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Rex Brynen

Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

With around 600 students in POLI 227 (Developing Areas/Introduction), it can be a challenge. It’s dark at the back of the room, so if they wanted to, they could sleep, text, browse the Web, etc. Indeed, the class is recorded, so they don’t even have to be there—although most of them are. So I have to be larger than life, cracking jokes, moving around to make the room seem a lot smaller. I work hard to engage them in dialogues and debates. It also helps that there’s a wealth of interesting course material to choose from.

For the small-group conferences—led by teaching assistants—I pack topical and even controversial materials into them to make sure they’re really interesting and worth attending. To further engage the students, I have them do presentations.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

In POLI 227 (Developing Areas/Introduction), I deliberately use a variety of different assessment methods because the students are new to the discipline: a multiple-choice midterm, a book review, a presentation and participation grade for the conferences, and a final exam consisting of long-answer essays. Students also get a chance to write a supplemental midterm to improve their grade—after all, the main purpose of a midterm is to give them early warning if they are falling behind and also to encourage them to stay on top of the course readings.

In POLI 450 (Peacebuilding), by contrast, the final exam is quite important because those (U3) students have a lot of course content to draw on and integrate, including a week-long civil war simulation. The research paper for that course is a group assignment because the course is all about peace operations. It’s an appropriate way to help them learn cooperation and coordination—because writing papers in groups of two or four can be a challenge. Certainly if they ever work for an organization like the UN, they will have to write group-based reports.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

In an introductory course, I want them to master the key materials, such as approaches to political analysis, which are building blocks for other courses. I also want them to find the material engaging and relevant, so no one will be able to say, “I’m just studying this because I have to write the exam.” For instance, I want students to be able to read a newspaper article about what’s happening in Syria right now and link it to what we have discussed in class about coup-proofing in authoritarian regimes or civil wars.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

This very much depends on the course level and topic. In POLI 227, which is an introductory course, you want to acquaint them with key methodological issues and the major theoretical debates, without overwhelming them or making it all seem rather too esoteric. In my Middle East politics course (POLI 340), they have more political science background, and you can get a little deeper into the theoretical literature. POLI 340 has also been especially interesting because of the changes in the Arab world, which have challenged a lot of previous ideas about regime stability in the region. Students find themselves having to critique what was written before 2011. Because events have been changing rapidly, they also can’t rely on simply regurgitating old analyses, but have to do quite a bit of original research from media sources, official statements, and so forth. Finally, in the case of Peacebuilding (POLI 450), the course is in many ways about the intersection of political science theory and practice. How might existing literatures illuminate real world problems? Conversely, how might the operational challenges of peace operations require us to modify some of our theoretical conceptions of war-to-peace transitions?

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

It is essential to enjoy what you’re doing. Create a sense of infectious joy around you in the classroom. If you see teaching as a chore, it becomes a chore. So, do not kick the fun out of your discipline! Remember why you’re in it in the first place. Zero in on why the material is interesting and find how to best communicate that to the students. Also, be realistic about your ability to satisfy everyone all of the time: not all your jokes will work, and not all your students will really care about Syria, neurons, or some other topics you might cover.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

First, don’t leave all the reading until the end of the semester! Otherwise, you’ll miss all kinds of references and connections that are essential for understanding the lectures and for writing term papers. It is also rather hard to absorb a lot of material in a short time.

Second, engage the professor. Email me, arrange to see me, put your hand up in class. With hundreds of students, I can’t always see them all right away, but every student who wants to see me, ask a question, disagree with me or know how something relates to his or her career should make a point of emailing me, chatting with me after class, raising it in an online discussion, or dropping by the office. I advise students to not just sit and passively receive the material: debate it, discuss it, follow up on interesting ideas.

Why do you teach?

I really love it. At McGill, the students come from interesting backgrounds, from all over the planet, and they are really bright and motivated. In my classes, I’ve heard students casually comment that “I fled Sarajevo,” “My mum is a Supreme Court justice,” or “I spent last summer as a war-crimes investigator.” I also run into former and current students around the world. If I announce my travel plans on Facebook, sure enough a student will pop up and say something like “I’m working for the government of Iran now—let me know when you’re in Tehran.” That kind of global network of students energizes my teaching and can be quite useful for research purposes, too.

Email Address: 
rex.brynen@mcgill.ca
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