Category Archives: assessments

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on YouTube for the perfect video or having to check that YouTube links work every year, or having to replace an outdated video.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)


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.

(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.

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.

Dr Critical: Or how I learned to hate the term ‘Thesis Statement’

It is essay season.  A season sometimes dreaded by students and faculty (and most likely always by TAs who often are burdened with the majority of the marking).  Now, I say dreaded because of the marking involved, but actually (because I’m a huge nerd) it also a season that I secretly love as it is one of the few chances I get to meet with students about the research they wish to conduct.  This year I feel particularly spoiled as my 3rd year Peacebuilding students are choosing some truly original case studies, and case studies I know little about.

I know there are a few essays coming down the pipeline (no pun intended) on Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada, the USA and New Zealand.  Another student is writing a paper on memory and forgiveness in relation to Comfort Women, whilst another student is tackling the unique dilemmas of DDR in relation to female ex-combatants.  None of these topics or cases were on my ‘question list’ in the syllabus, but I have been more than happy to approve these topics, encouraged by my students’ passion for these cases and the originality in their approach.

However, in my office hour, the first question I often get is ‘Professor, will you read over my thesis statement’.   Urgh, yes I will.  But also, Urgh, here we go again.

To be clear, a good academic essay needs a clear argument, and if you want to call it a thesis statement, fine by me.  However, I worry that the getting the ‘Thesis Statement Right’ often becomes the first and primary focus of students.  I often feel that they just want to know they’ve got this piece right, they want a simple yes or no and that this approval will equate to a giant tick mark that guarantees a good mark.  When expected grades don’t materialize, one of the first bits of ‘push back’ I get from students is actually ‘but you said I had a good thesis statement!’.

I believe that this  fascination and faith in having a thesis statement approved (and my further concerns below)  can actually be detrimental to their intellectual growth and progress.  I say this for two reasons.

First, I often see students starting with a thesis statement.  Before they have done their research, grappled with the issues, thought about what part of the intellectual puzzle interests them, they feel the need to have a clear thesis statement.    The idea that they can tell you what their argument will be before they’ve done the heavy lifting of research and analysis is so problematic.   It often leads to an introductory paragraph that doesn’t match what they then go on to do in their essay (ie they get their thesis statement approved by teaching staff, slap it at the beginning and then go off on a tangent related to what they are really interested in).

This can be easily fixed of course by having students return to their ‘thesis statement’ after they write the essay to make sure there is a match.   I might also start refusing to ‘approve’ thesis statements until students can produce the research that shows me how they arrived at said thesis statement.

However, what is more concerning to me is that once students have their thesis statement ‘approved’ they become trapped/stifled for the rest of the writing and research process.  They’ve said ‘This essay will prove A by exploring XYX’  so dog-gonnit, that’s what the  essay will do, even if in their further reading  and research they become fascinated by ABC.    They didn’t get a thesis statement approved for ABC so they’d better not risk it.

I find this second scenario particularly problematic in terms of the fact that I’m increasingly seeing students think that a ‘good thesis statement’  proves something and has three parts (don’t even get me started on my hatred of the 5 paragraph essay—well, at least wait for a future post on that!).  This concern is perhaps a product of me now being in a more empirically driven department (whereas during my time at Manchester you couldn’t  fall over without taking out a Critical-Post-Positivist scholar), but I feel that the way we sometimes talk about and teach about ‘thesis statements’ signals to our students that the only types of knowledge-moves they are free to engage in are things that prove ‘A led to B’ or ‘C causes D’ or ‘E and F are locked in a dangerous feedback loop’.

These are interesting questions and I’m happy for students to go in this direction.  I want them to discover their own epistemic identity of course!  But I also want them to be aware of other knowledge-moves, ways of knowing, ways of understanding the world and I feel that in some cases the way we set up and define a good ‘thesis statement’ mitigates against students developing more critical, post-positivist epistemic identities that are so central ensuring plural ways of understanding the world around us.

As such, I’ve tried to have an honest discussion with my students about this in the lead-up to this semester’s term paper.  I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to destabilize all prior learning and advice.  Further,  they will still certainly take courses where they are expected to have a clear/traditional/empirically grounded thesis statement.  But for my class, I leave them with the following slide and discussion to try to encourage those who want to take intellectual risks or move towards a different set of knowledge-production techniques.

The (dreaded) thesis statement

  • Your essay should of course have a clear focus/purpose
  • I use the language of the ‘thesis statement’ cautiously– I know it is a term students understand and use, but I worry it narrows understandings of what they can write about
  • Your essay does not need to prove You do not have to prove causation for example. You are welcome to do so, but this is not the only type of research political scientists engage in.
  • Think more about the purpose of your essay— the puzzle you want to solve, the issue or fact you want to explore in an in-depth or innovative way, an issue or policy you want to apply a critical lens to. This wider/more general purpose might be your ‘thesis statement’.
  • This may include—exploring how themes of victimhood materialize in your case study, how a project reinforces patriarchy in society, how definitions of peace are exposed in a political negotiation, how a specific ideology acts as a foundation for a peace talk (or how two ideologies seem to be at odds), is there a tension between rationality and emotion in the policy you are analyzing? Be creative, be original.

And the Bronze Medal Goes To….. Debating Direct Democracy

Avid readers of my blog (I know there are a few of you!) will have heard me mention my funded research project on active learning that I’ve been working on this past semester.  The final assignment related to this component of the course was to complete a written reflection on the in-class activity that ‘has most shaped/influenced [their] understanding of the political world’.  Now that the semester is over, my RA and I are diving into the data (including these final reflections, focus group transcripts and my own journaling) to explore where the ‘value added’ is in terms of active learning and what forms of active learning resonate most with students.

To get us warmed up, I decided on a very simple quantitative approach—we went through the 120 final reflections and tallied up the exercises that students themselves have chosen as the activities that impacted them as learners the most.*  In the next few blogs I’ll describe the ‘winning activities’ and discuss what students got out of these in terms of the learning aims of the course (and beyond!).


The (shocking)  third place winner!

In third place was actually my least favorite activity of the year that I put together for the lecture on my least favorite topic of the course.  I was somewhat shocked  to see this making the top three, but was also comforted by the fact that my own bias/lack of enthusiasm towards the topic didn’t seem to impact the students.  Note:  there is nothing wrong with the topic or lecture—it’s just not a theme that gets me going as much as the others in the syllabus.

This activity is classed as a ‘simulation’, or a ‘problem based learning’ exercise.  Undertaken in a class of around 100, students were provided with a worksheet that began with the following:

  • The goal of this exercise is to understand what direct democracy could look like in a world where we are more used to indirect democracy and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of both.
  • The Totally Fictional Scenario:  The year is 2030 and it is clear that the Canadian government’s environmental policies have failed.  Canada’s forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, the ice caps are melting leading to increased flooding in coastal areas, and a lack of regulation on the oil and gas industries has led to many examples of polluted waterways.   Parliament and our elected officials have let us down, and they admit it.  With a loss of faith in our elected officials and the institutions in which they work there has been a call for a more direct form of democracy which would see Canadian citizens become more directly engaged in environmental planning and policy.  Canada has turned to you—emerging experts in political science—for advice on how to move towards direct democracy.

Students were then asked a series of questions that they were to discuss with the students around them that helped them explore the feasibility, strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy (if you would like a copy of the full activity sheet, please email me).  Following their discussion in small groups, I brought their attention back to the front of the room where I led a debrief and discussion of the answers they had come up with in their small groups.


Value added?  What students gain from this activity—critical thinking skills and reflection on their role as citizens

I’ve not the space here to analyze all of the findings from this activity, however, I have noticed two dominant themes in the reflective pieces.  The first of these, the development of critical thinking skills, was indeed and aim of the activity (phew, it worked). I had several  students note how before the activity they ‘hated’ the very idea of direct democracy (yes, they used the word ‘hate’!).  They  noted that while their overall assessment of the value of direct democracy had not changed, their reaction to it was less an emotional reaction or based purely on what they had memorized from a reading, but rather their ability to think through and defend their position rationally, using examples.  This was evidenced in the learning logs with students offering detailed explanations (drawing on the scenario) to explain the strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy.  What excited me most, however, is that several noted that the activity forced them to reconsider preconceived ideas of what they had learned in the textbook and in other classes.  One student noted how it made them realize they should not take anything they read in a textbook at face value.  Another reflection that I found quite striking in this regard was a student who noted that

                ‘it helped me understand the evolution of my own beliefs’

The other, more unexpected,  thing I heard had to do with students reflecting on their own personal political stance and role as a citizen (Canadian or global).  Several students noted how this activity made them realize how often they ‘take Canadian democracy for granted’.  One student noted that they certainly valued Canadian democracy, but weren’t sure why and were now really trying to think this through.  Others noted that it made them think twice about the ‘superiority’ they felt regarding their own system in comparison to others. In this vein, it was questioned how democratic we really were (how much does the representative form of government really give them ‘power’ within our system).

Some also reflected on what the activity meant for them in terms of their actions as citizens outside the classroom walls, with one student noting ‘

‘A core idea that I really took away from this week was that there is really no space for political absolutism in this world. In order to make changes and better the world, we have to understand the value of adaptability and diversity’


Things that need fixing: making it more accessible to non-Canadian students

Looking back I now see that this activity allowed fuller participation of my Canadian students, and that (my not insignificant) proportion of international students perhaps did not feel that they could participate at the same level as they lacked a basic understanding of Canadian political-culture, environmental issues and regional issues (which came up very strongly in the final debrief).  I do like the element of ‘grounding’ simulations with real case studies for obvious reasons.  Though, I also use fictional case studies in other simulations—in an attempt to allow students to all be on a level playing field—everyone has the same level of information/background knowledge.  The downside to this, I’ve found, is that students often become obsessed with trying to figure out what country I’ve based the scenario on, which detracts from the task at hand.  So, in the future, I think I will give a short reading ahead of time for the students to complete before coming to class that grounds everyone in the case study to a better degree so that everyone feels more capable of engaging.  This means sacrificing some of the ‘topic’ reading for case study reading.


*A note on research ethics: students were able to opt out of this research project and the content of their written reflections has not been used for the study.

So, this happened– IR students wax artistic OR the value of alternative modes of assessment


The Gulabi Woman (Aviaah Shanaz, 2015)


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.


Liberty Determined by the Few (adaptation of  Delacroix) (Shannon Faleiro, 2015)


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!)


The Western Sledgehammer (Jason Mah, 2015)

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.picture4x




Images above are samples of a palimpsest (Queena Lau, 2015)


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.