In the process of re-designing a co-taught second-year module on Political Geography, an alternative form of student participation was introduced into each term of the 20-week course. Whilst the teaching of this course had previously centred around 2-hour lectures, we took the students (65 in total) out of the lecture theatre and designed two circuits (one per term), consisting of different stations relating to the themes of the course. In term 1, the circuit was on ‘popular geopolitics’ – an approach asking students to adopt a critical eye when engaging with popular culture with the aim of interrogating how various forms of popular culture might shape and construct understandings of the geopolitical world. In term two, the circuit was reimagined as a tool to consolidate learning over the two terms. ‘Connecting the dots’ offered a circuit-based alternative to revision, encouraging students to identify and develop conceptual and contextual links, based on a technique of layered learning. Both circuits are outlined below.
Term 1: Popular Geopolitics
Films/streaming services, music, toys, videogames, cartoons, social media all form part of a milieu that can shape our understandings of the world in powerful ways. The session was designed to get students thinking about the forms of popular culture that they might passively consume in their everyday lives and subsequently, as a result of the resources provided, to get them thinking critically and proactively about how this may shape both their understandings of geopolitical events and phenomenon as well as those of others. The act of moving round the circuit was a significant means of achieving this objective as it encouraged a broader oversight of the wide range of popular outputs that influence our understandings of the world and meant that the students were confronted with their own consumption and subsequently challenged to think differently as a result.
The circuit consisted of 8 different stations each designed to get students engaging with a different form of ‘popular geopolitics’. The students spent 15 minutes at each station before hearing an alarm that would prompt them to move onto the next station. At each station was a set of instructions, discussion questions, key readings to take away, and a variety of different resources, each designed to facilitate student engagement and learning in different ways (this pack was then put on Moodle). The stations included:
- ‘The War on Terror’ board game: This station asked students to consider the role of satire and humour in geopolitics. They were asked to remove the contents of the box, to begin playing the game, and to get to grips with the different strategies being deployed by the designers to undermine and challenge the geopolitical visions of George W Bush (see image on the right).
- HM Armed Forces toys: Using toys produced in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence, students were asked to consider everyday encounters with the military through play, war themed toys, and how these narratives can be challenged with artistic counter campaigns.
- Social media: Using memes and GIFs alongside key journal articles, the students were tasked with reflecting on the significance of ‘meme’ cultures in creating and reinforcing certain geopolitical values and world views before creating their own memes.
- Music: Beyond visual resources, sound was also important. At the music station, students were provided with a link to albums from ‘Music in Detention’ and Australian Aboriginal artist, Archie Roach. They were asked to listen to the lyrics and engage with music as a means of empowerment and providing a voice to those who may otherwise be unheard.
Throughout the two hours, Rachael, Anna, and Laura engaged with different stations, drawing out key themes, issues, and prompting further questions. The session ended with a period of feedback and reflection where students were able to feedback and discuss what they had learned over the course of the two hours, thus ensuring consolidation and further encouraging peer learning.
Term 2: Connecting the dots
Formatted through a series of three 1-hour seminars in support of the course (each student attends one 1 hour session), this circuit was designed to get students ‘connecting the dots’ and making links between different themes of the course. Delivered towards the end of the 20 weeks, it offered students a chance to take a step back and engage with the course as a whole rather than through individual 2-hour lectures.
Four stations were designed to achieve this, each containing an object (either a drone, a passport, a toy, and a film) and a series of prompt questions to encourage students to think broadly, creatively, and critically about political geography. The students were asked to work in small groups and circulate round each table. As they did so, they were also asked to create a mind-map on the flip-chart paper provided, mapping out the links between the different themes they had covered. In moving around, each group added layers and connections to the brainstorms, building on their classmate’s ideas and culminating in a collective mind-map. As an example, using a mind-map such as the one pictured below, students made links between the object of the passport and key themes such as surveillance, mobility, the border, nationalism, the role of objects and non-humans in geopolitics, biometrics etc. As with the ‘Popular Geopolitics’ circuit, the act of movement was significant. As the students moved between stations, they were physically linking different topics and concepts, reinforcing the creation of intellectual links whilst creating a proactive learning environment and layering of their learning. Moving between different objects, students thus both applied course learning to different and relevant geopolitical artefacts, and thought across these – developing linked understanding that was particularly useful for the upcoming examinations.
Throughout the three one-hour sessions, Anna, and Nicola circulated to different groups to prompt further discussion and to reinforce student understandings of key themes. The session ended with a period of feedback and reflection where students were able to discuss both how they responded to each artefact, and how they tied these reflections to the other objects. In so doing, the students both consolidated learning, and participated in valuable peer learning and sharing.
Pedagogical Rationale for the ‘circuit’
One of the strengths of these sessions lie in their ability to facilitate a wide range of learning styles. Students perceive and process information in different ways and the versatility and variety of the stations enabled multi-sensory learning. Visual, aural, kinaesthetic, and read/write learners had the freedom to engage with the resources in different ways, facilitating motivation and enriching the learning experience. This approach is also co-operative by design with prompt questions to facilitate small group discussions. A further strength of this layered learning style is that it enables students to strengthen the relationship between theory and practice and vice versa. At each station, they were asked to engage with different resources whilst also being provided with key readings that directly relate to these objects, sounds, and visual mediums. In doing so, the subject matter of the readings is brought to life in a way that would be difficult to achieve in a lecture theatre. Similarly, if the students complete the readings at a later date, they have a practical reference from the session to draw on to root their understandings of theory to the real-world.
At the same time, the circuit is also well positioned to account for a diverse range of voices from different contexts and backgrounds. We deliberately incorporated objects that challenge Western-Centric viewpoints to make the experience more inclusive and to challenge students to look beyond their own contexts. For example, the music station focussed on the empowerment of marginalised groups whilst the video games station contrasted games like Call of Duty with one designed to give an insight into living as a civilian in a war zone like Syria. Furthermore, the film ‘Black Panther’ was used in the ‘connecting the dots’ session, encouraging students to (critically) explore themes of racism and whitewashing in popular culture, as well as contemporary narratives of the colonial past.
The feedback received form students emphasised the significant pedagogical advantages of this learning format. The practical sessions were listed as an aspect of the course that most helped increase knowledge and skills, while specific comments on the feedback forms only served to reinforce this. Specific examples of feedback include:
‘The practical geopolitics session was very good and engaging…this has been my favourite course’; ‘The practical on popular geopolitics was very useful in understanding how to be critical of everyday objects’; ‘The practical geopolitics session was superb to grasp concepts’; ‘The practical geopolitics session was different and quirky which made it memorable’; ‘The seminars helped me build key links within the course.’