Roses are red, violets are blue
I love these open tools and I think you might too.
Here are three of the essential open tools I use in my teaching and research* (that a certain ill-conceived draft policy would prohibit using for our online classes).
CUNY Academic Commons – funded by CUNY specifically to create a space for open networking and connections between students, faculty, and staff across CUNY (show me where to do that in Brightspace?). The Commons allows faculty to create and share courses that are optimized for accessibility and different devices, to increase student access.** And the default teaching template now comes with a built in and very helpful accessibility checker! The Commons has been used by many faculty from a variety of campuses for really cool things and you should check all of them out- my own use is rather elementary, but essential for my teaching. I make class websites for each class I teach, so students can have instant, open, and continued access to our class, without worrying about being cut off. Financial aid issues and other snafus can lead to students being locked out of their classes on Blackboard during the semester, and all students lose access when the semester ends (even if they got an INC and still need to do work!) Students are unable to get their work, their intellectual property back from Blackboard- once it’s submitted, they don’t control it anymore. My students who choose to do their work for our class on the commons retain complete control of their work, and can take it back whenever they like. Most importantly, in completing my class on the commons, students get experience learning and working with WordPress, which are real transferable skills they can put on their resumes and use after graduation, one after they have forgotten where $20 is in the US Constitution.***
Another open platform that CUNY has funded is CUNY Manifold. Like the Commons, it has loads of potential and I’m only scratching the surface, so please check it out for yourself. It’s an incredible place to publish your own work or that of your students openly (like these awesome projects: My Slipper Floated Away, We Eat, the BSSW Professional Preparation Manual, and The Political Imagination), or curate other open materials (like these from Queensborough, Kingsborough, the Graduate Center, and City College) into one place, that lets you easily integrate public, personal, and/or private group highlights and annotations, as well as incorporate relevant links, documents, and multimedia right into the text (using resources). It is also optimized for different devices (phones/tablets/computers) and accessibility, and has a top notch support team. The Manifold team is constantly working to improve the workflow and ease of use, and it is constantly getting easier to make a Manifold project every semester.
Finally, lately, I’ve been having a love affair with Zotero, for my research and my teaching. Zotero is created by a non-profit organization and free to use (if you want more than 300MB of storage, you can either connect to a cloud server of your own or purchase 2GB for $20 a year, a very reasonable convenience tax I am happy to pay) For my research, I have long struggled with managing PDFs, notes, and citations for my research, and never found a great option.**** Now, with Zotero, I have one place to keep, organize, read, highlight, annotate, and generate citations (in whatever format I need) for all of my research, which I can organize neatly into files for each project- this is an absolute lifesaver, when scholarly papers and grant proposals have extremely long life cycles. And there’s seamless integration across my computer, iPad, iPhone, and web interface, so I can do my research wherever I am, and use the screenreaders built into my devices to listen to PDFs when I prefer that. I have one folder just for all of the things I come across that are interesting (whether it’s new articles, book releases, and blog posts) so I can stop emailing myself things (that I will never remember to look for in my email).
Using Zotero to share readings with my BRESI student research lab and my CRSP undergrad researcher has been great too- not only did we have a place to digitally highlight and make notes, but the students also got the experience of using a program that would help them in all of their classes and future research. Which inspired me to incorporate it into my classes for this spring. Some of the big takeaways from the CUNY ZTC Student Opinion Survey were that students wished they could highlight their digital reading the way they did with their traditionally published textbooks (easy with Zotero!) and that they access their coursework from a variety of devices in a variety of places (which Zotero makes very easy too). It’s going well with my graduate class so far, and I look forward to using it when KCC’s spring starts in March.
* I won’t discuss CUNY Pressbooks here, as I haven’t used it in my own teaching, but I do know colleagues who have used it and think it’s cool. I also know that CUNY has funded its existence- seems like the kind of thing that you wouldn’t want to prohibit faculty from using
** What the Commons doesn’t do as easily as Blackboard/Brightspace/most 3rd party vendor learning management systems is create an easy-to-harvest-without-the-instructor-even-knowing of all of a course’s content’s score on their accessibility checker to anyone with admin privileges. I get why the university might want that, and that there’s even a good goal (compliance with ADA, and more importantly, actual accessibility for all of our students!), but there are other ways to achieve that, like investing in professional development and support for our faculty and staff, instead of mandating invasive third party LMS surveillance.
*** It’s the 7th Amendment, and we discuss it as an example of the challenge between specificity and vagueness in a constitution.
**** I played with Mendeley a little years ago, and it was okay but buggy across devices, and then was bought by Elsevier, and I’d really rather not give those jerks any of my data or money.
I heard today that once upon a time, CUNY tried to mandate that every faculty member be required to use Blackboard and only Blackboard. That attempt was unsuccessful, as I hope this draft policy will be as well, for the same reason- if the LMS is good (as we have been promised it is), then there is no reason to force its usage- faculty will use it because it is good and it is there. Most CUNY faculty members already use Blackboard- somewhere around 90%. And they use it in lots of different ways, which is great- different instructors and students experimenting is how we find new and better ways to teach, whether we are online or in person, or a mix of both.
Apparently, I’m incapable of responding to this draft policy without beating a metaphor to death, so here’s one more. If you are planning a party for a large group and looking for the perfect dessert, ice cream is a great choice. Lots of people like ice cream. It works really well as a sweet treat and it will make many of your guests very happy. You don’t have to force people to eat the ice cream- if ice cream is available, lots of people will eat it voluntarily and be appreciative of the tasty treat. However, there is no way 100% of your guests will eat the ice cream. Some might be allergic to the ingredients, some may prefer savory to sweet, and some might have brought their own homemade dessert that is tailor-made to their needs and preferences. If you force-fed ice cream to every single guest at your party, you would be a terrible host- it’s rude and you could make some of your guests really sick!
Or imagine you were grocery shopping for your family or friends, and, being the considerate shopper you are, you decide to buy some dessert. It’s hard to go wrong with ice cream! However, if the only sweet you ever bring home is ice cream, your family may get sick of it. And you would all be missing out on the wide universe of delicious things in the world- there could be amazing sweets that you would like even more than ice cream, but if you only ever have ice cream, you’ll never know.
I’m not sure how much CUNY is paying for Brightspace, as their pricing seems to be custom, but one estimate is $30,000/500 users for 12 months. If we use 225,000 as a rough estimate of students (of course, there are thousands of instructors and administrators who would also be users, but let’s be conservative in our estimating), that would be about $13.5 million per year. I know CUNY negotiates, and I hope we aren’t paying nearly that much, but even so- that’s a lot of ice cream money! I hope it ends up being a sweet deal for our students, faculty, and staff- I really do. I hope many students and faculty will use it to enhance their learning and teaching. But I also hope that CUNY realizes it should let its faculty members choose whether and how to use the LMS- force-feeding Brightspace is a bad idea.
one LMS to find them, one LMS to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
The draft policy for mandatory sole LMS usage is a massive incursion into academic freedom. While the EVP has offered several reasons for this policy, none of them justify this curtailing of instructors’ academic freedom. Isildur had good reasons and good intentions when he kept the one ring to himself, but it still ended badly for him.
This policy is the functional equivalent of having every session of an in person class observed and/or recorded (a clear violation of our contract). I have no doubt that being able to monitor what is happening inside of every online class is attractive to administrators, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. The villain in Lord of the Rings, Sauron, used his all-seeing eye to dominate all of the peoples of Middle Earth. The draft policy would give CUNY the same all-seeing eye into each of our online classes.
But extensive surveillance of students and instructors is not the only harm. This policy would prevent innovation in online learning (and of course, in in-person learning too, if the policy is extended to the rest of our classes). In learning, as in magic rings, one size does not fit all. This draft policy would prevent instructors from exploring the benefits of open educational practices, which the state of New York has already given CUNY more than $20 million to support since 2018. By enclosing all online learning solely in the LMS, we remove real, authentic learning experiences that are vital to preparing our students to succeed after graduating. Working solely in the LMS teaches students how to use the LMS, which is a skill they are extremely unlikely to need after they graduate; it also sends the message that learning should be limited, contained, and left behind as soon as the semester is over (as students lose access to their classes in the LMS at the end of every term). Learning and working on the CUNY Academic Commons, by contrast, gives students familiarity with WordPress, which is a significant technical skill students can then put on their resumes. How can we prepare our students for the challenging careers of tomorrow if we are prohibited from having students use real online tools in our classes? It is right that CUNY should invest in an excellent LMS so it is available for instructors who want it. But it is incredibly short-sighted to hamstring the world-class educators creating meaningful and effective learning experiences for their students by mandating that they exclusively use the one LMS and forgo all other platforms and tools.
And if you think this policy has nothing to do with you, because you don’t teach online, or because you don’t use anything outside of the LMS anyway, I would refer you to what happened to the Shire at the end of the Lord of the Rings (even though it didn’t make the cut into the films). The hobbits of the Shire thought they could ignore the rest of Middle Earth and focus on their own little area, but this did not protect them from significant damage. Just as representatives from all of the peoples of Middle Earth formed the fellowship to destroy the one ring, it is incumbent on all of us- whether you’re full-time or part-time,* whether you teach intro classes at a community college or graduate seminars, or anything in between- to oppose this badly written and hastily presented draft policy.
* Your efforts are especially necessary if you’re full-time, as our contingent colleagues are more vulnerable to pressure and repurcussions.
(TL:DR summary: increasing administrative efficiency does not justify radically curtailing academic freedom, surveilling instructors and students, and limiting innovation and real world experience for our classes.)
Does the draft policy forced LMS use actually do what it says it does?
The University-supported LMS is CUNY’s only platform for delivery of online instruction that:
- Addresses user data privacy under various privacy laws, including FERPA, GDPR, CCPA, COPPA, PIPEDA, ISO 27001, 27018, SOC 1 Type 2, SOC 2 Type 2, Cloud Security Alliance (CSA), and Security Trust and Assurance Registry (STAR);
- Does it though? I am not a lawyer, but this seems like an alphabet soup dump of privacy laws and regulations to scare faculty and staff into quiet acquiescence. There are many others who can speak on this with more authority than I can, but I’ll pick some low-hanging fruit: it’s unlikely that GDPR, a policy of the European Union about data processing in Europe, or COPPA, a federal regulation about collecting data from children under age 13, would apply to anything happening in my university class in New York. So why are they included in the draft policy?
- Contains tools to assess, support, and improve accessibility of course materials to facilitate compliance with legal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act;
- Does it though? ADA compliance is both ethically and legally essential, but forcing sole LMS usage (and automated evaluations/reports conducted by admins without the knowledge or consent of instructors) does not seem the best way to make sure our instructors are providing learning materials that are accessible to all of our students. Providing extensive, funded professional development about how and why instructors should make their courses accessible would ultimately be more effective towards achieving this goal- Kingsborough’s Center for e-Learning’s Universal Design for Learning Summer Workshop is an excellent example, and you can see just one of the great training materials designed by KCeL to help faculty make their courses accessible here. Sufficiently resourcing our campus centers for disability services and centers for teaching and learning would also go further towards providing accessible learning experiences for students than surveilling online classes.
- Is integrated with CUNYfirst to facilitate automatic data transfers such as class rosters and grades;
- Does it though? I suspect this is more of a wishful thinking situation- this hasn’t been the case in Blackboard, and two decades in CUNY make me skeptical that a new LMS will seamlessly transfer data automatically (this is less a complaint against any new LMS than a statement of fact about how difficult it is work with CUNYFirst).
- Supports best practices framework for instructional design for distance education courses and programs, aligned with national standards (e.g., Universal Design for Learning);
- Does it though? How, exactly, does this policy support best practices? By making it easier to surveil online classes (their forms, designs, and content, as well as student’s work) and applying a score? That sounds like the ability to constantly observe our classes, and I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed? Even if such constant intrusion was allowed, you run the risk of reducing teaching to checking off whether an instructor posted 3 times in their classroom (the way some rubrics of online courses reduce learning to “posting 3 times and replying twice”).. This is bad for designing our classes, and an equally bad way to measure the quality of instruction. Also, if we’re going to be using best practices for distance education, will we be cutting all class sizes to the recommended best practice of no more than 12-15 students?
- Contains interactive features that foster student engagement and active participation;
- Does it though? This is a big promise, and I would love to see what these interactive features are supposed to be. So far as I have seen, they don’t amount to much more than the same automated surveillance emails currently available in Blackboard- the ability to set rules to send generic emails to students who have not entered the classroom, or spent enough time in the classroom, or submitted an assignment in X number of days. Automated emails do not improve student engagement- real communities of learning, supported by authentic relationships between instructors and students do. Furthermore, if a student is struggling with a crisis, an automated email may actually do more harm than good (while a sincere communication, from an instructor who has developed a relationship with them, could help them connect to relevant campus resources and find their way back to the course). Finally, sending automated emails to students sends the message that automation is the way to manage the class- if faculty use automation and robotic replies to “foster student engagement,” can we really be surprised if students resort to using robots (Chat GPT and the like) to do the work for these classes?
- Provides 24 x 7 x 365 support for faculty, students, and staff;
- Does it though? This is a huge promise, and I’d love to see the details. Will this support be provided by CUNY staff, who are being compensated fairly for this high level of availability and service? Or will it be provided by the vendor (and how much will that cost on an ongoing basis?). I take issue with the claim that D2L is the only platform CUNY has that has excellent support for students, faculty, and staff, as I’ve gotten extremely fast responses from both CUNY Academic Commons and CUNY Manifold support. I’m talking incredibly fast- I have emailed at 3am, and gotten a response with a solution by 8am, or emailed a question on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, and gotten a response within the hour! And the responses I got were from actual members of the CUNY community who know and care about our shared students- I doubt that D2L’s tech support can deliver that.
- Records academic engagement for financial aid disbursement to confirm eligibility for Title IV funds; and
- Does it though? “Records academic engagement”- nothing like reducing teaching and learning to “did they enter some amount of keystrokes into a discussion board” to really soothe the academic heart. Who cares WHAT the engagement is, or if it is even actually engagement, as long as it can be recorded easily! (Please also see the response to the next point as well, since the same answer applies in terms of “this policy only applies to online classes”)
- Enables reporting compliance for IPEDS, ADA, homeland security/visa status, and NC-SARA.
- Does it though? “Enables reporting compliance” is another way of saying it’s easy for those with admin privileges to pop into a class (or hoover up its backend data) to streamline their reporting process by cutting the instructor out. CUNY must already have processes for meeting these legal requirements that do not require mandatory LMS usage- why does the ECV believe that these processes are suddenly so terrible as to require a massive incursion into academic freedom? And even if the processes are in fact so cumbersome or problematic, they would still have to be used for in-person classes, unless it is the goal of the ECV to use this policy as a test balloon, with the intention of soon requiring that all classes regardless of modality must use the one LMS.
Overall: increasing administrative efficiency does not justify radically curtailing academic freedom, surveilling instructors and students, and limiting innovation and real world experience for our classes.
“Lump of coal” is the most suitable-for-work way I can describe the terrible draft policy on LMS usage I received today. I can’t find anything about this policy on the EVP’s website despite the memo indicating them as the “Policy Owner,” so I’ve put a digital copy up here if you’d like to read it; you can also see the text of the draft policy and memo where John Jay Professor Andrew Sidman has posted it. Which means that this draft policy is being shared not on the EVP’s website, but on the CUNY Academic Commons, a platform that CUNY created for research, teaching, learning, and connecting across all of its campuses, which currently has 46,723 members, and which the draft policy would prohibit faculty from using to teach their students. This is honestly too much irony to handle during finals week.
Which brings me to the question of the timing of this draft policy process. The timing is so specifically bad as to imply either a complete obliviousness to university schedules or a desire to avoid meaningful discussion about the policy with key stakeholders such as instructors or students. The draft policy was circulated to the CUNY colleges on December 13, with feedback requested by January 30. To an outsider, this timing might seem okay, if a little short for the consideration of a major policy. But anyone who has spent any time in higher ed can clearly see this is the policy equivalent of a Friday news dump– only six weeks, with no notice, at a time of multiple holiday celebrations and then into January, where faculty are often busy with their research and preparing their classes for spring and students are in between classes and not on campus. It is hard to believe that the EVP of the nation’s largest public urban university did not realize how limiting the timing of their rollout would be, so it seems more like an attempt to sneak this policy in with minimal scrutiny, instead of a genuine good faith attempt to gather feedback from the CUNY community on important questions of teaching and learning.
Because of this terrible timing, I don’t have time to write out the reasons I think this draft policy would be extremely damaging to teaching and learning at CUNY, at least not until I finish grading. Rest assured, as soon as I finish giving my students feedback on their excellent work (wherever they have chosen to share it this semester), I’ll make the time to write about the privacy, academic freedom, equity, and basic dignity problems for both teachers and learners that abound in this draft policy. I don’t yet know what to do, but I know that doing nothing is not an option. If you’ve got ideas for how to oppose this draft policy, please tag me in!
My father had a favorite phrase he learned in business school* that was often repeated throughout my childhood, usually in response to protestions from my siblings and I that we had to do the chores** he assigned to us, yet he would still get credit for doing the job, since “Management is getting things done through others.” As we got older, the phrase became something of a family joke to highlight when one of us was trying to get someone else to do their work for them, as in
Mom: Did you get your sister to carry up your clean clothes?
Me: Management is getting things done through others.
With this view of management as largely parasitic, it is perhaps unsurprising that I was drawn more to solitary pursuits in school and my career- I eschewed group projects, preferred to be the one doing the work, and didn’t need anyone to take the credit simply for managing me, thank you very much. Coupled with a pathological inability to do things until the absolute last minute, it has always seemd to work better to do as much as possible by myself, whether in my research, open education work, or even in my hobbies.
A few years ago, I heard Rajiv Jhangiani quote an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Individuals can sprint ahead in the short term, but a group can benefit from the different strengths of each member, thus continuing far beyond where the sprinter runs out of steam.
Struggling to apply this proverb to my own work, I realized that my father’s managerial style might not have been about burden-shifting: for every task we were assigned, he prepared the tools, showed us how to use them, and checked in as we worked. Through his project management, we gained skills and experience and accomplished more in less time by working together. Instead of being a parasite, good management is a benefit to a project.***
As I have become more solidly mid-career, it has become apparent that the do-it-myself approach has hard limits in the scale and scope of what I can achieve. If I want to do bigger things, then I need more collaborators, whether I’m the one managing or the one being managed. Managing a student research lab this past spring was extremely challenging- instead of doing research, I was tracking down timesheets and writing status reports- much more managing than doing. Yet the research our lab was doing was significant, all the more so because undergraduate students were doing it on their own. They were able to do the research because I did the managing.
Unfortunately, good management requires things I really struggle with- mainly, prompt communication, adhering to due dates and schedules, and reducing procrastination. Having seen the benefits of expanded teams in a variety of settings, I’m pushing myself very far out of my solitary comfort zone this year- I’ve taken on a role as a co-facilitator for a seminar, a CRSP student researcher, and a brand-new Open Education Student Fellow. I’m reading up on best practices and hacks for managing email, procrastination, and team workflow- if you’ve got suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
* Dad received his BBA and MBA from Baruch College, when it was still locally known as Downtown City College. .
** despite a complete lack of training and experience, my father was an avid do-it-yourselfer, which meant that the assigned chores ranged from standard yard work to house painting, pouring concrete footings, cutting tiles, and other fairly substantial home improvement projects. And this, all before one could google how to do things!
*** though I’m decades past my teen years, it still stings a bit to admit my dad might have been right about something.
On May 18, 2023, I recieved an Alumni CUNY Award from the CUNY Graduate Center. While I certainly don’t feel like I’ve done enough to receive this award (especially compared to prior winners like the incredible Professor Dána-Ain Davis), I was proud to accept it. Winners were permitted to make a short speech, and the text of mine is below.
I am stunned and honored to be receiving this award. To make sure I don’t forget, I want to thank my family who are watching from home, and without whom life would be absolutely no fun.
So, I’ve been a proud member of the CUNYverse since 2004, and have taught or taken a class at 11 of the 25 CUNY schools in 4 out of the 5 boroughs (sorry, CSI). I’m also the second CUNY generation in my family- my father graduated from Baruch so long ago that it was still called Downtown City College, and my father in law graduated from Hunter shortly after it became co-ed.
Two me, CUNY is two things- acronyms and people. First the acronyms- it’s like a secret code, and it’s definitely not known outside of the system: I’ve gotten to explain what CUNY is at several locations in the US as well as in Paris, Delft, and Kyoto, which is an honor and responsibility I do not take lightly. Everybody pronounced CUNY wrong, and they get absolutely lost with the rest of the acronyms. Like, tonight, we’re here at the GC and I usually teach at KCC, where I teach PS (sometimes IR, but mostly US) and I do a bunch of OER. When I was at the GC, I was a GTF, an RA, an NTA, a WF, and a TF. I worked at the RBI and the PSS. Since graduating from the GC, I’ve completed fellowships with FFPP, CAC, CPCP, TLH, and BRESI. I’ve been funded by the RF & PSC-CUNY. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the TLC and the DH program, both of which were starting as I was leaving the GC. My CV is a veritable alphabet soup, and if you’re in CUNY, I bet yours is too. It is certainly confusing, but it also bonds us together- if you know, you know, and we definitely know.
The other thing about CUNY is the people. I could go on about the world class faculty, which were great. Or the amazing students I’ve gotten to meet over the last two decades. But tonight, I’m thinking about the people I met at the GC- the staff and other students, thinkers and fellow travelers, several of whom have became colleagues- shoutout to Dr. Corby, Dr. Aroosi, Dr. Steffy and so many other GC friends who are sprinkled across the CUNYverse! The GC has given me lifelong collaborators and dear friends, and for that I’m eternally grateful. One more acronym- our DWG, the dissertation writing group that met at Pinkberry on 32nd street. They are the only reason I managed to finish and defend my dissertation- And because DWG is forever, the other members are here tonight- Dr. Stapleton accepting her GOLD award, and Dr. Janet Reilly cheering us both on. I would not have made it without the people, and so would not have been able to do even a fraction of the scholarship, teaching, and service I have been lucky enough to get to do across CUNY.
I hope to continue to work in CUNY for a long time to come, and will treasure this award. Thank you very much.
Waiting for the last of the semester’s assignments to come in before my real feedback marathon begins, I’ve finally completed my part of Cohort 4, Group 2’s public knowledge project for the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Fellowship I was lucky enough to hold this fall. The fellowship was extremely cool- we got a big stack of inspiring books (that I’m still working through!), were invited to workshops and lectures from the authors of those inspiring books, who were somehow even more amazing in (virtual) person than on their pages, and participated in fellowship workshops that modelled different tools and practices we could then use in our own classes. I am super excited to play with padlet for in-class collaboration, especially in online classes (I had used it previously in face-to-face classes, but moved away- now it may be time to explore it again). The different tactics to achieve 100% participation were especially appealing- I expect I’ll be using the write-read-tag in all of my classes going forward. The fellowship was a brightspot in a very challenging semester, and I’m extremely grateful to have been involved.
I’m extremely proud of my group’s public knowledge project, Writing the World. We decided to create a Manifold project to share some of what we each do in our classes, along with student samples. Although I have some experience working in Manifold and probably could’ve done the ingest alone, group members Kate Culkin (BCC) and Yan Yang (BMCC) were interested in learning the platform, so we did a collaborative ingest over zoom. Kate was more successful than I have ever been at getting a YAML file to work beautifully the first time! It was very meta to create a project using a process where we focused on building our skills since that was such a focus of discussions during the fellowship and in each of our chapters.
While I’ve given workshops and talks about aspects of my slightly peculiar pedagogy before (at CUNY Teaching Matters and Open Ed 2022), this is the first time I’ve sat down and wrote it all out in once place. I am happy to have it to refer students and colleagues to, and to be able to look back at it after a few years, so see how I evolve in the time to come. Though I wish I had made more time to work on my chapter, and there are already many revisions I’d love to make to my own writing, I’m incredibly proud to be in a collection with my awesome group members, Kate, Yan, and Dino Sossi (SPS). The project is worth checking out for their class projects alone, so do head over and have a look!
Classes are clicking along here- we’ve hit the midpoint of our stay in Japan, and of my courses. I have a medium-sized pile of midterm exams to grade, so what better time to write a blog post?
I continue to love all of my classes- IR because it’s my heart, Intro to US because the students absolutely slayed the Congressional Simulation (seriously, they were all amazing, and the Doshisha version of Markwayne Mullins and Elise Stefanik made me laugh out loud!), Human Rights because it’s a fascinating and challenging seminar that is pushing my brain in exciting ways, and Film because it is the most fun.
I expected the politics of film class to be the most fun for me- I got to pick several of my favorite movies and craft a list of my favorite international relations and comparative politics topics to discuss with students- what is not to love? These particular students are super sharp and engaging, which definitely helps, and their class presentations blew me away- Crazy Rich Asians and childhood poverty! Godzilla and bureaucratic politics! I hoped this class would be awesome, and it is certainly turning out that way.
I did not, however, anticipate how much fun selecting the topics in this “selected topics” style of course would be. I love teaching my introduction/survey classes- they are a good fit for students (the majority of whom are non-majors, taking the course to fulfill a requirement), so doing a general survey seems like the right move, not unlike (to torture a metaphor) getting students to eat and develop a taste for their vegetables before they jump into the dessert of more advanced political science . But this is not a survey course- we’re jumping around to the greatest hits, drawing themes to explore in data and theory from the films, and making different connections between and among each week’s topics. A very different approach than what I usually take in my intro to US and intro to IR classes (starting off with the Constitution and IR Theory respectively), because we need to eat our vegetables first. On my better days, I like to think I make the vegetables tasty, but skipping right to the most delicious stuff this semester has been so much fun! I mean, look at these slides- no one should be having as much fun as I am putting them together and then discussing them with a class.
And yet, here I am. And because Japanese university classes do not have an expectation that students will read before the class, it is not necessarily so very different from teaching a class to first year students who are new to political science. Somehow, we’ve managed to get into the guts of some complicated topics (gender pay gap, the history and evolution of the UN, bureaucratic politics) without building the base as I would in a survey course. It’s making me really excited to shake up my intro courses when I teach back in KCC next fall, to maybe incorporate a little more of the exciting juicy bits. Why not eat dessert along with our vegetables?
Two weeks that were so busy I didn’t blog, so here’s quick catch up of some highlights. The classroom continues to be a space of joy for me- I missed it so much, and I’m so glad to be back. It’s also very tiring, so I’m grateful that I will have my spring semester to finally finish the book I’ve been working(ish) on since 2015. I got speedily beaten at chess by one student while another (a former national master) looked on and tried not to laugh (I knew the outcome was a foregone conclusion, but we all had a good time). I also got to discuss feminist IR, the evolution of the US role in Asia-Pacific affairs, and graduate school with a graduate student, sitting outside at a picnic table on a sunny quad. I feel very lucky to be getting to enjoy academia and Doshisha.
As for teaching, Intro to IR and Intro to US are my bread and butter. I don’t need a lot of preparation for each week for these courses (that’s what teaching many sections every semester for many years will do for you- practice makes permanent!), but the courses continue to need minor tweaks to make them accessible to these students at this time. IR was extra fun, thanks to Victor Asal’s Realism Rock, Paper, Scissors and Prisoner’s Dilemma games (both of which are explained in this awesome article)- I think having some games to play gave us a chance to gel as a class, making discussion and asking questions a bit easier; it also kept me from talking too much. And I got to teach my favorite introduction to constructivism, where I show an image on the screen, and students write down their reactions, which we then share and compare. I use a photo of a gun, then a pile of candy (actually, it’s a photo of Untitled: Ross in LA which I reveal/we discuss after their reactions), and then a clown- they all have different reactions to each image, and it’s a great reference point for how meaning is constructed not objective.
Intro to American is a bigger challenge- it’s my class here with the largest amount of students (though still much less than I’m used to at home), and I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate more discussion/less of me talking. Streamlining what is usually 3-1 hour classes into one 1.5 hour class means prioritizing which content to cover, and has meant that some of the group activities I would ordinarily do have been reduced to links to articles for students to read if they are interested outside of class. In addition to adding translations to parts of some slides, I’m working on really thinking through what is absolutely most important, and what is the best way to convey it. I think this will help me refresh/update my approach back in the US as well.
In “Geeking Out” we moved on to Harry Potter, which made me nervous- a brand new class that I’ve never taught before and I did not have any material to really build on. But once I finally sat down and thought through what I wanted to do, boy was it fun! We did a large discussion of identity politics (excerpts from THE COMBAHEE RIVER COLLECTIVE STATEMENT in English and Japanese served as a fruitful jumping off point), and I again got to put together slides I am way too pleased with. I even used the cloak of invisibility as a metaphor for what identities were omitted from the films (subtlety has never been my strongsuit), and what that might mean (which segued into a great conversation about the lack of LGBTQ characters in the extensive Hogwarts universe, and how that may be connected to the author’s personal anti-trans stances.) Human rights in the potterverse is next up, and I’m extra excited (apologies in advance to the students in this class who have to deal with me geeking out so much).
For my human rights class, I adapted an exercise I use in my Introduction to IR class in the human rights section, which has students compare a list of rights with what is in the UDHR versus what is in the US Constitution. For this class, focusing explicitly on human rights in the US and Japan, I added in the Japanese Constitution. Despite the class having only two students (I’m still getting used to running a small seminar instead of the larger sections I’ve got more experience with, so it makes me nervous), the activity worked really well- great thoughts from the students, uncovering insights that helped us expand on the general human rights topics we’ve covered so far (the usual suspects in human rights: origins, definitions, universality, critiques, alternative frameworks); student observations included the vagueness of language and definitions, the time and political context of the writing of each document, the question of how older documents can apply to the 21st century world, negative and positive rights, and the different protections for economic, social, and cultural rights as opposed to civil and political rights. I’m hopeful that the experience of comparing the two countries for this assignment will help set the stage for the rest of the course, where we’ll look at more specific issues and the US and Japanese perspectives in greater detail.
Because I liked it so much, and because I’ve benefitted greatly from the work of others I’ve found on Twitter and APSA Educate, I’ve decided to make a version for sharing. You can get a copy of the worksheet on my website or directly here or on APSA Educate. I think it would be easy to adapt for a variety of courses- you could change the case study countries (or have different students do different countries!), change the rights being looked at, or change the human rights source document (ICCPR and ICESCR instead of/in addition to UDHR maybe?). I’ve done versions in person and online (synchronously), where we work for 8-10 minutes and then discuss, versions where students work as groups in person, and I’ve used it as a pure out-of-class/substitute-for-class assignment, with pretty positive results each time, so play around. If you use it, I’d love if you could let me know (mostly so that I can learn from your adaptation and improve for my own classes ;o)