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Teaching Political Economy: Workshop Notes

by Ben Richardson and Anika Heckwolf on October 22, 2018

In September 2018, a Teaching Political Economy workshop was held at the University of Warwick, sponsored by the BISA International Political Economy Group and Warwick’s Department of Politics and International Studies. Participants from fifteen different institutions gathered to discuss pedagogy in the discipline, with a particular focus on how to teach political economy in a more inclusive way. In this blog post we provide an overview of the presentations and subsequent discussion, with links to some of the resources mentioned. We hope you find it useful!

The Global Classroom

Professor Jean-Christophe Graz, University of Lausanne

Jean-Christophe presented a student-centred learning activity that he conducts with students in a second-year IPE class at the University of Lausanne. In order to make visible the heterogeneity of IPE, the students entered into a dialogue with Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, similarly located at the periphery of the field and in a non-English speaking environment.  In small groups, students from each university drafted entries for a glossary of key IPE terms and concepts and discussed their choices with their international partners in four Skype sessions. This resulted in a glossary featuring different entries in French and Spanish, as shown below.  A planned next step is to discuss the entries with students from the Université de Quebec à Montreal, Canada, before then making glossary available online.

Key words from the glossary entries produced by students in Bogotá (left) and Lausanne (centre) with an English language glossary based on O’Brien and William’s Global Political Economy textbook (right)

Students appreciated the real-world learning experience, the reflexive process leading to a substantive outcome, and the geographical diversity of the project. However, live interactions sometimes lacked substance, particularly as glossary entries were not always identical in the different languages. Jean-Christophe concluded by discussing ideas for a next iteration, including the introduction of a learning diary of the drafting process, and a pool of common entries of glossary terms on both sides to facilitate discussion. The audience raised questions on practical matters, such as the handling of time zones and term time differences, and suggested ideas for expanding the project beyond the glossary.

Recharting the History of Economic Thought

Dr Kevin Deane, Queen Mary University of London

Kevin shared his experiences of redesigning an undergraduate module on the history of economic thought (HET) to introduce pluralist economic perspectives in a department that mainly teaches mainstream economics. He replaced the traditional chronological and accumulative approach to HET with a competitive one, as well as employing a ‘flipped classroom’ strategy. In Term 1, classroom sessions were suspended, and students worked in small groups on poster assessments, meeting regularly with their supervisor. Each poster focused on one important economic thinker and presented their main ideas, a central quote, and their relevance for understanding economic processes today. In Term 2, students had to answer core economic questions (e.g. “What causes economic crises?”) from the perspectives of different economics thinkers, which served to compare and contrast the different perspectives as well as to point out the weaknesses and silences of neoclassical economics.

Kevin highlighted the value of the approach in developing critical thinking skills, and how students began to question what they were taught in other classes. Limitations, however, included the small number of economists covered and a lack of focus on the historical context. Replying to questions from the audience, Kevin acknowledged the limited presence of non-Western and non-male economists but referred to a soon to be released edited volume based on the course that is more inclusive. Readers may also be interested in the Reteaching Economics website that supports student demands for pluralist teaching in economics.

Decolonising the Curriculum

Dr Kerem Nişancioğlu, SOAS University of London

Kerem related IPE, and the university more broadly, to the hierarchies produced through colonialism. He introduced the audience to the contested meaning of decolonisation: while the liberal approach, prominent in the media, builds on an expansion of the diversity approach (“Add more people of colour”), more radical approaches have demanded a fundamental rethinking of higher education, or even a complete dismantling of universities. It was argued that IPE tends to be taught in a way that privileges a white male position and reproduces forms of colonial violence by dismissing other perspectives. While better representation matters, e.g. adding marginalised voices to reading lists, decolonising the curriculum also requires a fundamental rethinking of how concepts, categories, and histories are taught within IPE.

A conventional media narrative has supposed that ‘political correctness’ has led universities to create safe spaces on campus that stymy intellectual challenge. In contrast, Kerem suggested that taking the decolonial imperative seriously meant that unsafe spaces had to be opened up, in the sense of making academics confront uncomfortable questions about the who was being taught what and why. One way this is being undertaken at SOAS is through the development of a pedagogical toolkit to support the review of teaching practices, which will soon be made publicly available. This aims to inform module conveners’ decisions when redesigning curricula and advocates decolonisation via critical self-reflection. Questions from the audience focused on how to decolonise curricula in practice and without causing potentially counter-productive backlashes. One suggestion was to introduce different forms of assessments but also to provide more support for students who might be unfamiliar with the expected formats and vernacular of (white, British) universities. It was also emphasised that decolonisation is also a question of access to knowledge and language and that it remains a challenge to include knowledge produced outside academia and/or not in English. The institutional statement by SOAS on its own ‘decolonisation vision’ is available here. Kerem’s book Decolonising the University, co-edited with Gurminder K. Bhambra and Dalia Gebriel, is now out with Pluto Press.

Everyday Life

Dr Lena Rethel and Dr James Brassett, University of Warwick

Lena and James introduced the website and teaching tool I-PEEL: International Political Economy of Everyday Life. I-PEEL features more than 40 “tiles” that reveal articles on everyday objects and practices such as “meat”, “abortion”, and “evictions” and provide accessible entry points to IPE from an everyday perspective. For instance, using the example of the tile on beer, James demonstrated how a closer look at this everyday life object invites students to reflect about fundamental IPE concepts like markets, identity, and resistance. Each tile is written by a different author(s), resulting in a theoretically pluralistic approach to IPE. Tiles use different methods of visualisations and contain suggestions for further reading to enable students to dive deeper into issues of interest. Ideas for the future of I-PEEL include increasing interactions with students and a textbook on facilitating student-led learning.

Participants were particularly interested in learning more about how I-PEEL is used in teaching. So far, it is mostly used as an add-on to existing courses and session, but also as main text in first-year classes. Moreover, students can develop their own tile on an everyday object of their choice as an alternative form of assessment. Suggestions were made to develop an I-PEEL app and to use automatic translators to reach non-Anglophone audiences.

A screen shot of I-PEEL

Early Career Experiences

Dr Sahil Dutta, Goldsmiths University of London

Sahil shared survival strategies for teaching assistants and early career researchers (ECRs). He pointed out the importance of practicing solidarity with your ECR peers and rejecting any ethos of competition. Sahil also stressed the supportive role that could be played by colleagues in more secure and senior positions. Everyday solidarity could be practiced by offering to guest-lecture on modules and through resource-sharing of lecture recordings for example. ECRs can also support their PhD colleagues in a similar way. Sahil talked about the importance of drawing boundaries – e.g. by not attending every departmental seminar – to make time for one’s own research. In addition, while it is important to be open to criticism, lecturers also need to be aware of how some characteristics (age, gender, etc.) are reflected in student evaluations.

Additional suggestions from the audience on how to assist early career academics included being more aware of the role and tasks of teaching assistants and of invisible work and its often gendered nature. One suggestion was to make it an obligation for senior staff to publish with junior staff, once the former have fulfilled their quotas. However, concerns were raised that this can lead to situations in which juniors do the majority of work, while seniors get the credit. Participants also discussed whether to disclose their (precarious) position to their students. While this can create solidarity between students and early career academics, it can also undermine their authority and lead to negative feedback. Participants also suggested introducing sessions about the political economy of the university into IPE modules, which can help to raise awareness of the situation of junior academics. The University and College Union’s campaign ‘Stamp Out Casual Contracts’ has further details on casualisation in the UK’s higher education sector.

Teaching Resistance

Dr Chris Hesketh, Oxford Brookes University

Chris talked about the need for teaching resistance in IPE. He argued that teaching students about the political economy of resistance is a vital part of the social function of universities, by equipping new generations with the toolkit to critique and ultimately transform society. For that reason, teaching resistance should not be an afterthought that is only mentioned in the last session but embedded throughout the entire module. Drawing from examples of both organised forms of resistance like the Zapatistas in Mexico and more spontaneous everyday resistance, he argued that teaching resistance can expand the horizon of the possible by highlighting the multilinear forms of economic development, existing alternatives to capitalism, and more nuanced understandings of terms such as multiculturalism. He concluded that while teaching IPE with and through resistance precludes the presentation of definitive answers, it can serve to raise many critical questions.

The discussion focused on the concept of resistance and on the danger of conceptualising resistance as an inherently positive act. It was asked whether teaching resistance should also recognise, for instance, the existence of reactionary right-wing political acts. Concerns were also raised on how teaching about radicalism can be negotiated in today’s counterterrorism environment, which may make it safer for some students to engage with resistance and radical ideas than for others.

Practices

In the last session, participants shared best practice examples for teaching IPE. Most ideas concerned the introduction of teaching methods that go beyond lectures, presentations and groups discussions. One such intervention is carousel teaching, for which a seminar is split into three groups, supplied with a whiteboard each. Each group writes down three ideas about a different core reading, then moves to the next whiteboard and poses one question about that group’s core reading, before moving on to the last whiteboard to answer the question on the board. Alternatively, games can be used to illustrate and break down core concepts. For instance, a classic public goods game can serve to explain the nature of public goods but can also lead to a critical discussion about game theory and its underlying assumptions. Another idea was to use online tools for quizzes or polling to break up a lecture or to start discussions; a tool like kahoot is highly accessible, quick, and easy to use via smartphones or laptops. Tools such as Socrative can also be used to receive live student feedback and questions during lectures.

Further suggestions included letting students curate an exhibition on a specific topic, staging debates and using drawing as a seminar method (e.g. ask them to draw a unicorn and an economy, comparing the different versions produced of each). One suggestion to go beyond standard forms of assessment was the introduction of a reflexive seminar portfolio that asks students to submit weekly entries on what their learning progress. Finally, participants pointed out the importance of teaching statistical literacy and survey methodology, as well as the ‘hidden curriculum’ – things students are supposed to know but which are hardly explicitly mentioned, and which particularly first-generation students may struggle with (e.g. “What is the purpose of an essay?”, “Who to go to for help?”). Some participants also pointed out the need for a tool for sharing teaching resources effectively, such as a Teaching Political Economy Blog.

Ben Richardson and Anika Heckwolf
Ben Richardson is Associate Professor in International Political Economy in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. His research is on international trade and sustainable development, with a focus on agricultural commodities. He is a co-editor of the website I-PEEL: International Political Economy of Everyday Life. Anika Heckwolf is a recent MA graduate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research has focused on international trade and gender relations.

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