will equate to a giant tick mark that guarantees a good mark.  When expected grades don’t materialize, one of the first bits of ‘push back’ I get from students is actually ‘but you said I had a good thesis statement!’.

I believe that this  fascination and faith in having a thesis statement approved (and my further concerns below)  can actually be detrimental to their intellectual growth and progress.  I say this for two reasons.

First, I often see students starting with a thesis statement.  Before they have done their research, grappled with the issues, thought about what part of the intellectual puzzle interests them, they feel the need to have a clear thesis statement.    The idea that they can tell you what their argument will be before they’ve done the heavy lifting of research and analysis is so problematic.   It often leads to an introductory paragraph that doesn’t match what they then go on to do in their essay (ie they get their thesis statement approved by teaching staff, slap it at the beginning and then go off on a tangent related to what they are really interested in).

This can be easily fixed of course by having students return to their ‘thesis statement’ after they write the essay to make sure there is a match.   I might also start refusing to ‘approve’ thesis statements until students can produce the research that shows me how they arrived at said thesis statement.

However, what is more concerning to me is that once students have their thesis statement ‘approved’ they become trapped/stifled for the rest of the writing and research process.  They’ve said ‘This essay will prove A by exploring XYX’  so dog-gonnit, that’s what the  essay will do, even if in their further reading  and research they become fascinated by ABC.    They didn’t get a thesis statement approved for ABC so they’d better not risk it.

I find this second scenario particularly problematic in terms of the fact that I’m increasingly seeing students think that a ‘good thesis statement’  proves something and has three parts (don’t even get me started on my hatred of the 5 paragraph essay—well, at least wait for a future post on that!).  This concern is perhaps a product of me now being in a more empirically driven department (whereas during my time at Manchester you couldn’t  fall over without taking out a Critical-Post-Positivist scholar), but I feel that the way we sometimes talk about and teach about ‘thesis statements’ signals to our students that the only types of knowledge-moves they are free to engage in are things that prove ‘A led to B’ or ‘C causes D’ or ‘E and F are locked in a dangerous feedback loop’.

These are interesting questions and I’m happy for students to go in this direction.  I want them to discover their own epistemic identity of course!  But I also want them to be aware of other knowledge-moves, ways of knowing, ways of understanding the world and I feel that in some cases the way we set up and define a good ‘thesis statement’ mitigates against students developing more critical, post-positivist epistemic identities that are so central ensuring plural ways of understanding the world around us.

As such, I’ve tried to have an honest discussion with my students about this in the lead-up to this semester’s term paper.  I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to destabilize all prior learning and advice.  Further,  they will still certainly take courses where they are expected to have a clear/traditional/empirically grounded thesis statement.  But for my class, I leave them with the following slide and discussion to try to encourage those who want to take intellectual risks or move towards a different set of knowledge-production techniques.

The (dreaded) thesis statement

  • Your essay should of course have a clear focus/purpose
  • I use the language of the ‘thesis statement’ cautiously– I know it is a term students understand and use, but I worry it narrows understandings of what they can write about
  • Your essay does not need to prove You do not have to prove causation for example. You are welcome to do so, but this is not the only type of research political scientists engage in.
  • Think more about the purpose of your essay— the puzzle you want to solve, the issue or fact you want to explore in an in-depth or innovative way, an issue or policy you want to apply a critical lens to. This wider/more general purpose might be your ‘thesis statement’.
  • This may include—exploring how themes of victimhood materialize in your case study, how a project reinforces patriarchy in society, how definitions of peace are exposed in a political negotiation, how a specific ideology acts as a foundation for a peace talk (or how two ideologies seem to be at odds), is there a tension between rationality and emotion in the policy you are analyzing? Be creative, be original.

And the gold medal goes to… Critical thinking on how we label states—Case Study Rwanda

In opposition to the silver medal winner, the learning activity that was OVERWHELMINGLY  considered to be the task that most influenced student thinking (as voted for by students via their final reflective writing assignment), did require a lot of work—on both our parts.  It was in fact an activity that I had planned on scrapping  because it is so labor intensive on me[i], requires students to really engage and think independently during the class (which is of course OK! But this class is scheduled right around mid-terms when students’ energy levels take a big dip and some students are generally resistant to ‘heavy’ forms of active learning), and it requires a really good debrief at the end to ensure that the lessons learned are reinforced.  I find it exhausting, even though I always feel it has gone smoothly.  Also, if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure the students were learning as much as I had hoped from it.

I was wrong.  The fact that almost twice as many students wrote about this session in their final reflections compared to the Saliency activity (the silver medal winner) has left this activity, or at least some version of it, firmly established in my syllabus.    The lessons learned here by students (taken from their end of term written reflections)[ii] reveal the activity’s ability to simultaneously teach a range of intellectual skills and offered some interesting moments in terms of students’ personal and academic growth.

In preparation for the class, students read the course textbook where the ‘basics’ of the categorization of ‘strong v weak v failing v collapsed’ states is described.  Here the indicators that allow these measurements to be made are defined and described.  Their second reading for the week presents a more critical view of this categorization.[iii]  I also put a folder up on the course website that contains a series of short articles/data sets regarding Rwanda.  These documents include reports on Rwanda’s progress from the Human Development Index,  internal crime and safety reports, local and international news articles etc.


Part One:  Evidence based categorization

The activity is split into two main tasks.  The first is more of a data gathering and interpretation exercise.  Students are provided with a worksheet that includes a chart they need to fill in. Using the documents provided on the course website and using any other statistics or data they can find online, they try to make an evidence based conclusion regarding whether Rwanda is currently a strong, weak or failing state.  They are challenged to categorize Rwanda as strong/weak/failing on each of the indicators explored in the textbook (capacity, autonomy, internal legitimacy, external legitimacy) and provide the exact statistics/pieces of data they are using to make that claim.  Many students found that Rwanda was ‘strong’ on some indicators and ‘weak’  or even ‘failing’ on others.   During the debrief we discovered that students had ranked Rwanda differently in some categories, despite working with the same data sets.

Many students noted how this was a useful exercise in terms of thinking about methodology and subjectivity in analysis.  Some  discussed how it reinforced the importance of making evidence based statements in class discussions and assignments.   In this regard, one student noted:

‘I also enjoyed how the worksheet allowed me to move from my own perceptions and opinions of what I already thought I knew to showing me how to do proper research and analyzing the nation myself in order to strengthen my knowledge of weak/failed/strong states’

And of course there are large data sets that combine all of the indicators and provide a broad ranking of each country in relation to others on a scale.  However, several students noted the use of such a big data set might obscure some interesting anomalies or conflicting data—making note that even though overall Rwanda might be classified as ‘weak’, such a generalization or ‘averaging’ of indicators obscured policy areas where Rwanda was doing well.  These students noted how numbers and quantitative indexes help us generalize and rank but qualitative data and the exploration of individual indicators is needed to get a complete picture of a case study.  This was a particularly important moment in terms of some students reconsidering their epistemic stance and the need to delve more deeply into statements presented as ‘truth’.  As one student noted in their reflection on this activity:

‘I recognize slants that I have within myself, as well it has allowed me to be more critical of the sources of information and whether or not such an argument or statement is more or less powerful; before I would assume all statements to be equal as I would not challenge such ideas much past their grammar or obvious rhetoric.’


Part Two:  Critical thinking—assessing critiques of the ‘weak state’ discourse

On the back of the handout is where I expect students to engage with the critical reading—to reflect on the experience they just had regarding categorizing Rwanda, and consider it in relation to concerns raised by those who critique the ‘weak states’ discourse.  With the people around them, students are asked to discuss and record their answers to the following questions.

  1. Based on your answers above—how would you classify this state OVERALL: Strong, Weak or Failing?
  2. If you had different answers in the first column (ie some indicators suggested a strong state, other indicators suggested a weak state) how did you make a final decision about the overall categorization of the state? Did you view some indicators as more important?
  3. Were there any interesting debates between you and your colleagues on how to categorize and what evidence to use?

In their reflections, a lot of students discussed how  exploring these questions led them to a belief that the rankings were unfair as they failed to capture progress/positive moves forward—states could still be labelled pejoratively as ‘weak’ despite making significant progress on some indicators (which suggests strength).  For example, one student noted that

‘Its HDI went from 0.277 in 1980 to 0.434 in 2012, which means, although the current HDI value is still quite low, there has been significant progress in human development in the country and it feels unfair to classify such a leap forward as weak; especially after the tragedy it went through in 1993’

While independent critical reflections such as the above were encouraging to see, there were also great moments of students understanding the ramifications of such critiques and addressing counter-arguments to the critiques of the discourse.  For example, one student concluded that

‘Determining the difference between a strong, weak, failing, and failed state is hard as contradictions in the data are apparent. However, politics itself is hard to define, but as political scientist we have to define with the best and legitimate system available in order to make comparisons. Comparisons allow for better policy decisions, thereby, a more stable political order’

What was nice to see in all of the examples above is students’ growing ability to be specific and concise in applying concrete facts/data to quite abstract conceptual debates that they were very briefly exposed to in readings and lectures.   One of my biggest concerns with essays in undergraduate level essays is students inability to link case study data in a meaningful way with some of the conceptual debates to which they are drawn.   For example, it is not uncommon to see students say something akin to ‘Country X’s relationship with Country Y is neo-colonial’ but then fail to provide the richer explanation of exactly why.  This case study allowed them to practice this in a supported and low stakes way and their reflections showcased their growing ability to do so.   It has encouraged me to make greater use of Case Study type activities, even if labour intensive.  The payoff makes it worth it.


[i] Why is it so labour intensive?

  1. The case study materials you select need to be carefully thought out, and succinct. Posting whole journal articles, 30 page NGO reports etc is not really an option unless you want to turn this into a much larger assignment or have it spread out over several weeks (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but is difficult in an intro level course which covers a lot of topics)
  2. The above materials need to be updated year on year so as to reflect any political changes/major events
  3. The above materials need to be posted on course website in a timely manner, so no last minute lesson planning!
  4. I always bring a few hard copy packages of these materials so that students who don’t have their computers with them in class or have problems reading off computer screens aren’t excluded.
  5. I personally prefer to use a handout to keep students on task/structured in their work. So this needs preparing, copying, handing out etc.

[ii] A note on research ethics: students were able to opt out of this research project and the content of their written reflections has not been used for the study.

[iii] I assign the following reference, but there are many other’s one could use. Gruffydd Jones, Branwen (2013) ’Good governance’ and ‘state failure’: genealogies of imperial discourse’. Cambridge Review of International Affairs26(1),49-70.