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.

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