Teaching

As a teacher, my goal is to give rise to a love of learning that may transcend the classroom. Without this love, and without that private desire, I believe my teaching will not produce lasting student learning outcomes. Teaching is a practice that I have developed and improved not only within the University system, but also for a decade in industry and—by being active in world news media and in epistemic communities related to my research—by being socially-engaged. Since my approach to all forms of teaching is designed to foster learning in students, this statement will intersperse a small number of concrete examples from the classroom with the voices of my former students to illuminate key aspects of my teaching philosophy.

The core principles of my teaching philosophy are based on active and experiential learning combined with iterative and circular (i.e. from self, peer and teacher) reflection and feedback. My approach to teaching therefore marries the ideals of a liberal arts education with the skills necessary to solve intellectual and practical puzzles that students will confront in their own work and lives. This means that I often choose readings, structure classes and design assessments that enable students to connect scholarship with contemporary yet enduring concerns, perspectives and problems. This contextual approach to learning is not without difficulties. For example, I teach Normative International Theory as a way of thinking about three types of relationships: (1) what “we” do to “them” and what “they” do to “us”; (2) what “they” do to each other; and (3) what “everyone” does to “everyone” else. In other words, International Ethics explores the limits of human duty in relation to strangers. Of course, who precisely “we” and “they” are in the classroom isn’t so straightforward. As a group of peoples, I am aware that my students (and I) each have different identities, concerns, personal narratives, and so on. Whilst the contours of these commonalities and differences can be explored to great effect in open classroom discussion, doing so requires a prior commitment to mutual respect and listening. I prefer to employ role-plays and simulations—where students are actors—to facilitate student explorations of ideas and perspectives that are otherwise different from their own. These role-plays and simulations may be of world-historical events, or more abstractly, ways to contextualize ideas in their contemporary settings. The combination of self, peer and teacher feedback that is peculiar to simulations and role-plays empowers students to navigate complex issues as a group, but also as individuals through reflection.

To support this pedagogical approach in class assignments, I various use oral and written assignments which are assessed only after a sustained period of iterative brainstorming and feedback sessions in private consultation with me. Crucially, this feedback mechanism is both ongoing throughout the course and interacts with feedback provided to the entire student body as the course progresses. Students are supplied a marking rubric in the first week of semester for every assignment so that they are aware of what is being assessed, and with what relative weighting. More practically, I assign research papers that require topic clearance by way of the submission of a one-page outline for discussion in one-on-one consultation in the first third of the course. This allows me to have students reflect on their argument as well as writing and research process. For this purpose, I distribute a paper I published in 2008 on learning titled “Reading and writing for the humanities and social sciences: How to interpret and marshal the literature, rather than be terrorized by it”, which I have found brings many of the issues and anxieties students face out into the open in our one-on-one sessions. Based on the feedback that I have received, I know that my student’s approach their assessments with a strong grasp of what an assessment entails as well as its learning objectives so they may focus on learning.

To achieve these goals in the classroom, I variously employ discovery-learning activities, combined with traditional lectures and smaller group breakout sessions, to accommodate a wider range of learning styles. My teaching reflects a belief in active, discovery education as a path toward more meaningful learning, and my experience in diverse classroom environments has led me to devise strategies for teaching theory through preliminary engagement with applied cases in the first five to ten minutes of each class (and visa versa). For example, to help students to understand Kant’s “perpetual peace thesis”, I have students briefly apply the text by engaging with a case study before the concept is unpacked fully together in class. One example I often have students consider is that of nuclear proliferation which continues to contest the international regime that has effectively sought to stigmatize nuclear weapons and their testing. The needs and priorities of the proliferating state and its people (e.g. the peace dividend that is said to result from nuclear deterrence) are then weighed against Kant’s desire for peace among all states and people. During these group research or discussion times, I move through the classroom, answering questions and directing the discussions by quizzing groups to gauge what is being collectively learned, and who is being left behind. The smaller groups are then brought back together to discuss their findings with the whole class having contextualized and rehearsed the ideas in smaller groups. Research has shown that complementing traditional lectures and readings with experiential learning techniques not only caters to a wider range of learning styles, but also requires thinking differently about the same topic matter. I have found that these five or ten minute exercises stimulate class discussion and, over time, tend to engender confidence in students’ own interpretation of texts and ideas.

We often learn something best when we teach it to others. For this reason, I use a peer teaching assignment called a “jigsaw” in each of my classes. For this assignment, smaller peer learning groups set out to specialize in an assigned idea, text or case study. The students collaborate on the task set within smaller breakout groups to determine: (1) the central aspects to be learned from the task set; and (2) the best strategies to teach what has been learned to their other classmates who have specialized in a different topic. In this way, every student in the class is dependent on the others for their success in learning and teaching the material, but the grades are based on both the group presentation and an individual paper that is submitted following the jigsaw exercise. The purposes of the “jigsaw” procedure are to provide an alternative method of introducing new material besides reading and lecturing; to create information interdependence among student peers both as individuals and as a group; and to ensure that participants have opportunities to orally rehearse and cognitively process the information being learned. Since each group works on their research and presentation together throughout the term, learning is shown to be a social, shared exercise, and not merely a solitary one.

My course evaluations are consistently above four-and-a-half (4.5) from five (5) across all the institutions where I have taught. Although no quantitative data is available for each of the guest lectures that I have delivered at the New School for Social Research, Monash University, and the University of Queensland, what I do know is that I have been invited back by colleagues in subsequent years where practicable to do so, and in most instances this request is based on informal feedback from students. Indeed, I have found the qualitative feedback that I have received to be the most instructive for my own development as a teacher and mentor. Three examples lifted from my first formal teaching evaluation conducted in 2008 that best captures the possible outcomes of my teaching are:

“Nicholas was incredibly approachable and engaging. He went to great effort to draw quieter students into the discussion, and he fostered a friendliness in the classroom which allowed everyone to feel comfortable enough to voice their opinions.”

“Nicholas was always open and approachable and was willing to be flexible with his consultation methods and times.”

“[Nicholas] provided really helpful, personalized feedback on assignments.”

In lieu of a conclusion, I would like to say a word about my teaching and mentoring style. Though this image many students have of me as an “approachable” and “engaging” teacher is partly down to my own natural character, I also know that how I build trust with students is the result of experience, planning and a deliberate pedagogy—it’s hard work. The twin principles of mutual listening and respect are key aspects of my teaching philosophy that come to define my classroom environment and my students’ learning experience. In my class, learning is a process in which we not only gain knowledge and understand a topic, but also about each other and ourselves. Variously combining active and discovery learning with reflective and iterative feedback is the best way that I have found to both support diversity and engender a common purpose in the classroom.

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WORKSHOPS

2017-
Nuclear Exposure
An industry-university partnership
[one-day intensive/25+ students]

2016-
Nuclear Humanities
Global Studies Initiative and Politics Department, Whitman College
[one-week intensive/25+ students]

2007-11
Business, Conflict and Peace*
An industry-university partnership
[one-day intensive/200+ students]

2007-11
Transboundary Environmental Harm*
An industry-university partnership
[200+ students]

2007-11
Sustainable and Ethical Investment*
An industry-university partnership
[200+ students]

2007-11
Business in Society*
An industry-university partnership
[200+ students]

UNDERGRADUATE

2017-
War and Peace
Faculty of Arts and Education, Federation University
[gateway/second-year/25+ students]

2017-
Crime: Theory and Practice
Faculty of Arts and Education, Federation University
[gateway/first-year/200+ students]

2016
Global Political Economy
School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University
[gateway/first-year/425+ students]

2016
Introduction to International Relations
School of Arts, Australian Catholic University
[gateway/first-year/175+ students]

2014
The Cold War and the Bomb*
Department of Historical Studies, New School for Social Research, The New School
[elective/third-year/25+ students]

2010-12
Arms Control in World Politics*
School of Social and Political Inquiry, Monash University
[capstone/third-year/175+ students]

2009-10
International Public Policy/Global Governance
Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University
[gateway/second-year/50+ students]

POSTGRADUATE

2012
Arms Control and Disarmament*
School of Political and International Studies, University of Queensland
[elective/second-year/50+ students]

2008-11
Managing Risk
Graduate School of Management, La Trobe University
[capstone/second-year/10+ students]

2008-11
Foundation in Environmental, Social and Governance Risk
Graduate School of Management, La Trobe University
[core/graduate/25+ students]

2008-10
Business in Society*
Graduate School of Management, La Trobe University
[core/first-year/25+ students]

*  As guest lecturer only