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on YouTube for the perfect video or having to check that YouTube links work every year, or having to replace an outdated video.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

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

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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.

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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!)

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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

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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.

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.

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  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.

 

 

Introducing: From Behind the Lectern- A blog about teaching, learning and pedagogy in higher education

This blog is inspired by both my love of teaching but also a recognition that I don’t always get it right and need a space to reflect on my own practice.    While providing insight into it is like from an instructor’s point of view, from behind the lectern, it will also be a venue for me to reflect on my own (evolving) teaching style. My goal is to shift my thinking about teaching– to engage with my students in a way that invites them into an intellectual conversation (a phrase introduced to me by a colleague) as opposed to just offering them knowledge and crossing my fingers that they take it!  This will require me to come out ‘from behind the lectern’ (see what I did there), out of the safety of standing behind the lectern with my lecture notes firmly gripped in hand. It will require me to take some creative risks in pedagogy and my teaching style.

I hope that in my posts about my own approach to teaching and the challenges I face in the classroom, you will find find some useful ideas for your own teaching.  I also hope that you will be an active audience and share your own ideas and advice with my readers.  The tone of the blog will positive– focusing on the experiences and techniques that I think facilitate good teaching and looking for practical solutions to problems I do encounter.

Topics I plan to cover include teaching innovation (both technological and otherwise), the use of creative assignments, managing diverse (and admittedly sometimes challenging) classroom dynamics, student and staff well being and issues related to professional development/promotion/tenure.

I welcome guest posts– so if you feel you would like to contribute to my blog– please drop me an email.

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