Everyone who teaches the same course year after year knows that this is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing as in ‘Hurrah to a much smaller number of prep hours!!’. Curse as in ‘Dear lord, I have to listen to myself yammer on about the same thing for the umpteenth time’. Curse also in terms of there are only so many essay questions one can set for a relatively specialized topic (in my case Critical Peace Studies) and one finds oneself marking fairly similar assignments year after year. Students are also inevitably drawn to the same questions each year (in my case about half choose the question related to resistance) and cases (Israel/Palestine and Rwanda seem to be cases that resonate most with my students even though I don’t deal with them in class). This is of course fine. I encourage my students to explore cases and questions that speak to them, and I still learn new things about various theories and cases through such essays. In my fourth year class, many of these are on the cusp of making original contributions to knowledge. However, marking dozens of essays year after year on the same topic, no matter how original and well crafted can be trying (for me and my TAs who often to the bulk of marking in the 100-300 level courses).
I of course make adjustments to my seminar sessions and readings each year to account for new research, improve the flow of the course, and readjust the focus in places based on how individual sessions went and the feedback I get from students. Two years ago I added a new session on Aesthetics and Global Politics to the seminar series. I draw heavily on the work of Roland Bleiker here and as well as the Journal of Narrative Politics. I wasn’t sure students would enjoy it— the topic rests pretty far outside of the realm of their traditional IR training; if I’m honest, I was also worried they would think I was a bit ‘out there’ for wanting to discuss Guernica and making them wander across campus to look at a statue in a political science class. But, alas, it was probably one of the best sessions I’ve ever had in a seminar class and the following week, when we spent our seminar at the Museum of Anthropology, I was impressed by not only their receptiveness to exploring art in this context but also their ability to really run with the concepts and arguments in an advanced way. So, this year, I beefed up this element of the course and decided to adjust my assessment model to reflect student interest.
Instead of a traditional research essay or in-depth case study, students could choose to create a piece of art for their final assignment. Alongside this, they had to submit a written reflection on how their piece was related to a critical concept from the seminar series (hybridity, pacifism, ‘othering’ etc). They also had to discuss some of the ideas we explored in the readings and seminar on aesthetics and IR more generally—reflect on communicating complex political arguments in an alternative form.
I thought maybe one or two students would be intrigued and possibly take the risk. Wrong. Nearly a quarter of my cohort selected this option and I was left blown away. Blown away by students’ willingness to take a risk. With so many students grad school/law school bound, grades in their final year are incredibly important. Most of my students have mastered the art of the research essay and that was likely the ‘safer option’ for many, but they took a risk. Of course, many students took risks in their essays and case studies too, but I saw selecting this format as an unexpected leap of faith. I was of course also blown away by the students’ creativity and skills. We often don’t get to know our students as human beings and through their artwork I felt quite privileged to see another side of my student’s personalities and skills. Finally, I was impressed by the written reflections that accompanied these pieces. This was probably the element of the assignment I was most worried about because at the end of the day I really do have to assess evidence of their learning regarding critical peace and conflict studies. This wasn’t an art contest after all, and I was worried that students would get carried away with the ‘fun’ side of the project and forget that there still had to be a high level of intellectual rigour. In reality, their written pieces were even more impressive than the artwork (but probably not as exciting to show in my blog!)
Academically speaking choosing this assignment was successful on two fronts—it improved and illustrated their learning of at least two topics explored in the seminar series and required them to consider multiple themes simultaneously. Of course the other assignments also promoted this learning objective and I was equally impressed by the creativity and academic standards in several traditional essays this semester too. For example, I was properly schooled by an undergraduate on Laclau, already one of my favorite theorists who I now see in a new light thanks to this student’s analysis. More importantly, what this assignment facilitated was having students communicate their knowledge in an alternative way. Although it is just as unlikely that they will literally paint a picture as it is that they will write a 3000 word essay to convince a future employer or colleague of anything (bar staying in academia or a being employed by a think tank), this assignment forced them to consider the strengths and limitations of different modes of communicating complex ideas to a non-academic audience.
On a more personal note, many students also expressed to me how they had always loved producing art or music but since starting university hadn’t really had the chance to be creative—the demands of academic life often making it hard to keep up with personal hobbies (somewhat concerning really that university is having this impact on young people). They appreciated the opportunity to return to something that they had not found time to do in a while. On a purely selfish note, I benefitted from the fact that I had real diversity in my stack of marking to complete over the Christmas break! A mix of case study portfolios, theoretical essays, paintings, drawings, graphic designs, and musical compositions made my least favorite part of this job actually enjoyable, as a wider range of issues, cases and modes of expression filled my days.
*** Many thanks to my students who allowed me to use the images of their work above.