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Turns Out I Love Selected Topics, or Geeking out Over Geeking Out

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.  

Power point slide with text that says "Always Another Enemy. . . " and a color photo of Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe saying "Fine, I'll do it myself"
Powerpoint slide with text that says "Who chooses the rules?
Who gets to reframe them?" and "Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom has an excellent essay on Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s clothing choices."  along with a color photo of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a white gown that says "Tax the Rich" in red paint, and 4 stills from the film Captain Marvel:
1.  Man yells "Turn off the light show, and prove, prove to me, you can beat me with . . . "
2.  Woman blasts light from her arm
3.  Man lays, knocked down in the dirt.
4.  Woman looks down, with text that says "I have nothing to prove to you"
Power Point slide with a color photo of superheroes lining up from the film, Captain America Civil War and text that reads:
Selected IGOs: different skills and interests, like The Avengers!
ITU- International Telecommunications Union - oldest IGO
IWC- International Whaling Commission
INTERPOL- International Criminal Police Organization 
ASEAN, AU, EU
World Bank & IMF
The Commonwealth of Nations
BRICS- Brazil, Russia, India, China, & South Africa
IAEA- International Atomic Energy Agency
What Else?

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?  

Weeks 3 and 4 Teaching

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).  

Screenshot of a powerpoint slide with the title "Race/Ethnicity".  Photos of the most famous Hogwarts students of color, along with photos of the girls' and boys' schools who came to visit in the fourth film/book.  Text at the bottom says "Every line said by a person of color in all 8 films fits in 6 minutes and 18 seconds."

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) 

Week 2: Teaching Thoughts

This week, I wrapped up week 2 of teaching in Kyoto, which is also our second week out of quarantine.  Living in a new country and trying to get along in a language that is not my first has been exciting, challenging, and tiring, even with the help of technology and the kind understanding of my students and pretty much everyone I have interacted with.  I have a considerable amount of worry and fear (of failure, of being rude) even for something as simple as getting lunch in the campus cafeteria; on the flip side, the joy and pride I feel when I am able to accomplish simple tasks in Japanese (buy groceries, pick up baseball tickets, successfully obtaining a ridiculously delicious lunch in the campus cafeteria) is almost immeasurable.  

Color photograph of an incredibly delicious bowl of noodle soup from the Doshisha University cafeteria
I do not have the words in any language to express how delicious these noodles and chicken were. From a college cafeteria!!!!

In this sense, I feel like I’m getting the tiniest taste of what so many of my CUNY students experience- as of 2019, 29% of KBCC students reported speaking a language other than English at home, and 35% of KBCC students were foreign-born (though it is important to note that this data doesn’t disaggregate between recent immigrants and those that have been living in the US for a long time).   If it’s nerve-wracking or tiring for me, even with all of the considerable benefits I have here as a tenured professor on a Fulbright fellowship (stable employment and a comfortable, reliable income), how exhausting must living in a country that does not speak your first language, while pursuing a whole college degree in a language that is not your first, be for students who lack those privileges?  This is yet another fact that I knew intellectually before I came to Kyoto, and tried to plan for in my classes (this is one of the many “stressors/challenges” students might face that make me favor flexible due dates and letting students choose between a variety of assignment options according to their interests), but the sympathy vs. empathy thing continues to teach this old dog new tricks.  

This week, I tried incorporating some basic Japanese words for specific terms (state, anarchy, sovereignty, civil liberties, etc) into my slides- as a way of connecting to students who might have trouble following all of the discussion in class.  Students seemed to appreciate it, even though I had to preface with “I’m sure these translations aren’t quite right.”  The student reactions made me think that it might be a useful thing to do back at KBCC.  Unlike at Doshisha, however, I cannot readily assume the language of a majority of my students at Kingsborough.  But that actually might be inspiration for a new assignment option when I go home.  I already share my slides with my students, and I have been offering a big “translate a chapter” option (but I’ve encouraged students not to take it on during the pandemic, and no one has so far).  Maybe fewer points for translating some words on slides might be worthwhile to students to do, and helpful to future students? 
Final observation for this week, once again, I learned how awesome blogs are for students to get comfortable with their writing, and for getting to know students and their interests more than I would in just class discussion. Blogs (and less formal writing) definitely hasn’t come naturally to me, but even I can’t argue with the results.  Because my students this semester are not CUNY students, they don’t have the option of setting up CUNY Academic Commons logins/sites, so I gave them the option of setting up a blog on the platform of their choice, or just setting up a google doc that is set to “Public- anyone with the link can comment.”  (yes, I know this is not technically a proper blog, but it is a way for students to quickly and easily create their own space for sharing their writing with our class, so it’s blog enough for me).  Some students have made their own WIX or Blogger sites, but many are choosing the google docs option, and it’s working well so far.  I like the idea that students retain complete control of their own work, and can include several layers of anonymization if they choose (using only their given/first name, or even using a pseudonym if they prefer, as long as they tell me who they are); they also retain complete control to delete their work at the end of the class if they so choose.  I will definitely be including this as a day 1 option for my KBCC students when I go back.  I had already been offering this option for students who had fallen behind or struggled to make a site (because of time or device challenges), but I’ll offer it from the start from now on.  And because I’ve so appreciated the “sample forms” available at many of the places I’ve had to deal with (the municipal ward office, the bank, campus IT),  I made a quick visual guide for how to set up a google doc for sharing as a faux blog, which I can reuse back at home.   

I taught! In a classroom! And it was AWESOME!!!!

This week, I had nerves like I haven’t had in years- back to school nerves!  I’ll be teaching four classes at Doshisha University this semester.  The course load is very similar to what I’m used to at home (the Fulbright representative I met in 2019 had said they were looking to expand their outreach to community college faculty for exactly this reason- we are very comfortable teaching a lot!).  In some ways, Doshisha is very different from my usual campus- it’s an elite private university, as opposed to my public community college, so I’m teaching 2 graduate seminars as well as 2 introductory level undergraduate classes, which I don’t often get to do at home (but boy do I love when I can).  Japanese universities in general, and Doshisha specifically, still tend towards the “professor lectures/high stakes midterm and final exams” model.  Between Doshisha’s status as a private (expensive by Japanese standards) institution and location in Japan, a rich country with a very high standard of living, the parts of my teaching approach that evolved to attempt to address basic needs insecurity are not really necessary here.*  

Yet, I am hopeful that the pedagogy I have been developing at CUNY will actually transfer quite well.  For one, a lot of the changes I’ve made to my classes, inspired by a pedagogy of care, of starting from a position of trusting students, and of adopting more open educational practices are beneficial not just to students facing basic needs security, but also to students who have complex lives (other courses, caring responsibilities, stress, disabilities, etc.) and need to be able to personalize their learning.  My Doshisha students might have been able to afford expensive American government textbooks, but they would have been blocked from easily using digital tools to translate that textbook (either because it was a paper book, or because of digital rights management from the publisher).  The openly licensed materials I am using this semester are available for free, are customized to our course, and are easier to plug in to whatever tools students may find helpful (digital translators, screen readers, etc).  

One of the great joys of teaching at CUNY is the diversity in my classes each semester- the varied perspectives and experiences of students make every class a new adventure.  KCC has almost two hundred languages represented on campus among its student body, so I am very used to teaching students who are taking college classes in their second (or third, or fourth) language.  At KCC, I keep a full CUNY Academic Commons site for each of my classes with all of the information for the course, readings, and slides available for students to review as and when they need to, and I’ve done the same for my Doshisha classes (special thanks to the CUNY Academic Commons for being the absolute best!!!)  At KCC, I always incorporate in-class free-writing and small group discussions to build community and get students comfortable talking in class (or on their blogs), and I have been experimenting with Google Docs more and more as collaborative spaces to record our class thoughts.  These techniques have already been helpful in getting my Doshisha students comfortable talking (and stopping me from talking so much!).  Because most of the students are fluent in Japanese, I am encouraging them to do their in-class writing and small group discussions in whatever language (or combination of languages) that they are most comfortable in.  I asked students in my introduction to American Government class to share everything they knew or had heard about American Government to a Google Doc, which we will revisit throughout the semester.  I won’t share their responses because it’s not my work, but believe me when I say we’re going to have a great time.   

I am a little afraid going forward that I might default to lecturing- as a high school theatre geek, and graduate of  two decades of Catholic school, talking at a room comes very easily to me and it tends to be what I do if I get nervous.  I’m going to try to plan some discreet activities for each class session to prevent that default from poking out too much.  

But really, it was just SO good to get back in a classroom, live with students, and to feel safe doing it!!!**  I am so excited for Week 2!!!

* There are likely more unhoused CUNY students (on the 2018 CUNY #RealCollege Survey, 3% of respondents self-identified as homeless) than there are unhoused people in all of Japan (2020’s count was 3,992).  

** There is no way I would feel safe about teaching in Brooklyn this semester and then returning to my still-too-young-to-be-vaccinated children, but the safety precautions and infection numbers here are exponentially better. 

Doshisha Diary: T – 2 weeks

In two weeks, I’ll pack up my partner, kids, and many electronic devices to spend 5 months in Kyoto Japan as a Fulbright lecturer at Doshisha University.  This has been a long time coming, and I’m still not entirely sure it will all happen (it definitely should, and hopefully will, but it’s 2021, after 2020, so my fingers will stay crossed until we land in Tokyo!). We’ve begun our required daily temperature checks and recording, scheduled the specific COVID test required, and obtained enough Switch and iPad games to (hopefully) get us through the two week hotel quarantine.  I’ve also been finalizing my syllabi.  

Color photo of steps and orange gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto
Fushimi Shrine in Kyoto

Scared to try new things, going for it anyway

Getting ready for my courses has already been eye opening.  As a tenured, and now full professor, I have a degree of security and freedom in my job that is unimaginable for most in academia at the moment (given that as much as 75% of college faculty are off the tenure track, and that the conditions for contingent labor are abysmal).  I have spent the last several years, both before and during COVID, experimenting with open educational practices in my classroom, making major changes- moving from a traditional textbook to an OER, to an OER that I have edited and customized, to working with students to (slowly!) write a chapter.  I’ve moved from strict attendance and exam policies to self-grading and choose-your-own-adventure.  I’ve been so happy with all of these changes, and part of the reason for that is that I haven’t had to fear them.  Sure, I’ve been worried that things won’t work as planned (and some have been spectacular failures/in need of major revisions), but because of my full-time and then tenure protections, I haven’t had to fear for my job.  Now, as I prepare to be a lecturer at a new university, in a different country, in a system that may be very different from the one I know, I’m feeling all sorts of self-doubt:  “Can I do this?  Should I do this?  Is this appropriate?  What if the students hate it?  What if it doesn’t work?  What will my colleagues think?”  And while I’m forging ahead anyway with choose your own adventure and flexible due dates (Brandle’s gonna Brandle, after all), I want to remember this feeling.  As part of my open education work, I’ve gotten to give a few pedagogy sessions, and while I always include the usual disclaimers of “find what works for you” and “contingent faculty will have different pressures and time available,” actually feeling (a tiny bit, though not actually) contingent for the first time in many years is a visceral reminder I want to hold on to- most faculty workers do not have the kind of job security that I do, and any training or planning that is not based on this fundamental fact is not worth anyone’s time.  

Nervous about language, happy about digital affordances of OER for translation

Teaching in a classroom where a multitude of languages is spoken is very normal to me – #CUNYProud – and the ethnic, racial, national, and linguistic diversity on my campus is actually one of my favorite parts of teaching at my home campus.  I teach mostly American government, but I’m an International Relations and Comparative Politics person at my core, so when everyone brings their different perspective and knowledge of other government systems into the class, we get to make Intro to American very comparative, which is more interesting for all of us.  Students have also shown me ways that they make their course materials easier to access- closed captions that come in different languages for videos, web translators for digital materials, etc, and this is yet one more reason to love OER- since the materials I use are born digital and free to access, I don’t have to worry whether they’ll be DRM-ed in a different country- I’m free to share and redistribute them anywhere!  And my students have easier access to use the materials in a way that works best for them.  At Doshisha, I will be teaching in English, but the primary language of instruction for most students is Japanese (though Japanese is not necessarily the first language of all Doshisha students).  So in choosing readings, I’m looking especially for materials (such as UN treaties and government constitutions) that have Japanese translations already prepared, and including those along with the English versions.  

Stoked to plan new classes

For the last 8 years, I’ve been privileged to teach at a community college, which means all first and second year courses.  And I LOVE it- I know my content very well by this point, and I have the time to experiment with improving my pedagogy, because I’m not dealing with new preps all of the time.  But it is really nice to do other things sometimes and in addition to teaching my constant companion, Introduction to American Government and my once-a-semester treat, Introduction to International Relations, I’ll be teaching two new (to me) upper level courses that I proposed- a human rights seminar using an explicit comparison between Japanese and American interpretations/policies of international human rights frameworks, and Geeking Out- Special Topics in Political Science through sci-fi/fantasy films- The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I didn’t find any syllabi on exactly these courses (though definite shout out to Bethany Barratt’s The Politics of Harry Potter and Ruane and James’ International Relations of Middle Earth, and to the CUNY library system, who had e-copies of both books, since I’ve already turned off our mail delivery) so I’ll share my syllabi  once I’ve finalized the readings.  

LOVING the CUNY Academic Commons

The nice people at CUNY Academic Commons are very open to CUNY faculty, staff, and students using the Commons in lots of ways, so I’m creating my course websites on it.  This means I can have an open site up and running before the start of class.  And I don’t have to get signed in to whatever LMS Doshisha uses just to have a home for my class; in my adjuncting days, that could sometimes take weeks, and who wants to wait that long to have a home for your class?  

I’m hoping to blog through the experience, so I can reflect on what is likely to be one heck of an adventure:   temporarily moving my family to a new continent, to a country I have never been to, to teach somewhere completely new and different, still in a pandemic.  So watch this space if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. 

We Heat Our Classrooms

Cold Comfort
When it’s cold outside, we turn on the heat inside.

So, this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about my course policies and my increasingly open pedagogy. I’m especially thinking about due dates (or their more ominous title “deadlines”) and flexibility. I wrote about how flexible deadlines helped students learn in my Spring 2020 classes here and I really don’t think I’ll ever go back to being the deadline hardass I was when I started teaching 15 years ago, when I really believed that strict course attendance and due date rules administered ruthlessly to all students regardless of anything else was the right way to run a class. I cringe when I think back on that, and to all of my former students, I’m really sorry.  I’ve learned and grown, I promise.  

There is, however, a strong pushback whenever I bring up flexible due dates, which I’ve done a lot this summer- I’ve discussed this with the excellent folks at APSA’s Online Teaching Workshop (sidebar for political scientists- go check out APSA Educate– the workshop contributed lots of resources, and there are many others that might be helpful), with colleagues in the KCC Open Pedagogy Fellowship, with other colleagues during other meetings, with folks on Twitter, basically with anyone I have talked to in the last 3 months. Many instructors who I really respect fall into the hard-liners category, often for the same reason-  they say they enforce due dates because that’s what “the real world” will require, and they want to prepare students for their professional lives after graduation, or for the tougher 4 year colleges they will be transferring to after finishing on our campus.  

I have several problems with this.  First off, my students live every day in the real world.  I don’t need to explain deadlines to them, because they already deal with hard due dates, like having to make rent, or not being able to- a 2010 survey of CUNY students found that 41.7% faced housing instability, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic which has devastated the lives of so many New Yorkers as well as caused massive unemployment and economic slowdown which is likely to get much worse before it gets any better.  

Furthermore, it would be downright hypocritical of me to demand on-time delivery of students work, because I am a habitual deadline blower!  Like, seriously.  I am late for everything- conference paper submissions, article reviews, returning exams, my own wedding.  

“I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” – Douglas Adams
“I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” – Douglas Adams
Image from brightdrops.com/funny-life-quotes

And you know what has happened to me because of all this lateness?  I’ve become a tenured professor of political science and a published author.  The “real world” has not punished me too severely for my habitual lateness,* so why would I institute arbitrary punishment for my students?  I think of it this way- there is hot and cold weather in the real world, but we don’t force ourselves to live in those conditions all day if we can help it.  If it is cold outside, we turn on the heat in our offices, classrooms, and homes.  If it is hot outside, we turn on the air conditioning.  If we wouldn’t deny our students heat in our classrooms, in preparation for the cold outside, then we shouldn’t be excessively hardassed in preparation for the possibility that they will encounter hardasses in the future.  

And everything I’ve been late on, I’ve had (what I believe to be) a good reason- I had other things to do, or care obligations, or I just forgot because life is busy sometimes.  All of which apply to my students as much or more than they do to me- students have other classes, work and care obligations, and lead busy lives, without the privileges that come with being a tenured professor.  

Due dates are important, and there are consequences to missing some of them, but what is the real consequence of a student submitting work late in my class?  It may be slightly less convenient for me?  Modified self-grading has really eased my grading burden significantly- I get to provide comments only, in conversation with students’ own self-grading reflections.  I have heard some instructors offer different deadlines based on how much feedback students would like- the later they submit work, the less feedback they get, but the work is always accepted.  Any inconvenience to me is far outweighed by the fact that I get to say, and really mean, that it is never too late to catch up in my class.  If a student is willing to do the work, then I want them to do it, whether that’s in the schedule that I set up originally, or in the time that works best for them.  

If you’re still not convinced, check out Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope (well worth your time to read!) or if you’re pressed for time at the moment, Barrie Gelles’ recent blog post.  

*Being late is still a jerk thing to do, and I’m honestly working on it.  But I’ve had decades to improve, and am still not great at it, so extending the same flexibility to my students that I demand in my own professional life is the least I can do.

What Frozen 2 Taught Me About Open Pedagogy

color photo of a gingerbread ice palace
Gingerbread Ice Palace , built by my small associates, my sister, and I

We are a Frozen family.  We have seen both films and all of the animated shorts.  We have costumes, dolls, stickers, smaller dolls, coloring books, a gingerbread house- you name it.  I’ve even gotten pretty good at Frozen-themed face paint.  Between the leading ladies as the focus of the story, and my history as a high school musical geek, my love for this was practically pre-ordained, and luckily, my small associates and I love it about the same amount.  We know every word to every song, and sing them loudly.  Like I said, I’m a musical theatre geek, and there’s no way to hit some of those high notes without going all out!

So one day, when we were driving and singing along to the Frozen 2 soundtrack, my younger associate asked me to quiet down- she wanted to sing, and couldn’t hear herself over me.  My pride extremely wounded, I tried my best to quiet down.  It’s not easy- these songs beg to be sung out loud, and did I mention I’m a musical geek?  But then I realized that when I sing more softly, I could hear my small associate’s sweet voice much better.  And when I stopped singing all together, she got more confident, and  got louder (and sounded adorable, but I’ll admit I’m biased).  Which got me to thinking about voice and listening, and making space in my classroom.  Like a blast of ice powers straight to my heart, my small associate hit upon the most important lesson (for me) of adopting more open pedagogy has been learning how to speak less, so my students have the space to speak more.  Class should not be about me belting the greatest hits of American Government (as fun as that is for me) but in making the space for students to find their own voices and hits, which they can’t do if I’m talking the whole time.

Or in the words of another popular piece of streaming content on Disney +, talk less.

Video from the musical Hamilton, with Aaron Burr saying "Talk Less, Smile More."

And yes, my associates are watching Frozen 2 as I typed this up.  In the extremely unlikely event you haven’t seen it, you definitely should.  If you have already, treat yourself to a second (or 32nd, no judgement) viewing.  “You are the one you’ve been waiting for all of your life” and “do the next right thing” are absolutely necessary moods these days.. 

Happy New Year!

Color photo of fireworks with text that says "Happy New Year."
“Happy New Year” by Beegee49 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

One of my favorite things about academia is we get extra New Years- every time a semester ends is an opportunity to reflect on how things went, and think about how to improve in the future. (my long winter & summer breaks mean I usually do this at the starts of things too. I like celebrating, don’t @ me).

So how did this very unusual semester of Spring 2020 go?  I set out from the beginning, and reaffirmed when we switched to emergency distance learning, that I didn’t want to lose anyone- we would get through this together.  On this measure, I was not wholly successful- in my early (9:10am!) class, 20 students dropped or never submitted even a single assignment, while  in my 10:20am class there were 13 (incidentally, what a difference that early hour makes- attendance for our 5 in-person sessions before the emergency switch really helped lay the groundwork, and the earlier class was more sparsely attended then, so the difference is less surprising).  Under ordinary circumstances, this would be not great, but given that New York has been and continues to be battered by COVID-19, which has been disproportionately dangerous to essential workers and ethnic and racial minority groups, which make up a large part of the students at my campus, I think we did as well as we could possibly have done.  No student signed up for trying to juggle all of their courses online, possibly having to share devices with family that also needed to work or do school work from home, while facing economic strife, during a global pandemic.  As I repeatedly told my students, my class is not your first priority and that’s okay.  

And that’s one of the lessons I’ll take into next semester.  In the fall, my students will be facing the psychological and economic fallout of the pandemic, and the likelihood of a resurgence is high.  CUNY has yet to make a formal announcement for the fall, but my department has declared all of our classes online for Fall 2020, and  I am really glad about this decision, because it seems like the only right one- my class is not worth anyone dying for.  It’s not worth anyone getting really sick over, whether it’s a student, their family member, or someone they sit near on mass transit.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think my class is important (I do!) or that my students’ education is not important (it really is!), it just means that it’s not worth dying for.  In all of the discussions circulating in higher ed about whether to open, how to open, we need to open!!!, I think this is the big thing missing.  I won’t try to argue that half-assed emergency distance learning is better than non-pandemic teaching.  But NON-PANDEMIC TEACHING IS NOT AN OPTION RIGHT NOW!!!  And it won’t be in the fall, either. So what changes to our classes can we make now to give us the best possible courses next term?

Things that worked extremely well for me this semester were flexible deadlines, students getting to choose their own assignments, modified self-grading and open-book unlimited-time tests.  I’ll never go back to using closed-book or timed tests online- this reduced stress for students (essential during a pandemic, but a good goal during any time) and let them focus on learning, without me having to manage some surveillance technology or gatekeeping to control them.  Our use of self-grading also reduced stress, because students were not as worried about their grade (since they were grading each assignment themselves), and the assignments were much better, because students were more familiar with the requirements of each assignment, since they had to assess themselves.  Not only did students appreciate these things (I got many, many emails thanking me), it was actually much easier to manage administratively.  I got to focus on giving useful feedback, not justifying the grades I assigned (since I didn’t assign them ;o).  Whenever a student would send a worried email that they were going to be late, or needed more time, instead of wasting time demanding and verifying proof of their need, I got to quickly reply that they are the experts in what they need, and that the deadlines are flexible for this reason.  Students who had problems at one or more points in the semester were able to catch up and complete their work- and isn’t that what we want, instead of nailing students on deadlines we impose?  I also got to read really interesting projects, because students got to choose learning activities that were interesting to them, instead of slogging through what I required.  

Of course, there are areas where I want to improve.  I opted to go wholly asynchronous when we switched to distance learning, for practical and equity reasons.  But I ended up missing the personal connection with students and we were never really able to develop a community of learners.  Creating that sense of community is my main area for improvement in the fall.  My campus is allowing us to indicate whether our fall classes will be synchronous or asynchronous, so I’m requesting synchronous (at least students will know what they are signing up for in advance), but I’m going to be a bit sneaky- each student will only be synchronous for 1 hour per week.  I plan on dividing each class into 6 groups (or squads, or pods, or teams?), and I’ll meet with 2 groups during each class time- that way we’re never more than a group of 8 or 9, and we can actually talk with each other.  This should hopefully balance the desire for facetime with limited device/bandwidth access, as well as give students dedicated time (the other 2 class hours) during the week to work on our class work (either individually or with their team).  I’ll also tell each day’s group of two teams that if they can unanimously decide on a better hour to meet, we can move the session.  I’ll encourage groups to develop their own norms and means of communicating, so they can help each other along (instead of having to depend on me).  I’ll offer group versions of some assignment options, and most of our synchronous sessions will be planned/led by one of the groups.  

Because of the emergency switch after the semester started, I offered students the option to blog in Blackboard (our LMS, which I hate) or on the CUNY Academic Commons (on our class site or their own).  Most students opted for Blackboard, and I can’t say I blame them- it was already set up, and their other classes were likely using Blackboard too.  But it’s a lost opportunity- knowing how to use Blackboard is only useful to use Blackboard- it’s not a transferable skill.  Building out a website on the CUNY Academic Commons, however, means students have to figure out WordPress, which is a completely transferable skill that is actually not that hard to master.  Next semester, I’ll require students to make their own sites which will contain all of their work for the semester (they’ll get to choose the sharing level of their site, as students have different preferences about privacy that must be respected).  To support them, however, I’ll spend a chunk of this summer making how-to guides and videos for getting started, using as many different devices as I can find in my family (phone, laptop, tablet, etc), since I know students have different devices and bandwidths available.  This will also ensure that I understand the fullness of what I’m asking them to do- i.e. I think it’s probably not that hard to run a WordPress site on a smartphone, but after this summer, I’ll know exactly how hard it is and how to do it, so I can help students who have trouble.

Finally, I am planning to change my slides.  American Government is constantly changing, so I update them every semester, but these are really designed for use in-class.  Without me guiding the class through them, they’re not that useful.  Recording me going through them is extremely boring (not just for me- for any poor soul forced to listen or watch!)- there is a magic that happens in the classroom with these slides that doesn’t translate to online.  So new slides are in order- I’m trying to think of ways to make them more self-guided and interactive, such as directing students out to data sources and government websites so they can play with them directly, instead of looking at the pieces I pulled in.  

So that’s a lot for just one summer!  And I’ve got a paper and a book to write, as well as some big family projects, so that’s a lot.  On the brightside, we are committed to staying very close to home, so I’ve got some time.  I’ll check back in as the summer progresses, and see how many of these words I’ll have to eat.  

Open Educational Resources for Political Science

This Image is a Concept Map on Open educational Resources
OER Concept Map by M.U. Paily licensed under
the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

So, I’ve gained a bit of reputation for myself as being an OER person for Political Science, which makes sense, because I’m constantly banging on about it to anyone who will listen- on Twitter, at conferences, on my campus, and now on this blog.  I’ve been working on teaching with OER (Open Educational Resources) for 5 over five years now, and in that time, I’ve seriously fallen in love.  It hasn’t always been smooth (the first OER I tried to author is so bad, I won’t even link to it, but you can read all about just how bad it was here), but it has led me to a much-needed (r)evolution of my approach to teaching, which is still ongoing.  It’s made me a better researcher, too- I would likely not have stumbled into the worlds of Open Access and Open Data without exploring OER, nor would I have published research on it (it’s solidly half of my research agenda now).  And that’s all in addition to the fact that I know my students all have zero-cost access to the materials they need to learn in my classes.  

So I’m clearly hooked, and now it’s your turn.  I’ll list my favorite resources for the courses I teach, as well as places you can find others.  I’m only one person, and what I’ve found works for my specific approach to teaching my students at my institution.  For reference, I teach introductory level classes with no prerequisites at a community college. Your mileage will certainly vary, so feel free to adapt to your own needs and preferences. Also, these are the courses I most frequently teach- I know there are loads more courses, so I’ve also included some places to look for more openly licensed materials.

For Introduction to American Government, which is the bulk of my teaching these days, the OpenStax textbook can’t be beat (in my opinion- but please note, I’m not an Americanist by training).  For those interested in editing the text (which is perfectly allowed under the terms of its Creative Commons license), Openstax will be releasing all of their textbooks as google docs for easier editing in the fall.  I will be offering students the option to edit the text, individually or collaboratively, for class credit starting next semester. I also use the Crash Course in US Government and Politics series on YouTube.  While it is not an OER (since you can’t retain it or remix it), it is free for students to access, aligns really nicely with the topics I like to cover in the course, and is captioned and subtitled in a bunch of languages.  I also have heard very good things about The Civics 101 Podcast, but have not taught with it myself.  

For Introduction to International Relations, I really like the International Relations and International Relations Theory books from E-International Relations, paired with journal articles (some available openly, some through our library’s database subscriptions), and video and data from lots of different places.  There’s a working outline of the materials here if you’re looking for a starting point for how a course might be laid out, but fair warning- it definitely needs work.  

For both of these courses, I use the OER textbooks in a fairly traditional manner, because that works for me.  Of course, since the texts are free, I could just as easily mix in selected chapters or papers from other sources.  And there are plenty of places to find other sources, and plenty of material for courses besides the three I discuss here. There are reviews of several open political science textbooks at the Open Textbook Library, listings of fully open access journals and books at the Directory of Open Access Journals and the Directory of Open Access Books, 607 openly licensed Political Science books at The Open Research Library, 6 different Political Science courses at The Saylor Academy, and entire repositories to search through at OER Commons and MERLOT.  

For Introduction to Comparative Politics, there isn’t a really great basic OER textbook (or at least there wasn’t the last time I taught the course), so I used library subscription resources, and made students comparativists- we did a draft of countries on the first day. When I get to teach it again, we’ll collect student cases into a book, which subsequent semesters of students will learn from, supplement, and revise.  

It’s been a dream of mine to help coordinate an open comparative textbook, but so far, I’ve not found the time.  More accurately, it’s a dream of mine that someone else will make a great open comparative textbook that I can just adopt.  If anyone reading this teaches graduate foundational seminars in comparative politics and is looking for an excellent authentic assignment, having students make an openly licensed introductory textbook would be an awesome service to the discipline as well as a great way for graduate students to prepare both for their comprehensive exams and for teaching undergraduate students.  If you don’t feel like publishing it yourself, the folks at Rebus Community offer a platform and model for collaborative book-building that could be adapted by a group of political scientists.  E-IR also takes submissions.  

The more of us that publish open access, whether our scholarly work or our teaching materials, the more that there is for others to adopt and adapt from.  So the next time you’re preparing a course (or a scholarly article), I dare you to think open first. You’ll be surprised by what you might find, and where it might lead you.

A partial list of what my students are dealing with

Sign with text that says "This is not ok"
This is Not OK by Rafael Zink, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

This semester, I have a very light (for my institution) teaching load because of other fellowships and work I’m doing- 2 classes of 40ish students each.  We have a late start to our spring semester, so we had just shy of two weeks of face-to-face classes before the emergency pivot to distance learning. Sadly, I hadn’t really got to know the students too well (it takes time, at least for me), but I did try to lay the groundwork for building our little community based on care.  I tried as much as I could in those 8 class sessions to convey that this class is meant for them, and that I would be there to help them along, in whatever way I could. Since the switchover to distance learning, I’ve tried in every communication with my students to emphasize that the assignments and due dates are all flexible, and that they should prioritize their health and well-being, and that of their families, over my class.  I’d like to think that as a result of this care, students have felt more comfortable confiding in me what’s happening to them (although it could just as easily be the absolute desperation of the situation we’re all in now). Here, then, is a partial list of (anonymized!) situations facing the students in my class this semester:

-student A has several younger siblings, and they all have required synchronous learning for their schools, which means both that they need assistance and that there is not enough computer time or internet bandwidth to go around. (We talked about how it was an impossible situation, and brainstormed how to learn and do the work for the class using mostly their phone).

-student B does not have home internet and lives in an area where the free-for-COVID19 internet specials are not available (I offered to connect them to IT for the limited supply of internet-enabled tablets the campus has available for students, and outlined how to accomplish the class using only a smartphone and minimal data)

-student C was worried that not having a computer would make it difficult to complete their classes, and was very relieved when I relayed the link for how they could get one from campus.  However, they couldn’t pick it up right away, as they had to wait for a ride- their parents did not want them riding mass transit to get to campus (whether this was due to the threat of germs or increased prevalence of hate crimes, the student did not say, but I said I’m sure it was the right move for them, and emphasized that due dates are flexible and assignments are self-graded)

-student D sent me a picture of their brand new baby!  The baby was adorable, and I felt honored that the student would send me the photo.  The photo was attached to an email saying that the student’s partner had just that day delivered a baby in a New York City hospital, and they were very nervous for obvious reasons, so their blog posts might be delayed this week (to which I responsed, forget about my class- make sure your newly expanded family gets home safely, get some sleep, & our class will be waiting for you when are ready).  As I looked at the photo again, I noticed that the little card that goes in hospital baby trays, the one that notes name and date of birth, was prominently framed in the photo, and my heart broke for this student, realizing that the picture was not meant to share the joy of their new baby, but to provide proof that they were telling the truth. Because they assumed that their instructors would not believe them without evidence.    

I’m not going to mention the number of emails from students who are sick, afraid they’re sick, caring for sick or high-risk family members, having to work, have lost their jobs, worried about money/food/housing, etc. because this post is already too long.  And while I believe each of my students is unique in their own way, I am fairly certain their circumstances will be common to most, if not all of our students this semester. So please, please, please, be kind to your students. Give them the benefit of every doubt.  As so many others have said about this already, be a human, and care for the humans on the other side of your screen.  

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