Role Reversal: Turning my students into teachers via assignments

Last semester, students in my 4th year Critical Peace Studies seminar worked together to decide on a class project that all 20+ of them could do together. The goals were threefold— a) to integrate/use the critical peace studies literature in an advanced way b) to explore (and potentially critique) the concept of ‘activist scholarship’ that is also prevalent in the field of peace studies through experience, and finally c) to do something that had the potential to build peace locally; to have students challenge,  through experiential learning, binaries that persist in our disciplines (including ‘us v them’ ‘peace v war’ ‘peaceful societies v violent societies’)

After a few guided sessions where we explored a range of potential projects, we democratically decided to pursue the creation of a series of online education modules that could be used by high school teachers to teach students about some of the themes coming out of Critical Peace Studies (minus all the academic jargon).  In other words, the education modules were meant to transform/crystalize the broader lessons from critical peace studies into something accessible for an interested, but general audience of younger students.  The output of these resulted in a student-named and created website that offers the materials free of charge to be used by teachers.  Education modules based on an active learning pedagogical model on the following topics were produced: ‘An Introduction to Peace and Violence’ , the ‘Consequences of Consumerism’ and the ‘Complications of Foreign Aid’.

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Image from Consumerism Module, Slide Deck

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Image from Consumerism module, Teachers Guide/Table of Contents

Following the success of this in with my 400 level students, I adapted the assignment and included it as one of the ‘project choices’ in my POLI 370 Peacebuilding course last semester.  The course already included a week on Peace Education in the section of the course that addressed different peacebuilding policies—so it was already a good fit.  I had approximately 15 students sign up for this option, which resulted in more active learning based peace education modules (on the themes of ‘Reconciliation in Post Holocaust Germany’, ‘Peace Through Media Literacy’ and ‘Indigenous Peacebuilding’).

As there are unlikely to be high-school level courses in peacebuilding, in both of the examples above, students needed to think about building a lesson around a topic that would already be included in a school curriculum (ie it needed to fit into a course that might be taught in a high school such as history, social studies, communications technology, etc).  They then needed to integrate relevant concepts from peace and conflict studies into these topics.  This was important, as it ensured the students were not simply replicating/simplifying a topic or lecture that I had already completed for our class.  Below I reflect on the successes and limitations of this alternative assignment.

Learning Outcomes (expected and  unexpected)

Of course some of the most obvious lessons learned by students relate directly to further mastery of  course content.  As all of us who teach know, you often learn a topic in a much deeper (dare I say ‘alternative’) way when you have to teach it.  This is particularly true when thinking about how to teach something to absolute beginners. Yes, I can wax lyrical about agonism or hybridity as it relates to peace studies in 8000 + word academic papers or over conference dinners for hours (some might say ad nuaseum), but having to explain these concepts to novices in my field (even at the 300 or 400 level undergraduate level) has forced me to break down these ideas into smaller constituent parts, think about defining them in several different ways so as to aid in understanding, apply to case studies in a really clear and significant way (that speaks to young people), think about how it relates to other ideas/concepts in my discipline, prepare myself to answer questions and respond to critiques that my dozens of students might throw at me mid-lecture etc etc.  By requiring my students to become the teachers and prepare materials in the same way, a deeper learning of content ensued.  This was expected and part of the justification for approving it as a final project in my 400 level course and including it as a project choice in my 300 level course.

What is perhaps more significant are the unexpected learning outcomes I witnessed in my students from observing them as they worked towards the final product.  For example, class discussions about the integration of ‘critical peace research’ into the first set of lesson plans developed, often centered around concerns that the modules were taking on more of a ‘development studies’ or ‘social justice’ focus rather than a strictly ‘peace and conflict focus’.  This, of course, led to fantastic discussions about disciplinary boundaries (or the lack thereof).  Students, who up until now had been fairly accepting of the value of critical peace studies and its interdisciplinary history, were now querying potential dangers in muddying the disciplinary boundaries and terminology; they held wonderful discussions  about the values and limits of interdisciplinarity.  This also brought to the surface potential critiques of the field of critical peace studies (has it become too focused on structural violence as opposed to physical violence, for example?).  In both classes, I listened to students express frustration with the limitations of academic language, and through this frustration saw them make incredible moves towards developing their own epistemic stances and concerns about knowledge production.  All of this is to note the positive and often unplanned/unscripted learning that came from allowing students to experiment and take charge of their own learning through this particular assessment.

 

What didn’t work— lessons for future iterations

To be honest, and even though the quality of what was produced in my 300 level course was excellent in many cases, this option worked much better in my smaller class.  It was not that my 300 level students were any less driven or intelligent, only that in this course, (where I was managing 8 different types of final projects with 90 students),  I was unable to have the degree oversight and input into the production of the education modules  that I had at the 400 level (with 20 students, all working on the same project type).  In the smaller class, I was able to lead discussions in ways that facilitated the types of learning discussed above.  Perhaps more importantly,  students who were working on different modules were able to talk to each other, bounce ideas off each other, and think about creating some coherence between modules.  Seeing exciting and creative things happening in one group, often led the other groups to ‘up their game’, leading to an improvement in quality across the board.

This same level of peer to peer learning did not happen in the larger class—partly because of my inability to manage discussions and partly because of a lack of shared purpose between the smaller groups working on these modules.  So, even though students had been given clarity of what needed to be submitted (a downloadable teachers guide and an accompanying slide-deck), a general qualitative rubric, as well as examples from the 400 level course)—there was a lack of integration and joined-up thinking across groups that I think prevented the type of deeper learning I saw in the smaller 400 level group.

Learning from this, I think it would be worth me dedicating a set time (or assigning a TA)  to meet once or twice with these groups  so that I could facilitate discussions and create opportunities for learning and sharing between groups.    I also think that having the groups work on ensuring some kind of consistency between groups (perhaps through peer review) would also improve the quality of the education modules overall. It would also give these students more experience in project management/dealing with larger group dynamics.

 

Opportunities for Greater Impact

One of the reasons I’ve decided to blog about this particular assignment (beyond wanting to showcase my students’ work—which they agreed would be up on the site before embarking on the project), is that I feel it is something easily replicated in the broadest range of disciplines (compared to some of my assignments which are much more arts/social science focused).   Even the most diverse of high school curriculums will still have gaps, and even though teachers will have limitations in terms of what they can include (due in part to teaching cultures but also simply down to time/having to focus on preparing students for state/public exams), the opportunity to include even the smallest elements of these lesson plans in order to expose younger students to a wider range of ideas is an exciting one.  Although reaching out and publicizing these modules is something that I have admittedly not been great at (we had a small ‘outreach and publicizing’ element to this project in the smaller class, which did not really pan out to the extent hped, and I have really only being able to get the website out through my own personal networks), the potential of partnering up with local schools and building in the delivery of these modules to local schools is another option.  Having worked more directly with local schools in my previous gig, I’d ideally like to reach out to local schools and have my students consult directly with teachers to help produce and deliver materials that address specific teaching needs of teachers in my local community.

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Letting students choose how they will be assessed: Yes, you read that right.

Followers of my blog will have seen some of my writing on alternative modes of assessment, including a few that have proven most popular with my students (such as the infographic, artistic reflections and core-concept videos.)  Given the positive response I’ve had from students (both informally through out of class discussions and in my formal teaching evaluations), I really challenged myself in the past year (in my upper year courses) to  increase my use of these different types of assignments.  In particular, I have  I have focused on creating variety of assignment types in a single course in order to give students a choice of which type of assignment they would like to tackle (for example, in my 300 level IR class this past term, students could choose from one of eight assignment types for their final assessment– not 8 essay questions/options on one assignment type, but different types of assignments all together).  I’ll be challenging myself in the future to think about what this looks like in my first-year courses.

My reasons for integrating a range of alternative assessments, from a pedagogical approach, is two fold. First, alternative assessments, when designed properly,  teach students a broader range of skills that will be useful for them in their professional lives.  A well designed assessment can be used as something concrete to talk about in their cover letters or CVs and at job interviews. Allowing students to choose assignments based on what skills they want to further develop and be able to showcase can be combined with more traditional disciplinary learning goals creating a multifaceted learning experience that is also tailored to individual student needs.   Secondly, I have found that when students are able to choose how they will be assessed, it increases their sense of ownership (and dare I say, excitement) about a project, that often leads to increased quality of output.  Side note: One of my colleagues, who also gives students choice on assessment type, noted that they do this for reasons related to access, diversity and inclusion (something I hadn’t thought of  but will also consider, moving forward).

I have been able to glean evidence of both of these outcomes through reflective writing assignments where I prompt students to explore what they have learned in terms of content and professional skills, or what they learned about themselves more generally by completing one of these assignments.  While I can’t provide specific examples of student reflections due to confidentiality–  numerous students have spoken in detail about how a project links to (quite a wide range of!) specific career goals.  I also have had a few students note how they were surprised how they lost focus on ‘the grade’ they might get on the assignment and were almost entirely focused on the output—and how this in turn sometimes made the assignment ‘not feel like an assignment’.  There were also some very candid moments were students reflected on their own personal situation, or that of their family and how being able to choose this particular assignment actually allowed them to learn more about themselves, their background, their heritage and the struggles of people in their own community.

Most of my posts over the rest of the summer will explore some of the alternative assessments I used this year in my 300 level International Relations course on peacebuilding that I feel could be adapted to other topics.   This will include posts on ‘Publish With Your Prof’, ‘Peace Negotiations Database’,  ‘Education/Teaching Modules’ and ‘Roundtable/Event Planning’.  If I have time, I will sneak in some more, but I found these to be the most translatable to a range of courses. Although I’ll go into greater detail on the ins and outs of each particular assignment type in future posts, here are few general tips if you want to get started on creating your own ‘menu’ of assignment types for your classes next year.

Design for academic rigor first :  Designing new innovative assignments can be really freeing and creatively satisfying for us as scholars at we think about teaching the same course again for the umpteenth time, but there is of course a risk of our creativity getting the better of us and focusing too much on creating something new/innovative/dare-I-say-fun.    The focus on the innovation can take over quite easily (which I have learned the hard way in previous stages of my ‘alternative assessment’ journey).  Have a look at your learning goals and objectives for the course, specific readings/themes/concepts and build assessments around those. What does ‘mastering a concept’ or ‘acquiring a skill’ mean in the context of your course and types of assignments might allow students to demonstrate these?

Create a clear set of expectations for your students for each assignment type:  Just as you are taking a risk—so are your students.  You are asking them to step outside the comfortable bounds of assessment formats that they have come to know quite well (research papers, exams). This can be disconcerting for students. Despite the aforementioned students who reflected on how grades became a secondary consideration for them, grades still matter (to students and to institutions).  Many students have come to know exactly what a good essay or response to a short answer question in an exam looks like, without having to give it too much thought.  For alternative assessments,  you need to give them a solid sense of security—what does a good/excellent ‘infographic/database entry/concept video etc’ looks like?   How can they get that ‘A’ on this untested assignment type? Even if you are not one for creating very detailed rubrics (like myself), you need to give clarity on what excellence looks like if you want them to be creative and take pedagogical risks alongside you.  Be specific about what you will be looking for, what they should put most of their effort into, what you expect the final project to tangibly look like—otherwise, students themselves might get carried away with the creative/innovative element of the assignment at the expense of intellectual rigor and course content.

Be flexible with your students and ask them to be flexible with you:  This is particularly important the first time you try out a new mode of assessment.  What might be clear as day in your head might a) be envisioned and interpreted in a different way by your students and b) might not actually be possible in the confines of the course.  Expect the unexpected, be willing to alter what the project might look like in the end (without reducing the degree of intellectual rigor you expect at this level).  Very few of the alternative assessments my students have produced physically looked like what I had envisioned in my head when I wrote up the assignment instructions.  However, nearly all of them have still delivered in terms of the intellectual curiosity and scholarly standard I had expected.  And in some cases, their interpretation of the creative side of the brief was superior to my own.

Community Partnerships and the Classroom: A Rough Guide

My first foray into the world of community based and experiential learning (CBEL) was waaaaay back in the day, when I was myself an eager young student.  In the 3rd year of my undergraduate career I took a course on religious ethics that helped fulfill one of my major requirements (it was also one of the few courses that fit my schedule in terms of also trying to balance random jobs—see more on that below).  The professor gave us a choice of writing (yet another) final paper or volunteering with a local organization that related to course themes in some way.  Exhausted by the idea of writing yet another term paper and desperately seeking some kind of professional experience beyond my current array of part time jobs (selling men’s clothing at the local mall, cocktail waitress at a sports bar, and appraising diamonds in Toronto’s diamond district—I kid you not) I approached the professor about the latter.  He took the time to ask me about my interests (international politics, I said) and I was placed with a local  NGO, Kairos Canada.

This placement would completely change my life. My work there and the advice of my colleagues directly led me to the career I find myself in today.  It was a moment in my life where I first found ‘my people’ and saw others doing the kinds of work I thought I wanted to do.  I could suddenly articulate more clearly the professional activities I wanted to be involved in.  I could suddenly see how I could tangibly use what I was learning in class. Importantly, working alongside them gave me confidence to pursue a career in this field, confidence that no number of A+ papers could have ever provided.

Perhaps because of this life changing personal experience (or perhaps because I am now a wee bit tired of being on the receiving end of term papers as a professor), I am constantly seeking out opportunities for my students to engage in CBEL as part of my courses.  During my time at Manchester, I brought my MA students into a partnership with a local council and an NGO –with my students mentoring middle- school students on a unique Model United Nations program.  Since joining UBC, I’ve placed students with a range of organizations, including Amnesty International, BC Council for International Cooperation, Canadian International Council and the Museum of Vancouver.  I’ve been helped tremendously along the way by UBC’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning.

Needless to say, I have a lot I could write about here—and please feel free to email me with any questions for more detail about any of the points below.  My main take home point is that I see many of my students who take part in these projects have similarly transformative experiences to what I describe above.  If anyone reading this has ever considered dipping their toes into CBEL, my advice would be to dive in—the projects I’ve facilitated for my students continue to motivate me as a scholar and, I believe, contribute to building small but important links between the public university and the communities in which we work.

Jen’s Rough Guide

Choosing and approaching organizations: This can be the hardest part—particularly if you live in a city where your ‘industry’ isn’t very active. Vancouver is a lot of things, but a hub of ‘traditional’ peacebuilding organizations it is not.   I’ve had to get creative in thinking about how local partners relate to my International Relations courses.  In nearly all cases I (or my helpful friends at CCEL) have started by sending an email with a short blurb about what I’m looking for (having students volunteer with them for approx 30 hours a term and complete some concrete task for the partner) and some very general aims of my course in terms of learning goals/themes of the course.  Usually this is followed up by having a coffee with organizations that do respond.  It is generally the organization themselves who identify links I hadn’t even considered and suggest a specific project for the students to work on.  Whilst of course our students are meant to learn from this partnership, it is equally if not more important that the organizations really gain something useful by hosting our students.

Select your students: In all my courses, with one exception, CBEL has been an optional component and I personally feel this is better.  Not all students will desire such an opportunity and organizations should not be burdened with unmotivated students who find such a project a ‘chore’ rather than an opportunity.   An exception to this might be where it is well known that CBEL is a required part of the course and indeed is the reason students have selected the course.

Depending on interest and spaces available, I have had to resort to having students formally apply for these placements in my courses.  A one page CV as well as a short (300 word) statement of interest is the procedure I have normally gone with.  Whilst I do consider a student’s previous work experience or volunteering as an asset, I would encourage you to not make this a requirement or even grant it too much weight.  I had a student a couple years ago tell me they had considered applying but knew there were loads of other students who had WAY more relevant experience then him, so he felt it was pointless.   He was highly motivated, intelligent and empathetic—perfect for the placements, but had ruled himself out.

A reminder that many of the internships and relevant volunteer experiences our students have are not available to all—particularly students (like myself, many moons ago) who have to work multiple jobs to help pay for university or have caring duties, and for whom unpaid positions are simply not possible.  For this reason, I give a lot of weighting to thoughtful reflections on students’ motivations for applying for the placement.

As a side note to give you a totally unscientific sense of demand for placements–  in the two political science courses I  where I have offered CBEL as an option, I have had about 1/3 of my students apply.

Manage expectations (of everyone): Your students may have visions of seeing through a groundbreaking project from start to finish in a 13-week term.  Your partner may have visions of your skilled-but-still-learning-undergraduates finally being able to produce that 50 page, fully referenced research and evaluation report on a project that they’ve been unable to produce over the past year due to limited resources (also in 13 weeks).  You as a professor may have visions of everyone in the group getting along fabulously on this amazing project that you’ve helped facilitate—with both the students and the organization working in tandem seamlessly to create a truly transformative experience for all.

None of these are likely to happen.    Be realistic with the partner about the skill level of your students and the time they will have to commit to the project.  Be honest with your students about the very small piece of the puzzle they will contribute to during the term, and be clear to them about the limited resources the organization might have and the narrow scope of the project.  They may not be working side by side with staff and might often be working independently. The work might not be glamorous (but it is still important).  For yourself—be prepared for the usual group dynamics and occasional concerns over unmet expectations from all sides.  These projects can be transformative but they are, like everything, never completely smooth sailing.

Deciding on Assessment: I have almost exclusively assessed students who participate in these projects via a reflective writing assignment of some type.   I usually start with looking at the learning objectives I set for the class (listed in my syllabus) and create prompts around these.  This usually results in a quite general prompt that requires the students to link specific experiences from their placement to specific concepts, theories or debates from the course.  The helpful folks at UBCs CCEL directed me to the DEAL model of reflective writing, and I’ve found this very useful in terms of helping me articulate what I expect from students and giving them models to review for what is often (for them) a very different form of writing.

If you are having TAs mark reflective writing for the first time, it is incredibly important that you provide them with further advice and training. I’ve had TAs in the past struggle, tending to approach these pieces as mini-essays, impacting both the grade and feedback provided.

Where appropriate, I have also assessed and graded the reports/presentations produced by students for organizations—again, clear rubrics are needed for these as generally partners are not looking for a traditional undergraduate research paper.

Try to build lasting partnerships (do as I say, not as I do): One thing I have not been successful in, in my current job, is developing longer term, more sustainable partnerships. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but it is my one main regret in relation to my CBEL work.  My experiences in Manchester where I worked with one organization for multiple years was, I feel, a richer experience for all involved as we improved on the partnership with each passing year.  Importantly, because many local organizations are already overstretched, bringing in new actors (students and us as instructors) can be disruptive and increase their workload in a multitude of ways.  A longer term more sustainable partnership, if well designed and based on the principle of reciprocity should, in theory, be more beneficial to partners as they can come to rely on a steady stream of well-prepared students to do specific parts of their work, without having to reinvent the wheel on an annual basis.

Core Concept Videos: Use in the classroom and as an alternative assessment

Another quick post on my use of Core Concept videos that I use both as a teaching aid and as a successful alternative assignment in my courses.  In developing lectures and learning materials I have, as I’m sure many of you have, spent a lot of time online, looking for effective videos to show either in lectures or to post on course websites as supplementary material.  I occasionally find a clip that is perfect– that illustrates the concept or case study clearly and succinctly.  More often though, I find myself spending hours viewing videos that are at best dull and meandering (urgh, talking heads) and at times outright incorrect in the definitions or details they are providing.  After much frustration and hours wasted looking for good, basic videos to supplement my lectures and the textbook, I recall lamenting in silent frustration ‘In the time it took to search for a good one I could have made my own bloody video’.   Challenge accepted— well/and, partly delegated.

Armed with a younger, more tech-savvy summer Academic Assistant, a series of Core Concept Videos of topics that I see as foundational to the study of Politics were produced. The series included videos of 5-7 minutes on key terms such as power and freedom and important theories such as liberalism and realism.  Important to note is that their aim is to not simply define the term (there lots of good videos for that as well as a glossary in the textbook) but to present the terms critically– explore debates related to these and the application of the concepts to different situations.  The goal of these is to show how these foundational theories and concepts are actually used in the discipline as a way of modelling to students how they should think about and use the concepts in their own work.  They are there to reinforce rather than repeat other learning materials.

I know what you’re thinking– ‘I don’t have time for this!’  But, in the long run, making your own videos actually saves time– no more searching endlessly on YouTube for the perfect video or having to check that YouTube links work every year, or having to replace an outdated video.  Once you learn the technology and decide on format/scripts a video can be made in a couple of hours. The technology is easy, even I can use it and those who have read my other posts know about my fear of most learning technologies. I use Camtasia for which my university has a license, it took me about 2 hours to learn how to use it– but there are many free online video production tools that allow you to dice and splice content into a video (do be careful of copyright and fair use rules). Most universities will have a license to something similar (and likely support/training for video development).

But beyond saving time, making your own videos also allows you to target specific debates and issue that you want your students to engage with; it means that you can make specific reference to course readings, lectures and tutorials.  Instead of being just another tag-on resource for students, making your own videos really allows you to use technology to augment what you already have, rather than just add another medium for the sake of adding another medium.  You’ll see in this video that my assistant helps students consider many important lessons regarding how NOT to define key terms.  She also provides students with application concepts to cases and, importantly, ends with a series of debate questions that then feed into my lectures and the tutorial series.

 

The success of  videos as a tool in first year courses (I’ve had positive comments about these in my student evaluations) made me think about how by the time students get to their 3rd or 4th years they should be able to communicate core concepts themselves in such a way.  As junior scholars, potential future teaching assistants and profs they should be able to teach core concepts in an advanced and critical way.  So, I have integrated Core Concept videos as an assignment in my 4th year Peace Studies course as well.

The prompt that I give to my students is as follows:

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.  For this assignment, you should translate your knowledge of a critical concept/theory covered in the seminars or readings into an audio-visual form by creating a short video (around 5 minutes).  For this, your audience would be an interested member of the public, or perhaps a 1st year undergraduate arts student.   The goal of the video should be to clearly explain the concept in a clear and accessible manner whilst also offering the viewer cases/analogies/visuals/etc which bring the concept to life.

As UBC students you should have access to Camtasia (a video production tool)

I also clarify how students will be graded (to avoid students spending too much time on the ‘fun technology’ side of the assignment as opposed to the content).   The following general rubric is given to students ahead of time.

You will be graded on the following

  1. the video 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)
  2. the video communicates a complex idea/argument in a clear and accessible manner to the target audience
  3. the video is creative, making use of relevant visuals in a way that helps illustrate the concept in a more tangible way
  4. the video is professionally presented and polished

I do have students either present me with a hard copy of references used, or better yet, have them post a bibliography/further readings list as the last frame of their video. Below are some examples of this year’s productions– thanks again to my students who have allowed me to publicly share their work (one on Structural Violence and another on Critical Theory).

 

Of course, a savvy professor might try combining these two things– I’m toying with having my upper year students make videos for my intro courses specifically (and of course being transparent about this process).  This would mean that the videos produced get used by their peers, rather than just float into the ether like most assignments do.   Another idea would be to include production of videos as a Teaching Assistant duty (paid of course with time built in for training, planning, consulting and production) as a way of furthering their professional development.

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)

and

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.