Meet the Syllabus: engaging in current research

iStock [erhui1979]
iStock [erhui1979]
In a typical university course, students are set a list of texts by authors they do not know and will never meet. The texts are already published and there is no opportunity for students to give feedback. While many courses of this kind are excellent, there is nevertheless the danger of conveying an impression that research and teaching are disconnected. Research is something that happens upstream, where experts produce ideas. Teaching happens downstream, where, at some other location and at some later time, students assess the ideas produced.

Our course – Contemporary Political Theory: Engaging in Current Research – is one of several courses at Edinburgh trying something different. One of us (Kieran) convenes the course; two of us (Sabrina and Joel) were among the students who took it in its first year (2016/17). There are difficulties in running this kind of course (more on that below), but there are also considerable benefits.

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The course is designed to bridge the gap between teaching and research. An obvious way to bridge the gap in the natural or social sciences is to get students involved in tasks such as experiments, interviews or data processing. But political theory is not a science. Political theorists work by formulating arguments, presenting them for debate, receiving feedback and then redrafting. The way to engage students in political theory research is thus to involve them in the debate and feedback stages of this process.  Theorists do not need other people to help them undertake empirical research – they don’t do any – but they do need other people to find the flaws in their arguments. Normally, those people are other political theorists but there is no reason why they should not be students. Students can offer a fresh take on old controversies. They often pose the best questions.

With all this in mind, the course took the following form.  It was structured around five presentations from leading political theorists working on five different topics. Karl Widerquist (Georgetown) presented on basic income, Anca Ghuaes (Pompeu Fabre) on parenting, Helder de Schutter (Louvain) on linguistic justice, Chandran Kukathas (LSE) on immigration and Elizabeth Cripps (Edinburgh) on climate change. We met for ‘preparation classes’ in the weeks before each presentation to get to grips with the relevant topic. During the presentation itself, the theorists would say a few words setting the background to the paper – no need to present the papers in full as we had read them in advance – and then two students would present prepared responses. General discussion ensued. After class, we headed to a nearby café for an informal lunch and further debate. So, the course took something of the form of a research seminar, although as we note below, it was not exactly the same.

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The course employed innovative forms of assessment. Students wrote blog posts summarising the papers for a wider audience, some of which were then published on the Just World Institute website (see here, here and here). The blog post task was harder than it sounds since it involved a form of translation: from the highly technical, intellectual language of academic philosophy into accessible English. The final assessment was a ‘response article’ that contributed to the debate over one of the papers by critiquing its arguments or developing its thesis in some new direction. The best response articles (and many were excellent) were sent to the theorists in question. The theorists then had a chance to respond to the responses. The idea was that the assessment should be a contribution to the research process.

There are difficulties in running a course of this kind. For starters, it involves a lot of admin: sending invitations, settling dates, booking hotels and cafes, and bugging guests to book their travel and send in papers on time. To add to the workload, we organised further events – seminars, lectures and, in one case, a book launch – around the visits. After all, we wanted to make the visits a success for our guests and show off what Edinburgh has to offer. We made the work manageable by sharing it out, with students volunteering to support the convenor in various ways.

Another difficulty was finding the right papers to discuss. We wanted to read pre-published work, but we also wanted to ensure it was strong and well-developed. This is how the course differed from an ordinary research seminar. In an ordinary seminar, an academic might present an early draft. Indeed, the work might be so ill-developed that the central argument falls apart under scrutiny. That’s ok in an ordinary seminar but it is not ok in a course in which students are being examined on their responses to a paper. Ideally then the papers were at a halfway stage: developed enough that they held together but not so well developed that there was nothing left to change. It is not always easy to find people with papers at this stage.

Despite these difficulties, there is much to be said for a course of this kind. The course achieved its primary goal: students gained an insight into the research process in political theory by being included within it. The feedback the students gave has helped shape work in the field. The informal conversations, such as those over lunch, proved important. Students were able to quiz the visiting theorist’s on how they go about their work: their methods for writing, editing and publishing. This was especially helpful for students considering doctoral study or an academic career. More generally, the design of the course boosted student motivation. Students read papers with greater excitement and intensity knowing they would meet the authors.

Interestingly, something that many of the students appreciated about the course was quite unexpected: its slower pace. Because of the necessity of holding preparation classes, the course covered just five topics, rather than the usual ten. This slower space allowed students time to properly reflect on a topic, before moving on to the next.

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Something that was true about our course but is not essential to a course of this kind is that the topics varied enormously. (This made the slower pace particularly valuable). The course sort to familiarise students with topics from across the discipline. Students found this rewarding but also challenging. A course of this kind could be more focussed, inviting scholars from just one sub-discipline for instance. This might make things easier for students. It would however make it harder to find the right scholars, restricting the pool for potential invitees.

Overall, the Contemporary Political Theory course was a success. It was nominated for a EUSA ‘best course’ award and has become a core course on the International Political Theory MSc. Kieran is preparing to teach the course again in the spring, with five new theorists invited to Edinburgh. No major changes to the general structure of the course are expected; however, the course has doubled in size, a factor that will bring its own challenges and opportunities. Sabrina and Joel have now left Edinburgh and are in work. Sabrina is working for the think tank, the German Society for International Cooperation; Joel for Full Fact, an organisation that checks claims made by politicians and the media. Both have found the course relevant to their current work and future plans. For Sabrina, the course was an opportunity to hone her skills in critical-analysis and argumentation. She now has thoughts about a PhD on climate change, the topic she focussed on in the course. Joel has found echoes of the course in his work as a fact checker. Fact checking is about attention to detail and an ability to read between the lines, as well as the confidence to challenge people in authority on their statements they make. These were the hallmarks of the Contemporary Political Theory course.

Next steps

For more ideas on curriculum design, see these Teaching Matters articles:

Developing Reflection in the Curriculum

History for the future: Update on the new pre-honours curriculum in History

Diversifying the medical curriculum using open educational resources

Fair’s Fair: embedding equality and diversity into the curriculum

Sabrina Valeria Ronco

After graduating cum laude from the BA programme “International Studies” at Leiden University in 2016, Sabrina continued her academic studies at the University of Edinburgh, where she graduated with an MSc “Political Theory” with distinction in November 2017. Whilst writing her postgraduate dissertation on the ethics of the Anthropocene, she completed a traineeship at the International Center for Climate Governance in Venice, Italy. Currently, she is working for the department of Climate and Environmental Policy at the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), and is looking into applying for PhD programmes in environmental ethics and climate justice.

Joël Reland

Joël graduated from Edinburgh in 2017 with an MSc in International Political Theory. He now works as a researcher and writer for Full Fact – an organisation which factchecks claims made by politicians and the media.

Kieran Oberman

Kieran is a Lecturer in Political Theory at Edinburgh University. He obtained his DPhil in Politics from Oxford University and has since held positions at the University of Louvain, Stanford University, the Asian University for Women and University College Dublin.

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