Award-winning prof plans ‘coffee shop’ class of 700

Political Science instructor Nigmendra Narain

Political Science professor Nigmendra Narain

The ideal political conversation is a lot like a visit to the local coffee shop, says professor Nigmendra Narain.

Passersby spot someone they know, sit down for a chat, then invite others to join in. The circle grows, shifts, morphs – and so do participants’ preconceived ideas. Actual coffee is forgotten in the earnest exchange of ideas.

That’s the spirit Narain is trying to inspire and replicate in the large political science class he will be offering online for the first time in September.

In addition to the structure lectures he has recorded to video, he aims to make serendipitous conversations possible in his virtual class of 700 students.

“It’s the importance of creating community,” said the award-winning professor with more than 20 years teaching experience.

“Those incidental means of learning that are so important to learning are gone, so we need to create different ways of connecting.”

And with students logging in from nearby residences or from as far away as Dubai and New Zealand because COVID-19 restrictions have placed the course online, it’s both an art and a science to keep those conversations authentic and accessible.

Narain and his teaching assistants have developed a course that includes lectures, forum discussions, polls, self-reflections, organized tutorials and online areas for exploring world events.

Students are likely to be asked, for example, to review YouTube debates and analyze editorials on Canada’s upcoming parliamentary prorogation. How, they will be asked, does prorogation benefit – or erode – Canadian democracy?

And, after the American presidential elections in November, students will be called on to explain what happened, and why.

One of the challenges is to make sure no voice is lost, so the students will be assigned to randomized smaller groups, Narain said.

They’ll learn expressing political opinions is a good thing; and listening to opposing views, just as valuable. They’ll learn it’s ok to allow for their own, and others’ personal evolution as political beings.

“It’s really about taking the large class and making it into a small coffee shop. … I do believe that this has to be structured in a general way or it ends up as a free-for-all.”

Students will be successful learners, not just by working a campaign or running for office, but by understanding that politics extends to every sphere of every discipline.

Politics is in the taxes we allocate for the roads we build, he argues. In the schools we design for kindergarteners and the nursing homes for frail seniors. In the visits we make to our family doctor and the ways we pay for health care. In the attention we pay to business, the environment, the arts.

For me, this is a great opportunity to explore the idea that politics isn’t only for politicians … Shakespeare was political, except he expressed it in iambic pentameter.” ~ Political science professor Nigmendra Narain

Teaching and managing a class of this size is a challenge, he admitted. “It takes a lot of work but it can be done.”

He started planning with the end in mind: “What do I want them to achieve and learn, and then figure out what’s the best mechanism for that. And which of these technology tools I have at my disposal will help get them there.”

Above all, he said, it’s not the technology but the personal touches of “encouraging them and showing them that I care and I want them to develop as people.”

“The pandemic is forcing all of us to think about how we can replicate a good learning environment and at the same time (recognizing) it’s not going to be the same as a classroom learning environment,” said Narain.

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