Two weeks into the term and my experiment with instant feedback cards, they are beginning to have some effect on the shape of the course, and maybe even to give insights into how students are synthesising material in the different courses they take.
The two main courses I’m delivering this semester are a course on the theory and practice of social research and a longer course on nations, identity and power where students apply theory to cases from the region that this School studies. Many students on social sciences tracks choose to or need to take the social research course, while the course on nations, identity and power appeals to students with interests in politics and nationalism.
The overlap in students taking both these courses is a big help for remembering names, and also gives me twice as many opportunities a week to think about how their learning is progressing.
After the first social research lecture, I realised the point that most students had found ‘least clear’ was the idea of anti-foundationalist thought. (Well they might, since anti-foundationalism doesn’t leave anything to grasp.) At the next lecture, I tried to provide more – one provocative (Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalist take on good and evil) and one probably less so (the interpretive way that Mark Bevir and R. A. W. Rhodes approach policy networks in political science).
The next day, I was lecturing to the Nations/Identity/Power class on ‘what makes the nation?’. This week’s focus was on approaches to the study of ethnicity: attempts to typologise features of ethnicity, versus constructivist accounts that problematise identity and group formation.
The most extreme example of constructivism I wanted to introduce was work on ethnicity by Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at UCLA. Brubaker, put simply, rejects the common-sense idea that researchers in ethnicity should be studying groups (his last theoretical book was even called Ethnicity Without Groups). Instead, we should be studying the practices and processes that make people consider they belong to groups. It’s all right for group members to believe that they belong to groups; researchers with their professional hats on should not.
But we all know groups exist. We know that we belong to groups. Don’t we?
I wanted to introduce this now so that students would begin to ask the question, even if they find Brubaker too counter-intuitive to agree with. It’s helpful as an intellectual exercise in taking nothing for granted (I gave an illustration of some of the bureaucratic, financial, legal, social, hospitality-related and linguistic practices that might operate to produce the ‘groupness’ of belonging to the collectivity ‘UCL students’). Because I know grasping anti-foundationalism has been an issue for some students in the other course, I added that, for those who are taking Theory and Practice of Social Research at the same time, Brubaker is an example of anti-foundationalist thought.
Which made me very pleased, after I’d collected the feedback cards from the ethnicity lecture, to find out someone had found ‘Brubaker’s anti-foundationalist ideas’ the clearest thing of all.
This may not be the same person who said they’d had trouble understanding anti-foundationalism in week 1. The cards are anonymous, I don’t take much account of handwriting, and I don’t use them as a way to track individual progress from week to week.
It’s still evidence that students are learning actively by applying their knowledge from one course to another, my teaching has had some intellectual coherence across courses, and that a difficult concept may be starting to sink in as students use it in different ways.
I could have found this out in a seminar if the discussion had gone in that direction (although, conscious that students don’t necessarily take both courses, I’d have been unlikely to lead it there myself). As it is, I’m able to observe this from the feedback cards.
The cards also work as a way for students to make brief ‘off-topic’ comments about classroom management or seminar structure (such as one thing that always trips me up: when and where is the best point to put out the sign-in sheet?). Someone took the opportunity to suggest a further primary source I might like to use as a case study in the nationalism course. I enjoy these, and I enjoy having had at least one moment of interaction with every person in a group 40-60 strong.
I just wish the institution where I’m using them had an easy way to recycle them (unlike my other institution, which recycles everything – apart from glass). The paper recycling points in our print rooms only accept white printer paper, so I have been throwing a shocking number of plain white cards away.
Time to plan a simulation that will take up a lot of place cards, maybe?