Learning to Teach

By New Head of Subject Mark Aspinwall

I was standing on a chain under the bowsprit of a schooner when the question of feedback first popped into my head.

We were in the north Atlantic, not far from Nova Scotia, in a rising wind. Two university students were up on the bowsprit itself, struggling to fasten a sail. Each time the ship dipped into the waves, the icy water rose to my waist. My boots were full.

The captain had ordered a change of sail. The students duly dispatched two of their number to a locker for a smaller heavier storm jib, capable of withstanding gusts, and lugged it forward.

As they wrestled it into place I could see they had made a mistake: instead of fastening it to the bowsprit they fastened it to the sail underneath. Bad move. As they hauled one sail up they would pull the next one up after it.

My job, as one of the deck officers, was to be their teacher and advisor. Their job, as ‘semester-at-sea’ students, was to learn how to sail, navigate, and conduct oceanographic tests.

So when I saw their mistake I asked myself: should I say something or should I wait until they notice what they’ve done wrong? I waited. Like my father always said – you learn from your mistakes, then you do it right the next time.

Unfortunately the captain didn’t see it the same way. Even before the students themselves realized, he marched from the helm up to the bowsprit, a stream of expletives spewing forth, accusing us all of being idiots. Needless to say the problem was rectified right away.

It was my first teaching job, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the right way to go about getting a point across. I lifted myself off the bobstay and had some quiet words with the captain. He apologized, agreeing I was right.

Everything might have gone more smoothly if we had just given the students a step-by-step set of instructions, but we didn’t. They were supposed to be learning-by-doing. Eventually they got it right, and they may have forgotten the moment. I haven’t.

At the end of the cruise I realized it wasn’t such a bad thing to have a gruff old captain to be compared to, because in their evaluations the student rated me much higher than him. I think they just found me easier to get along with.

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A day in the life of a field researcher

Elizabeth Bomberg & Nicola McEwen

One of the real pleasures of academic research is the chance to get out and investigate your topic of study ‘on the ground’. As part of our research project on grassroots action and energy (EnGAGE Scotland) we set out last week for a series of interviews with individuals involved in community energy initiatives.  Our destination was Dingwall and the Black Isle in the north of Scotland, in Easter Ross. Not your typical sites of political science field work even if the royal burgh of Dingwall was the birthplace of Macbeth (check it out here: Dingwall). Today Dingwall is the home of Community Energy Scotland (CES)  – an energy development charity. And Easter Ross is the base of Rob Gibson, an MSP closely involved in renewables and Deputy Convenor of the Economy, Energy and Tourism committee in the Scottish Parliament

Dingwall is a fair distance away from Edinburgh so our interviews involved an overnight stay on the *stunningly* beautiful Black Isle (yes, of Tintin fame (book link). Upon our late afternoon arrival at the wonderful Netherton Farm B&B we were greeted by free-roaming chickens, roosters, ducks and – most appropriately – a wee solar panel.

During dinner – at the local pub which had quite tasty grub and ale –  we took stock of our project,  and went over interview questions for next day. Perhaps inevitably we ended up discussing our previous interview highs and lows. Past mistakes had taught us the following:  1. don’t interrupt; 2. don’t talk too much yourself; 3. don’t become so relaxed that you take off your shoes (only one of us had ever done this and it was a long time ago in her academic career).

At the breakfast table (we loved that porridge with Quinoa) we were joined by two young Glaswegian plumbers. Whereas one of us struggled to understand even a few words of their nearly impenetrable tongue, the other of us slipped effortlessly and unconsciously into broad brogue herself. How does she do that?

Next stop: interview with CES director.  At one point we temporarily breached Interview Rule no.2  – don’t talk too much – because we couldn’t resist telling our interviewee that what he was describing was precisely the situation depicted by New Institutionalist literature which posits that…..’   We stopped ourselves after a paragraph or two and let him continue.  It was kind indeed of the CES director to give us so much of his time and we left feeling we had handled ourselves professionally, kept our shoes on and had not wasted too much of his time. Attempting to exit the building quietly we were momentarily flummoxed by the main door which resisted opening despite our best efforts to turn the lock, rotate the handle, push exits buttons. About to return to the office to ask for help we happened to push rather than pull and – yes – the door opened.  (yeah, yeah, go ahead and insert here your favourite how-many-political-scientists-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-light-bulb-joke…).

Our interview with Highland MSP Rob Gibson took place not in a constituency office, party building or headquarters but rather a local bustling café in Foulis Ferry (Storehouse) crowded with  grannies, young parents, under 5s and one or two aggressively territorial lunching ladies. We slurped soup, chatted and an outside observer would probably conclude few political science insights were being transmitted. But they would be wrong. Interviews – at any venue – can be  priceless at providing background information, but also a glimpse into the first-hand experience that shapes everyday politics. Interviewees are also one of best sources for further contacts. (‘Oh you must speak to X’; or ‘You really should contact  X to get real story behind that..’). Such contact names are gold dust for researches but they can also leave one feeling a bit daunted; they remind us of just how much we still need to investigate, learn and know.

Despite our specific and quaint Highlands & Islands setting we were struck by more general themes relevant to political science research: 

1. The rural-urban divide characterising electoral, political culture and geography studies was unmistakable. Just one illustration  –  we learned that unlike those city slicker greens, H&I Greens are ‘red-meat eating’, down-to-earth political actors. To put it more colourfully: they are as likely to ‘eat Bambi as cuddle him’)    

2. The theme of power relations suffused our visit: first, the crucial role played by institutional inertia, but also the power of individual ‘agency’ to overcome it (the drive and determination of community activists was particularly evident). Secondly we were continually struck by the underlying currents of political competition between levels of government, between citizen groups and local authorities, between political individuals. In short – and you shouldn’t be surprised to read this on this blog – politics is everywhere.

We’ve got quite a lot more field research to do throughout Scotland. That field work might not all take place in venues as delightful as Easter Ross but it will be revealing none the less. You can check out our results on the EnGAGE website in coming months. In the meantime, thanks for reading. 

 Elizabeth  & Nicola