Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 threw into question many of the assumptions that traditionally underpinned the academic study of American politics.
How could a presidential candidate with no prior political experience, a man that had seemingly gone out of his way to denigrate almost every major electoral constituency within the U.S., and that had raised significantly less money than his opponent, go on to claim the electoral college?
Trump’s unlikely election encouraged me to reflect on two aspects of my teaching as a postgraduate: what I could do to recalibrate my American politics seminars to better meet the challenges of ‘Post-Truth’ politics; and what new teaching practices I could integrate to better equip my students to understand this phenomenon beyond the class-room.
In short, Trump’s election forced me to reflect on not only how I taught as a postgraduate but what the purpose of my seminars were.
In this blog-post, I want to briefly discuss the role that critical reflection can play in your teaching as a postgraduate, and how I incorporated the practice into my own teaching.
What is critical reflection?
The benefits of becoming a critically reflective teacher have been espoused by a number of scholars. These include Larrivee (2000), Brookfield (2017) and Scales and Kelly (2012).
One core focus of this approach is the recognition that there is no objectively ‘best’ approach to teaching, and that it is important to be flexible. As Larrivee (2000, p.294) clearly spells out:
‘When teachers become reflective practitioners, they move beyond a knowledge base of discrete skills to a stage where they integrate and modify skills to fit specific contexts, and eventually, to a point where the skills are internalized enabling them to invent new strategies. They develop the necessary sense of self-efficacy to create personal solutions to problems.’
Within the context of teaching as a postgraduate, ‘reflection’ can be understood to have several tangible properties. It is deliberate, purposeful, structured and concerned with the practical application of teaching theory. In this respect, it encourages us to engage with the larger pedagogical debates which, whilst at times seemingly alien to us as postgraduates, enable us to develop our teaching practices. It also encourages us to make the most of any training opportunities that your department may offer, particularly The Higher Education Academy qualifications.
Central to becoming a critically reflective teacher, then, is a personal commitment to developing your own teaching practices and taking personal responsibility for this process. In this vein, Larrivee (2000, pp.296-298) has identified three ‘essential practices’ for critically reflective teachers which are worth thinking about:
(1) Making time for self-reflection;
(2) Adopting a problem-solving approach to the teaching challenges we inevitably confront;
(3) And being willing to change our existing teaching practices to fit changes in the learning environment.
Critical reflection in practice
After Trump’s election, the three ‘essential practices’ of critical reflection identified by Larrivee were crucial to my changes in how I taught my seminars and what I aimed to accomplish in doing so.
Between seminars and writing my thesis, usually over a coffee, I would reflect on any feedback I had received from students and my module convenor, and whatever the latest political developments in ‘Trump-land’ may have been that week. I would then ask myself how I could revise my seminar provision to incorporate these into next week’s session.
As is common with many postgraduates who teach, I came to realise that, rather than providing my students the maximum amount of time to develop their own understanding of the course material, I sometimes spent too long providing my own interpretation of it. This, in some instances, changed the dynamic of the seminars from active to more passive learning.
Recognising this, I revised the format of my seminars to ensure that what whilst we would go over the core concepts and theoretical issues as a group to provide a shared conceptual and theoretical foundation for our discussion; I would try (whenever possible) to integrate primary source material into my seminars. This included policy documents like the Trump campaign’s fact sheet on his ‘pro-growth economic policy’ and ‘Immigration reform that will make America great again’, as well as YouTube videos of his campaign speeches.
Students would then be given time to reflect and individually engage with these primary documents, thus actively developing their own opinion and understanding of it. These would then be discussed in small groups before we would, as an entire seminar, conclude in a plenary session where I encourage every student to speak. I found that redesigning my seminars in this way, and facilitating rather than leading the discussion, not only promoted greater diversity in terms of which students spoke, but also in terms of different interpretations of Trump’s presidency.
Through my critical reflections I also came to realise that, when it came to the rise of ‘Fake-News’, I knew colleagues who were better placed to communicate and explain this development to my students. Accordingly, I arranged for an external speaker – an practicing broadcast journalist who also worked as a Lecturer in Television and Multimedia Journalism – to deliver a guest seminar on the media in American politics. These sessions were run in the form of an interactive roundtable discussion, and enabled my students to explore the course material in a greater depth than would have otherwise be possible. Because the session was semi-structured, and recommended readings had been sent out the week previously, it also encouraged my students to take individual ownership of their learning experience and explore, via the intermediary of an expert, the areas of Fake-News which they were most interested in.
Coming back to Larrivee’s framework then, by taking time out to critically reflect on my seminar provision and then being willing to act on this, I took positive steps to encourage my students to develop their own understanding of Trump’s presidency and share those with others in the class.
As I have hoped to have shown, adopting some of the practices of critical reflection can help develop your teaching as a postgraduate. Many disciplines are unlikely to have a single event call into question many of their traditional assumptions as was the case with American politics following Trump’s election. There are, similarly, limits to what critical reflection can accomplish – after all, as Donald Rumsfeld once famously remarked, there are both ‘known unknowns’ (things that we know we don’t know) and ‘unknown unknowns’ (things we don’t know that we didn’t know). Critical reflection cannot help you identify ‘unknown unknowns’- we need others for that.
This being said, taking time to reflect on how you teach as a postgraduate and then acting to address any potential shortcomings can help improve the teaching experience for both yourself and, more importantly, your students.
Tom Watts is the current chair of the BISA PGN and co-editor of this blog-series on teaching. He has taught on several modules at the University of Kent and in 2017 won the Social Science Seminar Leader prize for his teaching on the PO617 American Politics and Society Module. His research explores what the Obama administration’s military response to al-Qaeda’s affiliates tells us about the goals and means of U.S. counterterrorism operations in non-battlefield theatres.
Larrivee, B. (2000). Transforming teaching practice: Becoming the critically reflective teacher. Reflective practice, 1(3), 293-307.
Brookfield, S. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. John Wiley & Sons.
Scales, P., & Kelly, S. P. S. L. B. (2012). Teaching in the lifelong learning sector. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).