A new (and better) way of teaching humanities at ANU

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not representative of the views of Woroni.


I’m in my third year of a double degree in PPE/IR. I’ve mostly enjoyed my time at ANU, but these two-and-a-bit years have not been without some frustrations.

Politics is supposed to be the ANU’s ‘thing’ – but I think we have a lot of room for improvement.

I spent a year at Macquarie University, and that wasn’t much better. So I am by no means singling out the ANU in how they teach politics — not by any stretch, I think the ANU is a great university with a lot of potential. But things aren’t perfect. Unfortunately, we students think very shallowly about these questions. Sure, we fill out our SELT review forms (sometimes) and we have the occasional whinge, but do we have any concrete proposals or suggestions? I haven’t heard or seen any outside obscure and ill-attended ANUSA meetings.

I’ve always thought that politics and international relations could be taught a lot better — which got me thinking, how would I teach it? Yes, me, a lowly undergraduate. I don’t want to be seen as lecturing the lecturers, but I guess that’s exactly what I’ll be doing (oh well)! Here it goes then.

What you’re about to read is just an idea. It’s not a cookie-cutter formula for success. I recognize that different courses require different needs. This is just an idea of what a good politics degree could look like.

For the record, when I say ‘politics’, I’m mainly referring to degrees like PPE, IR, Policy Studies, Development Studies, International Security and Political Science. But I’d imagine that some of my proposal could apply to other humanities degrees/majors as well.

Anyway, this is it, broken into six key parts. 

(1) Firstly, tutorial participation should be worth 30 per cent of a student’s grade and (most) tutorials should be extended to 1.5-2 hours long.

This would force students to actually read the week’s readings and, more importantly, articulate them. This isn’t a big ask. You don’t have to be a champion public speaker to speak for 30 seconds in front of 20 people.

Beefing up tutorial participation would provide us students with the ultimate incentive to do the readings, study up and learn how to communicate and debate our ideas. After all, isn’t that what university is for?

(2) Students should be assessed fortnightly with 5 mini assessments worth 8 per cent each (40 per cent in total). 

The word count for each should be about 500-1000 words and each should be a mini-essay response to the week’s lecture/readings. Students would be assessed on their writing ability, their understanding of the content and the originality of their ideas.

The problem with big essays worth 30-40 per cent is that they encourage students to understand just one week’s topic rather than the whole course.

Mini-assessments would ensure students stay switched on throughout the entire semester rather than just the last few weeks. It would provide the ultimate incentive to stay up-to-date with readings and lectures. I’ve enrolled in a few courses that have used this model and every time it is had this effect.

So if tutorials are worth 30 per cent and if the 5 mini assessments are worth 40 per cent altogether, that’s 70 per cent covered. The remaining 30 per cent should be up to the lecturer. They could go with an exam or an essay — it’s their call.

(3) The creation of a course titled “Current Events”, which students would have to take 3 times throughout their degree.

I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been taught game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma, or the amount of times a lecturer has explained realism, constructivism and liberalism. Theoretical approaches are important, but they should be coupled with an understanding of what is happening in the world right now.

Every Political Science, PPE, International Relations, Development Studies and Policy Studies student should have to take a news-focused course examining the relevance of real-world events. It would run every semester, so you’d have the freedom to take it whenever you want. There could even be 1000, 2000 and 3000 level iterations of the course.

Whatever’s important in the world (at the time) will fall within its purview. Think relevant political issues like Brexit and the Trump-Russia investigation. Or even just relevant political and global issues, like fake news, gun control or immigration. I could imagine guest lecturers being brought in to discuss their issue of expertise.

You’d be assessed on your ability to recount events in the news, analyse the significance of certain events and forecast what you think will happen in the future.

A Current Events course would do something very important: equip students with an understanding of how to interpret and fact-check the news, whilst also giving them an opportunity to apply the theoretical frameworks which they are taught so frequently about.

In the Internet and fake news age, nothing is more important.

(4) We must standardise how lecturers prescribe readings across subjects.

Lecturers should only be able to give an absolute maximum of 45 pages of compulsory readings per week. Lecturers should still be able to give recommended readings that curious students can read on their own volition. But there should be a cap on the readings that students are actually expected to read.

Readings are also far too often poorly structured and poorly prioritised. I’ve taken courses where long lists of readings are lazily listed without any organisation or prioritisation. Lists of readings should be separated into compulsory, recommended and supplementary readings.

Without organisation and prioritisation, how are students supposed to know which readings are important and which are not? Or which readings will be discussed in tutorials? We need certainty. If lecturers prescribe 100 pages of readings, students are unlikely to do any of the readings out of sheer uncertainty about whether the one reading they did will actually be discussed in tutorials.

(5) Lecturers should submit an assignment report upon the completion of each assessment.

The poor quality of assessment feedback is a common target of complaint from students. When grades are released, lecturers should publish on Wattle a one-page report on what the average mark was, what a Pass response looked like and what a HD response looked like.

They could even publish the exact number of Passes, Credits, Ds and HDs.

These reports would supplement individual feedback, and be a more general summary of how the cohort went in the assignment. Lecturers could even publish, with permission, an example of an HD response so that students have an example of excellence to strive toward.

(6) First-year subjects should focus on extremely specific academic debates rather than broad overviews.

I knew a lot of people that dropped out of politics-related degrees because of how vague first-year politics courses were. Not only should first-year courses be more difficult but they should also be more specific.

Both POLS1005 and POLS1006 gave broad overviews of issues like human rights, terrorism, trade and the environment. These overviews are so broad they’re rendered pointless and unmemorable. If someone’s taking a politics-related degree, they probably know the basics of these topics.

Instead of doing a week on terrorism, there should be an entire week outlining the various perspectives in a single debate within the terrorism literature: like the link between poverty and terrorism, or what role religion plays in terrorism.

Or instead of what doing a week on a broad overview of human rights, there should be an entire week on the debate over the Right To Protect (R2P).

That’s it. Like I said, this isn’t a cookie-cutter formula. I recognise that not every politics subject could adopt this model, but I’d say most could embrace at least some of its precepts.

What does everyone think?