I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard both faculty and students lament the unpopularity of methods courses. Students take the courses because they have to, and faculty get evaluations that, in a nut shell, say ‘great teaching, too bad about the content.’ Meanwhile, there’s growing enthusiasm for experiential learning and acknowledgement of the value it plays in enriching understanding, strengthening problem solving and “heightening intellectual curiosity”.
As a methods enthusiast with a passion for fieldwork, I sought to marry methods training and experiential learning in a substantive course on the politics of development. I describe this in a recently published Politics article, “Bringing the field into the classroom: Methods and experiential learning in the ‘Politics of Development’“. I developed the course around one central assignment – Skype and telephone interviews of development practitioners and scholars in different parts of the world. A series of smaller assignments helped students practice these skills before their ‘big’ interviews, which, in turn, later served as the basis for research papers. Students learned to interview, transcribe, code, and integrate primary data into papers.
Making the distant relatable is a key challenge in education, whether that distance is temporal, geographical, or constructed by dominant narratives. Teaching in a small university in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, making ‘the politics of development’ seem less distant to a classroom entirely raised in North America was a challenge. Reflecting on my own experiences of interview-based fieldwork, I decided to try to offer my students a ‘taste’ of fieldwork, all without leaving our small town.
To be sure, conducting Skype interviews offers but a faint reflection of the full fieldwork experience. Nonetheless, it involved learning and using practical methodological techniques to gather new information and coping with logistical challenges (recording software, time zones, accents, dodgy phone cards) and operating in a cross-cultural context. Although interviews are a brief exchange, in contrast with course readings, they are an interactive experience. They are also unique. As a result, the classroom became not just a place to discuss assigned readings (knowledge we all had in common) but also a place of discovery, where students shared these specific, unique experiences. They naturally made comparisons between arguments in the texts we read, and the experiences of their interviewees. In doing so, I found it particularly interesting to see how students assessed and reconsidered expertise – should we give more credit to someone working in the field, or to an author? What about someone who does both? Does place of origin influence expertise? How do we balance the specific knowledge of someone who works in one village, with someone who has worked in multiple countries? These questions facilitated a discussion about development, and the structure of academia. Where did we fit? Were we replicating or challenging the global dynamics of ‘development’? What kinds of responsibility come with research? To whom?
As experiential learning becomes more widespread, and conversations about methods teaching, and research transparency become increasingly urgent, it is useful to think about the intersection of these areas of teaching, research and practice. Although tackling this combination of issues and skills in a single term comes with logistical challenges, as I note at the end of my article, it can offer students insights into both methods and substance that may propel further inquiry into both.