My most rewarding term of teaching ever

This term has been really hard: I’ve had a great deal of teaching to do, papers to write, and a book to edit – while trying to sell my house (and succeeding), and trying to juggle many other balls (and failing!).

But thankfully, the teaching has been incredibly rewarding, thanks mainly to the calibre and engagement of the students I’m privileged to teach at King’s College London. Most of these students are from my department, the Department of Political Economy, but this year I’ve also been privileged to teach students from Law, Liberal Arts, Management Studies, and even the Social Science, Health and Medicine department.

Here are the teaching highlights:

  • Adrian Blau lecturingsuperb engagement from my first-year ‘Studying Politics’ students. As ever, most students took a bit of time to get the hang of this module, but especially in recent weeks, some of the ideas discussed in the seminars have been incredibly penetrating. My wonderful students are seeing issues and problems in the readings that I and my TAs haven’t spotted before, and the seminar discussions have been fascinating. I’m particularly pleased when students who start off rather shy or reticent end up making some of the most incisive contributions in discussion;
  • some stunning interpretations from my second-year ‘History of Political Thought’ students. My own seminar group has been awesome: I’ve been pushed hard on my readings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau (although I’m not yet convinced by the quantum physics reading of Hobbes!). The essays were superb as well: a quarter of students got Firsts. This is a hard course – one in ten students dropped out in the first few weeks – but the response has been wonderful. If you set the bar high, some students will slink off (to another kind of bar), but most respond very positively;
  • some impressive dissertation drafts, as ever, although I suspect I’ll see even better next term. But again, the engagement is better than I’ve seen before: in the past, about half of my dissertation students have been very much under the radar – this is the first term that I’ve seen every dissertation student regularly;
  • a wonderfully enjoyable MA research design/philosophy of social science module, taken by students on the MA in Public Policy, the MA in Political Economy, and the MSc in Public Services Policy and Management. Each week I’d test their grasp of the ideas with specific research-based exercises, and the quality of suggestions was the best I’ve yet seen;
  • introductory lectures on writing well, in my ‘Academic Writing Skills’ module – DPE is the first department in the university to run a term-long module on academic writing skills, and I know a lot of students in other departments are jealous of this course;
  • great progress from my super PhD students Donald Bello, Irena Schneider, and Elena Ziliotti – all brimming with clever ideas;
  • and bits and bobs of teaching in the Doctoral Training Centre (on research ethics), the Graduate School (on publication strategy and tactics), and some ‘taster’ lectures for school students thinking about studying at King’s.

It’s also been a huge pleasure to work with my outstanding TAs: Alex Chadwick, Simon Kaye, Liz Morrow, and Sarah Wilford.

More generally, the Political Economy community seems more positive than in previous years. My first-year tutees are happier than ever – something in the drinking water?! My colleagues, like me, are tired and overworked, and we know that there’s still ways to improve our teaching; but most students appreciate our efforts (even if most of them have no idea how hard we work, or that we are researchers not just teachers). Our great students respond so well to the way we push them. That means an incredible amount to me.

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Bashing UCL – but only when it’s funny

Bentham lantern UCL smallThere’s meant to be a big rivalry between my university, King’s College London, and UCL. I’ve always found this a bit ridiculous: I have the greatest respect for UCL, and its political science, philosophy and history departments in particular. But I’m very weak-willed, and I’ll do my unfair share of UCL-bashing when it’s funny.

So here, once more, is a short clip of me taking the piss out of UCL in one of my recent standup performances. At UCL.

New DPE students: welcome to King’s College London!

Critical ThinkingIf you’re joining the Department of Political Economy (DPE) as a new undergraduate student in September 2015: welcome!

I’m one of your lecturers, and here are two (optional) preparatory readings you might find helpful, for two different modules which I convene.

4SSPP101 Studying Politics

Studying Politics is a core module taken by all students on the Politics programme and the Political Economy programme. It’s designed to empower you to think rigorously and critically about the politics research you’ll read at university. Reading 1 is the first 20 pages of Jon Elster’s book Explaining Social Behavior (2007), which gives a great sense of how to think like a social scientist. One of the most important things you’ll learn at university is the importance of thinking like a researcher, not just like a student. We want to encourage you to criticise what you read, not just make notes on it. To be critical, you will need to understand the choices that researchers make and what they could have done differently – and we will give you the tools to do this.

Students on the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) programme don’t take this module – but you’ll still find Elster’s article interesting and useful if you want to read it, because the ideas in it apply to other modules you’ll take.

Academic Writing Skills

This is an optional module offered to all students taking the Politics programme, the Political Economy Programme, the PPE programme, and the Politics, Philosophy and Law (PPL) programme. My department is the first in the university to run a term-long course like this. It gives you guidance on how to write better university essays. Reading 2 gives a lot of practical advice about studying at university, including the important of not being too trusting about what your lecturers and seminar tutors say! (We expect you to be critical of us, not just of what you read, of each other, and of yourselves.) Especially if you’re a bit worried or unsure about what to expect at uni, this chapter will give you a flavour of studying politics at university.

Looking forward to meeting you in September!

How the King’s College London rebrand could have succeeded

King’s College London has accepted defeat over the botched effort to rebrand it as “King’s London”. But the plan needn’t have failed. Here’s how the rebranding company could have sold it.

(1) Establish the idea of change, by pointing out how amateurish the current logo looks. It looks like it was designed in Microsoft Word, and was: I made logos like that in my student journalist days.

KCL logo

The current logo

(2) Establish the idea that we are behind the times, by pointing out that every other big London university institution has rebranded in the near or distant past, or is not called by its legal title:

the LSE (not the London School of Economics and Political Science);

UCL (only rarely called University College London);

SOAS (not the School of Oriental and African Studies);

Birkbeck (not Birkbeck College);

Imperial (legally The Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine);

Queen Mary (no longer Queen Mary College);

Royal Holloway (no longer Royal Holloway and Bedford New College); and

Goldsmiths (which dropped “College” in 2006).

(3) Provide evidence that “college” is confusing. For example, in North America a “college” is usually known as a trade/vocational training centre and is a “lesser” institution than a university [UPDATE: Mike Otsuka corrects me on this point in his Comment below]. (I’m still unconvinced that “college” is so confusing, but I’d have listened to evidence if the rebranding company had offered it.)

(4) Give actual quotations from the focus groups showing how confusing people some find “college”. Most of us laughed when told that people couldn’t understand “college”; concrete examples might have changed our minds.

(5) Give survey evidence that the LSE and UCL have better name recognition than King’s College London (if it’s true).

(6) Make a logo that looks good. This is the sine qua non, which is Latin for “do this or we want our money back”.

The proposed logo

The proposed logo: ahahahah

(7) Since lots of people are conservative, point out that most of us initially sneered at the London Olympics logo but liked it in the end.

(8) Get the KCL Student Union on side. (This was done, but when student outrage became apparent, the Student Union did a great impression of an embarrassing backtrack.)

(9) Coordinate the announcement so that the rebrand doesn’t leak early.

(10) Imply that this is a bargain: e.g. if it cost £300,000, this is equivalent to about 20 new overseas MA students who wouldn’t have come under the old name. (OK, the calculation’s not that simple, but suggest that by spending some money we’ll get far more back.)

I’m not saying that this would have worked, but it would have had a chance.

An open letter to the Principal of King’s College London, about the proposed rebranding

Here is the text of an open letter which I have just sent to the Principal of King’s College London, about the proposed rebranding by which we would be known as King’s London.

 


Dear Principal,

A College has a collegiate ethos, but many of us feel that this has been overlooked by the rebranding company in their incomplete consultation process.

​Their proposed rebrand has caused dismay. No one seems convinced by their reasoning about dropping ‘College’ from our name. The letter K in the alleged new logo looks broken and weak, as if we are trying to sneak our foot into London.

broken K logo

The changes are disliked not only by current staff and students but also by alumni. Yes, we must look to the future, but we cannot ignore our past.

I hope this email is not impertinent. But I have been moved to send it because of my pride in this university, on a day when our outstanding results in the 2014 REF show what we can achieve — with our present name!

Your sincerely,

Adrian Blau

 

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Dr Adrian Blau
Senior Lecturer in Politics
Department of Political Economy
King’s College London
London WC2R 2LS