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Blogging as Pedagogy

by Adam David Morton on May 19, 2015

Last week, it was my pleasure to engage with an initiative that the Institute of Teaching and Learning at the University of Sydney organises in the form of their #edtech talks. These are seminars focusing on learning and teaching through technology. My talk was on ‘Blogging as Pedagogy’ that was succeeded by Dr Rosanne Quinnell and Caroline Cheung sharing their campus-wide learning and teaching App, Campus Flora, addressing botanical literacy in our everyday spaces.

The #edtech talks are organised by Dr Alison Kuiper and Dr Amani Bell within the Institute for Teaching and Learning. My contribution discussed my general initiatives across my personal blog, For the Desk Drawer, and the collective blog edited on behalf of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, Progress in Political Economy. Specifically, my task was to share some of my teaching techniques at the undergraduate level linked to blogging initiatives associated with my unit, ECOP2613 The Political Economy of Global Capitalism.

GramsciFor a long time, I have drawn inspiration from Antonio Gramsci who maintained that ‘the relationship between teacher and pupil is active and reciprocal so that every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher’. Elsewhere in his Prison Notebooks he maintains that ‘The student is not a gramophone record, a passive receptacle’. These points underline the shared basis of the educational experience, not only between the teacher and pupil in what Gramsci termed ‘scholastic relationships’, but also beyond the academy, or in his idiom, the ‘non-intellectual’ world. My approach to teaching has sought to create a supportive, inclusive, and participatory learning environment. I strive to generate an approachable style so that students feel emboldened and confident to develop their ideas as critical thinkers and as independent learners about political economy and international studies.

In newly launching my unit on The Political Economy of Global Capitalism, I embarked on an explicit attempt to integrate blogging and social media at the core of the delivery of the teaching reflected in the classroom in terms of lectures and tutorials and outside the classroom to guide student pedagogy. How was this achieved?

PikettyOne of the central elements of ECOP2613 is its focus on the historical and institutional aspects of the development of the capitalist world economy before and since 1945, including analysis of international inequalities. With 2014 marked by the public popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I integrated the focus within the unit on capitalist inequalities covering lectures, seminars, and independent student learning through a series of innovative ‘Piketty Digests’. These digests have been designed as chapter-by-chapter summaries of the book that, at over 800 pages in length, could be regarded as too imposing by some second-year undergraduate students. Each week, these Piketty Digests were introduced through my blog site For the Desk Drawer and disseminated to the students in email correspondence. Such short interpretative digests provided a different and original form of engagement with the book, intrinsically related to the learning outcomes of the unit.

Just before the launch of the unit (August 2014), the Piketty Digests—covering all eighteen blog posts in total for all of the chapters and the Introduction and Conclusion—first began on 16 July and received over 40,000 page views from across the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Turkey (and beyond) by the time of their completion in November. That equates to each blog post receiving over 2,000 page views on a unit of 70 second-year undergraduates.

Importantly, each of the Piketty Digests finished with a tailored and carefully crafted question for the students. This pedagogical tool encouraged the students to think critically about both the content of the book and my own summaries that could be adopted and adapted in tutorials. For example, the first Piketty Digest on the Introduction to Capital in the Twenty-First Century raised the question: “Why does the rate of return on capital matter to democratic questions of wealth and distribution within political economy?”. As a complete set, quite a comprehensive coverage of eighteen questions was offered on issues inter alia on income inequality, growth, developmental catch-up, capital-labour struggles, income from labour, capital ownership, global inequality, the social state, progressive income tax, global capital tax, and public debt.

Numerous digests also integrated Thomas Piketty’s book in relation to wider literature pertinent to the unit, for example, Costas Lapavitsas’ work on finance, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s work on imperialism, Benno Teschke’s on the rise of capitalism, and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s on liberal democracy. Furthermore, the digests draw on documentaries used in class linked to issues of developmental catch-up—such as When China Met Africa [2010]—as well as popular culture more broadly construed, drawing on the use of literary sources as historical sources of inequality, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day. The digests also linked to a guest lecture on the module by Professor Andreas Bieler (University of Nottingham) on the Eurozone debt crisis and Piketty’s solution linked to a capital tax.

The success of the Piketty Digests as a supplemental tool for teaching was also confirmed by student feedback. Sample student testimonies included:

Tor Larsen (3rd Year Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Science):

Since the start of this unit I have appreciated the variety of sources and material you have recommended, including the work of Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty First Century. I have found Piketty’s book a challenging read that has nevertheless, materially assisted my understanding of some aspects of the course. Key to this understanding has been the on-line chapter digests posted on your web site. In addition to the many other useful articles and links on the site, I have found the digests to be concise expositions of some of Piketty’s more complex concepts that have clarified the text for me.

Or, Brooke Ackland (2nd Year Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Science):

I would like to give my support to my senior lecturer for my Sydney University subject The Political Economy of Global Capitalism. I have expressed my enthusiasm to Professor Morton in class about his frequent blogging and social media presence, as I was delighted that a senior scholar and lecturer has finally brought a social science unit into the 21st Century . . . I believe academic scholarship has been lagging behind on technological information-sharing and social media. Professor Morton deserves applause for bringing his scholarship to a greater audience through social media.

edtech-talksFinally, beyond my own classroom to the wider world of students and intellectuals the Piketty Digests had impact and take up, such as on Dr Aidan Regan’s module ‘Capitalism and Democracy’ second-year module (University College Dublin); or Dr Patrick Iber’s ‘The Problem of Inequality (and how to solve it)’ second-year module (UC Berkeley); as well as in a reading group at Oxford-Brookes University organised by Dr Chris Hesketh. All the posts have also been reblogged at Progress in Political Economy at the University of Sydney and I have actively supported the Piketty Digests through Twitter and the hashtag #ECOP2613. Finally, Thomas Piketty himself sent me personal correspondence via email (dated 5 September 2014) indicating that he regarded the Piketty Digests as “very interesting” in disseminating the book to students and scholars.

In summing up his own philosophy of education, Antonio Gramsci stated that ‘studying too is a job, and a very tiring one, with its own particular apprenticeship—involving muscles and nerves as well as intellect [and] . . . sweat and toil’. The Piketty Digests certainly attest to much of this. They also generated questions about my own teaching practices. For example, how in the future does one repeat the approach to such digests in relation to alternative texts relevant to political economy? Or, how can one encourage undergraduate research through the digests to address new questions about political economy?

These challenges remain for my future teaching design and engagement with students. For the meantime, it was wonderful to engage with and learn from colleagues within the Institute for Teaching and Learning and I look forward to more shared discussions in and beyond blogging as pedagogy with them and other colleagues.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
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