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.

And the Bronze Medal Goes To….. Debating Direct Democracy

Avid readers of my blog (I know there are a few of you!) will have heard me mention my funded research project on active learning that I’ve been working on this past semester.  The final assignment related to this component of the course was to complete a written reflection on the in-class activity that ‘has most shaped/influenced [their] understanding of the political world’.  Now that the semester is over, my RA and I are diving into the data (including these final reflections, focus group transcripts and my own journaling) to explore where the ‘value added’ is in terms of active learning and what forms of active learning resonate most with students.

To get us warmed up, I decided on a very simple quantitative approach—we went through the 120 final reflections and tallied up the exercises that students themselves have chosen as the activities that impacted them as learners the most.*  In the next few blogs I’ll describe the ‘winning activities’ and discuss what students got out of these in terms of the learning aims of the course (and beyond!).

 

The (shocking)  third place winner!

In third place was actually my least favorite activity of the year that I put together for the lecture on my least favorite topic of the course.  I was somewhat shocked  to see this making the top three, but was also comforted by the fact that my own bias/lack of enthusiasm towards the topic didn’t seem to impact the students.  Note:  there is nothing wrong with the topic or lecture—it’s just not a theme that gets me going as much as the others in the syllabus.

This activity is classed as a ‘simulation’, or a ‘problem based learning’ exercise.  Undertaken in a class of around 100, students were provided with a worksheet that began with the following:

  • The goal of this exercise is to understand what direct democracy could look like in a world where we are more used to indirect democracy and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of both.
  • The Totally Fictional Scenario:  The year is 2030 and it is clear that the Canadian government’s environmental policies have failed.  Canada’s forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, the ice caps are melting leading to increased flooding in coastal areas, and a lack of regulation on the oil and gas industries has led to many examples of polluted waterways.   Parliament and our elected officials have let us down, and they admit it.  With a loss of faith in our elected officials and the institutions in which they work there has been a call for a more direct form of democracy which would see Canadian citizens become more directly engaged in environmental planning and policy.  Canada has turned to you—emerging experts in political science—for advice on how to move towards direct democracy.

Students were then asked a series of questions that they were to discuss with the students around them that helped them explore the feasibility, strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy (if you would like a copy of the full activity sheet, please email me).  Following their discussion in small groups, I brought their attention back to the front of the room where I led a debrief and discussion of the answers they had come up with in their small groups.

 

Value added?  What students gain from this activity—critical thinking skills and reflection on their role as citizens

I’ve not the space here to analyze all of the findings from this activity, however, I have noticed two dominant themes in the reflective pieces.  The first of these, the development of critical thinking skills, was indeed and aim of the activity (phew, it worked). I had several  students note how before the activity they ‘hated’ the very idea of direct democracy (yes, they used the word ‘hate’!).  They  noted that while their overall assessment of the value of direct democracy had not changed, their reaction to it was less an emotional reaction or based purely on what they had memorized from a reading, but rather their ability to think through and defend their position rationally, using examples.  This was evidenced in the learning logs with students offering detailed explanations (drawing on the scenario) to explain the strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy.  What excited me most, however, is that several noted that the activity forced them to reconsider preconceived ideas of what they had learned in the textbook and in other classes.  One student noted how it made them realize they should not take anything they read in a textbook at face value.  Another reflection that I found quite striking in this regard was a student who noted that

                ‘it helped me understand the evolution of my own beliefs’

The other, more unexpected,  thing I heard had to do with students reflecting on their own personal political stance and role as a citizen (Canadian or global).  Several students noted how this activity made them realize how often they ‘take Canadian democracy for granted’.  One student noted that they certainly valued Canadian democracy, but weren’t sure why and were now really trying to think this through.  Others noted that it made them think twice about the ‘superiority’ they felt regarding their own system in comparison to others. In this vein, it was questioned how democratic we really were (how much does the representative form of government really give them ‘power’ within our system).

Some also reflected on what the activity meant for them in terms of their actions as citizens outside the classroom walls, with one student noting ‘

‘A core idea that I really took away from this week was that there is really no space for political absolutism in this world. In order to make changes and better the world, we have to understand the value of adaptability and diversity’

 

Things that need fixing: making it more accessible to non-Canadian students

Looking back I now see that this activity allowed fuller participation of my Canadian students, and that (my not insignificant) proportion of international students perhaps did not feel that they could participate at the same level as they lacked a basic understanding of Canadian political-culture, environmental issues and regional issues (which came up very strongly in the final debrief).  I do like the element of ‘grounding’ simulations with real case studies for obvious reasons.  Though, I also use fictional case studies in other simulations—in an attempt to allow students to all be on a level playing field—everyone has the same level of information/background knowledge.  The downside to this, I’ve found, is that students often become obsessed with trying to figure out what country I’ve based the scenario on, which detracts from the task at hand.  So, in the future, I think I will give a short reading ahead of time for the students to complete before coming to class that grounds everyone in the case study to a better degree so that everyone feels more capable of engaging.  This means sacrificing some of the ‘topic’ reading for case study reading.

 

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

Hiding the Vegetables? On explaining your pedagogical choices and teaching philosophy to students

I don’t have children, but on my Facebook feed I often see my ‘parent friends’ posting articles about how to get their children to eat more vegetables.  Many tips seem to focus on somehow managing to hide or sneak in vegetables into foods their kids otherwise love—‘add carrot juice into fruit smoothies’  ‘blend up spinach and put in pasta sauce’.   In other words,  if you want them to eat their brussels sprouts, do everything you can to make sure they do not know they are eating brussels sprouts.

What on earth does this have to do with teaching, you ask?  Bear with me.

The necessity of ‘labelling’ my pedagogy this semester

Several of my upcoming blog posts will focus on a funded research project I did this semester on active learning in large undergraduate classes.  The research project did not require any change to my pedagogy or any redesign of my course.  I taught my Introduction to Comparative Politics class exactly as I had four times before in previous years.  Other than updating a few case studies, fixing typos in my lecture slides and nixing a few activities that just didn’t seem to work,   there were no changes to how I taught the course or my general teaching philosophy.

There were, however, two significant changes that seem to have come back to haunt me.  The first is that I added what I called an ‘Active Learning Journal’  where students had to upload some evidence of their engagement with class debates, activities and simulations (very small-stakes—a snapshot of a completed worksheet or their notes capturing both sides of the debate in class would suffice). Secondly,  because I was conducting research on my teaching,  I of course was ethically obliged to inform my students of the research project, its aims etc.  My Research Assistant also recruited students to participate in focus groups to help me gain further insight into my teaching (warts and all).  The ethics requirement and the methodology thus required students to be reminded several times this term that I was using ‘Active Learning’.

I actually thought all of this would be a good thing.  I thought being more transparent and open about my pedagogy and teaching philosophy would diminish the small amounts of resistance to my teaching style that I’ve encountered in the past (which I would stress has been up until this term minimal—some students would just prefer I stand up and talk at them for 3 hours a week).  Oh, how naïve and wrong I was.

The curious case of my teaching evaluations in this one section

While I admit there are things that I can and will change regarding my use of active learning based on some of the qualitative feedback from my focus groups, other types of feedback from students have left me more generally torn and confused.  Having reviewed my formal course evaluations, it appears that the labelling of things as ‘Active Learning’, signaling to students that ‘I am doing things differently’ has possibly backfired.

My numerical scores are pretty much unchanged (in fact they have gone up slightly since last year, despite it being a larger class and me having health issues near the end of the semester that led to a delay in getting grades out).  However, the comment section was filled with notes about students’ dislike of active learning.  There were positive comments too of course, regarding my skills as a lecturer, my being available and helpful to students, and some students were positive about my pedagogy—but  the comments regarding active learning were roughly 75% negative.  This is quite surprising given very good scores on all of the quantitative elements of the evaluations which measure students’ assessment of the quality of me and the learning experience as a whole.  It also does not match (at all) with the incredible evidence of learning that I saw in their reflective writing on active learning.

Now, the reason this is so interesting to me, is that I have NEVER had these comments (or at least so many of them) in the 4 others sections that I teach the course—even though the course and active learning elements are unchanged.  In fact, I taught two other section of this same course in the same semester (with pretty much exactly the same pedagogy and exercises) and the comments section was overwhelmingly positive regarding the activities that I did. The only substantive difference in these other two sections being that I was not explicit about my active learning pedagogy/philosophy in any of my other courses.

Moving forward:  what are the pros and cons of sharing your teaching philosophy with students?

So what to make of all of this?  I’m not sure.  I’m still processing the whole experience.  I had a good group of intelligent students (many, though certainly not all) engaged with everything I threw at them during the term.  The reflective writing that they also did on some of these activities also generally showed thoughtful engagement with the aims and lessons of these activities.  So in terms of student learning, I’m still confident that the course works.

The experience certainly hasn’t shaken my teaching philosophy, but it has made me think about if it is necessary (or at all beneficial)  to share your teaching philosophy with students.  Does holding something up as different create resistance from the start?  If a set of pedagogical tools are shown to be effective for student learning through research, should we just use them and hope for buy-in from students?  Is active learning the carrot juice or brussels sprouts of the pedagogical terrain— good for you, but best kept secretly mixed in with the things more familiar and liked?

I’ve no clear answers for these questions, but despite my experience this year, I think I will still be explicit at some stage with my students about my approach to teaching.   However, perhaps I won’t give it a label, won’t characterize it as ‘other’.  I do want to have my students reflect on the process of learning, take ownership of their own education, so I still believe that being open about the aims of and rationale of your teaching approach is important for students’ intellectual development.  Perhaps the answer lies in more subtly inviting students who are interested and intellectually curious about teaching and learning to have these conversations with you, without belaboring the point and just allowing the pedagogies to work/speak for themselves.

 

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.

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.

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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.