Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Teaching in the Age of Corona, Update

Last year, at this time, I wrote about my first experiences in the new online teaching free-for-all era.  Besides no longer using Corona, what else have I learned from teaching online? [Note, I have only taught five classes so my observations are based on impressions and thin anecdata]

  1. It does not have to suck.  The big difference between last spring vs last fall and this winter is that we had no prep time, not chance to design syllabi, no chance to get much instruction or help.  Most of my friends have now put a lot of time into thinking about and then preparing online classes.  Online higher education does not have to suck or be miserable.  It can be, but it is not inevitable.
  2. Whether it is close enough to face to face really depends on class size but not in the way I thought.  
    • Smaller virtual classes are actually closer to the face to face experience.  Carleton asked what we wanted to do in the fall, and my small dissertation proposal class pretty much all wanted to stay online.  That might be due to the class meeting at night.  My MA class was not as enthused.  However, my experience teaching a seminar of 12-16 has been pretty pleasant.  It has worked in part because I keep it shorter and because the students have mostly kept their cameras on.  If they all turned their cameras off, well, it would definitely be harder to get a sense of the room.
    • Larger virtual classes tend to require asynchronicity as more people mean more people can't be on at the same time.  Some might say that a large lecture class in person is not that different from lecturing via videos.  No, it is not.  I had no sense last fall of what the students were getting despite the best efforts of fantastic TAs to keep the pulse of the class.  I could not adjust on the fly, I could not refer to current events (very important for an IR class), and it did seem like students were fading away.  I recorded 15 minute videos, and it was a pretty clear pattern that for each week, most students watched the first one, 2/3's watched the second, and 1/3 watched the third.  I put a lot of work into teaching online last fall, and I am sure the students had an inferior experience compared to when I did less work but was able to walk in, revise on the fly, and engage a large crowd in person.
    • The problem here, of course, is that smaller classes will return to face to face sooner than big ones, but it may just be the big ones that need it the most.  Of course, your mileage may vary.
  3. There is no way to square the circle of assessments.  The experts tell us that it is better to have more smaller stakes assignments on a regular basis than a few big ones.  Our students tell us that they have a lot of assignments from all of their classes, and it creates tremendous pressure.  It does keep most involved, but perhaps that advice worked well for online teaching when there was not a pandemic.  Pandemic plus a steady drumbeat of assignments was not as kind as we thought it would be.  
  4. On the bright side, the combo of pass/fail assignments with a few graded ones means grade inflation! Woot!  
  5. Seriously though, given the pressures facing the students, I have been far more flexible about extensions, far more lenient about late assignments, and just as tough as ever on plagiarism.  I have had more students cry in my virtual office this past year than in my real office over the past ten years.  I have no doubt that for many of my students, this has been the toughest year of their lives with family getting ill, with all of the support mechanisms and survival strategies that involve hanging with others cut off, with their present on ice and their futures more uncertain than ever.  The stress of the past year has been as palpable as the stress of the old job placement rooms at APSAs long ago.

There is no one correct way to teach during a pandemic.  People should play to their strengths and be flexible and pragmatic.  I actually don't mind staying online for smaller seminars in the fall.  If I ever get the chance to lecture a large class again, I will want it to be in person.  Doing the apple/orange/frisbee thing just ain't the same without real students to throw fruit at. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Quarantine Report, Week 54: Springing Into A Third Wave

 Spring is here, as is the predicted third wave.  This is an early spring for us, as the snow is almost entirely gone a month before it usually melts away.  I moved my sporting equipment around last weekend--winter stuff back in the basement storage, bike off of the wall--and biked around a bit.  It was definitely a relief to be able to get out and about without layers of winter clothing.  And, yes, thoughts are turning to summer ultimate as I seek a Wednesday team, am thrilled at the development of a Sunday league for the middle aged (Masters) and elderly (Grandmasters).  I am getting to the point where a Great-Grandmasters league would be super handy, but yet I am aspiring to play three days a week.  We shall see if I can manage that, but I desperately  need the silliness and the fun and the camaraderie.  

It was a superbusy week in CDSN-land.  We had our Capstone event, which featured the best of 2020 from our partners.  I am very proud of our team and our partners, as the event went very well even as we didn't get the chance to hang out in person.  I had multiple meetings aimed at improving the network this week, we put out another podcast, and I got to present some of our COVID Response research on Friday at the Faculty of Public Affairs's research series along with other contributors to an edited volume.  

On the publication front, I got another rejection, but with really positive feedback from two of the three reviewers.  So, we will resubmit elsewhere.  This is normal when one aims for the top.  It ain't heartbreaking, and this one wasn't even that frustrating.  As I keep saying, rejection is inherent in our enterprise.

In teaching land, my Civ-Mil class shifted from collective conversations about the readings to student presentations of their research.  This usually means less work for me since I don't have to do any reading before class BUT this year happens to be "change your topic a week before the presentation" class.  So, I have been meeting with students as they try to shift at the last minute.  The same thing has hit some of the PhD students as they work on their proposals.  Makes more sense in that class since we have moved that class from first half of third year into second half of second year.  It is also the season for students to ask for feedback on their master's research project, which is due April 1st.  So, heaps of reading for all these days.

On the pandemic homefront, most Saidemans are now vaxxed at least once except for my daughter and two nieces, Mrs. Spew, and me.  My mother can now scoot out and about and be social and shop on her own after a year of being trapped in her apartment--a huge relief for all of us.  I made Hawaiian buns that worked out pretty well, so that is the new baking effort.  Today, I will make Detroit style pizza, which involves a heap of dough and rising.  

Thanks to Biden doing mostly pretty well, I can save most of my anger for Doug Ford, my premier (governor).  Ontario is actually opening things up even as the third wave is hitting the hospitals really hard--they hadn't really recovered from the second wave.  About a month ago, there was a provincial health press conference, where the doctors were describing the likely effects of the variants--huge spikes to come--and also announcing openings.  A reporter asked "this sounds like a disaster," and the doctor said ... yeah.  And here we are.  Canadian vaccinations are behind American ones (no domestic production) and being mismanaged by the provinces.  Federalism is definitely both boon and bane here, and with Ford, mostly bane these days.  I don't expect to get vaccinated until June.  Carleton did ask about teaching preferences for this fall.  Since I can't really expect the students to get shots before classes start, I asked for online.  We shall see what Carleton does.  They have consistently made the right, safe decisions, but not sure what that looks like in the fall. 

Time to read more MA stuff.  Have a great week!

Friday, March 26, 2021

Capstone 2021 Featuring the Best of Canadian Defence and Security

 This week we held our second annual CDSN Capstone Seminar.  We held the first one in Toronto at the Canadian Forces College.  This year, alas, we had to do it online, but it came off very well (we will be posting at our CDSN Youtube channel soon).  Again, the idea of this event is to have our partners nominate their best presenters from the year before so that we can both give these mostly younger scholars and policy analysts a bigger platform and give our partners a chance to have their events exist beyond the day and place they held them.  

This year's event featured speakers from the Dallaire Centre of Excellence for Peace and Security, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network, Project Ploughshares, Archipelago, Defence Security Innovation Hub, and the CDSN's own post-doc program.  For bios and more info (and ultimately some links to their work), go here:  

We had our two Undergraduate Excellence Scholars, Ozan Ayata and Stella-Luna Ha, introduce the panels, and then I moderated the Q&A for each panel.  We started with Vanessa Brown of the Canadian Defence Academy, who shared her experiences teaching critical theory to the officers attending the Canadian Forces College.  She found that the students responded better than one might expect to naming the patriarchy.  Linna Tam-Seto, who spent her Post-Doc at Queen's University, presented her research on mentoring women in the Canadian Armed Forces.  She noted that there is no formal training for mentors and that there is much confusion due to cultural differences and also gender dynamics.  Stephanie Houle of the University of Ottawa discussed moral injury, which was a new concept to me: Moral injury refer to psycho-spiritual consequences that violate one's core moral beliefs/expectations Witnessing/failing to prevent/experiencing morally ambiguous situations, atrocities, betrayal.  And it is pretty prevalent among those who have served.  It is not the same as PTSD and requires different preventative and restorative measures.  Peter Kikkert of St. Francis Academy presented on the Canadian Rangers, which are individuals that work as part of units based in the north, on a variety of missions.  Because they live in the communities that they protect and assist, they have good connections and play an important role in assessing potential hazards.

The second panel started with Sarah Shoker of the U of Waterloo.  She discussed the challenges of using artificial intelligence in targeting systems.  The key challenge is how to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, and, given how badly this is done by humans (all males of a certain age?), the adage of garbage in, garbage out applies to AI.  Donna Dupont of PurpleCompass went next, arguing that we need to shift paradigms.  She had the best figures to illustrate her arguments-->

She went on to discuss the future--that combines known unknowns and unknown unknowns:



Finally, Marek Szeles presented the Digital Triage Assistant, which his team has been working on, to provide battlefield medics and commanders with real-time data of the health of their troops.

The future is here, apparently, as this seemed like something out of science fiction.  He also had a cool video simulation.

I learned a lot from the two panels, as each Capstone Laureate presented important, cutting edge research.  The fields of study were wide-ranging, which was most apt, given how the CDSN has a variety of streams of research.  I wish we should have gotten together in person, but we managed to have a compelling and enlightening event even at a distance.

I am very thankful Stephanie Plante, Melissa Jennings, Paxton Meyer, Vincent Belanger, Evelyne   and Graeme Hopkins of the CDSN HQ did all of the planning, budgeting, arranging, and social media-ing.  I am very proud of my team and very grateful to all of the CDSN partners who helped make our second CDSN Capstone event such a success.





Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Outbidding Has Begun

 This week, I tweeted about how the upcoming primary races in the GOP will be outbidding contests.  I want to explain what I meant and suggest that it is already a thing.  The reason why this is important is that ethnic outbidding fosters violence, whether the outbidders win or lose.  

For me, it goes back to Donald Horowitz's Ethnic Groups in Conflict.  But others observed the basic dynamics as well.  When you have a homogeneous party compete with a heterogeneous one, the competition with the homogeneous party will push the candidates to make more and more extreme claims to be the best defender of that group.  I always referred to Sri Lanka, as it was seen as a likely case for democracy and such after the British left.  But over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, the Sinhalese politicians who competed for 90% (more or less) of the vote learned to appeal to the Sinhalese population of Sri Lanka by targeting policies against the Tamil minority.  Each election became, in essence, an auction for the parties to make the highest bid--how best to oppress the minority.  In such auctions, moderation tends to get punished by voters.  

The Republican Party, since the realignment of the 1960s in response to resentment towards the civil rights movement, has become increasingly homogeneous -- the party of white Christians.  The Democrats are the heterogeneous party, with many ethnic, religious, and racial groups supporting it.  Sure, you get various individuals from minority groups voting GOP, but the vast majority are white.  And, of course, the big question is: who shows up in primaries?  The development of safe seats due to gerrymandering and sorting (people moving to where they feel comfy) has meant that the dynamic of politicians moving to the center during the general election is no longer so relevant or so strong.  Instead, candidates and incumbents worry about who is on their flanks during the primaries.  Why?  Because the most enthusiastic folks tend to show up in primaries and they happen to be right wing folks for the GOP and left wing folks for the Dems. We saw the GOP move further to the right in the 1990s as Gingrich and others focused on eliminating RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and punishing folks who reached across the aisle.  

Fast forward to 2016: about 20 candidates are running for President, and one of them is making the bluntest, most naked appeals to white supremacy--Trump--and the rest are too scared of alienating that part of the Republican base to confront Trump.  They hoped he would self-destruct (and he tried mightily), with the last survivor picking up that part of the base.  That was definitely Ted Cruz's strategy.  And, yes, that Ted Cruz was the second strongest candidate in 2016 says much about the contemporary Republican party.

With a nakedly white supremacist Republican administration, opposition within the party mostly died.  Instead, Republicans feared that Trump would punish any opposition, any effort to compromise or moderate, by supporting candidates to primary incumbents.  So, in 2020, we got QAnon types running, pushing the Republican incumbents to either support the furthest right-wing stances or stay silent.  Those incumbents who recognized Biden's election early faced not just the likelihood of being primaried but also threats directed against them and their families.

Now, you have many Republicans who will say that Biden is the President but not say that he won the election fairly.  This is all about anticipating the next set of primaries.  The only people in the GOP now that do not fear being outflanked on the right in the next primaries are those who are retiring or those who are already very far out there (Romney is a semi-exception).  So, the outbidding has already begun--we already have politicians fearing being outflanked, so they are taking extreme stances, which undermine US democracy and incite violence.

Of course, there is another actor in all of this: Fox.  Fox has become more and more consistent in voicing the far right.  Tucker Carlson now sets the agenda for the entire network, as the latest episode of the Press Box podcast makes clear.  The question these days is which pieces that appear on the network aren't white supremacist and far right.  And yet Fox faces outbidding pressures as well.  They worry about losing market share to Newsmax and OANN, which are yet further to the right.

As a contrast, the Dems are very much a heterogeneous party, which can drive people crazy as it is never doing what all members of the party wants.  But note that their primary in 2020 was not about who belongs in the party, not really, but about, dare I say it, electability and policy issues.  A white supremacist stance would have alienated key voters.  There was not even a Clinton-esque Sista Souljah moment to prove that a candidate was sufficiently friendly to white folks.  Instead, ironically, the Black women of South Carolina looked around and realized that it was better to have a bland white dude run and win than a Black candidate (Harris or Booker) or a woman (Harris or Warren or Klobuchar or etc.).  

The GOP's ethnic outbidding has hurt the Dems by peeling off white voters.  But as the country gets increasingly diverse, the GOP electorate gets relatively smaller, which means that the Republicans face a difficult choice: become less white supremacist and reach out to other ethnic groups OR double down by stopping immigration and suppressing the votes of non-whites.  And, yes, they have chosen the latter even though GOP performance among Latinos suggests another way to go.  But who is going to show up in primaries: these conservative Latinos or the white supremacists?

The only choice is to game the system, and that is what they are doing now.  Which means that the Dems must do everything they can to prevent that from happening including killing the filibuster at least on voting rights issues, if not everything else.  

And, yes, the GOP and Fox will continue to incite violence and then blame mental health (despite not pushing for funding for mental health efforts) when white dudes kill women, non-white people, and non-Christians.  Alas, we are in for more violence, not less. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Democratic Backsliding and the US: A West Coast Roundtable

 Yesterday, I was part of a roundtable held by Simon Fraser University, which is located in Vancouver, on the erosion of democracy with a focus on the US.  I was joined by Jean Lachapelle of the University of of Gothenburg and Dietlind Stolle of McGill.  Dietlind and I started at McGill at the same time so it was nice to hang with her.  I live tweeted the event, but I wanted to summarize what they said and what I said here.

Jean is part of the V-Dem project, which measures democracy around the world.  He showed a variety of trends, including how the US's score has been in decline after rising in the 1960s and 1970's.  He focused on the role of parties and polarization.  That backsliding happens when major parties act to undermine democracy.  He was generalizing from a variety of places, like Hungary, but it very much spoke to the US case.  Indeed, in the various figures, the US tended to be closer to Hungary, Brazil, and the like than to democracies to whom we would prefer to be compared.  And then when he focused on parties, the GOP ended up being quite close to Hungary's Fidesz, to India's Hindu Nationalist Party [BJP], and the like.  The Dems moved a smidge, but in most figures stayed on the pluralist, democratic end of the spectrum.  Which meant that the US story is one of asymmetric polarization--that the GOP went nuts and the Dems have not.

Dietlind is a specialist on attitudes, so she discussed survey results of where Americans stand on the issues of democratic backsliding, particularly executive aggrandizement.  She showed that Republicans are generally more supportive of executive aggrandizement than Democrats. She discussed how the generally higher support by Republicans also stands out comparatively and is in part due to elite mobilization (aka Trump). She also showed that Dems support democratic backsliding as well, but only when an important policy is at stake (e.g. abortion, or lockdown). 

What did I say?  Well, here are my slides:

I started by noting that the backsliding of most democracies has not been caused by their armed forces.  There have not been coups in most of the cases that we are discussing: US, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, India, etc.  Turkey is the exception to be discussed below.
I, of course, discussed that the events on Jan 6 were not a coup--that individuals from the US military participated but not elements of the military itself.

I then discussed the bad: that if we like our militaries, we can't hope for them to save us.  That militaries can't stop the backsliding since the backsliding is due to the stuff happening within and between parties.  Nicely connects with Jean's arguments.  Asking the military to help is actually bad.  I did note that coup attempts can make things worse, as the Turkish example illustrates.

I then discussed the erosion of the norms of civil-military relations, which referred to the appointments of retired generals as SecDefs, Trump referring to his generals, and Trump politicizing the military by having partisan speeches with military folks as the backdrop.  I pointed out that the real troubling thing regarding the military and Jan 6th is it has helped to remind us how white supremacist organizations are infiltrating the armed forces and the role of vets in far right terrorist organizations.  Plus how everyone wants to dress up like Special Operations folks.

I then had to conclude with a Star Wars reference

But that was not the end, as we had a good q&a.  Since I basically argued that my topic, civ-mil, was not so relevant, I made myself obsolete.  But did that stop me from talking?  Hells no.  When we were asked about where US asymmetric polarization came from, I discussed how it was a GOP-led thing from Gingrich to McConnell with a soupcon of bottom up (sort of) tea party along the way.  I did rant a bit about the asymmetry and the temptation by the media to run their false equivalence machines.  That the Dems want to expand the franchise and the GOP wants to limit it, and the latter is obviously the anti-democratic move.  As I have said before, #voterfraudfraud is an abomination.