Category Archives: innovative ideas

Student Experiences as Living Content: Auto-Ethnographic Reflection as an Alternative Assignment

At a recent International Studies Association conference, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel entitled ‘Social Justice as Experiential Learning:  Activism and Advocacy in the Classroom’. Although the panel was quite small due to a range of unforeseen circumstances, we benefited from an incredibly engaged audience (and a fairly large one for an end-of-day Friday slot!).  Productive conversations were had about the strengths, limitations, and cautionary tales related to exploring advocacy and activism in academic settings.  I’d like to thank my co-panelists on the day (Dr. Aggie Hirst, currently at King’s College London and Dr. Chris Rossdale, currently at the LSE and soon to start at Bristol University) as well as the dozen or so actively engaged audience members for their input (some of which is included below). They all really pushed me to think through some of my own assumptions and fears about teaching and activism.  Of course, any mistakes or controversies in what I say below are my own, as I reflect on the session weeks later…


A broad range of learning strategies that in some way integrated activism or advocacy into courses were explored. Some were deliberate and were a central feature of a course. For example, in some cases students were required to engage in advocacy/activism as part of their course work as a form of experiential learning on courses related to Human Rights.  In other instances, the class activities were more informal, simply asking students to reflect on things they have participated in/witnessed in their own lives related to activism, social justice etc in order to understand processes, cases or ideas that emerge in class.  For example, some of my co-panelists reflected on how students might be asked to discuss current strike action being undertaken at their university, or reflect on a time where they themselves pushed back against patriarchy (or watched others do so) as a way of really trying to understand the processes/power relations related to labor or gender relations.

Of particular importance were discussions around the reality that there are incredibly diverse political viewpoints within our student cohorts, and the need to respect/not-alienate students whose political opinions and beliefs about ‘activism’ may differ from our own and in some cases from the majority of other students. These issues seemed even more pertinent now than they have been in previous years of teaching with increasing polarization in society and on campuses.  This led to rich discussions surrounding the use of the terms ‘social justice’, ‘advocacy’ and ‘activism’ themselves, which can sometimes be misconstrued and/or misused in both academic and political settings.

The panel and audience explored alternative languages and frames which could be used to describe the types of things we are interested in having our students reflect on that are broader, less politically or ideologically charged, and thus potentially less alienating to students who neither see themselves, nor wish to be labelled as activists or engaged in social justice.  These alternatives terms included having students reflect on things they might do in their own lives to ‘encourage or work towards policy change’, how they are ‘active in the world’, or even just the reality of their ‘being in the world as members of society or a given community’.   These alternative phrasings have the benefit of allowing students to reflect on their own role in politics (whether big or small, deliberate or not) without faculty or their peers forcing a particular label on them or their experiences.  It also ensures that students who don’t believe their actions to be part of the ‘social justice world’ but still see their energies/opinions going to support political or social change in some way to find a place within discussions, course readings, and assignments and can similarly benefit from experiential learning.

Questions from the audience were raised in terms of how to assess student learning in these circumstances. Several ideas were put forward. I, myself, mentioned an auto-ethnographic assignment I have given to some of my students in the past.  There was interest in this, but alas, not enough time to go into extensive detail, and I promised to blog about it.  So, here we are.


Background & Benefits of Student Driven Auto-ethnographic reflection in a Peace Studies Context

First, I should preface this with the fact that in the course that I used this assignment, one of the weeks of the course examines a range of ‘critical methods’ where students complete a reading on auto-ethnography[1]. In a small seminar format, we discuss/explored the reading in more detail.  Ethnography is of course a specific method that is also sometimes mis-used (abused?) in our disciplines.  It is different from simply ‘observing’ and so care must be taken to also ensure students understand the difference between ethnographic methods/qualitative work generally and Ethnography.  Still, through this assignment, I hope to give students a sense of what auto-ethnography entails, its strengths and limitations and its utility in understanding their own position/actions in the world.

I’d also like to highlight what the students (and I, myself) got out of this assignment.  Student gains have been surmised from informal discussions and also the content of their auto-ethnographic reflections, but I am generalizing to protect their privacy.  First, from the student point of view it really allowed them (often for the first time in their studies) to ground their own experiences, in a formal written manner, in relation to course materials and concepts.   For some of these students, this assignment was a profoundly personal experience, cathartic even, insofar as it was the first time they had been given concrete scholarly tools to reflect on their own experiences of violence, their own activism/resistance, work-abroad, volunteerism and so on.  Not only did this help them learn the course material in a different/deeper/more profound manner, the personal impacts it had in some cases was notable (what one might call ‘the hidden curriculum’). I have also found that auto-ethnographic reflections allow students to be more analytically-critical of course concepts than they might feel able to in a more informal class discussion. As the written assignments are relatively private (only I see them) they feel safer to deconstruct and challenge ideas and literature based on their own lived experiences in the relative safety of this assignment.

From my point of view, I also have learned a great deal by allowing students to reflect on their own experiences.  It has helped me understand my (generally) younger students better. I like to think I’m still a ‘junior’ or early career scholar, but I am told that now that I’m 10 years post PhD I maybe need to reign that in. The issues, hopes and fears of my undergrads is often very far removed from my own and very different from what I remember being important as an undergrad.  It has improved my sense of empathy, but also provided insight into issues and cases that are more relevant to them that I can include in future courses.

Further, on a scholarly level, I’m of course well versed in the facts and dynamics around political opinions and group which are removed from my own interests and beliefs.  However, not infrequently, a student will write something auto-ethnographic about their experiences or political efforts with which I have no personal experiences with (only professional). And here, deep learning also occurs for me as I gain momentary insight into lived subjective experiences regarding a certain topic, as opposed to the more ‘objective’ journal article/book/policy documents from which I would otherwise assemble my knowledge.  I feel that some of these moments make me a better ‘peace scholar’ as it forces me to reflect on my own work and understandings of difference, negotiation, resistance, hybridity, agonism, and on and on.   In other words, allowing students to be producers of knowledge in the form of auto-ethnographic reflections has made my teaching environments more reciprocal.


Things to consider and cautionary notes

I think it also worth noting that if you hope to use this assignment—that there being a relationship of trust and reciprocity between you and your students is essential.  For the benefits above to accrue for either side (student or instructor), there needs to be a mutual understanding regarding the ability to be open and to have one’s privacy and vulnerability respected. At the same time students have to understand what is expected of them—that you are still required to hold them to a scholarly standard and that they may need to accept some criticism of the scholarly aspects of what is otherwise a very personal piece. To help achieve this,  I ‘modelled’ the auto-ethnographic approach by telling very personal stories regarding my doctoral research in Kosovo with my students, which I think was essential in helping them understand what auto-ethnography might look like.  Whilst talking about my research experiences, I linked it to debates from the reading and seminar discussion on critical methods.

The vulnerability I showed in this exercise also, I believe, allowed student to trust me more in terms of sharing their own stories.  This assignment also came at the end of term.  I’m not sure this assignment would work in a larger class setting or in any setting where I was unable to develop a good/trusting relationship with the class. I feel very fortunate to have created an environment in which (some) students feel comfortable exploring a wide range of ideas and beliefs with me in their assignments, and from these students I have learned a great deal about the more personal narratives of political beliefs and organizations of which I have limited personal and only professional knowledge.   I recognize that perhaps not all students feel this same sense of security of course, and can endeavor to do more.

Two further cautionary notes in relation to this assignments.  First, I am a firm believe that this type of assignment should be optional— for a variety of reasons, I believe students should, not be forced to explore their own lived experiences from outside of the classroom in writing with an instructor. In my courses, the auto-ethnographic reflection assignment has always been an option (in place of something more traditional like a term paper or case study portfolio). This relates to the second cautionary note regarding the emotional or psychological impact of this assignment type.  I encourage all students who plan to undertake this assignment to meet with me ahead of time so I can discuss this assignment with them and consider what (if any) supports they might need during and after the assignment is completed.

Marking this assignment also requires special care, not only in terms of it meeting the required ‘academic’ rubric—but also in terms of us as instructors providing feedback that is both academically rigorous whilst at the same time is supportive and empathetic to the students’ experiences.  My feedback on this type of assignment often requires more time as I have to not only explore the academic merits of the piece with the student (as a scholar), but also respond (as a human) to some of the quite personal reflections that do tend to come up in this assignment type.  It is not a type of feedback that can be rushed, nor is it formulaic as it can tend to be with other assignment types.  One should consider this in their assigning of similar assignments—the impact on our work load, both in terms of time and emotional labor is considerable.

What I give to students

Option ‘X’ Auto-Ethnography

For this assignment students will write a 3000 word piece which uses their own personal experiences as ‘data’ for exploring a course theme/topic.  Students may write about their own experiences living in community impacted by conflict, their own experiences in trying to build peace as an aid worker/volunteer/citizen or their own experience as a member of a resistance group/community.  If there is another personal experience that you believe relates to the course themes, please discuss this with Jen before beginning this assignment.

The assignment should not simply be a 3000 word description of your experiences.  You should consult the literature on auto-ethnography and read through a couple of examples of auto-ethnography to get a sense of what is expected of you.  You will need to connect your experiences to the course in some way (and thus some of the wider peace studies literature). Do your experiences provide illustrative examples of the peace studies literature?  Do your experiences challenge or require us to ‘re-think’ some of the peace studies literature?  Do your experiences suggest that new ways of thinking/categorizations/conceptualizations are required to help us understand what ‘peace is’ and ‘how we build it?’.  These are some of the questions you may want to think through as you consider how you will link your ‘data’ to the course.  This should also be a structured piece of work with an introduction, conclusion, and references.

If your narrative includes descriptions of other individuals, please be sure to anonymize these people in the text.  If you share any personal details of people who it would be difficult to anonymize (perhaps a family member), please be sure to get their permission to include them in the text.

[1] Reitan, RH (2015) ‘Paradoxical Peace: A Scholar-activist’s Auto-ethnography on Religious Pacifism and Anti-capitalism’ Globalizations, 12(1): 25-42.


A tale of trusting others and taking a risk: Jen vs the Technology Based Assignment

As part of my attempt to shift my assignments to a more project based learning approach and increase student choice I created an assignment that, quite frankly, kept me up at night.  Although several of the other assignment choices used in my 2018 POLI 370 (Peacebuilding) course were new to me and thus also experimental, they only involved 4-5 students each.  Thus, if things had gone wrong with any of these assignments, I would have a small number of unhappy students who might therefore leave the course with a diminished learning experience.   This assignment, however, would be undertaken by over a third of the class and thus if things did not go to plan I would have over 30 students miffed at me and unlikely to have learned the important lessons I hoped they would acquire from this project.

Beyond the number of students that could be impacted, why was this particular assignment causing me a disproportionate amount of anxiety?  One word.  Technology.  I hate it.  I am not good at it.  It is my Achilles Heel. I am ‘That Prof’ who considers it a huge success if I can get my PowerPoint slides up and running at the beginning of a lecture without help from a TA or student.  If I can properly embed and then get a video to play within my PowerPoint slides, instead of having to close-file-open-browser-play-video-switch-back-to-PowerPoint, I do a little dance (in my head) and look around the room to see if anyone else is impressed with my technological prowess. Below I describe, what I did, the reasons it was successful and how it has impacted my thoughts about technology in the classroom moving forward.


What I did:  The Peace Database (Begins! And Continues!)

One of my aims in many of my upper year courses is to try and get my students to see themselves as producers of knowledge, not just consumers.  At the same time, whilst there are many examples of databases and resources on conflict, war and violence, notably fewer are more squarely focused on ‘peace’ (with some notable exceptions of course).  Putting these two together, I decided to have my students begin to create a Peace Processes and Policies Database (okay, not the most creative of names, but as noted, I had other issues keeping me up at night).  In groups of 2-3 students had to work to create an interactive timeline using ‘timeline js’ of a given conflict and peace process as well as create and embed (electronically) a series of analytical pieces and resources that form part of the qualitative, comparative database.

The goal was to create something both technologically and visually appealing, that would also be useful to peace researchers wanting to engage in comparative analysis between cases of peace negotiations or wanting to go more in depth on a single case.

Below is a screenshot of one of the cases covered last year (note the site is still under construction and I’ll release the database this spring). This coming semester, I will be adding to the Peace Database by having student groups work on a different policy area—Security Sector Reform.  I will be following a similar model—with student engaging analysis of the policy area in ways that allow for comparison.  Since timelines for the countries are already in place from last year’s students, students will instead be thinking spatially alongside their database entries, creating a visual story of this policy area alongside their written analysis.  To do this, student will be working with ‘Story Map js’  to show, geographically where troop/rebels were positioned whilst also marking out the relevant sites where SSR programming occurred.


All along the ways I received incredible support from my university in the form of one-on-one support from UBC’s ArtsISIT unit.  Here is a list of all of the big things their staff did for me (I’ve lost track of the little things)

  • Created the site based on my vision and specifications
  • Embed editing access into my course website so student groups could populate their entries
  • Create a step by step instruction sheet for students
  • Run a training session for students in my lecture
  • One-to-one trouble shooting for me and individual students when problems arose (particularly around the due date!)

The project was only possible and a success because of the infrastructure and people around me at UBC.  Thanks to them, I believe the project was a huge success. Students’ individual reflective writing at the end of term demonstrated not only how the project deepened their knowledge of concepts and cases of formal peace talks, but were also full of wonderful examples of self-reflection on personal and professional growth.  Nonetheless, there were some assumptions made that made the project run not so smoothly.


Faulty assumptions about young people’s technological fluency

So why do this to myself? Beyond wanting to address my own personal phobias of technology and become more adept at integrating technology in the classroom (because, well, 2018), I have had much informal feedback from my Arts students over the years lamenting at their own discomfort with technology.  I (along with many of my colleagues) have come to realize that we are making faulty assumptions about many of our students’ technological fluency, and I believe in a small way, this project helped address this.

Whilst it is unlikely that students will ever use the two programs they used to populate this database, what I did hear from students in their final reflections was that the project gave them confidence in trying out new technologies more generally.  There was a de-mystification of technology to be sure—several students had initially thought that I would be asking them to do coding in order to create the database. Realizing that they can use and create technological deliverables without such skills was a major win in these cases.

Do as I say, not as I do

Admittedly, I was useless when it came to helping students trouble shoot the technological side of the project.  There is zero chance this assignment would have worked without the support I mentioned above. When the troubles with timelines and lost text (inevitably) occurred—well if I had been on my own, I would have just told my students to submit everything they had in a Word document or something else terribly old-fashioned.  That would have been the extent of my trouble shooting.  I also did not attempt to build a timeline or enter text as my students were doing.  Not only did this limit my ability to help them with their assignments, but also meant that the whole process did very little to help me overcome my fear of technology.

Recasting Technology in the Classroom:  Students as producers as opposed to only users

What this experiment in assessment has really done for me is shifted how I think about ‘technology in the classroom’.  I feel as though most of my thinking and exposure to this area has focused what technology I as an instructor integrated into my classes in order to teach my students more effectively.  However, what this project reminded me is that integrating technology into the classroom is not just about how we as instructors use technology to teach our material better.  Whilst developing experience with augmented or virtual reality, classroom response systems such as IClicker or TopHat is one area of technological learning innovation that we rightly engage in to ensure student learning, it is only one side of the coin.

Mastery of a new technology on the instructor side is only one option. Technological innovation in the classroom can, and in my opinion should, include providing our own students with the opportunity to learn and master new technological skills. My above reflections on assumptions about student fluency with technology have really driven me to continue making this database assignment a core feature of the course moving forward.

Of course, I am not suggesting we turn our Arts courses into IT training sessions and I too am resistant to pressures that seek to turn our courses into a series of ‘employability targets’ that require us to tick ‘professional skills development’ boxes.  However, if we think about how we read, write, talk, argue, research, analyze, disseminate findings as *insert your disciplinary identity here* so much of this requires mastery of a range of new and emerging technologies.  If our goal is to not only teach our students the content of our discipline but also the practices of our discipline, then we have much work to do and a range of possibilities available to us that allow our students to learn content through and alongside, the development of technological skills.

Integrating the Tangible: Teaching and the Mostar Bridge (or other landmarks/cultural artefacts near and far)

Here is a quick post about a lesson plan I have used in my peace and conflict studies class, but one that could easily be easily adapted to other disciplines and topics.  The ideas and prompts behind this lecture, whilst in this case used primarily to explore the concept of ‘hybridity’ in my discipline, could be altered to explore other landmarks or tangible artifacts that relate specifically to your own lecture themes/course concepts.

I have found that having something tangible (instead of strictly verbal) for students to analyze, or at least have in front of them whilst we are discussing readings, has been really effective—it helps make the abstract a bit more concrete in many cases and, especially if you can work  something tangible from your own campus into the lecture, it really focuses their minds on the practical relevance of their studies as it shows how ideas can be used to explore their own ‘everyday’. Learning is multiplied if you are able to do something comparative, having students analyze a ‘distant’ landmark and then asking the same questions about something on your own campus. I have run similar discussions on my classes, taking students to UBCs Goddess of Democracy statue and our recently erected Reconciliation Pole at UBC to discuss ‘aesthetics and global politics’ after having them discuss Guernica using the same lens.

Below is a brief overview of the materials, lesson plan and discussions that followed, in this particular lecture.  I hope it is useful in sparking your ideas for your own classes.

Hybridity  & Peace Studies:  Cooperation, Conflict & Power Between the ‘International’  and the ‘Local’

My integration of the iconic bridge in Mostar came about ¾ of the way through my lecture on ‘hybridity’ in my Critical Peace Studies seminar.  Students were assigned the following readings to complete before coming to class (yes, I assigned one of my own articles, it’s a rarity I promise/don’t judge me).

  • McLeod, L (2015) ‘A Feminist Approach to Hybridity: Understanding Local and International Interactions in Producing Post-Conflict Gender Security’ Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 9(1), 48-61.
  • Peterson, JH (2013) “A conceptual unpacking of ‘hybridity’: Accounting for notions of power, politics & progress in analyses of aid driven interfaces” Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 7(2), 9-22

This ensured students were coming with a set of critical ideas and frameworks which could be used to analyze the case studies I would introduce in class.  One of the main hurdles I see students facing, even in upper year courses, is their ability to effectively apply theoretical/conceptual material to case studies on their own—so this is a big focus the seminar series. This is also a reason I haven’t actually assigned a reading on the bridge specifically — I want them to be able analyze a case on their own and I worry that they would ONLY focus on the case-reading if supplied (though I’m still weighing the pros and cons of this strategy).

After a short review of these readings and a mini-lecture on hybridity that incorporated other readings on the extended/optional reading list, I offered a narrative of my own personal experiences of the debates from these articles—what I personally witnessed through my interviews with staff working in the International Judges and Prosecutors Program in Kosovo between 2006 and 2007.  This allowed me to ‘model’, what application of theory/concept to case looked like to the students.

I then set them the task of applying the concept of hybridity, including the debates from all of the above to a brand new (to them) case.  The iconic bridge in Mostar.

I initially showed them these two images whilst providing them with a basic understanding of the conflict.





We then watched this video, which provides a brief context to the bridge’s history and insight into research conducted on the role of cultural heritage in conflict, post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding in this particular case.  Prior to starting the video, students were instructed to to think about the concepts and debates explored in the hybridity readings and mini lectured throughout the viewing (purposeful viewing as opposed to passive viewing)

After the video, but before beginning the class discussion, I ended with a slide containing this image



I then opened up the discussion, asking students to reflect on the video and the images of the bridge, based on what they had learned regarding the concept of ‘hybridity’.  Now,  my seminar students are incredibly self-motivated, highly intelligent 4th years so the conversation really just took off on its own without much input from me.  However, one could give students more specific prompts (for example ‘The video did not make any mention of gender issues related to the bridge or it’s rebuilding, are there questions or issues you think could add a gender dimension to analysis of this case? Do you see any examples of the manifestations of hybridity noted in the lecture/by Bhabha—mimicry, assimilation, etc? Of the types of power dynamics noted in the Mac Ginty article, which of those do you think best illustrates what happened in the rebuilding of the bridge?  Etc etc. Alter these based on your own landmark, topic, readings).

With my students, because they had also been exposed to readings and concepts related to critiques of liberal peacebuildng, aesthetics as well as resistance, students also began making incredible links to debates held in previous weeks. For example, one year I had a student note (regarding the last image)— ‘The fact that the ‘Don’t Forget’ graffiti is in English makes me think about when we talked about the ‘audience’ for modes of resistance and the performative element of protest…’ Another past student once made a reference to ‘Symbolic Politics Theory’ from one of their other IR courses. These are other ‘prompts’ you include in your lecture to stimulate critical thinking (asking students to also make links to other weeks, other courses)—in order to model to students how the same topic/issue can be studied effectively using multiple lenses.


The full reading list for my hybridity week is as follows

  • Global Governance 2012, ‘Special Issue: Hybrid Peace Governance’ 18: 1: 1–132.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. (1994) The Location of Culture. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Richmond, O. 2011, ‘De-romanticising the Local, Demystifying the International: Hybridity in Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands’ The Pacific Review 24: 1: 115–136.
  • Childs, P. & Williams, R.J.P. 1997, An Introduction to Post-colonial Theory, Hemel Hempsted, UK: Prentice Hall.
  • Richmond, O. 2011, ‘Critical Agency, Resistance and a Post-colonial Civil Society’ in Cooperation and Conflict 46: 4: 419–440.
  • Spivak, G.C. 1988, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. & Tiffin, H. eds, The Postcolonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge: 24–28.
  • Mitchell, Audra (2010) “Peace Beyond Process” Millennium—Journal of International Studies, 38(3), 641-664.
  • Mac Ginty, R. 2010, ‘Hybrid Peace: The Interaction between Top-Down and Bottom-Up Peace’ Security Dialogue 41: 4: 391–412.
  • Richmond OP (2009) A post-liberal peace: Eirenism and the everyday. Review of International Studies 35(3), 557-580.
  • Williams P (2013) Reproducing everyday peace in north India: Process, politics, and power. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 103(1), 230-250.

*If anyone is interested, these are the readings that I assign to students for the week on Aesthetics, where I also have students explore, discuss and analyze landmarks and other more tangible artifacts. We also spend time at UBC Museum of Anthropology as part of this set of lessons (email me for full reading list)

  • Forward’ and ‘Chapter 1’ of Bleiker, R (2012) Aesthetics and World Politics. Palgrave MacMillan: New York
  • Steele, BJ (2012) Defacing Power: The Aesthetics of Insecurity in Global Politics. University of Michigan Press.  Available as an e-book from UBC Library—please read Chapter 1: p 25-71.

And finally, here are my assigned readings for the resistance week (email me for full reading list)

  • Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth (2008) “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 pp. 7-44
  • Scott, J., (1990). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Yale University Press. ‘Chapter 1: Behind the Official Story’ (available as an e-book from UBC Library)
  • Jackson, R (2017) “Pacifism: the anatomy of a subjugated knowledge” Critical Studies on Security.


Alternative Assessment: ‘Publish with your Prof’—Undergraduate Version OR The making of ‘Shifts in public discourses towards the use of violence and war: A comparative exploration of the impact of aesthetic encounters’ by Kieran Davey, Mir Muhtadi Faiaz, Chrisanne Kouzas, Yahe Li, Jenny H Peterson

Most of us are familiar with the idea of publishing academic pieces with our graduate students.  Although it varies by discipline and academic culture (my totally anecdotal findings are that this is a much more common practice in North America than the United Kingdom, for example), it is not uncommon for us to work with and eventually publish with research students under our supervision.

Let’s spend a few moments thinking about why this is common practice (admittedly this is an incomplete list).

  1. It provides much needed professional development for our graduate students. If one thinks about this relationship as a form of apprenticeship, publishing with students is one way that we train/prepare them for professional academic life. More concretely, mentoring them through joint publications leads to solid lines on their CVs, providing them with the type of experience that is most valued in our profession.
  2. The increased motivation and accountability that comes from working collaboratively: For both the students and for us, working together on something can push us forward in terms of productivity as one feels more accountable to meeting deadlines and is (perhaps/ideally) less likely to procrastinate. In the right circumstances collaboration can have tangible impacts on our productivity, and that of our students.
  3. Related to the above, there are the less tangible but no less important intellectual rewards of collaboration. Working with others can infuse our own research with new ideas, literature and methods that we might not have considered if working alone.  When working with our younger colleagues, this can be particularly rejuvenating.

At this juncture, I will make a personal admission.  Whilst working on the ‘teaching tenure-track’ here at UBC is incredibly rewarding in many ways, I do miss working with graduate students and all the benefits noted above that come with this.  I miss mentoring and encouraging these emerging scholars. More selfishly, I miss how much working with grad students invigorated my own research and teaching agendas. It is the one major ‘gap’ I feel I have in my current career. It is upon reflecting on all of this, that I decided to see if the same benefits (for all parties) could hold true when publishing with UNDERGRADUATE students.  Can I both provide and receive the above benefits, working with our most junior of colleagues?


Description of Project and Recruitment

I (stubbornly) pre-determined that the answer to the above was ‘yes’ and set about introducing a new assignment in my POLI 370 course called ‘Publish With Your Prof’.  Interested students were invited to write a short personal statement as to why they wanted to take part in this project– there was a choice of 8 projects to choose from for their final assignment.  I had initially thought I would work with just 3 students, but after  higher than expected interest (I had close to 30 students apply!) I selected 5 students to work with me.  Their personal statements were all quite different.  Some had done research on non-violence and aesthetics (the broad theme for the paper that I had already decided upon) to show their intellectual interest and personal initiative in regards to informing themselves of topic. Others spoke in much more personal terms, reflecting on their own individual experiences with either non-violence or aesthetics.  There was no magic formula for getting selected. I did not ask for academic writing samples. What I was looking for was students who seemed highly motivated for either professional or personal reasons to work on the topic and presented this in a detailed way.  I also tried to select a range of students in this regard, believing that diversity of interests, motivations and backgrounds would make for a more enriching experience.

I wanted to be able to give students the full experience of working on a paper—from initial idea to final product. Therefore, the assignment description was quite vague and the students I worked with didn’t just slot in to a pre-prepared project/help me finish something I had already started. Although I gave them a broad theme/approach (aesthetics, images, nonviolence/pacifism), the arguments/approach, cases, methods etc all stemmed from our discussions as a group.  At the end of this blog post I provide  a fuller description of the project that was supplied to the students (including details on grading).


What Worked

In terms of the third benefit listed above (intangible intellectual benefits), the project was a complete success.  The paper I had envisioned in my own head when I created the assignment did NOT materialize.  Instead, my students took the paper in a related but slightly different, more innovative direction.  Their enthusiasm, discussion, personal interests all led to the creation of an argument and approach that I would have never reached on my own.  The case studies they selected, though I was familiar with some of them, were not cases I would have been drawn to or have necessarily uncovered on my own.  I’m now left with such rich teaching materials (both in terms of content and illustrative examples) for any presentations or classes I teach on aesthetics and/or visual politics.

From the students’ perspective- and here I am just noting the learning I myself witnessed as I don’t have permission to quote their reflective writing assignments where they discussed what they learned from the project—I also saw some amazing moments related to the first benefit (academic apprenticeship).  In a short period of time I saw my undergraduates learn important lessons that I feel have been central in teaching them the difference between consuming and producing knowledge—what it means do innovative academic research (beyond the traditional literature review/argumentative style essay that we generally assign).

A key moment related to this occurred when several students noted to me (with varying degrees of stress) that ‘they couldn’t find any sources that analyzed the image they had selected using the two analytical lenses we had decided to use (aesthetics and counter-power)’. In some cases there was almost no academic literature at all on their selected photo, yet alone any using the aforementioned frames. What were they to do?  Should they find new cases?  This was a seminal moment in teaching them about the concept of ‘contribution to knowledge’—that dreaded term that scared the bejesus out of my younger-grad-school self and my PhD cohort.  I now found myself explaining and de-mystifying this term to my undergraduate students—noting that the lack of literature was actually a good thing, that what they had done was found that elusive ‘gap in the literature’, and that now they were going to fill that gap with their own analysis.    This was a clear and, I think, really effective learning moment for this students in regard to experiencing something so central to academic success.  Related to this, I feel there was a fear of speaking in an authoritative voice about ‘new findings’ (something I still struggle with myself of course). However, what I saw in their final submissions revealed great steps in overcoming this important barrier as well.


What Didn’t Work

Very early on in my academic career a wise mentor warned me about collaborative projects with a refrain that I am sure is familiar to all of us: “Collaborations only go as fast as the slowest contributor”. I have (painfully) experienced this a couple of times.  And, well folks, I’m ashamed to say that on this particular project, that slowest contributor was me.  On this front I really feel like I let my students down. I was managing 8 projects for this class and also teaching another intro level class in another unit. I overestimated how involved I could be in many stages of the project. I let the excitement of the project overtake my rational faculties. I know that the students likely felt a bit let down by this (though they never let on), but they probably didn’t feel as frustrated about this as I did.

Even though I am proud of them and happy with the nearly finished paper, I wanted to work more closely with them. Although I wanted them to work independently, I didn’t have the same time for the intellectual back and forths that I have had on some of my other collaborative projects.  Further, my responsibility was to fine tune the literature review, edit their sections, and write up the findings. We had decided on the framework together and discussed comparative findings during the semester, so this was more of a drafting rather than any intellectual heavy lifting on my part.  However, I of course did not have time to do this during the term (April). I had hoped to get it done by the end of June, but life got in the way and now I’m aiming for August.    This is of course ‘normal’ slippage in our world (2 months late you say!  Ha, that’s nothing!), but I can’t help but feel it is less than ideal for my students who have had to wait to see the final product when I was rather (and necessarily) insistent on them getting their parts in on time!

Finally, and as noted earlier, demand to participate in this project outstripped supply by a factor of 10.  With nearly 30 students applying to work with me on the project, I again feel like I had to let down a lot of good students. I’m now thinking of if/how I could increase opportunities for this, taking into account what I noted above regarding my abysmal performance time wise.  Perhaps if I had fewer projects (not all 8 were successes if I’m honest) and/or got my Graduate TAs involved I could consider expanding this option.


What comes next…

This is definitely an assignment I’ll be using again.  The timing problems were of my own making and now that I know what this assignment entails, I’ll plan better for the next round.  In terms of the paper from this year, I’ve submitted an abstract to my professional association’s annual convention and hopefully will be able to take at least one of the students to present alongside me if it gets accepted. At the time of writing this post, I’m also about 2/3 of the way through the edits to the paper and will hopefully be submitting it for peer review at some point (and even thought the students are no longer in the class, they will be contributing to this process along the way in terms of helping me respond to reviews).  Hopefully, the next ‘academic lesson’ this project teaches them isn’t about the realities of rejection and hopefully they don’t have an encounter with ‘Reviewer-2’ for their first experience of peer review!



Description of project provided to students

Guidelines and Expectations

This project seeks to give students a bit of experience regarding the life-cycle of an academic research project.  Together we will produce a 7000 word paper, and, if all goes well, we will submit it for publication to an academic journal or site. This project is combining two of Dr. Peterson’s current research interests—an interest in discourses surrounding non-violence and pacifism (for which she currently has an article under review), and an interest in aesthetic approaches (for which she recently had an article accepted).  She will email you both of these pieces for your reference/interest.

The aim of the article we will write together is to explore public discourses surrounding peace movements and or pacifism by exploring iconic images of peace movements/figures.  This will be done by engaging in analysis that makes use of theories/concepts coming out of the ‘aesthetic and narrative turn’ in International Relations.  Please note, I am seeing you all as co-authors as opposed to Research Assistants (who simply do the grunt work), so many of the important decisions regarding the article are still to be jointly made!

This will occur in the following steps

  1. Compilation of academic sources that will be of use to the project
  2. Completing a literature review around the topic to help us identify gaps in the literature, potential analytical frameworks and to narrow our research aim and analytical framework further (once we have agreed upon this, Jen will write up this section)
  3. The selection of 5 iconic images for each of you to analyze using the agreed upon analytical framework (to be selected as a team and each student to then write up an 1000 word max analysis of one of the images).
  4. Coming together to write a conclusion, answering the ‘so what?’ question
  5. Producing a final version to be submitted (time depending!)

How will we be graded?

Although this is a group project, Dr. Peterson has decided to give you each individual grades for the assignment.  This will be based on a) the quality of your contributions to discussions about narrowing the question and analytical focus b) the quality of your analysis in the individual analysis on your assigned image c) the quality of your contributions in terms of discussion regarding the conclusion.  By quality I mean the clarity of your writing/ideas and the analytical sophistication of your contributions/use of the literature/theories in all of the above.


Role Reversal: Turning my students into teachers via assignments

Last semester, students in my 4th year Critical Peace Studies seminar worked together to decide on a class project that all 20+ of them could do together. The goals were threefold— a) to integrate/use the critical peace studies literature in an advanced way b) to explore (and potentially critique) the concept of ‘activist scholarship’ that is also prevalent in the field of peace studies through experience, and finally c) to do something that had the potential to build peace locally; to have students challenge,  through experiential learning, binaries that persist in our disciplines (including ‘us v them’ ‘peace v war’ ‘peaceful societies v violent societies’)

After a few guided sessions where we explored a range of potential projects, we democratically decided to pursue the creation of a series of online education modules that could be used by high school teachers to teach students about some of the themes coming out of Critical Peace Studies (minus all the academic jargon).  In other words, the education modules were meant to transform/crystalize the broader lessons from critical peace studies into something accessible for an interested, but general audience of younger students.  The output of these resulted in a student-named and created website that offers the materials free of charge to be used by teachers.  Education modules based on an active learning pedagogical model on the following topics were produced: ‘An Introduction to Peace and Violence’ , the ‘Consequences of Consumerism’ and the ‘Complications of Foreign Aid’.


Image from Consumerism Module, Slide Deck


Image from Consumerism module, Teachers Guide/Table of Contents

Following the success of this in with my 400 level students, I adapted the assignment and included it as one of the ‘project choices’ in my POLI 370 Peacebuilding course last semester.  The course already included a week on Peace Education in the section of the course that addressed different peacebuilding policies—so it was already a good fit.  I had approximately 15 students sign up for this option, which resulted in more active learning based peace education modules (on the themes of ‘Reconciliation in Post Holocaust Germany’, ‘Peace Through Media Literacy’ and ‘Indigenous Peacebuilding’).

As there are unlikely to be high-school level courses in peacebuilding, in both of the examples above, students needed to think about building a lesson around a topic that would already be included in a school curriculum (ie it needed to fit into a course that might be taught in a high school such as history, social studies, communications technology, etc).  They then needed to integrate relevant concepts from peace and conflict studies into these topics.  This was important, as it ensured the students were not simply replicating/simplifying a topic or lecture that I had already completed for our class.  Below I reflect on the successes and limitations of this alternative assignment.

Learning Outcomes (expected and  unexpected)

Of course some of the most obvious lessons learned by students relate directly to further mastery of  course content.  As all of us who teach know, you often learn a topic in a much deeper (dare I say ‘alternative’) way when you have to teach it.  This is particularly true when thinking about how to teach something to absolute beginners. Yes, I can wax lyrical about agonism or hybridity as it relates to peace studies in 8000 + word academic papers or over conference dinners for hours (some might say ad nuaseum), but having to explain these concepts to novices in my field (even at the 300 or 400 level undergraduate level) has forced me to break down these ideas into smaller constituent parts, think about defining them in several different ways so as to aid in understanding, apply to case studies in a really clear and significant way (that speaks to young people), think about how it relates to other ideas/concepts in my discipline, prepare myself to answer questions and respond to critiques that my dozens of students might throw at me mid-lecture etc etc.  By requiring my students to become the teachers and prepare materials in the same way, a deeper learning of content ensued.  This was expected and part of the justification for approving it as a final project in my 400 level course and including it as a project choice in my 300 level course.

What is perhaps more significant are the unexpected learning outcomes I witnessed in my students from observing them as they worked towards the final product.  For example, class discussions about the integration of ‘critical peace research’ into the first set of lesson plans developed, often centered around concerns that the modules were taking on more of a ‘development studies’ or ‘social justice’ focus rather than a strictly ‘peace and conflict focus’.  This, of course, led to fantastic discussions about disciplinary boundaries (or the lack thereof).  Students, who up until now had been fairly accepting of the value of critical peace studies and its interdisciplinary history, were now querying potential dangers in muddying the disciplinary boundaries and terminology; they held wonderful discussions  about the values and limits of interdisciplinarity.  This also brought to the surface potential critiques of the field of critical peace studies (has it become too focused on structural violence as opposed to physical violence, for example?).  In both classes, I listened to students express frustration with the limitations of academic language, and through this frustration saw them make incredible moves towards developing their own epistemic stances and concerns about knowledge production.  All of this is to note the positive and often unplanned/unscripted learning that came from allowing students to experiment and take charge of their own learning through this particular assessment.


What didn’t work— lessons for future iterations

To be honest, and even though the quality of what was produced in my 300 level course was excellent in many cases, this option worked much better in my smaller class.  It was not that my 300 level students were any less driven or intelligent, only that in this course, (where I was managing 8 different types of final projects with 90 students),  I was unable to have the degree oversight and input into the production of the education modules  that I had at the 400 level (with 20 students, all working on the same project type).  In the smaller class, I was able to lead discussions in ways that facilitated the types of learning discussed above.  Perhaps more importantly,  students who were working on different modules were able to talk to each other, bounce ideas off each other, and think about creating some coherence between modules.  Seeing exciting and creative things happening in one group, often led the other groups to ‘up their game’, leading to an improvement in quality across the board.

This same level of peer to peer learning did not happen in the larger class—partly because of my inability to manage discussions and partly because of a lack of shared purpose between the smaller groups working on these modules.  So, even though students had been given clarity of what needed to be submitted (a downloadable teachers guide and an accompanying slide-deck), a general qualitative rubric, as well as examples from the 400 level course)—there was a lack of integration and joined-up thinking across groups that I think prevented the type of deeper learning I saw in the smaller 400 level group.

Learning from this, I think it would be worth me dedicating a set time (or assigning a TA)  to meet once or twice with these groups  so that I could facilitate discussions and create opportunities for learning and sharing between groups.    I also think that having the groups work on ensuring some kind of consistency between groups (perhaps through peer review) would also improve the quality of the education modules overall. It would also give these students more experience in project management/dealing with larger group dynamics.


Opportunities for Greater Impact

One of the reasons I’ve decided to blog about this particular assignment (beyond wanting to showcase my students’ work—which they agreed would be up on the site before embarking on the project), is that I feel it is something easily replicated in the broadest range of disciplines (compared to some of my assignments which are much more arts/social science focused).   Even the most diverse of high school curriculums will still have gaps, and even though teachers will have limitations in terms of what they can include (due in part to teaching cultures but also simply down to time/having to focus on preparing students for state/public exams), the opportunity to include even the smallest elements of these lesson plans in order to expose younger students to a wider range of ideas is an exciting one.  Although reaching out and publicizing these modules is something that I have admittedly not been great at (we had a small ‘outreach and publicizing’ element to this project in the smaller class, which did not really pan out to the extent hped, and I have really only being able to get the website out through my own personal networks), the potential of partnering up with local schools and building in the delivery of these modules to local schools is another option.  Having worked more directly with local schools in my previous gig, I’d ideally like to reach out to local schools and have my students consult directly with teachers to help produce and deliver materials that address specific teaching needs of teachers in my local community.

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.