Category Archives: social justice

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.


Lest we forget: Teaching, Scholarship and the Travel Ban(s)

Whilst the US Travel Ban (and the new revised 2.0) was hot news for several weeks, it has nearly disappeared from our news screens already. Nonetheless, the ban(s) and current US politics continue to pose difficult questions for universities, scholarly communities, and students around the globe.  Of course, universities in the US are faced with some of the greatest problems and questions.  At ISA 2017  in Baltimore, I acted as discussant on a panel on ‘study abroad programs’ in which the QnA quickly turned to the issue of the travel ban and other immigration ‘moves’ in the US.  I saw how my American colleagues were facing issues that we in Canada do not face– for example, having to counsel and advise students who now fear participating in these valuable programs at the risk of not being able to return home.  There is of course the wider problem of campuses becoming so deeply divided (politically) that teaching (politics in particular, but many other topics) has at the same time become more difficult and ever more important.  Many “teaching in the Trump era” guides, news articles , and editorials have responded to this new challenge.

Here in Canada, the recent Travel Bans and immigration moves in the US have not had  as obvious an impact (though there are many colleagues and students who are directly impacted by recent events– I by no means wish to wash away the many people who are experiencing the real ramifications of recent policies).  However, the problem here is quantitatively and qualitatively different.  The topic has of course come up with students, and we’ve discussed things in class, but it has, in my experience, been very civil and though students are indeed interested in what’s going on south of the 49th, they are (for the most part) not as personally impacted and thus the issues arising are, again, different. Far fewer students have a fear of leaving the country, lest they not be able to return to their studies. Colleagues may need to re-route their flights but are much less at risk of not being able to return to their offices, labs, homes and families in Vancouver (though for some with family in the US there is of course a fear about when/if they will be able to visit loved ones again and their safety).

Still, the recent travel ban and shift towards populist or nationalist governments around the world have ramifications for all of us in the classroom, and for universities around the world.   These events have put the spotlight on issues affecting the academy that have always been there (academic freedom, scholars at risk, lack of equal opportunities for students etc), but have not been talked about widely or enough by administrators, departments or with our students.  In response to all of this, several of us drafted a letter to the UBC administration voicing our concern.  My colleague Prof. Christina Hendricks has written about our motivation for this, and provided a copy of our letter here.  We received a formal reply from the university which noted our concern and detailed a range of actions the university is undertaking.

I am re-posting all of this hear in the hopes that the specific issues raised for our students and colleagues around the world do not fall out of view as the news cycle turns.  The impacts and fears remain real and, as I note above, raise issues that have always existed with in the academy, though often in less publicized ways.  Recent events in both Turkey and Hungary are but two other examples. I also hope that some of my readers will have a look at some of the actions our university is trying to take in response to issues related to (and beyond) the travel bans and consider ways that we can make academic freedom as well as the safety and security of a range of marginalized groups on our campus and in our profession a regular and intentional part of our conversations.  On a more personal level– check in with your students. The ways that recent politics (in the US and abroad) are impacting your students may remain hidden to you.  Invite students to meet with you to discuss concerns they may have regarding their status at your university, their future their well being.  In the same way scholars around the world work to protect each other, so must we protect the most junior scholars among us.

(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.

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.

Forget it, I’m not following the lesson plan today: An unscripted conversation on violence, terrorism, religion and fear

Things were ticking along nicely during my Monday morning lecture. Short reading quiz—tick. Get up to Slide 5 in powerpoint-lecture on IR Theory by the first break—tick. Start prepping TAs on logistics of running the post-break simulation on sovereignty during the break—ti…. Interrupted by lingering student who clearly had a question to ask.

The question of course was about what happened in France over the weekend. The attacks that killed over 100 (mostly young) people doing things that my students do on a regular basis without any fear—drinking at a bar, eating at a café, going to a concert, attending a football match. As I talked about the different ways we could address his question and noticed the other students who had begun to linger as we talked, I realized this was a conversation I should be having with the whole group, not just the four or so who were now stood around me.

I looked at my remaining slides, I looked at the simulation on sovereignty/humanitarian intervention I had so carefully crafted and printed for them.   I realized that as much as I needed to ‘teach them the basics’, there was a potential for them to learn a lot more about the world today by have a totally unscripted conversation. So, in both my classes that day I ditched the last half of my lesson plan and my TAs and I simply answered questions the students had about what was going on in the world.

I have to say, I was a bit nervous. The attacks, terrorism, religion, military interventions, immigration—if my Facebook page and the conversations (nay I say, fights) that were happening there were anything to go by, this could get messy, and fast. But it didn’t. My students asked incredible questions focused on understanding the situation not simply reacting to it. My TAs responded with honesty (some things we just don’t know) and a recognition of the deep divides that exist in our field and in the public domain about many of the questions the students had (often noting things were ‘just their opinion’ and pointing to a range of ideas and arguments that exist, without judgement of those ideas).

But it was more than just a QnA. Reflecting on this after classes were done for the day, I realized how much students had learned about the social sciences more generally—the kinds and types of debates we have that they are now participating in.   They came to realize how global problems require a multi-disciplinary approach, how evidence for ‘competing truths’ can be found. In terms of learning about politics, they came face to face with so many of the issues we’ve been talking about this term—power in all its guises, authority, freedom, sovereignty, civil society.

It has made me question the whole way I have approached teaching this course. I teach it thematically, Week One: Power, Week Two: The State and so on and so forth. Would it possibly make more sense to teach politics through real political events? The ‘themes’ would likely expose themselves regardless—though it would take more time and care on my part to really draw these out each week and to ensure students were not only learning about the event, but also the crucial ‘political science canon’ that I am supposed to be providing them with. It would mean a rewrite of my course and an acceptance that these unscripted conversations might take us to places my powerpoint slides are not ready to take us to!

Below is just a small glimpse of the questions asked along with some bullet points on political themes and debates that we were able to have because of those questions. I’ll be looking back on this experience to consider how I might bring in more current events to my teaching in a way that is meaningful and doesn’t take away from the other ‘content’ that they also need to learn. While the timeframe didn’t allow me to go into great detail on any of the below— it did allow me to introduce new concepts and debates and make links to a wide range of concepts we’ve already covered during the term. For me, it really taught me the value of unscripted conversations with students.


  1. Is there going to be another World War? This question allowed us to talk about who has the power to define and label political events; the criteria used to classify wars; the shift in thinking about war as something between states as opposed to something that also involves non-state actors; the difficulties political scientists have in making predictions
  2. Why did they (ISIS or the extremists) do this? What do they want? This question allowed us to talk about religion/identity and politics (what different theories tell us about the role of religion and identity in relation to war); the heterogeneity found within all religions; Islamophobia; the central role that power has in political science and the understanding of different ways of acquiring it—both legitimate and illegitimate; the politics of fear.
  3. Why are we seeing so much about France!? What about what happened in Turkey last month, Lebanon the night before etc etc etc? Why don’t people care about these other cases?  Probably one of the most difficult questions, this discussion helped students recognize the importance of being specific in our questions—the reasons individuals vs the media vs states ‘care’ about a political issue is quite varied. It also allowed us to raise issues of power, wealth (and the connection between the two), the salience of our different identities as well as difficult questions regarding stereotyping, racism and ‘othering’.
  4. What will we can we do to stop ISIS? This question was probably most clearly linked to our topic of the day and we tried to answer it by bringing in theories liberalism and realism in IR.   It also allowed us to again think about the nature of state vs non-state actors (and the relationship between them); I was also able to introduce ideas found in strategic studies—(air campaigns vs ground campaigns, counterinsurgency) as well as my own research interests of peacebuilding and pacifism.
  5. What can we do to stop Islamophobia? My students are rightly disgusted by the recent and ongoing attacks they are seeing around the globe but at the same time many voiced fear over the Islamophobia that is also emerging (there is nothing contradictory in holding these two positions at the same time). This was one of the harder ones for me to talk about for personal reasons—and was actually a great opportunity to frame my own thinking on the problem rationally, conceptually, without flying into a blind range. My TAs took the lead and handled it like stars—linking it to conversations around domestic politics, elections, ‘othering’ and civil society movements.



Guest Blogger: Professor Roger Mac Ginty, University of Manchester ‘Fieldtripping: the ethics and practicalities of student fieldtrips’

***A quick preamble from Jen:  I’ve recently been thinking about charging ahead with a service learning or community based learning project for the next academic year.  Having participated in and led such projects in the past I am a huge fan of the potential student learning that can occur but also acutely aware of both the huge time commitment involved and the often dizzying array of ethical issues to consider. With these issues ringing in my ears, I turn to one of my former colleagues and mentors for his helpful and honest reflections on this form of learning.  For the original of this piece and many others on issues related to peace and conflict studies please visit  ***

Many years ago, when I was a rookie lecturer, I went on an MA fieldtrip to Croatia. There were 29 students, the course leader and myself. I am still embarrassed at the nature of the fieldtrip. All 31 of us loaded onto a bus that toured ruined municipalities. We would stumble off the bus, take pictures of bullet-marked houses, walk around destroyed factories, and speak with town mayors. Then we trooped onto the bus again and went off to the next municipality to repeat the exercise. I have been troubled by the notion of student ‘fieldtrips’ ever since. There is a distinct danger of conflict tourism, of the voyeuristic peering at the misery of others before jetting home.

Over a number of years I worked with the indefatigable Alp Ozerdem to re-organise the fieldtrips that we ran and make them more conflict-sensitive, and place an emphasis on research techniques. In the classroom, Alp made students practice interviews and observation techniques so that the fieldtrips were much more sensitive. We also divided the class into small groups of four that each focused on an issue – such as livelihood or resettlement – and charged them with organizing their own interviews.

At St Andrews, with others, I continued this re-invention of the fieldtrip, away of the legacy of colonial anthropology, and tried to turn it into a site to interrogate the power relations between the researcher and the researched. Now at Manchester, as we are making a fieldtrip a centre piece of our MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, I am still thinking about the ethics and practicalities of bringing students into a conflict-affected area. I posted a few questions about this on Facebook not so long ago and some of the points here draw on the comments that I received.

Reinventing the ‘fieldtrip’
My Manchester colleague Oliver Richmond questioned the term ‘fieldtrip’ because of the colonial and developmental baggage that comes with it. Certainly the term conjures up images of pith helmets, maps and pointing at ‘the natives’. Maria O’Reilly from Goldsmiths at the University of London came up with the very good idea of a fieldtrip in the UK. This has lots of practical advantages (no need to get visas, lower carbon emissions etc.) but also allows us to think about our own positionality and why field research always has to be ‘over there’. It encourages us to think of the power relationships between the researcher and the researched. Oliver Richmond, Anne Hayner (Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame) and Sweta Singh (South Asian University) all mentioned the importance of working with local organisations, teaming up with local universities, and trying to get beyond the ‘parachuting in’ mentality. Walt Kilroy from Dublin City University suggested that ‘the researched’ be asked for their feedback: did the researchers perform their tasks sensitivity and effectively?

All of the above are very good tips but I still hear of university ‘fieldtrips’ of forty or fifty students traipsing around conflict-affected countries. It is important that students and researchers can have access to conflict-affected areas but it seems to me that we have to go much further in making these trips sensitive. We also have to be realistic. While we can have good intentions and use the word ‘ethnographic’ as much as we want, a fieldtrip (or whatever we call it) is still a time-limited exercise: we come in and leave. We also have to realize that many of us are curious about conflict-affected societies and that it is difficult to get beyond the sight-seeing mentality.

But, if we are organising a fieldtrip, there are guidelines that we can set down in the hope of maximising both sensitivity and the pedagogic value of any trip. Let me restrict myself to five points.

  1. Any student fieldtrip should be a working trip. Students should be set discrete objectives, linked to an assignment. The working nature of the fieldtrip starts well before departure with study of research techniques and the context. It continues during the trip with students setting up meetings, conducting interviews, being mindful of the ethics of research, and sharing notes within groups. And the working nature of the trip continues after students return with the interrogation and use of research results, reflections on how they were gathered, and writing thank you notes.
  2. The process is more important than any research results. A short student fieldtrip will not be an occasion in which to gather huge amounts of data that is robust and comparable. By their nature, student fieldtrips are time limited. The emphasis should be on the research process rather than a data harvesting exercise. It is about road-testing research techniques that have been discussed in class.
  3. Practice beforehand. It seems important that we encourage our students to trial research techniques before they embark on a trip. For example, I have often noticed how rude people can be when they accompany a tour guide. They start off enthusiastic, but half way through a walking tour they get bored, wander off, and are obviously not listening to the guide. So I organise a walking tour around Manchester with an amateur historian so that the students can think about active listening, the simple observational art of looking up, and of courtesy towards someone who is taking the time to try to explain a context to them.
  4. Work with locals. We cannot expect to ‘go native’ on a short trip, and terms like ‘ethnography’ can be used too freely (much to the annoyance of anthropologists I am sure). But, given limited time and resources, we can make links with local universities or groups, learn a little more about context, and move beyond only staying in the hotel bar and talking with taxi drivers.
  5. Small groups. Thirty people on a bus is a tour group. By breaking students into small groups of four (or so) we hand responsibility over to them and encourage them to set up meetings, take charge of interviews, and think about issues of sensitivity. In a large group, people can hide and expect others to take responsibility.

We cannot overcome many of the structural aspects that dominate the relationship between the researched and the researcher. We cannot stop the curiosity of humans to travel and see the condition of others. But if we are going to organise fieldtrips, we can try to be more sensitive.

Details of the MA in Peace and Conflict Studies field trip can be found here: