Postgraduates who teach have never had so many tools at their disposal in the seminar room. This offers both great opportunities for engaging students but also potential issues. Indeed, for postgraduates teaching for the first time, the sheer volume of supporting materials and technologies may seem daunting. Here, I would like to discuss three tools often used in undergraduate politics and international relations seminars and reflect on their use, based on my own experience.
PowerPoint is perhaps the most popular supporting teaching technology used in Higher Education. It is a great tool for summarising information and ordering your seminar, which is why almost all postgraduates who teach now use it. Although students often claim that it helps them in their learning process, some studies are sceptical about the pedagogical benefits of PowerPoint in terms of its actual effects on course performance (Weimer 2012).
With regards to the seminar environment, I feel even more reticence is in order. The danger of using Powerpoint in your seminars is providing a second lecture and thus actually hindering the kind of interaction and engagement that you should be seeking to elicit.
For one, you are the one talking and engaging with the course material instead of the other way around. Moreover, students will likely engage with your PowerPoint or with you instead of with each other. Finally, the preset format of a classic PowerPoint may be too rigid for a seminar, where you typically want to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs.
This does not mean that PowerPoint should be categorically banned from seminars. Rather, you need to think about its value added for each particular session and ensure that the presentation contributes to interaction. Simply put, PowerPoint should not be ‘standard operating procedure’.
Thus, a (brief) PowerPoint presentation can be a good way to kick off discussion or introduce a topic. In my experience, the key here is to find ways of engaging students with your presentation. For instance, it helps to directly try and elicit answers or reactions, rather than simply presenting information. This often works well when combined with either of the below tools.
Videos and Images
Videos and other graphic tools are another teaching aid often used in seminars, sometimes as part of a PowerPoint presentation. The usefulness of maps and charts for politics and international politics barely needs discussion, although much like PowerPoint, it is important to keep in mind the function of showing them in the seminar.
Again, instead of presenting supposedly objective information, invite students to critically analyse what they are seeing. Maps and charts are actually a great way of doing this, as they are almost always deeply political, focusing attention on only one or a few issues and excluding others (extreme examples).
Videos are even trickier. On the one hand, there is hardly anything more passive than watching clips, and watching anything too long will kill the dynamic in that students may feel that they no longer ‘own’ the seminar and may be tempted to simply sit back. On the other hand, video images can be very stimulating, engaging, and useful as a starting point for seminar discussions.
The Youtube video below, for instance, brings a political development like decolonisation to life in a dramatic and unique way, whilst giving a face and an image to historical figures and events that students mostly know from lectures and textbooks.
This historical footage (1:17 and onwards) shows the vastly different assessments of colonialism in the minds of coloniser and colonised, seen in the contrast between the Belgian King’s speech that talks of the ‘genius of Leopold II’ (the Belgian King from 1865 to 1909, known for his brutal exploitation of Congo) and the First Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s description of everyday colonial violence.
Needless to say that if you decide to use videos, be sure that the clip flows well (no dull moments) and warn students if there is graphic or potentially distressing content.
The third tool I want to discuss are handouts that are distributed to students. These can either contain a number of questions on the week’s topic, a number of citations from authors or historical persons, a short (1-2 pages) article, or a combination of these. Whilst it may seem counterintuitive to use time in a seminar for reading a text, these materials often prove an excellent way of starting discussion and lend themselves in an excellent way to group work.
Moreover, short articles require students to display critical reading skills, whilst they may also be a useful means by which to connect the topic of the week and academic debates with current events – which politics students are usually interested in – and thereby make the course material more topical. In my experience, it has never been a problem finding a short news article or a first-hand source such as an official speech that links the more abstract course material to current affairs.
Another tool I often use with a colleague is a handout with citations from academic authors. The goal here is not so much testing whether students did their weekly readings, but rather initiating them to a number of key academic discussions. Presenting conflicting academic views is also an excellent way to encourage a more critical approach to established scholars.
A Tailored Approach
It comes as no surprise that the teaching topic should be decisive in determining what supporting tools you will want to use. A seminar in regressive analysis will typically benefit from quite a different teaching approach, and therefore technologies, than one on the gendered discourse of the Cold War. Furthermore, the availability of these teaching tools does not entail any obligation to use them. Some of the best seminars are still those given without any supporting materials.
In sum, the cliché remains true that every teacher will need to reflect on what approach suits his or her style and personality best. Experimenting with different teaching tools may help you with this.
Camille Merlen is the co-editor of this blog series, a member of the BISAPGN Executive Committee, and a PhD Candidate and Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent. He has taught different modules on Political Science and International Relations. His doctoral dissertation focuses on Russian approaches to sovereignty.
Maryellen Weimer, ‘Does PowerPoint Help or Hinder Learning?’, Faculty Focus, 1 August 2012. Available at: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/does-powerpoint-help-or-hinder-learning/.