Monthly Archives: March 2015

Guest Blogger Audrey Tong, UBC Political Science: ‘Encouraging Student Participation’

As one of Jen’s undergraduate teaching assistants, I had the welcoming challenge of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities in the second term of the school year. Whereas Jen and the students have already established a working relationship and good rapport from first term, January marked the first time I was meeting the students – and being a teaching assistant. As a senior undergraduate student, I have had plenty of good and bad professors, lab instructors, and teaching assistants. I found that having a good teaching assistant that I could go talk to and ask for advice really made a difference in my learning, especially in grasping new concepts. As such, I was motivated to be an active, empowering and encouraging teaching assistant. However, I found that this is a big responsibility, and one that takes time to grow into.

One immediate challenge that I faced was keeping the students engaged and getting them to talk. Jen always prepares carefully planned classroom strategies and lesson plans that prompt lively student discussion. However, what I’ve come to realize is that active learning strategies is completely dependent on active student interest and participation, and thus, are particularly vulnerable to student apathy. As an undergraduate teaching assistant, I have the opportunity to observe class discussions, facilitate discussions, and try to engage students. Sometimes I am simply greeted by blank stares and silence; for reasons beyond my control, students just refuse to talk at times. As a TA, I was motivated to minimize these occurrences and crack the cycle.

As I walk around the classroom to listen in on discussions and chime in at the appropriate moments, I do my best to create open, safe, and supportive spaces where students can feel comfortable speaking up and voicing their own opinions. One major concern that students usually have is saying the ‘wrong’ answer. Students perceive this as an outright negative phenomenon, so they tend to remain silent. This results in diminished participation through fewer responses, and responses of lower equality that lack critical thinking or analysis.

To model the type of participation and curiosity I would like the students to exhibit in class, I tried a couple of strategies. During in-class discussions, I would go around the groups and if students have trouble grasping the question, I would rephrase the question and give an example by thinking out loud. Since the students are often discussing in pairs or groups, I would ask them for their ideas and ask a follow up question that would lead the student to further develop their answer. I then go over and repeat what they just said to demonstrate what a full response would look like and offer a positive piece of feedback. Finally, I encourage them to raise their hand and speak up when the professor is asking for student examples. If it’s a great point and the student is still not willing to convey their point (ex. shyness, English barrier, not sure if it’s the ‘right’ answer, ‘too cool for school’), I have the ability to give them a voice on their behalf (“Student X had a great point, and I would like to share what they said to the class”).

Over time, the students got the hang of active learning and participating in group discussions. I think another big piece in motivating student participation is how a TA or professor responds when students speak up, either in lecture discussions or in office hours. It’s a two way street: if you want students to participate seriously, you have to take their contributions seriously. By being an active listener and seeing things from their perspective, I always try to provide specific and thoughtful responses to a student question or comment. What I found interesting was that once a student sees that I’m making an effort, they would make an effort and try harder too. I had a group of students who voluntarily came to my office hours today to share their case study progress. By creating a safe and encouraging environment and nurturing a positive TA-student relationship, I have seen signs that the wall of silence is breaking and that the groundwork for voluntary participation is slowly building up.

Guest Blogger: Professor Roger Mac Ginty, University of Manchester ‘Fieldtripping: the ethics and practicalities of student fieldtrips’

***A quick preamble from Jen:  I’ve recently been thinking about charging ahead with a service learning or community based learning project for the next academic year.  Having participated in and led such projects in the past I am a huge fan of the potential student learning that can occur but also acutely aware of both the huge time commitment involved and the often dizzying array of ethical issues to consider. With these issues ringing in my ears, I turn to one of my former colleagues and mentors for his helpful and honest reflections on this form of learning.  For the original of this piece and many others on issues related to peace and conflict studies please visit  ***

Many years ago, when I was a rookie lecturer, I went on an MA fieldtrip to Croatia. There were 29 students, the course leader and myself. I am still embarrassed at the nature of the fieldtrip. All 31 of us loaded onto a bus that toured ruined municipalities. We would stumble off the bus, take pictures of bullet-marked houses, walk around destroyed factories, and speak with town mayors. Then we trooped onto the bus again and went off to the next municipality to repeat the exercise. I have been troubled by the notion of student ‘fieldtrips’ ever since. There is a distinct danger of conflict tourism, of the voyeuristic peering at the misery of others before jetting home.

Over a number of years I worked with the indefatigable Alp Ozerdem to re-organise the fieldtrips that we ran and make them more conflict-sensitive, and place an emphasis on research techniques. In the classroom, Alp made students practice interviews and observation techniques so that the fieldtrips were much more sensitive. We also divided the class into small groups of four that each focused on an issue – such as livelihood or resettlement – and charged them with organizing their own interviews.

At St Andrews, with others, I continued this re-invention of the fieldtrip, away of the legacy of colonial anthropology, and tried to turn it into a site to interrogate the power relations between the researcher and the researched. Now at Manchester, as we are making a fieldtrip a centre piece of our MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, I am still thinking about the ethics and practicalities of bringing students into a conflict-affected area. I posted a few questions about this on Facebook not so long ago and some of the points here draw on the comments that I received.

Reinventing the ‘fieldtrip’
My Manchester colleague Oliver Richmond questioned the term ‘fieldtrip’ because of the colonial and developmental baggage that comes with it. Certainly the term conjures up images of pith helmets, maps and pointing at ‘the natives’. Maria O’Reilly from Goldsmiths at the University of London came up with the very good idea of a fieldtrip in the UK. This has lots of practical advantages (no need to get visas, lower carbon emissions etc.) but also allows us to think about our own positionality and why field research always has to be ‘over there’. It encourages us to think of the power relationships between the researcher and the researched. Oliver Richmond, Anne Hayner (Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame) and Sweta Singh (South Asian University) all mentioned the importance of working with local organisations, teaming up with local universities, and trying to get beyond the ‘parachuting in’ mentality. Walt Kilroy from Dublin City University suggested that ‘the researched’ be asked for their feedback: did the researchers perform their tasks sensitivity and effectively?

All of the above are very good tips but I still hear of university ‘fieldtrips’ of forty or fifty students traipsing around conflict-affected countries. It is important that students and researchers can have access to conflict-affected areas but it seems to me that we have to go much further in making these trips sensitive. We also have to be realistic. While we can have good intentions and use the word ‘ethnographic’ as much as we want, a fieldtrip (or whatever we call it) is still a time-limited exercise: we come in and leave. We also have to realize that many of us are curious about conflict-affected societies and that it is difficult to get beyond the sight-seeing mentality.

But, if we are organising a fieldtrip, there are guidelines that we can set down in the hope of maximising both sensitivity and the pedagogic value of any trip. Let me restrict myself to five points.

  1. Any student fieldtrip should be a working trip. Students should be set discrete objectives, linked to an assignment. The working nature of the fieldtrip starts well before departure with study of research techniques and the context. It continues during the trip with students setting up meetings, conducting interviews, being mindful of the ethics of research, and sharing notes within groups. And the working nature of the trip continues after students return with the interrogation and use of research results, reflections on how they were gathered, and writing thank you notes.
  2. The process is more important than any research results. A short student fieldtrip will not be an occasion in which to gather huge amounts of data that is robust and comparable. By their nature, student fieldtrips are time limited. The emphasis should be on the research process rather than a data harvesting exercise. It is about road-testing research techniques that have been discussed in class.
  3. Practice beforehand. It seems important that we encourage our students to trial research techniques before they embark on a trip. For example, I have often noticed how rude people can be when they accompany a tour guide. They start off enthusiastic, but half way through a walking tour they get bored, wander off, and are obviously not listening to the guide. So I organise a walking tour around Manchester with an amateur historian so that the students can think about active listening, the simple observational art of looking up, and of courtesy towards someone who is taking the time to try to explain a context to them.
  4. Work with locals. We cannot expect to ‘go native’ on a short trip, and terms like ‘ethnography’ can be used too freely (much to the annoyance of anthropologists I am sure). But, given limited time and resources, we can make links with local universities or groups, learn a little more about context, and move beyond only staying in the hotel bar and talking with taxi drivers.
  5. Small groups. Thirty people on a bus is a tour group. By breaking students into small groups of four (or so) we hand responsibility over to them and encourage them to set up meetings, take charge of interviews, and think about issues of sensitivity. In a large group, people can hide and expect others to take responsibility.

We cannot overcome many of the structural aspects that dominate the relationship between the researched and the researcher. We cannot stop the curiosity of humans to travel and see the condition of others. But if we are going to organise fieldtrips, we can try to be more sensitive.

Details of the MA in Peace and Conflict Studies field trip can be found here:

Guest Blogger: Oren Adamson, UBC Political Science ‘Teacher or Student– Which One?’

As an undergraduate member of “Team Political Science,” I had the pleasure of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities during the first semester of this school year. What I was most excited about was being on the other side of the student-teacher relationship, and contrasting the two different – though similar – perspectives. How would POLI 100, which I had taken not so long before, differ when approaching the material with an eye to communicating knowledge, and helping students develop analytical skills, rather than sitting in a lecture hall jotting down notes for myself?

Starting off the semester, I was of course apprehensive. Would I blank? Would students respect me? How would I handle questions on topics that I know hardly anything about? These issues certainly came up over the course of the semester, forcing me to address them head on (and often, ad hoc), with varying degrees of success. Below I will outline a few of the key take away points that I gained from my experience as an undergraduate TA. These relate both to my role as a teaching assistant, and my inherent role as a learner in the process of teaching.

Level of Abstraction

Of course I know as a general rule that when teaching, it is easiest to “start simple” and gradually build on concepts from the base. It is somewhat ironic, then that I recognized this general abstract rule, but did not fully comprehend its practical implications until I had to put it into practice – what level of abstraction is appropriate for POLI 100 students? At what rate can we add complications to theories and concepts, while still keeping students engaged?

Probably not my first blunder on this issue, but the most memorable one, was in Jen’s lecture on civil society. As Jen stood at the front of the room explaining where civil society fits into the private/public divide, I piped up and said “Jen, where would political parties fit into this discussion?”  My intention was to contribute to the lecture and students’ learning by bringing in a relevant and somewhat complicated example (as well as encouraging of question-asking among the often reserved students). As soon as I asked the question and saw the confused look on Jen’s face, however, I realized that my question was ill placed. This moment made me reflect on the knowledge and questions I possess that may not be conducive to student learning in an introductory setting such as POLI 100. In this instance I saw the possible value behind a teacher saying, “let’s worry about that tomorrow.” Evidently putting the “start simple” rule into practice didn’t come quite as naturally to me as I may have expected.

Guiding Students’ Thinking

Related to gauging the appropriate level of abstraction, I often struggled to effectively guide students’ thinking, rather than leading them to a pre-ordained conclusion. For me, this was the most intellectually stimulating part of being a teaching assistant. It forced me to step back from concepts and theories enough to ask somewhat vague questions that force students to think, while still providing something for them to grab onto and work with. In doing so, it tested not only my knowledge of political science, but my ability to manoeuvre varying levels of analysis and abstraction in order to point students in the right direction.

This was most evident to me when weighing the merits of different models of democracy with students. At each station, they were tasked with brainstorming the benefits and drawbacks of direct, representative, deliberative, and elite democracy. Being assigned to the elite democracy station, I helped students think through the implications of such a theory – what could be a positive implication of limiting individuals’ decision-making power in society? And conversely, what are some negative consequences of this? After doing this with a number of groups, I found that I repeated the same questions to each group in order to help them along the way. Additionally, each group seemed to leave the station with similar answers for the benefits and drawbacks of elite democracy.

Once I realized this, I asked myself: were my questions too concrete? Did they encourage a certain response? (All questions do to some extent I guess, but we can do our best to limit how much our values come through when posing questions). Going further, I found it difficult to vary my questions, causing me to reflect on my knowledge and value judgments regarding the concept in question. In what ways could I alter my thinking about it? And how can I begin to limit the extent to which my political views taint the questions I ask? I was learning as much in this process as the students were; the line between teaching and learning is an ambiguous one.

Silence is Okay (sometimes)

One piece of feedback I received from a fellow member of Team Political Science was to allow for more silence when interacting with students. At first, I interpreted silence as the student implying, “I don’t understand, and you aren’t asking me the right questions.” When in reality, silence can say this, but is also a signal that students are thinking. Which is exactly what we want them to do! My discomfort with silence, I’m sure, goes hand in hand with a tendency to lead students too much, rather than guiding their thinking in a more hands-off manner. Gauging what is productive silence, and what is apathetic silence, is key to discerning whether or not students’ are engaging with the material.

To be sure, apathetic silence is certainly a thing and I did experience it in the classroom. However, in another instances, my tendency to interrupt silence came to the fore. This was when I was leading the whole section of 40 students in identifying different international relations theories in an excerpt of text. I would read out the text, ask which theory it related to…and wait. Wait for what felt like an eternity, with 80 eyes staring back up at me, but in reality it was probably 2 Mississippis. In this instance, as I look back, silence was not necessarily bad. It signals students’ brains starting to work (whether this is because they want to think, or because the silence makes them so uncomfortable that they feel the need to speak, is irrelevant, as long as they’re thinking!).

All of these reflections have made clear to me that we are all students and teachers alike, even though we may not recognize it right away.

Globalizing and innovating in the classroom: My mistakes and struggles

In this final piece on my lesson plan I reflect on the very real and sometimes not insignificant struggles I have faced and not yet resolved in my attempt to globalize my pedagogy and curriculum.  It is definitely something I have been more successful at in some courses than others (surprisingly, I feel that I have been least successful in doing this in my Comparative Politics class, so that’s my summer project sorted!).  Thinking about my attempts in Intro to Politics though, I have some real food for thought about how to move forward on this.

For example, reflecting back on my pedagogical approach and my concomitant efforts to try and teach a balance of orthodox and non-orthodox approaches at the undergraduate level, a few things stand out.    First, there needs to be more of an effort on showing students how to do things vs telling them how to do it.  The first few assignments on my scaffolded assessment schedule went, well, not great.  Lamenting to a colleague and questioning if I was even a competent teacher, yet alone a good one (it was one of those days) she simply asked me ‘Did you show them how to do it?’  ‘Well, I gave them very VERY clear instructions and went over it with them TWICE in class’ I responded emphatically.  ‘Yes, but Jen, did you show, them how to do it’.  No.  I hadn’t.  So the next lecture, I showed them, on the board, using our IT set-up, how I would have approached an article review, how I would have decided on a question and structure for my article comparison.  How I would have been critical and brought in diverse viewpoints myself.  I physically showed them how I constructed an outline on paper and talked them through my thought process. No prizes for correctly guessing that the assignments that followed were of a superior quality.

This isn’t just about good pedagogy and student support.  It relates directly to the issue of ‘globalizing IR’  which this series of blog posts is addressing.  If we are going to show our students how to engage with these alternative approaches, how to think globally, then we have to be able to show them authentically, what this looks like.  For me, this should be easy (but even I struggle).  I was trained in a critical tradition, I have a keen interest in the politics of knowledge production, I work (and love!) reading works by post-structural and post-colonial theorists.  Do I expect all my teaching colleagues to ‘beef up’ their alternative IR credentials?  No, of course not and it is not necessary—the breadth of expertise within departments is of value and we need not all become ‘alternative’ or worse yet, generalists.   What it perhaps implies is a greater need for team teaching, where a range of scholars work together to create a balanced first year curriculum and seriously reflect on how this curriculum will be effectively and efficiently delivered. It also requires courses and each lecture within them to be designed with diversity in mind and in a way that shows students how to think globally, think outside the box.

And here, the reality strikes. Both my desire for pedagogical advances and globalizing IR (which  think must go hand in hand) take a lot of time and resources.  My active learning sessions take a lot more preparation than a classic ‘chalk and talk’.  Further, my scaffolded assignment structure meant there were more written assignments in this 100 level course than one would normally have or be able to manage given resources generally available.  The amount and nature of marking would simply cripple most teaching teams for a large intro course (already a problem in my other classes where I have introduced reflective writing).   Even with a relatively small number of students (75) and an amazing team of TAs, the marking and  ‘assisted performance’ elements of the course were at times, nearly back-breaking.   Further,   the differentiated learning elements, whereby students were ‘held back’ on starting the next assignment until they had managed to properly complete the former assignment  was an administrative nightmare—and could also lead to feelings of unfairness by students who are getting things done ‘in time’ or fail and are not given a second chance.  A sense that some students are getting special treatment or a second chance can be a real problem for building a sense of trust and fairness in a learning environment.

Related to this, globalizing IR requires us to not teach from the textbook—it requires a different and often longer type of prep where one has to truly investigate and integrate alternatives into their learning plans.  With many intro textbooks coming with ‘teacher aids’ such as lecture slides, pre-prepared supplementary materials and even question banks for exams, the ‘globalized IR’ approach is not entirely enticing given the time constraints already facing most academics.

Team teaching also takes much longer.  It is not an issue of ‘well you are the expert on liberalism and realism, you teach in week three and four, then I’ll come back in week five and 6 and cover constructivism and post modernism’.  The orthodox and alternatives need to be integrated, it can’t be piecemeal, or ‘tagged on’.  Real collaboration and integration (as we know from our research lives) is often more difficult and time consuming than just going it alone– though the former is often more rewarding.  The same can be true of collaborative teaching, but with the current structure of teaching loads/credits and additional pressures on the time of staff who teach (both in the research and teaching streams) genuine opportunities for rewarding teaching collaboration might stand as the biggest obstacle to globalizing IR.

Perhaps ending this series of posts on with such a downer isn’t entirely productive, but I’ll set it as a challenge to me (and to my readers) to think about and share innovative ways to deal with the time constraints and institutional constraints we face as we attempt to move forward with innovate and more globalized approaches.  As always, onwards.

Shouldn’t you just teach them ‘the basics’?

The theme of this year’s International Studies Association convention was ‘Global IR and Regional Worlds’.  It was an attempt to address concerns about the anglo-centric nature of IR that sits in stark contrast to the diversity that exits within the world and the changing nature (centres?) of power that we are witnessing. My personal reflection is that both in terms of the topics and methodological approaches addressed at the ISA this year, there was indeed a greater diversity than previous years.  However, I doubt anyone would seriously suggest that there was a fundamental shift this in terms of truly altering how we study politics, what is seen as ‘genuine’ political science and whose knowledge is seen a legitimate.  The controversy over the ‘Sapphire Series’ brought this home.  I too was left with a concern that the same debates over power, knowledge and diversity could remain if we don’t start training our undergraduates differently.    Will ISA 2025 look pretty much the same if we continue to train our future scholars in pretty much the same way?  In this third post on my lesson plan, I reflect on this problem and ask if real change must come from mixing up our undergrad curriculum.

Is the politics ‘canon’ a problem?

Whilst not groundbreaking, I feel that the session described in my previous two blog posts, specifically, and the way I taught the course more generally, did reflect my belief that we need to move away from primarily focusing on the ‘political science canon’ at the intro level . In my courses I try to give equal billing to the traditional and ‘alternative/critical’ voices. I haven’t got the balance perfect yet, but I do try!  I also (try) to regularly have open and honest discussions about the orthodox– how it came to be,  how and why it will likely dominate the(ir) study of politics.  Sometimes this includes asking students to critically deconstruct readings from the textbook to identify western bias (though for me this has happened more in office hours than in class time).

My totally non-scientific reflection is that this approach is not the norm.  I feel there is sometimes an assumption that we need to ‘get them to learn the basics first’ (ie the canon—in IR this being liberalism and realism with maybe a small dose of constructivism or Marxism)—and then they can explore ‘alternatives’ later on in their studies, should they chose to. This is kind of a ‘give them the foundations of knowledge first before you challenge them with critical theory’  approach.   I think there are at least three problems with this.  First,  it plants a seed in their minds that these are the foundations of political knowledge and that all other approaches  need to be understood in relation to the these foundations (which are often liberal/anglo-centric).  It sets up almost a ‘hierarchy’ of ideas in the minds of students—which I think is both problematic in terms of the politics of knowledge but also in terms of doing a great disservice to our students.

I wonder if it is possible that this then has a knock on effect on the types of courses students take or demand in the future (my second, unproven concern).  With a comfort level in the dominant discourses of political science, will all but the most curious of students even consider or demand courses on auto-ethnographic methods, post-colonial studies, post-structuralism?  Will they seek out courses in related disciplines or sub-disciplines that don’t seem linked to their ‘core courses’ and therefore suggest a steep and difficult learning curve?  Does how we teach our introductory courses lead students to ‘play it safe’ in future years—and if so isn’t this a huge disservice to them and the purpose of higher education more generally?

This is linked to my final concern.  The focus on the orthodoxy and belief that they can ‘explore other ideas later’ is, to my mind, wishful thinking.  It is not that students do not develop a curiosity about the alternatives, but if they have to wait for their 3rd or 4th year classes at which point they can work with scholars who use alternative approaches—they are often unable to do so at an advanced level.  I witnessed this time and again in my 4th year session on critical peace studies.  Students had a passion for and deep interest in what I taught, but with every topic, every discussion, the analysis and policy responses kept coming back to the liberal-realist mindsets and frames with which they were most familiar and most competent utilizing.  They often could not imagine anything else working.  This did not go unnoticed by the students who often highlighted this on their own.  We of course turned these into teaching moments, discussing how our analysis and policy prescriptions always seemed to end up really integrating the theories of liberalism or realism rather than the more critical alternatives that were at the centre of the weeks’ readings.    For me, this is the real problem—the limitations we might be placing on our students intellectual promise by feeling that we need to teach them the ‘basics’ with a very brief discussion of ‘alternatives’  tagged on as an afterthought, but not regularly or rigorously integrated in the formative first and second years of undergraduate education.