Designing Modules: Part One

Happy 2018 everyone! I really need to get better at blogging more frequently, but as many of you will already know, when the semester is in full swing, you have admin to do, and deadlines to meet, anything that can get pushed down the to-do list will get the shove. Blogging, sadly, is at times something of a luxury.

At any rate, I’m here now, and am writing a post in response to a special request from a friend and colleague: how to design a module. This is a really important topic for those of us at the early career stage, as we are frequently asked at interviews how we would teach our research if given the opportunity, and while the interview setting does not give you the opportunity to go into any real detail, working through the details yourself will enable you to give a well thought out answer to this question, and even enable you to provide a full syllabus should the opportunity present itself. I’ve designed two of the modules that I currently teach – Refugees and International Relations, and Contemporary Political Theory. I designed the Refugees and IR module when I was doing my PhD – mostly as an intellectual exercise, but I liked what I came up with, thought it would fill a gap in the School’s offerings, and so asked to be able to teach it. The Contemporary Political Theory module I designed during semester 2 (2016/2017) and have just finished teaching it for the first time.

In this first post I will focus on some important issues that you should bear in mind when you first start thinking about how to turn your research into a module that you can teach (focused on undergraduate teaching, as that is where my experience in module design has been thus far). The second post will then turn to some specifics around structure and assessment, and use some examples from my own modules.

Research-Driven Teaching. Or, How do I turn my research into a module?

“Research-driven teaching” is the mantra of almost all UK universities, and is a primary way in which universities market themselves. Luckily, here at St Andrews, we really do get to do this as each of us in the School of IR is given the freedom to design new modules that are related to our own research interests. But, the question is, of course, what is meant by “research-driven teaching”? And how can you, as a PhD student nearing completion, or an early career researcher, turn your research into a module?

The first thing that you need to give some serious thought to is the degree to which your specific research project – your PhD or your post-doc project – is likely to work as a module in its own right. In my view it is rarely going to be the case that you can simply turn your PhD project into a module. This isn’t because your PhD project isn’t interesting or important. It is. But a PhD research project serves a particular purpose: to contribute new knowledge on the topic within which your own project is situated, and this new knowledge may well be highly specific and highly targeted. Further, the ‘audience’ for your PhD project is the other scholars in your field, who already possess a certain level of understanding and expertise on this same topic.  Neither of these things hold for an undergraduate module – I’d argue that they may not hold for a postgraduate module either, but this post relates specifically to undergraduate modules. Furthermore, it will have taken you 3 to 4 years of constant research to reach the stage where you can make this contribution. How feasible is it, really, to turn 3 or 4 years of work into a 10 or 11 week module?

Therefore, you are unlikely to produce a useful and compelling module simply by turning the table of contents of your thesis into the structure of a module, the chapters into lectures, and your bibliography into the reading list. How, then, can you approach designing a module on the basis of your research? In my experience, it is helpful to approach this simultaneously from two sides: on the one hand, you have your research (interests), and on the other you have the programme that you are designing a module for. While neither of these should be privileged over the other, let’s address each side separately.

Side One: Your Research (Interests)

Rather than trying to turn your PhD project, or your post-doc project, into a module, it may be more helpful to begin by thinking about the broader topic within which your project is situated. What are the questions that motivate your PhD? What is it about your field that prompted you to engage in your research in the first place? In my case, there were three main issues that I felt needed to be addressed in understanding the refugee problem, why we cannot seem to ‘solve’ it, and the problematic way in which refugees are thought and spoken about in political discourse. This is the abstract for my PhD:

This thesis makes a historically grounded theoretical contribution to an emerging “critical” approach to refugee studies. Utilising the insights of Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, it seeks to reconceptualise academic and policy understandings of what has come to be known as “the refugee problem” through an examination and critique of its (implicit) conceptual foundations. The thesis proceeds through a series of historically-informed moves oriented by the relationship between power, subjectivity, and agency, and argues that the key to reconceptualising the refugee problem lies in understanding how these three concepts rely upon and reinforce one another in a particular historically contingent configuration. The objectives of this thesis are threefold and connected. First, it unpacks a deceptively unproblematic term, “the refugee problem” to reveal the complicity of understanding the “refugee (as) problem” in perpetuating the plight of increasing numbers of the world’s population, despite the alleviation of the difficulties these people face being the professed goal of the refugee regime. Second, in so doing it contributes to a growing body of literature seeking to counter the voicelessness and abjection into which refugees and asylum seekers are cast. And third, on the basis of this, to begin a conversation about rethinking the nature of the “solutions” we seek to a reframed “refugee problem.” Engaging in a (Foucaultian) genealogical analysis of “the refugee problem”, the first half of the thesis charts the historically-contingent development of a distinct “refugee problem discourse”, revealing that the construction of refugees as passive victims of political forces is the effect both of such discourse and of the international refugee regime as a classificatory regime of truth and subjectivity, rather than an expression of any essential nature of “the refugee.” The thesis then turns to Hannah Arendt’s work as a theoretical lens through which to reframe our understanding of the “refugee problem” and to investigate how to identify and open up creative forces for re-subjectification processes and “solutions” not tied to the classificatory and subjectivising logic of the refugee regime or sovereign state system.  Practices of rights claiming, and the City of Sanctuary movement in the UK are examined as two such processes, with the potential of posing “counter-narratives” of problems and solutions which challenge the technocratic, or population-management, approach of the refugee regime.

If I were to have this as the description of a module I would be faced in Week 1 with some very confused and concerned students – if I had any students at all!. Let’s see if translating it helps.

One of the biggest driving forces behind, and in, my PhD research was the comparative lack of historical analysis in academic work on “the refugee problem”. Refugee Studies has rarely engaged with historical questions, and my thesis was in part driven by the belief that an understanding of how the problem has developed is important for understanding why the solutions we have come up with to address it do not seem to work. My thesis was, in part, an effort to provide a historically-grounded analysis of “the refugee problem”. Second, refugees, and other forced migrants, are often spoken about in ways that dehumanise them, victimise them, or infantilise them. They are “threats”, “security risks”, “helpless victims”, “womenandchildren”, and are often represented as anonymous masses of poor, desperate looking people. This is a representation that has underpinned much of the humanitarian assistance efforts on the one hand, and restrictive asylum and immigration policies on the other, but is also a representation that has begun to be challenged by more critically minded Refugee Studies scholars. Third, if this way of representing refugees is part and parcel of the way in which “the refugee problem” has been constructed, and if the solutions we come up with to the refugee problem are based on this understanding of the problem and its attendant representation of “the refugee”, then perhaps reframing the problem – and, thus, the refugee – will open up different kinds of solutions that do not depend upon viewing refugees – and treating them – as threats or hapless victims.

When you break it down like this it certainly seems more accessible and jargon-free, but is it more manageable? Would I be able to actually teach this in 10 weeks? What would that look like? And what groundwork would need to be put in place in order for the students to understand each of these three points? Even though you have to situate your thesis within the field for your examiners, and thus have groundwork to do there too, there is still a great deal that you can take as given – you can assume a certain level of understanding on the part of the examiners. But you can’t necessarily do that with an undergraduate module.

Rather than take the project as a whole, think about whether or not a specific part of it could work as the backbone, or the foundation of a module on the broader topic itself. In my case, I decided to take two specific aspects of my research and to design a module on refugees and IR around those: the idea of “the refugee problem” – what kind of problem is it and how have we tried to solve it – and the importance of historical understanding – where did the refugee problem come from. In your case, it could be a key debate in your field (such as the ethics of intervention), an idea that has caused a shift in the direction of the field (such as “human” security), or a new area of focus (such as the role of the body, or art in politics). Once you have the starting point, you can begin to think about the specifics of the module (or the micro-structure): the lectures, readings, and assessments. I will deal with these in more detail in Part Two, but for now I want to highlight that these specifics that you decide on (based on the foundation or back-bone you have selected), are also opportunities for you to integrate your research into your teaching. “Research driven teaching” is about bringing your research into the classroom in a variety of different ways, only one of which takes the form of the macro structure of a module.

At the same time as you are breaking your research project down, and isolating those specific parts that could form the foundation or starting point for a module, you also need to be thinking about the degree programme that such a module would be a part of. Indeed, thinking about this will help you to make these initial decisions.

Side Two: The Degree Programme

There are a couple of key things to consider here: what level is the module you are designing for – is it an introductory, first year module? Or a more advanced level module? And how would the module ‘fit’ within the broader degree programme?

The level that your potential students will be at in their degree will matter for what you decide to include: the kind of readings, the kind of assignments, the complexity of the theory/theories you expect the students to draw on, and the research methods you expect them to employ, and so on. In my case, IR students at St Andrews only take core introductory IR courses in the first two years of their degree, meaning that the course on refugees and IR that I wanted to design would be for third or fourth years. That meant that I could assume a certain level of understanding of IR theory, basic research and writing skills, and understanding of key global institutions. On the other hand, I knew that political theory (which I utilise rather than IR theory) would be much newer to them, and that they had not been taught anything about forced migration in these first two years. Key concepts such as borders, citizenship, and rights, while not entirely new to them, were unlikely to have crossed their radars in anything approaching a critical way. Understanding what knowledge and skills your potential students will be bringing into the module will, therefore, also give you a foundation upon which you can build their topic-specific knowledge.

It is also important to think about how your module will ‘fit’ into, or contribute to, the overall degree programme. This involves thinking about what the purpose of the degree is – what the learning outcomes are – and how it is structured. Being able to articulate this will be necessary if you want your department to make the module a part of the degree programme. In other words: why, and what, would this module contribute to the degree itself? Another way of thinking about this is: how would your students’ understanding of their degree subject be enhanced by taking your module? Most universities will have an online catalogue with descriptions of the modules on offer within any given degree programme. These are often used by students to choose which modules they will take. Take a look at the descriptions for modules in your department to get an idea of how your colleagues have situated their modules within the programme, and then try writing a sample module description of one brief paragraph. Here is the one I wrote for my Refugees and IR module:

Refugees and other forced migrants raise important questions for dominant understandings of the state, security, sovereignty, citizenship, humanitarianism, intervention, and international regimes, among many others, in International Relations. This module introduces some of the complex issues surrounding refugees and forced migration in global politics today. While oriented toward the role that refugees and the refugee problem play in international relations, the module is inter-disciplinary in nature, drawing on historical, legal, sociological, anthropological, and philosophical works and debates. The primary goal of the module is for students to gain critical awareness of the role and nature of the refugee problem – as a legal, political and moral problem – in global politics. Students will gain an understanding of the history of the refugee problem, the practical functions and workings of the UN refugee system, the asylum process in the EU, and of emerging issues in refugee research.

The modules that third and fourth year IR students at St Andrews take are all topic/issue-specific – there are no compulsory modules (other than the dissertation) – and so this meant that I could design a module specifically about refugees. However, the degree programme is not a Refugee Studies degree, or a degree in Development Studies, or Anthropology, or Forced Migration Studies. Therefore, the module needs, in some way, to contribute to the students’ knowledge of IR. The first sentence of the description indicates why refugees are relevant to IR:

Refugees and other forced migrants raise important questions for dominant understandings of the state, security, sovereignty, citizenship, humanitarianism, intervention, and international regimes, among many others, in International Relations.

This is, in other words, a description of how the module fits into the degree programme: it introduces a topic that challenges, in a number of ways, traditional understandings of some of the core concepts, actors, and practices in the discipline. It follows, then, that by engaging with this specific topic, the students’ understanding of these core concepts, actors, and practices, will be developed in new and challenging ways. But it is also a module that is aimed at enabling the students to understand the specific issue in IR that is the focus of my own research: forced migration. You’ll notice that the foundations for the module that I drew out of my own research are also included:

The primary goal of the module is for students to gain critical awareness of the role and nature of the refugee problem – as a legal, political and moral problem – in global politics


Students will gain an understanding of the history of the refugee problem

Once you have an idea of the level of the module, how it fits within the programme, and the main starting point/foundation of the module from your own research, or research interests, you can start thinking about how to turn this idea into an actual syllabus. But I’ll save that for Part Two.

To be continued…



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