Category Archives: Staying motivated as a scholar

And the gold medal goes to… Critical thinking on how we label states—Case Study Rwanda

In opposition to the silver medal winner, the learning activity that was OVERWHELMINGLY  considered to be the task that most influenced student thinking (as voted for by students via their final reflective writing assignment), did require a lot of work—on both our parts.  It was in fact an activity that I had planned on scrapping  because it is so labor intensive on me[i], requires students to really engage and think independently during the class (which is of course OK! But this class is scheduled right around mid-terms when students’ energy levels take a big dip and some students are generally resistant to ‘heavy’ forms of active learning), and it requires a really good debrief at the end to ensure that the lessons learned are reinforced.  I find it exhausting, even though I always feel it has gone smoothly.  Also, if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure the students were learning as much as I had hoped from it.

I was wrong.  The fact that almost twice as many students wrote about this session in their final reflections compared to the Saliency activity (the silver medal winner) has left this activity, or at least some version of it, firmly established in my syllabus.    The lessons learned here by students (taken from their end of term written reflections)[ii] reveal the activity’s ability to simultaneously teach a range of intellectual skills and offered some interesting moments in terms of students’ personal and academic growth.

In preparation for the class, students read the course textbook where the ‘basics’ of the categorization of ‘strong v weak v failing v collapsed’ states is described.  Here the indicators that allow these measurements to be made are defined and described.  Their second reading for the week presents a more critical view of this categorization.[iii]  I also put a folder up on the course website that contains a series of short articles/data sets regarding Rwanda.  These documents include reports on Rwanda’s progress from the Human Development Index,  internal crime and safety reports, local and international news articles etc.

 

Part One:  Evidence based categorization

The activity is split into two main tasks.  The first is more of a data gathering and interpretation exercise.  Students are provided with a worksheet that includes a chart they need to fill in. Using the documents provided on the course website and using any other statistics or data they can find online, they try to make an evidence based conclusion regarding whether Rwanda is currently a strong, weak or failing state.  They are challenged to categorize Rwanda as strong/weak/failing on each of the indicators explored in the textbook (capacity, autonomy, internal legitimacy, external legitimacy) and provide the exact statistics/pieces of data they are using to make that claim.  Many students found that Rwanda was ‘strong’ on some indicators and ‘weak’  or even ‘failing’ on others.   During the debrief we discovered that students had ranked Rwanda differently in some categories, despite working with the same data sets.

Many students noted how this was a useful exercise in terms of thinking about methodology and subjectivity in analysis.  Some  discussed how it reinforced the importance of making evidence based statements in class discussions and assignments.   In this regard, one student noted:

‘I also enjoyed how the worksheet allowed me to move from my own perceptions and opinions of what I already thought I knew to showing me how to do proper research and analyzing the nation myself in order to strengthen my knowledge of weak/failed/strong states’

And of course there are large data sets that combine all of the indicators and provide a broad ranking of each country in relation to others on a scale.  However, several students noted the use of such a big data set might obscure some interesting anomalies or conflicting data—making note that even though overall Rwanda might be classified as ‘weak’, such a generalization or ‘averaging’ of indicators obscured policy areas where Rwanda was doing well.  These students noted how numbers and quantitative indexes help us generalize and rank but qualitative data and the exploration of individual indicators is needed to get a complete picture of a case study.  This was a particularly important moment in terms of some students reconsidering their epistemic stance and the need to delve more deeply into statements presented as ‘truth’.  As one student noted in their reflection on this activity:

‘I recognize slants that I have within myself, as well it has allowed me to be more critical of the sources of information and whether or not such an argument or statement is more or less powerful; before I would assume all statements to be equal as I would not challenge such ideas much past their grammar or obvious rhetoric.’

 

Part Two:  Critical thinking—assessing critiques of the ‘weak state’ discourse

On the back of the handout is where I expect students to engage with the critical reading—to reflect on the experience they just had regarding categorizing Rwanda, and consider it in relation to concerns raised by those who critique the ‘weak states’ discourse.  With the people around them, students are asked to discuss and record their answers to the following questions.

  1. Based on your answers above—how would you classify this state OVERALL: Strong, Weak or Failing?
  2. If you had different answers in the first column (ie some indicators suggested a strong state, other indicators suggested a weak state) how did you make a final decision about the overall categorization of the state? Did you view some indicators as more important?
  3. Were there any interesting debates between you and your colleagues on how to categorize and what evidence to use?

In their reflections, a lot of students discussed how  exploring these questions led them to a belief that the rankings were unfair as they failed to capture progress/positive moves forward—states could still be labelled pejoratively as ‘weak’ despite making significant progress on some indicators (which suggests strength).  For example, one student noted that

‘Its HDI went from 0.277 in 1980 to 0.434 in 2012, which means, although the current HDI value is still quite low, there has been significant progress in human development in the country and it feels unfair to classify such a leap forward as weak; especially after the tragedy it went through in 1993’

While independent critical reflections such as the above were encouraging to see, there were also great moments of students understanding the ramifications of such critiques and addressing counter-arguments to the critiques of the discourse.  For example, one student concluded that

‘Determining the difference between a strong, weak, failing, and failed state is hard as contradictions in the data are apparent. However, politics itself is hard to define, but as political scientist we have to define with the best and legitimate system available in order to make comparisons. Comparisons allow for better policy decisions, thereby, a more stable political order’

What was nice to see in all of the examples above is students’ growing ability to be specific and concise in applying concrete facts/data to quite abstract conceptual debates that they were very briefly exposed to in readings and lectures.   One of my biggest concerns with essays in undergraduate level essays is students inability to link case study data in a meaningful way with some of the conceptual debates to which they are drawn.   For example, it is not uncommon to see students say something akin to ‘Country X’s relationship with Country Y is neo-colonial’ but then fail to provide the richer explanation of exactly why.  This case study allowed them to practice this in a supported and low stakes way and their reflections showcased their growing ability to do so.   It has encouraged me to make greater use of Case Study type activities, even if labour intensive.  The payoff makes it worth it.

 

[i] Why is it so labour intensive?

  1. The case study materials you select need to be carefully thought out, and succinct. Posting whole journal articles, 30 page NGO reports etc is not really an option unless you want to turn this into a much larger assignment or have it spread out over several weeks (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but is difficult in an intro level course which covers a lot of topics)
  2. The above materials need to be updated year on year so as to reflect any political changes/major events
  3. The above materials need to be posted on course website in a timely manner, so no last minute lesson planning!
  4. I always bring a few hard copy packages of these materials so that students who don’t have their computers with them in class or have problems reading off computer screens aren’t excluded.
  5. I personally prefer to use a handout to keep students on task/structured in their work. So this needs preparing, copying, handing out etc.

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

[iii] I assign the following reference, but there are many other’s one could use. Gruffydd Jones, Branwen (2013) ’Good governance’ and ‘state failure’: genealogies of imperial discourse’. Cambridge Review of International Affairs26(1),49-70.

 

And the Silver Medal Goes To…. A REALLY Brief Activity on Identity Politics

Continuing with my series of reflections on what learning activities students found impacted their understanding of politics the most (part of my aforementioned research project) comes an activity that literally takes about 15 minutes of class time and requires pretty much no additional prep on the part of my students (other than completing the week’s required readings).   One of the reasons I am particularly thrilled to see this activity make the top three is that it also required very little of me in terms of prep!  There were no scenarios to write, no data sets or graphs to carefully select,  no photocopies to make, no elaborate debriefing to perform etc. From the time I had the idea, through the time I worked out in my head how it would play out in the lecture, to the time I included it the lecture slides, it was maybe 20 minutes of my time.  It isn’t something I need to update every year as datasets change, or new case study material becomes relevant.

I think one of the things that puts some profs ‘off’ active learning is the extra time it takes to plan, think through, develop materials, do a practice run in one’s head before unleashing the idea your students etc.    Without a doubt, writing a 90 minute lectures takes about ½ the time it takes (at a minimum) to plan a session centered around active learning (if you want it to go well and really relate to learning outcomes).  So, finding something so easy and non-time-consuming that really resonated with students has been quite exciting for me.  It has made me think about the possibility of doing similar ‘small interventions’ that can keep my workload more manageable.*  So here, I present the content and impact of the 2nd most popular activity I ran with my comparative politics students last semester.

 

The difficulty of studying ‘identity politics’:  Thinking about the concept of ‘saliency’

The activity that I ran was an attempt to get students to think more critically about some of the claims regarding the role and impact of ‘identity’ on politics (from conflict to voting behavior and beyond).

The activity was done verbally, part way through a lecture on ideas related to identity politics—no need for activity sheets etc.  I asked students to write down 5 of their identities.  I engaged in the activity along with them on the board.  I wrote down the following

  1. Canadian
  2. Woman
  3. Swedish-Canadian
  4. Peace Scholar
  5. Wife

I then asked students, one by one, to strike off their identity that least impacts their political beliefs and political decision making.  Again, I engaged in this on the board with them until I was left with ‘Peace Scholar’.  We talk about how in relation to the question posed, one could say that my most ‘salient’ political identity is Peace Scholar.  However,  I also talked about how if I had run this activity with myself at their age, ‘Canadian’ would have come out on top.  This allowed us to discuss important methodological and conceptual issues related to generational issues and the time scales of one’s research.  It also allowed for a discussion around how one’s most salient identity might change given the circumstance (so in my personal life, my identity as a Peace Scholar is much further down the list etc).

I then invited students (who felt comfortable) to reflect on the process  of choosing their most ‘salient’ political identity.  Here again, interesting discussions were had.  Many students noted how hard it was for them to choose—how they felt torn between two identities in particular.  Many said it depended on what the political issue was (so on issues related to say, welfare spending, one identity seemed to influence their political thinking most, whilst if the question was about foreign policy, another facet of their identity seemed more important).  The class discussion was rich and highlighted many points I had hoped would come up. The notes in the written reflections were even more striking and confirmed that this simple exercise is worth keeping.

 

From the political to the personal: Understanding self as a way of understanding others

This was possibly my favorite set of reflections to read.  Because they weren’t tied to a specific case study, I believe students felt more free to apply their knowledge to a much broader range of cases.  I read about the role of identity politics in relation to BREXIT, Football , Pan Islamism, Colonialism, the media, elections, France, Germany, China, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, Occupy Wall Street, and the list goes on.  Not having to read multiple pieces of writing on the same case study over and over (which can be quite monotonous and lead to the marker having to take multiple breaks due to ‘similarity fatigue’), I realized the importance of not (always) linking activities to a specific case in terms of the well-being of the marker!

Returning to the students….Several students noted how it forced them to think about the methods and assumptions behind studies they had read or learned about in relation to identity politics.  As one student argued, the  ‘Identity of a person cannot be measured numerically, in order to study “identity” in an empirical, objective and scientific way’.  By considering the difficulty of being able to strictly categorize and code their own identity, they were confronted with epistemic and methodological concerns regarding some of the statistical analysis encountered in their studies.

But again, for me, it was the personal transformations and applications that I found most striking.  Nearly all students who wrote about this activity noted how the exercise related to specific events in lives—how it was useful for them in terms of thinking through debates and arguments they have had when people question them or challenge them on a political opinion linked to their identity.  Many students talked about their own ‘conflicted’ identities which sometimes leave them unsure about how they do (or should) feel on certain topics.

Reading about how this activity helped them think through some of these conflicts was not only moving on a personal level but also so encouraging in terms of them growing intellectually—in how many of them came to understand the need to really grapple with the complexity of identity politics before making claims about ‘the other’.  I’m hoping it has planted an important critical, reflexive and ethical ‘seed’ in terms of their future studies and research.  On this point, I’d like to end this blog post with a quotation from a student which I think reflects an important lesson learned regarding the need to consider time, place, complexity and context when attempting to make ‘conclusions’ regarding identity politics:

“I realized during this activity that my identity was absolutely fluid; I felt more connected to a relatively recent addition to my identity than a culture which I was raised on. Furthermore, I was able to reflect on the idea that as I grow older, my identity is becoming more of a personal choice and less about the environment I was born into.”

 

 

 

*as a side note, simulations and problem based learning activities by far take the most time for me to develop.  The bronze and gold medal activities are examples of these more time intensive types.

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

Painting1

The Gulabi Woman (Aviaah Shanaz, 2015)

 

Everyone who teaches the same course year after year knows that this is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing as in ‘Hurrah to a much smaller number of prep hours!!’.  Curse as in ‘Dear lord, I have to listen to myself yammer on about the same thing for the umpteenth time’.  Curse also in terms of there are only so many essay questions one can set for a relatively specialized topic (in my case Critical Peace Studies) and one finds oneself marking fairly similar assignments year after year.  Students are also inevitably drawn to the same questions each year (in my case about half choose the question related to resistance) and cases (Israel/Palestine and Rwanda seem to be cases that resonate most with my students even though I don’t deal with them in class).  This is of course fine.  I encourage my students to explore cases and questions that speak to them, and I still learn new things about various theories and cases through such essays.  In my fourth year class, many of these are on the cusp of making original contributions to knowledge.  However, marking dozens of essays year after year on the same topic, no matter how original and well crafted can be trying (for me and my TAs who often to the bulk of marking in the 100-300 level courses).

I of course make adjustments to my seminar sessions and readings each year to account for new research, improve the flow of the course, and readjust the focus in places based on how individual sessions went and the feedback I get from students.  Two years ago I added a new session on Aesthetics  and Global Politics to the seminar series.  I draw heavily on the work of Roland Bleiker here and as well as the Journal of Narrative Politics.  I wasn’t sure students would enjoy it—  the topic rests  pretty far outside of the realm of their traditional IR training;  if I’m honest, I was also worried they would think I was a bit ‘out there’ for wanting to discuss Guernica and making them wander across campus to look at a statue in a political science class.  But, alas, it was probably one of the best sessions I’ve ever had in a seminar class and the following week, when we spent our seminar at the Museum of Anthropology, I was impressed by not only their receptiveness to exploring art in this context but also their ability to really run with the concepts and arguments in an advanced way.  So, this year, I beefed up this element of the course and decided to adjust my assessment model to reflect student interest.

Instead of a traditional research essay or in-depth case study, students could choose to create a piece of art for their final assignment. Alongside this, they had to submit a written reflection on how their piece was related to a critical concept from the seminar series (hybridity, pacifism, ‘othering’ etc).  They also had to discuss some of the ideas we explored in the readings and seminar on aesthetics and IR more generally—reflect on communicating complex political arguments in an alternative form.

Picture2a

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

 

I thought maybe one or two students would be intrigued and possibly take the risk.  Wrong.  Nearly a quarter of my cohort selected this option and I was left blown away. Blown away by students’ willingness to take a risk.  With so many students grad school/law school bound, grades in their final year are incredibly important.  Most of my students have mastered the art of the research essay and that was likely the ‘safer option’ for many, but they took a risk.   Of course, many students took risks in their essays and case studies too, but I saw selecting this format as an unexpected leap of faith.  I was of course also blown away by the students’ creativity and skills.  We often don’t get to know our students as human beings and through their artwork I felt quite privileged to see another side of my student’s personalities and skills.  Finally, I was impressed by the written reflections that accompanied these pieces.  This was probably the element of the assignment I was most worried about because at the end of the day I really do have to assess evidence of their learning regarding critical peace and conflict studies.  This wasn’t an art contest after all, and I was worried that students would get carried away with the ‘fun’ side of the project and forget that there still had to be a high level of intellectual rigour.  In reality, their written pieces were even more impressive than the artwork (but probably not as exciting to show in my blog!)

picture3c

The Western Sledgehammer (Jason Mah, 2015)

Academically speaking choosing this assignment was  successful on two fronts—it improved and illustrated their learning of at least two topics explored in the seminar series and required them to consider multiple themes simultaneously. Of course the other assignments also promoted this learning objective and I was equally impressed  by the creativity and academic standards in several traditional essays this semester too.  For example,  I was properly schooled by an undergraduate on Laclau, already one of my favorite theorists who I now see in a new light thanks to this student’s analysis.  More importantly, what this assignment facilitated was having students communicate their knowledge in an alternative way.  Although it is just as unlikely that they will literally paint a picture as it is that they will write a 3000 word essay to convince a future employer or colleague of anything (bar  staying in academia or a being employed by a think tank), this assignment forced them to consider the strengths and limitations of different modes of communicating complex ideas to a non-academic audience.picture4x

picture5x

 

picture6x

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

 

On a more personal note, many students also expressed to me how they had always loved producing art or music but since starting university hadn’t really had the chance to be creative—the demands of academic life often making it hard to keep up with personal hobbies (somewhat concerning really that university is having this impact on young people). They appreciated the opportunity to return to something that they had not found time to do in a while.  On a purely selfish note, I benefitted from the fact that I had real diversity in my stack of marking to complete over the Christmas break!  A mix of case study portfolios, theoretical essays, paintings, drawings, graphic designs, and musical compositions made my least favorite part of this job actually enjoyable, as a wider range of issues, cases and modes of expression filled my days.

 

*** Many thanks to my students who allowed me to use the images of their work above.

A sheepish hello to my readers OR in solidarity with those who did not achieve their summer writing goals

When I first started my blog and looked into the various articles about what makes a successful blog, one of the common threads amongst the various pieces I read was an oh-so-encouraging ‘most blogs fail within in a year’. Nice.

‘Not mine!’ I said with a determined glare—what did these people know!

Well, apparently quite a lot because almost like clockwork, nine months into my blogging experiment, my voice disappeared. The small but loyal readership I’d built up dissipated along with my thoughts and reflections on teaching, learning and social justice.

Now the weird thing to me, as I engage in a post-mortem, is that I was able to keep the blog running with fairly regular posts during the semesters—when I was busy with a full teaching load and helping with the start-up of a new first year program here at UBC. It was in the summer months, when I had ‘all the time in the world’ that I stopped paying attention to my blog. At a time when I should have been pumping these out, the blog fell by the wayside.

This isn’t because of a lack of interest in teaching, or a lack of ideas to write about, but more about me taking on far too much over the summer (something we all do of course). I had set myself unachievable goals.   A blog post every other week, get three already written articles ready for publication, finish my co-edited book on crime, write a new text-book proposal, apply for three funding calls and most importantly rework my classes for the upcoming academic year. Somewhere in between I figured I should also take a holiday, and oh yeah, finish planning my wedding and get hitched.

Now of course being on the ‘teaching tenure track’ I prioritized getting my courses in tip top shape for the upcoming year—which took twice as long as I had allotted. I then began to panic, yes panic, about my edited collection (I couldn’t stand the idea of letting my co-editor and authors down!). A small rough draft of the textbook I want to co-write also got sketched out, but not in a form I was happy with. I managed to get a small teaching and learning grant. Nothing else got a look in—oh, except I did get round to the small issue of a wedding!

I ended the summer and began my September in a rut. Feeling terribly disappointed in what I had (not) achieved. My blog, my articles did not get touched, I did only minimal work on my textbook proposal and only one small grant was applied for/won.

It is only now, that I’ve pulled my head out of the sand and actually written down what I have achieved that I realized I have not had a failed summer. A completed book manuscript, my first teaching and learning grant, my next big project sketched out, two courses renewed and organized, with an exciting community based learning initiative for the third also mapped out. If anyone else told me that this was ‘all’ they had achieved over the summer I’d be damn impressed. But no, in our profession when we look at our own achievements we tend to think that we are never good enough, that we have never done enough for our students, never enough for our CVs, there is always one more article to write, one more book, one more conference presentation. So, my advice to myself—a list for me when I next feel like a failure for not achieving, my often ridiculous, high standards and self-imposed deadlines (I hope others who are too terribly hard on themselves also take note):

  1. Give yourself a break. You are not superwo/man. You know how you are constantly counselling your students to relax and not see every missed deadline or missed opportunity as some kind of professional Armageddon? Take that advice on board for you too.
  2. You don’t have to achieve everything you want to do before tenure/promotion; there is always next year, and the next, and the next. Have a conversation (before the dreaded annual review) with your mentor or your department head to put things in perspective. Make sure you are doing enough (or ideally slightly more) to get where you need to be professionally, but let go of the need to be like that superstar in your discipline who publishes a book and four articles every year, whose students love everything about them, and who is also a super-nice person (you know who you are!). You might get there someday, once you’ve had time to figure out the profession and your place in it—but for now focus on being excellent at YOUR career stage.
  3. Make time for your family, your friends and your health. I’m not even going to go into more detail on this one. Just do it.

On ‘those’ teaching days (weeks, semesters!) that just don’t go to plan: the importance of documenting your ‘little wins’

This was a post I had wanted to write at the end of last semester when I felt I needed to take stock of what had and had not gone to plan in the previous months.  That I didn’t get around to it until mid-January (and that new blog posts have been, ahem, lacking) is perhaps your first clue into whether or not my desire to be an uber-reflexive lecturer went to plan….

I had some great teaching experiences last year but I don’t want to give the false impression that it was sunshine and roses every day.  I had some real ‘funks’ this past semester.  A collision of professional and personal circumstances (yes, let us not forget that what is going on outside the classroom impacts our teaching) made it a challenging semester.  And while I reflect on these and create a list of blog topics to address specific challenges,  I’ve decided to write down my ‘little wins’—the often overlooked or seemingly mundane experiences on which we should all focus when we are feeling like less than effective teachers.   We often put huge expectations on ourselves,  expect to have these huge overall impacts and lose sight of the more tangible day to day  successes of our work.

Here  are my top moments from last semester that a) got me through the not so great days  b) are the types of ‘moments’ that I will keep an eye out for this semester to keep me motivated and c) that I hope can give others going through a rough time in the classroom pause for thought about their own ‘wins’ .

Wait—both of these approaches can be used to justify violence!’  (on those moments where students make an incredible leap forward)

This was my first year teaching a full intro class to incoming undergrads.  Teaching the ‘basics’ is a totally different exercise to teaching  higher level courses to begin with.  Throw into the mix that I am a critical scholar who takes real issue with ‘the basics’ and for me, this class became a huge challenge.  Yes.  It was hard—for me and the students.  Things didn’t always go to plan, and I often found it very hard to tell if they were ‘getting it’.  Now removed from the situation, I realize I was maybe putting too much pressure on myself and my students (there were lots of things I probably didn’t ‘get’ in my undergrad and I turned out OK—intellectually speaking) .  But I also have to reflect on those handful of moments where students took individual, unprompted and unscripted leaps forward:    a first year, after learning the basics of realist and liberal approaches realizing that both  sets of ideas, taken to their logical end could be used to justify violence;   a student in the same class pointing out differences between Berlin’s and Kant’s work after only a few moments of working with the text; another realizing the textbook might be written from a ethnocentric point of view.  I certainly didn’t have these ‘firework’ moments every day, but sometimes reflecting on the individual success stories can help us recognize that we are getting through to our students, even if on the whole we didn’t feel things went particularly well.  I guarantee that for all of you,  no  matter how badly you feel a class is going, there will be similar moments—you just have to keep an eye out for them.  Write them down—keep a ‘great moments’ file at hand that you can return to after a particularly rough day.

 

Let me tell you about Operation Turquoise and extreme vs radical florists (on learning something from your students)

Although I wouldn’t describe all my days in the office as ‘inspirational’, I have been inspired by some of my colleagues who have encouraged me to think of teaching more as an intellectual conversation rather than a simple transmitting of knowledge.  And taking this perspective, I’ve had some truly great moments to draw on looking back. In particular, my peace studies class exposed me to cases and analytical approaches to specific interventions that I’d not been exposed to before.  I was forced to have a bit of a rethink on Rwanda, my understanding of the use of ‘radicalism’ vs ‘extremism’ and the destabilizing effects of freedom.  I also don’t think I have ever said ‘I don’t know—there is no research on that—you should do a PhD on it’  so many times in a semester.  My only wish here is that this kind of experience could have somehow been replicated in my first year classes to a greater degree.  It has made me think about how I can redesign my intro classes so as to allow my students to take more of a lead role in the intellectual conversation so that I am learning and growing alongside of them (instead of the onus being purely on me to ‘teach’)

 

The rolling egg, the penguin dance and  the Kumbaya sing-along (on laughing with your students and not taking things so seriously all the time)

Ask my students (and colleagues), I tell terrible jokes.    Fortunately, some students provided  their own moments of kindness and humour  in the classroom– sometimes unintentionally.   For example, an early morning class was interrupted by an egg, randomly and slowly rolling down the walkway of a tiered lecture hall.  Eventually determined to be a student’s breakfast on the run,  the incident probably did more to lighten the mood and wake up the students more than any of my ‘active learning/let’s get our brains warmed up activities’ ever could have.  Similarly, I had other students recognize the importance loosening up, team building and thinking outside the box—the interpretive dance element  of student presentations is now forever burned in my mind. Creating spaces for students to be creative and to build rapport with you, rather than thinking YOU are entirely responsible for this element of the classroom dynamic is essential.  Capping the term off  with a salute to my self-deferential jokes about peace scholars, to me showed this rapport and respect was there. And fortunately the excellent essays from this group at the end of term showed that they had also met the learning goals.  Fun doesn’t have to come at the expense of intellectual achievement.  There is of course a line—we aren’t there to entertain or be their friends, but thinking about how to co-create a professional but relaxed learning environment is something I’ll now spend more time thinking about.

I think our quest for ‘excellence’ (driven partly by our own personalities but also the stresses of pre-tenure life) can sometimes translate into work and teaching environments that are not healthy for us or perhaps our students.  With mental health problems on the rise for both our students and for academic staff, taking a bit more time to reflect on the overall learning environment and how to lower the stress levels for all involved seems a sound investment.  Maybe interpretive dance wont work for everyone, but still….