Monthly Archives: February 2017

(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.

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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