Category Archives: citizenship

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.

There’s no crying in academia! On emotion in the classroom and our profession

In the 1992 film A League of Their Own, a film about the creation of an all-female baseball league that was created in the US during WWII whilst many men were off fighting in Europe, Tom Hanks’ character (used to coaching young men but now adjusting to a team full of athletic young women) bellows at one of his young players who has not taken to his coaching style particularly well— ‘There’s no crying in baseball!!!!’.

Whilst playing on a dangerous gender stereotype of the ‘overly emotional female’ which I don’t want to perpetuate (all genders are emotional beings for goodness sake!), this moment in the film occasionally pops into my head.   For in moments where either the demands of my job or the topic of my study (political violence, injustice and peacebuilding) strike a particular chord—I do occasionally become emotional.  And although I have had (and still have) wonderfully supportive colleagues of all genders who act like ordinary (emotional) human beings on a regular basis, there are times where I become paranoid that any displays of emotion on my part will be met with a Tom Hanks-esque response!  I then attempt to quickly push those  emotions aside and get back to my rational, objective status quo.

Now of course, our profession is open to discussions of many emotions ‘on the job’: fatigue induced exasperation (ie I had to pull an all-nighter to get that conference paper in. This was one of those 70 hour work weeks. Thank god it is the end of term!  I need a break!);  student or colleague induced frustration (ie why don’t they just read the syllabus!  Why are we dedicating another staff meeting to this issue?’  Why haven’t they responded to my emails on the proposed policy changes!) and last but not least  moments of  joy (ie My article/book/chapter got accepted!  I received a huge research grant!  My grad student landed a tenure track job!).

However, in many (if not most) situations, emotion is frowned upon in our profession.  We are expected to ‘objectively reflect and analyze’ in our research and act rationally (or even coldly) in the face of specific policy changes  that affect our jobs.  This focus on objectivity and rationality that is so central to our jobs is transmitted to our classrooms, where we encourage student to focus on the empirics of a situation, not be clouded by personal opinions or normative statements of what ‘should be’.  Students are welcome to opinions, but these must be prefaced by an objective, verifiable set of rational arguments.  Emotion, if permitted at all, must first be mediated by these non-emotional filters.  And of course, in most cases and in most situations this is perfectly fine and desirable, but what are the limits of this strict adherence the rational/unemotional academic mode?

Without going into too much detail, the stark reality of the limits of the non-emotional approach to knowledge, service and leadership that are dominant in our profession came up and smacked me across the face a few weeks ago.  A deeply personal situation intersected with my own field of research and teaching (peace studies specifically and politics more generally).  Every cold hard fact and every abstract theory that I have used over the course of my scholarly career failed me.  Failed me in terms of my ability to understand the situation I found myself in, failed me in terms of understanding what could be done, what should be done to resolve the injustice and suffering that  political violence creates.  In that moment I felt that my life’s work and the knowledge I  would be imparting to my students in the coming days and weeks was insignificant—perhaps even counterproductive in the way it tried to quantify, qualify, explain and examine in a detached, objective  or ‘rational’ way.

My reaction came as a shock to me.  I have studied and spent time in conflict affected zones for over a decade.  I have met and interviewed countless individuals who have experienced the worst that political violence has to offer.  I have felt with my own hands, seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the realities of war.  The problem(?), I now realize, is that in all of these cases I then filtered my experiences through an objective set of frameworks (liberalism, hybridity, agonism) via accepted  social scientific methods (interviews, coding, software packages).  In doing so, it appears that I was able to shelter myself from much of the reality of what I had learned—the emotional, the struggle, the tangible and often unresolvable injustices that human beings are experiencing daily.  Self preservation some might say, shoddy scholarship in the sense of failing to capture a significant reality of the situation I might say!

The collision of what was fundamentally a personal issue with my professional life (and in particular, how and what I teach) led to tears.  Yep, I said it.  I cried about my research, cried about my teaching, cried about the tangible situation in front of me, all together, all wrapped up into one.  Perhaps this will make me seem ‘silly or weak’ in the eyes of some students or colleagues.  So be it.

But I know I’m not alone. Talking to others and engaging with my students, it is clear to me that learning is often deeply emotional.  I watch my students, international and domestic, struggle with heightened emotions when the topics we are covering force them to consider sometimes uncomfortable truths about their own countries, or what they were taught as children.  I watch my students respond emotionally to comments made in class that are occasionally based on racial or gender stereotypes, that go against their core beliefs or personal sense of ethics.  I watch students try and find the words to express their opinions only to find that the academic  language I have provided them with often fails to sufficiently capture the core of their debate and their concerns (which are often deeply personal and emotional and  therefore easily dismissed as ‘subjective’–which seems to have become quite a pejorative term)

Education is not therapy, but the issues we explore with students (in all disciplines) often evoke an emotional response. We can ignore them, wish them away and consider emotions as ‘un-academic’.  But I believe we do so at our own peril as it detaches their understanding of the ‘topics’ we are teaching our students from how these topics are actually experienced by the vast majority of the population.  If we want students to understand anything, from identity politics to the science behind vaccinations, I believe we must equip them with the tools and language to understand the emotional responses and realities that these topics evoke in the general population.  Otherwise, the knowledge that students gain will only allow them to uncover part of the story in their future professional lives and limit their ability to enact change that is meaningful and desired by large segments of the population (for whom issues of conflict, identity, decisions on drug treatments and investment options are not merely academic puzzles, but lived realities with tangible consequences)

I’ve no easy answer to how we deal with emotions in the classroom.  I feel like our current default is to shy away from these.  When students get emotional, we try to ‘bring it back to the theory/concept/framework’–  I know I certainly do this.  In future iterations of my classes I hope to draw on and introduce more readings on political psychology, emotions in IR and the growing literature on aesthetics as starting points.  It will certainly top my summer reading list and goals for course renewal for the next academic year.

The Great Outdoors: Part 2 (From Well Being to Ethics)

As classes are now in full swing, my future posts will necessarily focus on what I’m doing inside from here on in, but as a final good bye to summer I will spend a bit more time exploring the outdoor spaces here at UBC.

Following on from last week’s post which focused on using spaces to motivate and inspire students, this week I will look at how outdoor spaces on campus can also be designed to promote student and staff well being, remind readers on how spaces can be used as ‘tangible texts’ to support learning outcomes and discuss the ethics of knowing and learning about our campus spaces.

Recognizing that nature and/or spaces that facilitate calmness are important to students and staff

There is an increasing awareness on the importance of student and staff well-being at universities.  This is a great development given increases in mental health conditions in society more generally and among university staff and students specifically[1].    Of course there are essential services that must be our priority in terms of well-being— resources must be spent on ensuring student and staff health services are properly resourced and that faculty receive support in helping students with both acute and chronic well-being issues.  One’s physical environment, however, can also affect one’s mental health and general well being.[2]

choi BuchananCourtyard

View of my office from the forested area behind it and the internal courtyard of the Buchanan courtyard.

Now here I could just be a total braggart and plaster this blog with the amazing natural spaces which are within and arms reach of me at UBC—I won’t mention the beach here (oops). I work on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world in terms of the nature that surrounds me (the first picture above being taken just outside my office window).  Not every office can look out into a beautiful northern forest,  where an eagle may land on a branch in front of you and engage you in a staring contest (this really did happen to me one day!).  But all campuses could do more to consider the importance of nature or the built environment on the culture and well being of its student/staff body.  This might be especially difficult for city centre campuses with little room to grow or dedicate space to ‘nature’—however the second picture above of the courtyard in our Buchanan complex is an example of a small design feature that incorporates both nature and the built environment in order to transform a fairly bland and industrial place into a beautiful and potentially calming space for students and staff to socialize or study.

As one of my colleagues once said (looking at the day to day schedule of our incoming students)—‘We need to make sure that they have time to just sit under a tree and think’.  Whilst this is perhaps a romantic notion of student life, there was a serious point being made. We must all recognize that students need  time (and space) to to reflect on, internalize and thus learn at a deeper level the materials which are presented to them.  The addition of outdoor study and reflection spaces need not be big or costly.  Again, UBC campus has done well (I think!) to provide spaces for rest and contemplation which are both essential to learning and well being.  Below are examples of just two of these spaces—the giant bean bag chairs outside of our main library and two-person swings which have recently popped up around campus.

swing beanbags

Recognizing the history of place and space as both an intellectual and ethical endeavor

Guests

Picture of one sign that forms part of the ‘Native Hosts’ series by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds

My last picture relates to one of the most important issues related to UBC’s learning spaces.  UBC’s main campus is built on ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam people (for more information see http://aboriginal.ubc.ca/community-youth/musqueam-and-ubc/).   This sign, and others like it, are but one reminder of the history of our places of learning.  What needs to be said about this important fact can not be said in a short blog piece—I would do a great disservice to try and summarize the history of this First Nation, Canada’s colonial history, contemporary injustices,  and ongoing attempts to resolve these in the political, legal and cultural spheres.

What I do want to use this blog piece to do is to remind staff and students of the importance of engaging with the history of spaces in which we have the privilege to spend our days.  The justification for this is twofold.  First, exploring the history of our buildings and campuses provide another set of tangible texts and easily accessible case studies through which we can make our often abstract lessons ‘come alive’.  Whether your campus is has been built on a site with a rich and contested social  history, next to or on key industrial sites, or at the epicenter of a relatively new urban environment, the birth and growth of your own institutions can themselves be treated as  unique and fascinating ‘texts’   that can be linked to your class’s learning outcomes.   For example, the above signs became a subject of inquiry for UBC art history students, resulting in an excellent paper written and published by an undergraduate on their history and significance.[3]

The second justification for this is of course an ethical one.   Many campuses (particularly in North America, Australia and New Zealand) have been built on Aboriginal lands.  In other places, campuses might exist on land that certain groups consider to be unjustly ‘occupied’, and still others will see university campuses as sites of elitism, symbolic of wider societal stratification.   Being aware of these histories,  being honest about the ways in which are campuses may historically or presently  exclude some groups in our societies (and indeed trying to rectify this) is an ethical imperative both in terms of being a ‘good’ in and of itself, but also in terms of being able to seek truth, knowledge in the widest sense of those words.  Universities must be more inclusive if they are to survive and be relevant in the future.  Confronting the histories and ongoing structural inequalities that exist in our spaces of learning is first step in this process.

[1] Many  blogs aimed at university faculty discuss issues of well being and it increasingly being covered in the popular press.  See for example the ‘Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia’ http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university.  There is a growing body of literature exploring these issues in the student body as well.  I have found the following quite interesting Lu, SH et. al. (2014) ‘An internet survey of emotional health, treatment seeking and barriers to accessing mental health treatment among Chinese- speaking international students in Australia’ Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 27(1): 96-108. El Ansari, W and Stock C (2010) ‘Is the Health and Wellbeing of University Students Associated with their Academic Performance?’  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7: 509-527.

[2] http://ontario.cmha.ca/news/the-nurture-of-nature-the-health-benefits-of-nature/#.U_YsJ_ldVqU

[3] Halls, Catherine (2010) ‘Today your host is speaking out:  Ideology, Identity, and the Land in Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds’s Native Hosts.’ UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History, Issue 1.

The Great Outdoors: Part One

The inspiration for my first blog post comes from an ongoing research interest of mine as well as some of my other ‘duties’ at the university.  At the moment, I am working on a project with a colleague related to answering the question ‘Where is Peace?’.   I have also been part of the Jump Start programme here at UBC—a two week induction programme aimed primarily but not exclusively at international students.  Here I am working with colleagues to help students adjust to being in a new ‘place’ (Vancouver) and what for them will also be a very new  ‘space’  (a university setting).[1]

On top of this, I have set myself a challenge of getting outside for at least 20 minutes during my work day as both a mental and physical break whilst I juggle (like we all do) a range of tasks.  OK, if I’m honest, having a legitimate reason to wander around campus and enjoy the last few days of summer has been central to the choice of my introductory post (‘I’m working on my blog about innovative teaching, not just skiving off for a pleasant walk– honest’).

I realized that all of these tasks involved thinking about space—how we define it, how we use it and how it influences us.  It struck me how we, in our busy lives as academics and students, running from class to class, meeting to meeting, take for granted the spaces in which we spend a not unsubstantial part of our adult lives.  The aim is to get us talking about how spaces at our universities do or do not facilitate student learning. I hope to challenge universities and the people who populate them to think about how spaces can be improved to both motivate students and facilitate learning outcomes.

So, my first two blog posts will explore the characteristics of outdoor spaces that can help facilitate learning.   Next week I will carry on with this theme and discuss the importance of exploring nature and the built environment in this regard as well as coming to terms with the history of our campuses.

Using spaces to remind students of the purpose of academic endeavors

There are many reasons why students come to university and why academics have chosen to focus on their particular areas of research.  These are often highly personal and range from the economic to the altruistic, to simply an often inexplicable fascination with a particular topic.  Unfortunately, staff and students often find their motivation for being here  waning (particularly at the end of term when we are all fatigued  and/or stressed and/or disappointed with our progress). Feeling disillusioned with various aspects of higher education, it is easy for us to loose site of our original motivation and our essential task.   I also find that students  often lose sight of the purpose of learning itself as they (necessarily at times) focus on the material they need to know for a specific test or paper, losing sight of the original motivation for their studies as they strive for excellence on individual pieces of work.

Wisdom

‘Wisdom’ rock outside C.K. Choi building—part of installment displaying 5 Confucius characters

flag

‘Start an Evolution’ flag—found all around campus (note: personal urge to add an ‘r’ to these flags)

For me, as I enter my office I am provided with a very tangible reminder of what I am here to do.  A small rock garden just outside my building presents five Chinese characters  based on the basic principles of Confucius.  The one I encounter first each morning represents wisdom and knowledge.  A gentle reminder of this several times a day as I head out to classes and meetings is a useful motivator.  A similar reminder comes from flags scattered around the campus, which encourage students to ‘Start an Evolution’ (I myself always imagine an ‘r’ in front of this, but I digress).

If we think about the breadth, depth and quantity of material we throw at our students every week,  taking a few moments or finding ways to bring the conversations back to the ‘wider prize’ may be useful.

Using spaces to inspire students on the importance  of their academic endeavors and as a tangible set of ‘tangible texts’ to study

Linked to the above, I have noticed how several spaces on campus have been used and designed to inspire students to achieve excellence in specific subject areas as well.  The random allotment of my teaching space for my Critical Peace Studies seminar last semester was particularly inspiring.  Teaching in the law school, as no rooms were available in the buildings where most Political Science courses are taught, required my students and I to walk over and past a range of sayings related to peace and justice—just two of which can be seen below.

peacebench1 peacebench2Benches on my way into the law school where I taught critical peace studies, engraved with various sayings, including ‘the most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve’ and ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’

I imagine this is where some readers might scoff at the ‘warm fuzzy’ sentiment behind this reflection (yes you, the Realist in the corner!). However, it was more than a simple reminder for me and my students about the importance of achieving success in our studies—it also provided concrete learning opportunities that contributed to my learning outcomes.  These quotes were discussed and debated on the first day of class as we explored (as per the course syllabus) competing definitions of peace (physical vs structural violence,  ‘just peace’ vs stability).  In fact, my students also identified over a dozen further ‘tangible texts’ on campus that signified different definitions and intellectual understandings of peace and security.

The potential of spaces to be used to remind students of the key intellectual debates and developments in their field, not only as inspiration but as another set of ‘tangible texts’ that teach students something discipline specific is another area of consideration for those able to influence campus planning.  Challenging students to not only to identify these texts themselves but to also debate and discuss these texts that are present in campus spaces is a great learning activity that exposes students’ creative and intellectual capabilities.

….Join me next week for more on outdoor spaces at UBC and how they contribute to positive learning environments and help us meet our learning objectives……

[1] My colleague in geography, Dr Siobhan McPhee does a fantastic 30 second lecture on the difference between place and space should anyone want to discuss the finer points of this conceptual distinction